North American Scholar

CONACHER, Desmond John

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  • Date of Birth (YYYY-MM-DD): 1918-12-27
  • Born City: Kingston
  • Born State/Country: ON, Canada
  • Parents: William Morison, professor of French at Queen’s University (Ont.), and Madeline Cashel C.
  • Date of Death (YYYY-MM-DD): 2000-10-23
  • Married: Mary Smith, 1952.
  • Education:

    B.A., Queen’s U., 1941; M.A., 1942; Ph.D., U. of Chicago, 1951.

  • Professional Experience:

    Asst. classics Queen’s U. 1941-42; spec. lectr. Class., Dalhousie U., 1946-47; asst. prof. Class. U. Saskatchewan, 1947-52; assoc. prof. 1952-58; Trinity College, U. Toronto, 1958-62; prof. 1966-84; head of Trinity Coll., U. Toronto, Classics dept., 1966-72; head, U. Toronto intercollegiate Classics Dept., 1972-75; dir., APA, 1976-78; Fell. Royal Society of Canada, 1976, vis. prof.  Stanford, Princeton, Texas, and Canterbury, NZ; D. Litt., Dalhousie, 1992, LL.D.,  Victoria, 1993, Queen's, 1995, D. Litt., Saskatchewan, 1997; Nuffield Found. Travelling fell., 1957-68; fell Canadian Counc., 1971-72; hon. Pres. Classical Association of Canada, 1991-2000.  

  • Dissertation:

    “Conceptions of Pleasure in the Pre-Socratic Philosophers” (Chicago, 1951).

  • Notes:

    Desmond Conacher and his elder brother James, a distinguished historian of 19th century Canada, were professors at the University of Toronto. Desmond wrote his thesis under Benedict Einarson at the University of Chicago. A series of articles in the 1950s and 1960s led to the book Euripidean Drama: Myth, Theme and Structure (1967), which made him widely known as an interpreter of tragic texts. In this ambitious study of all the surviv­ing plays he departed from historical and developmen­tal approaches to Euripides' work and offered an analy­sis along formal and generic lines, seeking (in the words of his Preface) "to relate the varied and often novel struc­tures and techniques of Euripidean drama to the varied and often novel themes which the dramatist has chosen to expound." The book was followed by several more articles on aspects of thematic and dramatic coherence in Greek tragic texts, and by the work on Aeschylus which led to the literary studies on Prometheus Bound (1980) and the Oresteia (1987), written as concise in­terpretative guides to these texts for students of clas­sics, literature and drama. His work on Euripides and Aeschylus was completed by an interpretative commen­tary on Euripides' Alcestis (1988), Aeschylus: the Ear­lier Plays and Related Studies (1996, including chap­ters on Aeschylean imagery and the Aeschylean cho­rus) and Euripides and the Sophists (1998) in which he returned to his early philosophical interests and offered a sketch of some Euripidean dramatic themes which reflect contemporary intellectual developments. Both Greek tragedy and topics in modern literature and criti­cism are represented in his numerous other publications.Besides his work at the University of Toronto Desmond Conacher gave distinguished service to classical stud­ies, especially through the Classical Association of Canada (whose Honorary Presidency he occupied grace­fully in recent years), the journal Phoenix (where he published many of his book-reviews), the American Philological Association (Board of Directors, 1976-78, and Goodwin Award of Merit Committee, 1981-84), and the Canadian Federation for the Humanities (Board of Directors, 1981-84). Personal visits, two CAC-sponsored lecture-tours, and frequent attendance at the CAC's annual meetings brought him friends in classi­cal departments throughout Canada. He maintained close ties with the departments at his alma mater Queen's and at Trent University, where he had assisted in the department's formation in the mid-1960s. The volume of essays Greek Tragedy and its Legacy was published in his honor in 1986.Desmond's kindness, humanity and good humor earned him a special place in the affections of those whom he worked with, taught, advised, and in numer­ous ways supported and encouraged. Not given to self-importance, he had a healthy disrespect for the more pretentious aspects of professional scholarship and was famous for the wryly self-deflating stories which he loved to tell in an enhanced autobiographical style.

  • Sources:

    Saturday Night (Toronto) vol. 83.11 (Nov. 1968) 48-50; APA Newsetter (Dec. 2000/Feb. 2001) 46-47; Toronto Globe and Mail (Nov. 21, 2000).

  • Author: Martin Cropp