Professor Alan Dobson (1951-2022)

It is with great sadness that I write this obituary for my friend and colleague Professor Alan Dobson, Honorary Professor of History, Swansea University, since 2014, formerly Professor of Politics at Dundee University, 1999-2011, and founding President of the Transatlantic Studies Association (TSA), who died recently after long battle with cancer. 

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Professor Alan Dobson (1951-2022)

Alan read Law and Politics at Durham University, graduating in 1972, where he returned a year later to begin his doctoral work, completing a thesis entitled The Politics of Anglo-American International Economic Relations 1941-45 in 1978.  Thus began the interest in all aspects of Britain’s relations with the United States in the twentieth century that was to so influence the remainder of his career and his life.  Alan soon secured his first academic post, as a lecturer in the Department of Political Theory and Government at what was then University College Swansea, and rose through the professional ranks, leaving there as Reader in 1999 for a chair in politics at Dundee University.  He remained at Dundee until his retirement in 2011, after which he relocated to the place where he always said he had been most happy, the Welsh city of Swansea.

During his academic career, Alan was a prolific scholar.  He was also committed to bringing his scholarship to as wide an audience as possible, writing as enthusiastically for an undergraduate audience as for professional scholars.  He was the author and co-author of some ten books, several of which with his former student, Dr Steve Marsh.  Alan is most widely known as an expert on Anglo-American relations in the era after the Second World War, especially in the area of commercial and economic policy.  The Politics of the Anglo-American Economic Special Relationship 1940-84 (Wheatsheaf, 1988) and Anglo-American Relations in the Twentieth Century: Of Friendship, Conflict, and the Rise and Decline of Superpowers (Routledge, 1995) both helped to define their field, especially for British scholars.  However, what fewer people perhaps realise is that Alan was also an expert on the history of aviation and in the history of the strategic deployment of aircraft.  Indeed, he wrote more on these topics than on anything else.  One thinks especially of his Globalisation and Regional Integration: The Origins, Development and Impact of the Single European Aviation Market (Routledge, 2007); Franklin D. Roosevelt and Civil Aviation 1933-1945: Flying High, Flying Free (Palgrave, 2011) and A History of International Civil Aviation: From Its Origins Through Transformative Evolution (Routledge, 2017).  He published widely in all of the major international history and international politics journals, and his expertise was recognised through the award of a number of scholarships and fellowships, including being a Fulbright Teaching and Research Scholar at Baylor University in 2012, being the winner of the Virginia Military Institute Adam’s Centre Annual Cold War History Essay Prize in 2014 and as a member of the organising committee for a NATO sponsored project on Political and Social Impact of Military Bases, in 2007. 

The legacy of most scholars is in our written work; we hope that, at least occasionally, future generations will read it and think about what we have had to say.  Alan’s contribution to his discipline is already so much more than that.  In the TSA, he founded an organisation in 2001 whose principal purpose is to celebrate the transnational and the international in the people who study such things as well as in what they study.  It is still going strong more than twenty years later.  It was due to Alan’s example that the TSA is a community of friends as well as a community of scholars, and one which embraces new members with the same friendly enthusiasm as it does the more senior and well established.   In an era of increasingly rampant bottom line managerialism in the modern university system, Alan’s leadership of the TSA consistently reminded us of who we really are as scholars and thus what we ought to be doing.  That the value of what we do is intrinsic; that it creates its own purpose.   In the more than thirty years I have known Alan, that quality if absolute personal and professional integrity is what I will always remember.  I am privileged to have had such a role model.  His academic vision was the study of the entire Atlantic world, not just the popular, well trodden area of Anglo-American relations, but the history and culture of Latin and South America and of Africa.  He also had the breadth of intellectual ambition and insight to understand that the transatlantic world is about so much more than history, diplomacy and commerce; it is a vast, complex web of formal and informal networks and perspectives.  Thus cultural historians informed the dialogue of political and military historians, and vice versa; all rightly treated as being of the same importance.  I know of no other single scholar who can claim to have created such an important legacy and one of such permanence.

Alan also reminded us not only what could be achieved, but that it could be achieved with good grace, good humour, tolerance and respect, as well as through courage and hard work.   I saw this especially during my time as secretary of the TSA.  He was immensely loyal, but stubborn and tenacious when it mattered, especially when dealing with publishers, during the early days of the TSA’s life and when setting up its journal, the Journal of Transatlantic Studies, (JTS) a periodical he continued to edit for the rest of his life.  He was also fair minded, kind and possessed a great generosity of spirit.  He was an astute reader of people, and, as many people have commented to me recently, a gentleman as well as a scholar.  As a journal editor, and in retirement, his prodigious work ethic gave him time to edit not only the JTS, but the International History Review.  He used these roles to dispense feedback that was always helpful and constructive.   He was a journal editor’s journal editor.  In refereeing for him and as a member of the journals’ editorial boards, I always felt a genuine sense of personal appreciation for my efforts and respect for my opinion, even when we didn’t agree.

Many of the qualities and strengths that Alan displayed in his professional life stemmed from the kind of person he was, of course, but he also derived great happiness and inner strength from his family.  Always very much the family man as well as a scholar, he had an enviable insight into what really matters in life.  His wife Bev, who he met when they were both students at Durham University in the 1970s, provided stalwart support for all his endeavours.  Her friendliness and sociability made her a very welcome and much loved member of the TSA network, and that remains the case.  The pride that Alan and Bev had in their three daughters, and, in more recent years, in their grandchildren, was also wonderful to see. 

It is customary to end an obituary by stating that the recipient of it will be greatly missed.  Alan’s absence from our lives will undoubtedly be felt by a great many people, especially, of course, by his family.  But in terms of his contribution to the academic world, especially through the British International History Group and the Transatlantic Studies Association we have two organisations in which his academic vision can continue to grow.

Gaynor Johnson
University of Kent, UK