Francis MacDonald Cornford


Cornford1874-1943.  Classicist

Cornford was educated at St Paul's School and was admitted to Trinity in 1893, being elected a Scholar the following year. Cornford obtained firsts in both parts of the classical tripos in 1905 and 1907; he was awarded the Chancellor's Classical Medal in the latter year. In 1897 he applied for the Chair of Greek at Cardiff, but was unsuccessful. However, in 1899 he was elected a Fellow of Trinity. He was appointed Assistant Lecturer in Classics in 1902 and Lecturer in 1904. In 1909 he married Frances Darwin, daughter of Ellen Crofts of Newnham College and the botanist Francis Darwin.

During the First World War Cornford was a musketry instructor at Grantham and rose to the rank of Captain before transferring to the Ministry of Munitions.

In 1921 and 1928 Cornford was unsuccessfully a candidate for the Regius Chair of Greek. In 1927 he was appointed Brereton Reader in Classics and four years later became the first to hold the Laurence Chair in Ancient Philosophy, a post which he held until retirement in 1939. He was elected FBA in 1937.

Early in his academic career, Cornford became disenchanted with "Cambridge classics" with its emphasis on philology, and published The Cambridge Classical Course: an essay in anticipation of further reform in 1903. He soon allied with like-minded persons such as Jane Ellen Harrison, Gilbert Murray and A.B. Cook in a group that became known as the "Cambridge Ritualists" who looked for the underlying thoughts and myths that underpinned classical Greece. A string of publications ensued: Thucydides Mythistoricus (1907), From Religion to Philosophy: a study in the origins of Western speculation (1912), The Origins of Attic Comedy (1914), Greek Religious thought from Homer to Alexander (1923), The Laws of Motion in Ancient Thought (1931), Before and After Socrates (1931), Plato's Theory of Knowledge: the Theaetetus and Sophist of Plato (1935), Plato's Cosmology: the Timaeus of Plato (1937), Plato and Parmenides (1939). Unwritten Philosophy and Other essays was published posthumously.

Cornford was also active politically on the Cambridge scene. In 1897 he organised a student petition in favour of degrees for women and in 1904 published an anonymous flysheet on the subject of compulsory chapel. To support rationalist moves in the University he joined with C.K. Ogden in founding the Heretics. His most famous excursion into University politics was Microcosmographia Academica, first published anonymously in 1908 and reissued many times since. In it he satirises the Cambridge system and the types of administrator that it produced. During WWI, when Bertrand Russell was deprived of his College lectureship, Cornford was one of the body of Fellows that attempted to get him reinstated.

Cornford died at his home, Conduit Head on 3 January 1943.


Memorial inscription Translation


Huius collegii per XLIV annos socius, in academia
per VIII annos philosophiae antiquae professor
Laurentianus, qui animae candore suorum sibi
observantiam conciliabat, ingenii subtilitate
Graecorum sapientiam non ut alienam scrutabatur,
sed tamquam Platonis aequalis ipse intelligebat,
discipulis exponebat, lectoribus impertiebat.


Francis MacDonald Cornford was a Fellow of the College for forty-four years, and for eight years Laurence Professor of Ancient Philosophy in the University.  His open nature won him the respect of his colleagues.  The precision of his mind enabled him to examine the thought of the Greeks: this he understood, explained to his students, and communicated to his readers not as a foreigner,
but as if he were himself a contemporary of Plato. 
He was born in 1874 and died in 1943.

Francis MacDonald Cornford

Brass located on the south wall of the Ante-Chapel. 
Memorial text by Donald Struan Robertson.



Cornford brass.  Click for enlarged view




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Gerard Francis Cobb


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