Doug Brown: Historian, colleague, and friend
We’re a project that deals with a lot of death.
It’s something woven into the fabric of our working lives, a well-rehearsed routine: find the death certificates of historic postal workers, order them, download them, transcribe them, codify, analyse. We’ve done this all in a year with death surrounding us, anxiously looking up and analysing case and death rates in our area from COVID-19. In a way, then, death was something we had thought we had begun to know, to manage.
On the 25th May 2021 death came to the project in a new, crueller, and more intimate way that we had ever thought imaginable: our project member, Dr Douglas Brown, had died suddenly of a heart attack.
It is hard to break down all the ways in which Douglas shaped this project, or recount all the things he did – big and small – to support everyone. He was a colleague, line manager, supervisor, friend. Some of us had known him for years, others more recently. The following is what the team has to say about Doug and how they knew him.
I first met Doug in late 2018 when I joined the project team. Doug was a funny, friendly and excellent scholar. I really enjoyed the process of applying for funding with the team (that’s rare). When we were interviewed for the grant the four investigators went for lunch to celebrate as we were so proud of how hard we had all worked and how well we had gelled. The lunch will remain in my mind forever. In the last 15 months meetings have been online and yet Doug was always smiling, always inquisitive and always professional. I will miss him.
— Nicola Shelton.
In 2016 I first met Doug as he interviewed me for a short-term postdoc using the pension records at the Postal Museum. I didn’t know it then, but it was the start of a collaboration between myself, Doug and David Green which eventually led to the Addressing Health project. Doug was always so warm, welcoming and supportive. I remember him taking me for lunch as my new line manager on that first post doc position and he was immediately more like a friend as we talked about careers before academia and kids and the parental juggle. As both our families grew so did the research project. I have always been impressed by Doug’s intellect and ideas. He would see the project in a completely different way to me and always had brilliant ideas and suggestions. He was also someone I could talk to and I’ll always be grateful for his supportive correspondence through some difficult times during the 2020 lockdown. I feel honoured to have known him and to have worked with him and my thoughts are with his family and children.
— Kathleen McIlvenna
I only got to meet Doug a few times in person before lockdown “hit” and the team transitioned to working remotely. I sadly didn’t have many opportunities to work with him because we worked on different strands of the project. So it’s some very on-the-surface banal things that come to mind when I think of Doug but now feel oddly special: like teaching me how to do text to columns in Excel. It sounds ridiculous but it’s something I now do a lot in my work, and something that I – a very un-tech savvy historian by nature – now feel confident doing. And when we met in Bush House after I was appointed and he made a point of telling me how well I had done in my interview (when, to me, it had felt like a disaster). Both of these things have helped in their different ways for me to feel more confident in myself. I’m so sad Doug won’t be able to see the rest of our project. I just hope we can do justice to the big plans he had for it.
— Laura Newman
I first “met” Doug in September 2020 when I interviewed for my Addressing Health PhD. Although I was excited to join the project, I was slightly hesitant at the idea of working remotely, especially being the only team member at the time living in Scotland. As my supervisor, Doug immediately took me under his wing, and met with me every two weeks so I never felt alone. Our online meetings usually overspilled by 30-40 minutes as we tried to squeeze in chats about our upcoming plans, our families, our favorite Soundgarden songs, and our comedic observations of academia. Every online chat was filled with laughter and excitement (and a little bit of dread) for our future plans. As I was Doug’s first PhD student, I think we were comforted knowing that we were both new to everything but were happy to help each other out along the way. Just before his sudden passing, we were in the midst of arranging our first in-person meeting, something we had both been anticipating since my first day at Kingston. Whilst I am deeply saddened that we did not meet in-person for the campus tour and liquid lunch that we had hoped for, I am blessed to have had his support and encouragement. All I can say is thank you Doug for being a wonderful supervisor, and an even better friend.
— Holly Marley
I met Doug in person only once, and then only very briefly, when he, David and Nicola gave a seminar paper based on the pilot study that laid the groundwork for the Addressing Health project. It was clear from that paper that the work was important, novel and interesting, qualities that characterised all of Doug’s scholarship. It was then, a great pleasure, to be able to work alongside him for the past year on the project. He was a very kind colleague but also an enormously calm one; a quality which has been of great importance over the past year, problems or challenges always seemed a good deal more manageable after Doug’s input. Like Holly, I was looking forward to my first in-person meeting with Doug in the near future and I am very sad that will not happen. I will miss him as a colleague and a friend.
— Harry Smith
Doug was a real pleasure to work with. He was always willing to respond to any of my queries, big or small, and introduced me to some great and helpful pieces of literature. He always met our meetings with a smile, and an interesting mug to match as well, regardless of the fact that they were all held virtually. All I can say is that I am sorry that I did not get to know you better, Doug, online and in person. I am sure, though, that, going forwards, you will forever be an inspiration for me and my other Addressing Health team members, as we continue with the research that you helped us to start.
— Natasha Preger
I first met Doug in 2009 when he started his PhD on the poor law with me, in collaboration with The National Archives. He was always a joy to work with and I consider myself fortunate to have had the privilege of supervising his research. Over the years our friendship and mutual respect deepened and laid the basis for the work we subsequently did together and the current project on which we’ve all embarked. His scholarship went deep but was always conveyed in the most unassuming of ways. He improved everything I sent to him, whether it was a short email or a mightily overlong paper. Over the years I’ve known Doug and his partner, Laure, his family has grown. Leo was born while Doug was completing his PhD and more recently Alexander and then Madeleine came along. His emails started to come later in the night as his family grew in number. What will remain in my memory of Doug is his generous and warm friendship, his fine scholarship but above all the wonderful smile that always accompanied any mention of Laure and his children who he deeply loved. He was a wonderful friend and a generous colleague and I will miss him very much.
— David Green
There isn’t a satisfactory way to end this blog. Looking back on Doug’s Twitter account, we noticed how he had recently retweeted the author and poet Michael Rosen. Rosen wrote the children’s storybook The Sad Book (2004) about the death of his son, Eddie. You can read more of it here. Rosen finishes the book with this stanza, and so this is where we will end this blog, too:
Who is sad?
Sad is anyone.
It comes along and finds you.