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Sir David Keir (1895 - 1973):
Academic; historian and administrator

David Lindsay Keir was an historian by training whose academic interests centred on legal and constitutional history, and whose career also took him into university administration, at University College, Oxford; Balliol College, Oxford where he was Master; a brief spell at Harvard; and for 10 years he was Vice-Chancellor and President, Queen’s University, Belfast, a highly significant time which covered the Second World War and saw the University move into the postwar period. 

Keir was born in Spennymoor, County Durham, eldest child of a Church of Scotland (that is, Presbyterian) minister from Perth, Scotland. His childhood was spent in several different cities, including Glasgow, where he attended Glasgow Academy and won a scholarship to Glasgow University in 1913. In 1915 he was commissioned into the King's Own Scottish Borderers, and saw action at some of the more famous battles such as the Somme and Arras. He ended the war as a captain, then went up to New College, Oxford, where he obtained a first class honours degree in history in 1921 and was immediately elected to a fellowship at University College. At “Univ”, as the college is known, he served as Dean from (1925–1935) and as Estates Bursar (1933–9), as well as being a University lecturer in history. 

In January 1939 he was appointed Vice-Chancellor at Queen’s, Belfast, in succession to Frederick Ogilvie who in 1938 had left to become Director-General of the BBC after an interregnum overseen by RM Henry, the Secretary to Academic Council since 1909 but who for the second time was passed over for the Vice-Chancellorship, probably for his Irish nationalist political views (certainly not for lack of academic excellence, administrative abilities, or strength of personality). Keir took up office in April 1939; this, Henry’s departure and an increase in funding could have marked a great watershed in the university’s development, but war was about to break out, which notably meant a pause in the building expansion planned in the 1930s. On the other hand, student numbers increased notably during Keir’s term, from 1,555 on his arrival, to over 2,012 at the end of the war, and 2,762 by the time of his departure in 1949. 

This naturally called for increased funding. Keir’s achievement began with the fact that Queen’s, as a Northern Irish university, was not within the University Grants Committee (UGC) system which obtained in Great Britain only. The UGC had written to all mainland universities in 1944, seeking to establish the scale of postwar needs; Queen’s was certainly not alone in the growth in student numbers. Keir’s reaction was to lay the UGC’s communication before the senate, which sent it to the Northern Ireland government requesting a parallel response from them to the one university within its jurisdiction. The outcome was a visit from the UGC in January 1945, their report being submitted to the Northern Ireland government in March. The government fairly promptly announced significantly higher funding for Queen’s, and though this would be delayed and something approaching full parity would be achieved only under Arthur Vick, one of Keir’s successors, nevertheless Keir had secured an important step forward. Also in 1945, he Keir revivified his predecessor’s Ogilvie’s idea of establishing a special fund to mark the centenary of Queen’s College in 1949. The Centenary Endowment Fund was formally launched in April. That the fund eventually raised £292,000, whereas the original aim had been £250,000, was largely due to government support, not least its guarantee of matching on a pound-by-pound basis contributions from other external sources, as well as increased fixed grants directly from government funds. In 1946 Keir was knighted for his services to Queen’s and higher education in the province. 

Keir fitted well into Ulster society more generally; no doubt his Scottish upbringing and his knowledge of Ireland gave him a sympathetic understanding of the problems of Ulster and of Ulstermen. He was popular and (in a province which can self-characterise as cautious) trusted, and became involved in the life of the province beyond Queen’s. From 1942 to 1949 he was chairman of the Northern Ireland Regional Hospital Board, and his appointment to the Northern Ireland Planning Advisory Board made him contacts in government that were supremely useful to Queen’s. 

The David Keir Building, housing several scientific departments was named after him, and is the largest building in the university and one of the largest by area in Ulster; as several of its floors are subterranean this is not immediately obvious. The building, designed by Lanchester and Lodge in the 1950s and built on the site of the former Chlorine House and its grounds, is architecturally curious, having three planned frontages, one on the Malone Road, one of a completely different style (or styles) on the Stranmillis Road, and a third which was designed to dominate the apex of those two arterial roads opposite the Whitla Hall; however, the existing buildings proved too valuable to demolish as planned and the third entrance façade, through which the entrant to the building is confronted at once with doors into a large lecture theatre at the rear an top of its ranked seating, lies in something approximating to an alleyway, rather out of sight. The commentators of the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society in their 1975 publication, were rather dismissive of the collection of different architectural idioms; users of the building have been almost unanimous in finding it labyrinthine, not easily navigable; even maintenance staff members were known simply to get lost in the maze of corridors.

Keir left Queen’s to become Master of Balliol College, Oxford, in 1949. This was a hotter seat than Queen’s, and with its fractious, sometimes almost acrimonious atmosphere, not entirely to his taste. He did though work to encourage closer links between Balliol and its graduates throughout the world, and launched the college's septcentenary appeal, which raised more than £1 million. Outside of his college role, he was chairman of the Advisory Committee on Overseas Colleges of Arts, Science, and Technology from 1954 until 1964; this body was reconstituted in July 1957 as the Council for Overseas Colleges of Arts, Science and Technology (COCAST). In February 1959 he was COCAST representative at the official opening of the Singapore Polytechnic by Duke of Edinburgh. Keir ended his service on COCAST by undertaking, in 1962, a journey to East Africa, Rhodesia, Khartoum and Malta to report on the progress of twenty seven universities, colleges and other educational institutions. In addition, he was Chairman of the 1953 Commission on Medical Education in Malaya; led Working Parties on Higher Education in East Africa in 1955 and 1958, was an adviser to the Iraqi Government on the constitution of the University of Baghdad in 1956, and took part in a Visitation to review the progress and advise on the development of the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology in 1959. Keir was also Chairman of a Survey of Technical and Commercial Education in Northern Rhodesia in 1960, and a member of the Provisional Council of the University of East Africa in 1962-1963. He maintained his interest in medical affairs, from 1950 to 1958 chairing the United Oxford Hospitals Trust. He retired in 1965. 

Keir received many honorary degrees including an that of DCL (Doctor of Civil Law) from Oxford University in 1960. He held honorary fellowships at University College, Balliol College, and New College, Oxford, and was made an honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1948. Many of his papers are deposited in the Bodleian Library of Commonwealth and African Studies at Rhodes House, South Parks Road, Oxford. His portrait by HM Carr is on display in the Great Hall, Queen's University, Belfast.




Born: 22 May 1895
Died: 2 October 1973
Richard Froggatt

Professor Sir Peter Froggatt


TW Moody & JC Beckett: Queen’s Belfast 1845-1949; the History of a University; Brian Walker & Alf McCreary: Degrees of Excellence: The Story of Queen’s Belfast 1845-1995, (Belfast, Institute of Irish Studies, 1994); Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Ulster Architectural Heritage Society: Historic Buildings, Groups of Building, Areas of Architectural Interest in the vicinity of Queen’s University (1975);