In Memoriam: Professor John Campbell Cairns

August 19, 2022 by Department of History Staff

Professor emeritus JOHN CAMPBELL CAIRNS passed away in Toronto, Ontario on July 28, 2022. Born in Windsor, Ontario, April 27, 1924 to Mabel Campbell and William G. Cairns, schooled in England and Canada, winged and commissioned as a pilot in the RCAF (1943-45), he attended the University of Toronto (BA 1945, MA 1947) and Cornell University (PhD 1951). Apart from a first year at the University of North Carolina and a few visiting professorships at Cornell, Stanford, Rochester and Victoria, he taught his entire career in the Department of History of the University of Toronto (from 1952 to 1989).

John left a mark both on his field of modern French history and on our department.  His main research question involved the causes of France’s defeat in 1940.  British historian Julian Jackson recently credited John’s contribution to that field as follows: “Cairns argued that it was necessary to rescue the history of the defeat from the view that France was decadent in 1940.”  This, John Cairns achieved in a series of influential articles, including one in the Journal of Modern History, pointing to broader European and Franco-British stakes, most notably.  P.M.H. Bell has written of this article: "Suddenly the whole subject was illuminated, not only by the depth and perspicacity of the author's research, but by the clarity of his analysis and by a historical perspective which was remarkable only fifteen years after the events."  John Cairns also authored a well-received survey of modern France as part of a series on “modern nations in historical perspective,” published by Prentice Hall in 1965, and he served as editor for an important edited volume titled Contemporary France: Illusion, Conflict and Regeneration (1978).

John Cairns supervised several PhD students during his tenure at the U of T, including Kenneth Mouré, who taught for many years at the University of California at Santa Barbara and is now professor at the University of Alberta, Michèle Lalancette, who teaches at the Collège Lionel-Groulx in Québec, and Robert Stuart who taught at the University of Western Australia.  Cairns also directed a number of MA students, including Patricia Prestwich (University of Alberta) and Norman Ingram (Concordia University).

John Cairns retired from the University of Toronto in 1989, at the age of 65.  He will be remembered as a generous and gentle presence even by colleagues with whom he never overlapped professionally at U of T.  Memorial gifts may be made in his name to Doctors Without Borders Canada.