Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Neil, Robert Alexander
NEIL, ROBERT ALEXANDER (1862–1901), classical and Oriental scholar, the second son of Robert Neil, minister of the quoad sacra parish of Glengaim near Ballater, Aberdeenshire, by his wife Mary Reid, was born at Glengaim Manse on 26 Dec. 1852. Both parents were sprung from Aberdeenshire famihes which had produced many clergymen and medical men. Robert, who was always interested in books, was educated under Mr. Coutts, the master of the local school, but was taught classics by his father. In 1866, while still under fourteen, he entered Aberdeen University, having obtained a small scholarship at the annual bursary competition. At the end of the session he was first prizeman in the class of Prof. (Sir) William Geddes [q. v. Suppl. I]. In 1870 he graduated at Aberdeen with first-class honours in classics, the Greek prize being divided between him and Mr. A. Shewan, now well known as an Homeric scholar. The following winter Neil acted as an assistant in the university library and next year studied anatomy and chemistry with the intention of graduating in the medical faculty. He soon changed his mind and was elected a classical scholar of Peterhouse, Cambridge. Meantime he had been reading omnivorously; but his early training, in which classical composition had played but a small part, handicapped him for the Cambridge course. Under the tuition, however, of Dr. J. S. Reid, of Dr. Verrall for a short time, and later of Richard Shilleto [q. v.], he made such rapid progress that in 1875 against strong competition he won the Craven scholarship and in 1876 graduated as second classic. Soon after he was elected a fellow of Pembroke College, where till his death twenty-five years later he was a classical lecturer, though his public lectures were given for many years at his old college, Peterhouse. Soon after taking his degree he published 'Notes on Liddell and Scott' in the 'Journal of Philology' (viii. 200 seq.); but his teaching work left him little leisure for writing, which his caution and fastidious taste made a somewhat laborious task, while his wide range of literary interests rendered reading more congenial. Almost immediately after his degree Neil began to read Sanskrit with Prof. Edward Byles Cowell [q. v. Suppl. II]. For the rest of his life Neil spent one or two afternoons a week in term time working with Cowell. In the earlier years they read parts of the 'Rig Veda,' of Indian drama, grammar, and philosophy, but gradually turned their attention more and more to Buddhist literature. In 1886, under their joint names, appeared an edition of the 'Divyavadana,' a Buddhist work in Sanskrit. The edition was founded on the collation of a number of MSS. which were supplied to the editors from various libraries, including those of Paris and St. Petersburg. After the publication of this work Neil, though still reading the 'Veda' with Cowell, took up seriously the study of Pali, and formed one of the little band of scholars who under Cowell's superintendence translated the 'Jataka,' or Birth Stories, into English (6 volumes, Cambridge University Press, 1895-1907). Neil's own contribution forms part of vol. iii. During these years Neil was also busy with much classical work. For many years he had in the press an edition of Aristophanes' 'Knights,' which but for the introduction was completed at his death and was issued soon afterwards by the Cambridge University Press. Here in brief space is concentrated a great amount of sound scholarship and delicate observation of Aristophanic Greek. The history of Greek comedy, Pindar, and Plato were subjects on which Neil frequently lectured and on which he accumulated great stores of knowledge. He was also thoroughly familiar with all work done in the comparative philology of the classical languages, Sanskrit, and Celtic. His emendation of a corrupt word, ἀσαγεύοντα, in Bacchylides into αωτεύοντα was at once accepted by Prof. (Sir) Richard Jebb [q. v. Suppl. II]. Besides his professional work as a classical lecturer and as university lecturer on Sanskrit—a post to which he was appointed in 1884—Neil took much interest in architecture both ancient and mediæval, and had a wide and intimate knowledge of the cathedrals of the western countries of Europe. He was interested in women's education, and before his college work became very heavy lectured at both Girton and Newnham. But his greatest influence was manifested in work with individual students, where his kindliness, care, and quiet humour attracted even the less scholarly. He was popular in Cambridge society, and amid his multifarious duties could always spare time to solve difficulties for his friends. He was for long a syndic of the University Press, where he helped many young scholars with advice and oversight of their work as it passed through the press. He served for four years upon the council of the senate, but the work was not congenial to him, and he refused to be nominated a second time.
In 1891 Aberdeen University conferred upon him the honorary degree of LL.D. Neil took a keen interest in Scottish history and literature, and was for long a member of the Franco-Scottish Society. In 1900, on the death of Mr. C. H. Prior, he took with some hesitation the work of senior tutor of Pembroke. He died after a brief illness on 19 June 1901, and was buried in the churchyard at Bridge of Gaim, not far from his birthplace. He was unmarried. In appearance Neil was a little over the average height and strongly built, with brown hair and large expressive eyes. There are several good photographs of him.[Obituary notices by personal friends in Cambridge Review (Dr. Adam, October 1901); British Weekly, 27 June 1901 (Sir W. Robertson Nicoll, a class mate at Aberdeen); Alma Mater, the Aberdeen University Mag., 20 Nov. 1901 (Dr. J. F. White); information from the family, and personal knowledge for nineteen years.]