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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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May, Frederick (1921–1976)

by Nerida Newbigin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Frederick May (1921-1976), professor of Italian, was born on 3 August 1921 at Kensington, London, son of John May, labourer, later a builder, and his wife Elizabeth Ann, née Owens. Raised in the home of Italian opera singers, to whom his mother was in service, and bilingual from the age of 3, Frederick received a free place at the Quintin School and a junior county scholarship to complete his Higher School Certificate in 1939. After holding a summer scholarship at Perugia, Italy, in 1939, he entered Birkbeck College, University of London (B.A., 1947), in June 1940. On 23 November that year at the parish church, Kingsbury, Middlesex, he married Heather Constance Armstrong, a typist.

Registering as a conscientious objector on religious grounds in World War II, May (and his wife) trained and did volunteer work with the Friends' War Relief Service in Devon. With the birth of his eldest son in 1943, he took paid employment, first as a hospital porter at Cambridge and then, during the V1 and V2 raids, as a theatre orderly at Middlesex Hospital, London. He resumed his evening studies at Birkbeck, then at Bedford and University colleges, graduating with first-class honours.

Active in student politics, university theatre and adult education, May was recruited in 1949 by the Italian department, University of Leeds, first as lecturer then as senior lecturer and head of department. Despite suffering from tuberculosis in 1954, he worked to build his department and to perform the works of Italian dramatists in the Student Theatre Group and the Civic Arts Guild. He translated over fifty plays, directed, jousted with the Lord Chamberlain over censorship, and tirelessly promoted the work of Pirandello, who had become his principal interest.

Appointed to the chair of Italian at the University of Sydney, May reached Australia with his family in January 1964. Even before his personal library arrived by sea, and his copy of Nabokov's Lolita was confiscated, he had become involved in the growing Australian debate over censorship, condemning the law as 'a wilful and noxious intrusion upon man's right to read what he will when he will'.

Soon after his arrival at the university, May recruited postgraduate students and introduced a course structure whereby beginners could reach honours standard in four rather than five years. His curriculum was extraordinarily broad and demanding, encompassing literature, philology and drama from the thirteenth century to the neoavanguardia.

With his horn-rimmed spectacles, broken tooth, beard, lank hair, string bag and apple, May was one of the university's great eccentric characters, who left much administration to the forces of nature and time. Although he claimed to prefer seminars and tutorials, students from all faculties would come to hear him lecture in mellifluous tones on Italian literature—and indeed on any subject that crossed his fertile mind.

From 1969 May had been suffering from diabetes and failing eyesight, exacerbated by stress. Despite these infirmities, in 1970 he turned to radio broadcasting, and to reading poetry with Winsome Evans's Renaissance Players. With his diabetes poorly controlled, May developed pneumonia and died at his Roseville home on 11 January 1976 and was cremated. He was survived by his wife and their four sons and by a fifth son by Fiona Garrood. The Frederick May Foundation (1976-99) at the University of Sydney, established in his memory, promoted the study of Italian language and culture.

Select Bibliography

  • The Department of Italian and the Frederick May Foundation for Italian Studies (Syd, 1980)
  • Australian Left Review, no 3, 1966, p 8
  • May papers (University of Sydney Archives).

Citation details

Nerida Newbigin, 'May, Frederick (1921–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 27 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

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