Sir James George Frazer

Anthropologist, historian of religion and classical scholar
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James George Frazer was, born in Blythswood Square, Glasgow on the 1st January 1854. He was the eldest of four children born by his father Daniel F. Frazer (1821-1900) and his mother Katherine Frazer, nee Bogle (d. 1899). Katherine’s grandfather was George Bogle who is reported to have been Warren Hasting’ envoy to Tibet in 1774. His father Daniel was a wealthy partner in the long-established firm of chemists Frazer and Green, he was also a devout follower of the Free Church of Scotland into whose doctrines James was raised.

In the mid-1860s his father Daniel purchased Glenlea, 16 East Argyle Street, Helensburgh. James loved his new home and spent many hours after school roaming the Loch. There surrounded by mountains and forests, the loch-breeze-wind rippling his shirt and blowing through his hair, he would listen to the faintly echoing bells of the church at Helensburgh (he would later associate the Helensburgh bells with the Bells of Lake Nemi in his most famous book: The Golden Bough)

James was first educated at Springfield Academy and then enrolled at the Larchfield Academy (now Lomond School) Helensburgh. There he was tutored by his headmaster Alexander Mackenzie and excelled in Latin and Greek. Later in 1869 he entered Glasgow University and there studied Latin under George Gilbert Ramsey, Rhetoric under John Veitch and Physics under Lord Kelvin (Sir William Thomson) the originator of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. James graduated from Glasgow University with a MA in 1874.

In 1874 James moved to Cambridge and began studying at Trinity Collage. He graduated Cambridge with first-class honors in the Classics tripos in 1878, and due to a dissertation on Plato, was elected to a Title Alpha Fellowship in 1879.

He then moved to London and entered the Middle Temple to study Law. He did this to please his Father, who believed that James should have a meaningful career rather than waste his talents on academic studies. In 1882, James was called to the London Bar but never took up his place.

He chose to continue his preference for Philosophy and Anthropology. He returned to Cambridge and embarked on a sustained program of research and writing, starting first with a translation and commentary on Paesanias, a Greek travel writer of the second century. A work he finally finished with six volumes in 1898.

It was at Cambridge that James met and developed a friendship with the Scottish biblical scholar William Robertson Smith, who later became editor of the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It was one of Smith’s works called Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (1889) that inspired James to consider applying comparative ethnographic methods to the study of ancient religions.

One of the methods James used in his research was to send out questionnaires to all Missionaries, Doctors and Administrators throughout the empire. He requested information on the customs, habits and beliefs of all local inhabitants, a mammoth undertaking in those years. His comparative study of the incoming information lead to his first book: Totemism (Adam and Charles Black, Edinburgh, 1887).

Three years later in 1890 James published what would become his most celebrated work: The Golden Bough (Macmillan). This first edition was in two volumes and became an instant classical best seller. He would later expand this book with two increasing editions. The second edition in 1900 was in three volumes and the third edition in 1915 had twelve volumes.

James spent the next six years traveling extensively in Europe preparing to resume his work on Pausanias, before returning to Cambridge.

Back in Cambridge he met and married Elisabeth Johanna de Boys (nicknamed Lilly) on the 22nd April 1896. Lilly was a daughter of Sigismund Adelsdorfer, a French merchant, and widow of Charles Baylee Grove, a master mariner with whom she had two children. James, Lilly and her two growing daughters all lived together in Cambridge.

Lilly was a devoted wife and a French authority on the ethnology of the dance, she did much to promote his work in France, Germany and Italy, where later he became widely known.

In 1904 James studied Hebrew under the tutelage of Robert H. Kennett, then in 1908 was elected to the first Chair of Social Anthropology in Britain and based at the University of Liverpool. James however never liked Liverpool and soon became disgruntled and yearned to return to Cambridge, which he did a year later.

In 1914 at the start of the Great World War, James was knighted and became known as Sir James.

Sir James and Lady Frazer spent the war years in a small flat in the Middle Temple, London to which Sir James’s nominal membership of the bar entitled him. Lady Frazer devoted herself to guarding his peace, encouraging him to write and continue his researches. During the post war years they traveled much of the continent together pursuing his research. Then in 1930 while giving a speech at the annual dinner of the Royal Literary Fund, Sir James was suddenly struck down with blindness as his eyes filled with blood.

Despite this handicap, Sir James simply engaged secretaries and amanuenses to write his dictation and continued on with his work. He maintained his unstinting out put until he died of natural causes on the 7th May 1941 at Fen Causeway in Cambridge. Just a few hours later Lilly followed him from this world. They were buried together side-by-side in St Giles’s Cemetery, Cambridge.

Sir James was a prolific writer through the course of his lifetime, not only of books but also as a translator of old manuscripts from Hebrew, Latin and Greek. He also received many academic honor’s, including: Fellow of the British Academy; Hon. Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh; Doctor Honoris Causa of the Universities of Paris and Strasbourg; Associate Member of the Institut de France; Commandeur de la Légion d’Honneur; Commander of the Order of Leopold (Belgium); Corresponding Member of the Prussian Academy of Science; and Extraordinary Member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Science.

The Golden Bough stimulated a number of writers, including D.H. Lawrence and T.S. Eliot. An abridged, one-volume edition was published in 1922.

(Based on an appreciation by George Knowles published in 2001.)