Professor Mary Boyce, who died on 4th April 2006 aged 85, was one of the AIIT’s first Honorary Fellows. She was a leading authority on Zoroastrianism, the pre-Islamic religion of Iran. Born in India, she was educated in England at Wimbledon High School and Cheltenham Ladies College. At Newnham College, Cambridge, she read English for Part I and switched to Archaeology and Anthropology for Part II of the Tripos, graduating with a double first in 1943. In 1944 she was appointed Assistant Lecturer in Anglo-Saxon Literature and Archaeology at Royal Holloway College, London, but in 1946 began a doctorate on The Manichaean Hymn-cycles in Parthian. SOAS appointed her Lecturer in Iranian Studies in 1947, Reader in 1958 and Professor in 1963.
Shortly after her appointment as Professor, Mary Boyce travelled overland to Iran and spent a year with Zoroastrian families in Kerman, Yazd and, especially, the village of Sharifabad. She was the first western scholar to experience Zoroastrian religious life as an .insider., and this proved formative for her interpretation of the religion and its history. In 1972 she received the Burton Memorial Medal from the Royal Asiatic Society for her fieldwork in Iran, presenting its results in her Ratanbai Katrak Lectures, delivered in Oxford in 1975 and published as A Persian Stronghold of Zoroastrianism . She was also awarded the Sir Percy Sykes Memorial Medal by the Royal Society of Asian Affairs in 1985. In 2004 she was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Ancient India and Iran Trust, of which she had been a Friend since its inception. She has left her working library to the Trust, greatly enhancing its holdings on Zoroastrianism.
Due to a back problem, Mary Boyce took early retirement as Chair of Iranian Studies at SOAS in 1982, but was productive until her death. She often wrote lying on her back at her home in Highgate. She would invite visitors round in the early afternoon for tea and the ensuing discussions went on for many hours, sometimes until midnight. She was a warm-hearted lady, but austere and a stern critic. Known for her trenchant views, she expressed them with a frankness that could be demoralizing. She was, however, equally critical of herself. She was an excellent and prompt writer of letters and to the end took a keen interest in all things Zoroastrian. The demands of scholarship and family life were, to her, incompatible and she consequently remained unmarried, preferring the fidelity of academia, as she put it, to which she was totally committed throughout her life.
Dr Almut Hintze