William Richard MORFILL (1834–1909)
First Professor of Russian and Slavonic Languages
42 Park Town, Oxford
William Richard Morfill was born at Maidstone in 1834, the son of a musician of Huguenot origin. Educated at the local grammar school and then at Tonbridge School, he entered Corpus Christi College, Oxford but transferred to Oriel on winning an open classical scholarship. He gained a First in Classical Moderations and seemed destined for a career as a classics don but that ambition was thwarted when ill health resulted in his obtaining only a pass degree. He remained in Oxford, earning his living as a private tutor, and married Charlotte Maria Lee in 1860.
The gift of a Russian grammar from one of his schoolteachers had kindled an interest in Slavonic languages which at that time had no place in the university curriculum. Morfill taught himself the various languages by travelling extensively in Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Georgia and elsewhere and compiled grammars, dictionaries and political and cultural histories. His house at 4 Clarendon Villas, now 42 Park Town, where he lived 1863–1909, became something of an unofficial faculty and cultural centre for local and visiting scholars and he hosted learned gatherings there on Sunday afternoons.
In 1873 and 1883 he was invited to give the Ilchester lectures and in 1889 Oxford University finally recognised the importance of his work and appointed him Reader in Russian. In 1900 at the age of 66 he was made Professor of Russian and Slavonic Languages, the first to be appointed at any British university; in 1903 he was made FBA and in 1908 was awarded an honorary doctorate by Charles University, Prague. Russian was accepted as a degree subject at Oxford in 1904. Through his extraordinary enterprise and tireless endeavour Morfill had pioneered a new field of academic study.
Professor Morfill died on 9 November 1909 and is buried in St Sepulchre’s cemetery together with his wife who had died in 1881.
- Source: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article by Gerald Stone
- Pictures: Morfill’s house and Unveiling ceremony
- Oxford Mail, 26 October 2009: ‘Blue plaque honours Britain’s first professor of Russian’
The plaque was unveiled on at 42 Park Town, Oxford on 1 November 2009 by Dr Gerald Stone, Emeritus Fellow of Hertford College and former University Lecturer in non-Russian Slavonic Languages. Professor Morfill’s great-great nephews, Richard Morfill Parker and Michael Hanks were present at the ceremony.
Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board
WILLIAM RICHARD / MORFILL
First Professor of/ Russian and Slavonic
Languages/ lived here/ 1863–1909
Oxford Civic society