School of European Culture and Languages

In memoriam: Professor Robert Gibson

28 April 2016

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It is with great sadness that we report the loss of Professor Robert (Bob) Gibson, who held an emeritus position in the Department of Modern Languages, who died last week in hospital in Exeter.

He was the founding Professor of French at Kent, appointed in October 1965, who came to the then-new University from his position Chair of French at the Queen’s University of Belfast. He was also a founding member of Rutherford College, holding the fort until the first College Master arrived, and later becoming College Master in his own right between 1985-90.  Professor Gibson's long-standing association with the Rutherford continued after his retirement as a very much-valued Honorary Senior Member of the College.

Professor Philip Robinson, Emeritus Professor in Eighteenth-Century French Studies, paid tribute: 'Within 10 years of founding the Department of French at the University of Kent in 1965, Robert Gibson (Bob to his friends and colleagues) expanded its staff to a dozen.

'In this the first heyday of the Faculty of Humanities, he was committed to its academic ideology of interdisciplinarity, with a four-term Part I, and topics such as Britain and the Contemporary World and Education and the Idea of Culture. These were the days when a language in Part I was compulsory for all students, with teaching in the brand new Language Centre (separate from the departments).

'Happily, having retired in 1992, he lived to receive reports of the new current heyday of French at Kent with its outstanding ratings in research and successful recruitment of full-time students, despite the shrunken national picture. The faith had been kept, not least by the institution itself with its tag of "European university".'

Dr Sheila Bell, Honorary Senior Research Fellow in French, also paid tribute: 'Professor Gibson was one of the founding professors in the Faculty of Humanities, coming to Kent from a chair in Queen’s University, Belfast. Appointed before the University opened in 1965, he was responsible with Leland Lyons (School of History), Reg Foakes (School of English) and Patrick Nowell-Smith (School of Philosophy) for the implementation of the first programmes to be taught at Kent.

'Himself a joint-honours graduate in English as well as French, he was very much in sympathy with the aims of the original interdisciplinary courses devised in Faculty of Humanities and taught them with enthusiasm. In other respects Bob was a traditionalist, loyal to the critical methods in which he had been trained and out of sympathy with modern French critical thinking. Even where he disagreed with a project or an approach, however, he was unfailingly encouraging and supportive of his junior staff.'

'Bob’s academic field was 19th and 20th-century French fiction and he published studies of a number of writers from Zola to Martin du Gard, but his first love was Alain-Fournier, the young writer who died in the First World War but who remained famous for one fine novel, Le Grand Meaulnes. Bob published a biography of Fournier early in his career and in retirement went back to him, publishing a revised life in the light of new documentation.'

While at the University, Professor Gibson was a public orator and also held the post of Chairman of the Theatre Management Committee. Reg Brown, who worked with Bob as director of the Gulbenkian Theatre, remembered him: 'Bob was one of those larger-than-life characters who instantly engaged in those early staff Senior Common Room frolics, which later evolved into a series of farewell shows in the Gulbenkian, by which time devising and performing as "The Usual Suspects", involving senior members from all faculties and colleges, as they came together to bid farewell to their retiring colleagues.'

He will be much missed. Rutherford College flag flew at half-mast last week.

The funeral will take place on Thursday 12 May at 1pm at East Devon Crematorium in Whimple, Exeter EX5 2PT. At the request of the family, no flowers please. All donations to the Alzheimer's Society.

If anyone requires any further information, please contact the Rutherford Master’s Office on 01227 (82)3175 or email:


School of European Culture & Languages, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent, CT2 7NF

Enquiries: +44 (0)1227 827159 or email the School of European Culture & Languages

Last Updated: 10/04/2014