My friend and colleague Roy Wisbey, one of the leading figures in British German studies, has died aged 91.

Roy revolutionised the study of modern languages by pioneering the field of digital humanities, which is now fundamental to research in the area. He founded the Literary and Linguistic Computing Centre at Cambridge University in 1964, and collaborated in the creation in 1973 of the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing (now the European Association for Digital Humanities), of which he was the first chair and president (1980-83).

In the early days, computing was extremely laborious, being based on mainframe computers, punched cards and magnetic tape. It is all the more remarkable that Roy recognised the medium’s potential and made Cambridge a world leader in digital humanities. Equally important was his transformation of the Modern Humanities Research Association (MHRA) into a financially well-endowed and high-powered force with national reach.

Roy taught 16th- and 20th-century German literature at Durham and medieval German literature at Cambridge, before being appointed head of the department of German at King’s College London (1971-94). Under Roy’s stewardship the department was modernised and became one of the leading places for teaching and research in the subject in the UK. When I took over from him, the secretary had no files, but Roy’s filing cabinets were bursting with papers covered in innumerable notes in his tiny, angular handwriting.

During this period he held other distinguished offices including a tenure as honorary director of the Institute of Germanic Studies of the University of London. His services to German studies were recognised by awards from the Federal German Republic in 1987 and the Republic of Austria in 1988.

Above all a brilliant medievalist, specialising in Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan, Roy played a key role in the creation of the King’s Centre for Late Antique and Medieval Studies, of which he was the first director. He was truly a universal man.

Born into a working-class family in Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire, to Albert, who became chairman of the council in Bishop’s Stortford, and Mary, Roy attended Bishop’s Stortford College. He then did military service, serving as a warrant officer, second class, and went on to study modern and medieval languages at Cambridge, graduating with a first in 1952, after which he earned a doctorate at the University of Frankfurt.

Everything Roy did was marked by his probity and his commitment, his passion and his kindness. At the end of every day he would go for an hour’s swim in the students’ union and then return to the office for a night shift.

In 1949, Roy met Ernestine (Erni) on an exchange visit to Vienna. They married in 1951. Erni was tireless in assisting Roy in his duties as honorary treasurer of the MHRA. She died earlier this year. He is survived by their son, John, and grandchildren, Jamie, Elizabeth, Arabella and Alexander.


Jeremy Adler

The GuardianTramp

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