Alan Watson: 1933 - 2018

The Law Faculty wishes to note with sadness the passing of the great Roman and comparative law scholar Professor Alan Watson, who died on 7 November in Athens, Georgia, at the age of 85.

Born in 1933 in Hamilton in the West of Scotland, Alan Watson studied law at the University of Glasgow before, in 1957, he first arrived in Oxford. He held a lectureship at Wadham before, in 1959, he took up a Fellowship at Oriel. He completed his DPhil under the supervision of David Daube, to whom he always paid tribute as a mentor. Both David Daube and Alan Watson saw themselves as ‘outsiders’, as they doubtless were at the time - a German Jew who had escaped Nazi Germany just before the war and a working class boy from Scotland. 

Alan Watson
Alan Watson quickly established his name as a hugely influential scholar. He was at Oxford until 1965, when at the age of just 32 he moved north to take the Chair of Civil Law at Glasgow. He then moved eastwards, taking up the Chair of Civil Law at Edinburgh in 1968, where he stayed until 1980. He then re-located to the USA, first to Pennsylvania and latterly to the University of Georgia, where he continued to be active in both research and teaching until very recently.

Roman law was Alan Watson’s first love, to which he happily returned throughout his life. His contributions to comparative law are fuelled by his Roman law expertise. His important early work was a multi-volume attempt systematically to reconstruct the Roman law of the Republic, a law that had not yet become the subject of the classical lawyers’ sophisticated efforts. He continued to write prolifically on Roman law. The collected ‘Studies in Roman Private Law’ (1991) showed the breadth of his interest. With ‘Roman Slave Law’ (1987) he also contributed to the history of the American South. 

In 1978, Alan  Watson together with the Commonwealth Fund, set out to organise a new translation of Justinian’s Digest. Bringing scores of colleagues together, the work came out in 1984. Paperback editions followed. The translation helps students all over the world to access and unlock the wisdom of the Roman jurists. 

Alan Watson has been, and will remain, a huge influence in comparative law as well. His landmark book, Legal Transplants, published in 1974, is highly regarded, and its freshness and deep insight is proven by the way it has subsequently become part of the discussion about the impact of EU law on national civil law, a matter which was not within its original intended scope. This is truly, in the modern idiom, scholarship with impact. 
Alan Watson was known across the world as a man of immense charm and energy, as an inspirational teacher and as a scholar of the highest quality.