Mary Warnock remembered by Onora O’Neill

14 April 1924 – 20 March 2019
The philosopher’s former student on a practical thinker whose public work on the IVF bill is her great legacy

• Karl Lagerfeld remembered by Carine Roitfeld
• Read the Observer’s obituaries of 2019 in full

As a second-year student at Oxford, aged 19, I switched from history to PPP (philosophy, psychology and physiology) and my tutor, Elizabeth Anscombe, who didn’t hold with political philosophy, said: “Right, I will send you to Mary Warnock!” So I spent a month with Mary having tutorials, writing essays and reading books by Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Marx. She was 16 years older than me, a mother of five and a fellow of St Hugh’s College. I used to bicycle up there and we’d have some really good conversations. I was struck by how fun and jolly she was.

Mary was modest and practical and a very good listener. For her, it was always about the substance of the conversation. Ego really wasn’t her thing.

After that, I didn’t see her again for a long time. In 1966, she became headmistress of Oxford High School for girls, which is a very striking thing for an academic who really loves her subject, and wrote more than 20 books on it, to take on. Later, she went back into the university world. Her career was constrained, not in any way that she resented, by the fact that her husband, Geoffrey Warnock, was also a prominent philosopher, who later became vice chancellor of Oxford University, so she felt that he needed quite a lot of support, and I suspect some of her moves and reversals reflected that.

The next I became aware of Mary was when she chaired the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology in the 1980s. It’s difficult now to remember how fraught this was. The key moral issue in many people’s minds was that the early embryo is a person, so you can’t be complicit in its destruction. But it’s not very easy to see how you do IVF without first doing the experimental work, and then the further work that’s needed with each procedure to discover whether a particular embryo is viable. These were the most delicate moral questions, and what Mary is rightly celebrated for is that she took them so seriously, listened well – that was her great gift, I think – and conducted a very long, slow and effective process which ended up in the human fertilisation and embryology system that we now have. It’s been amended a couple of times, but it’s a piece of legislation that has stood the test of time and is widely envied.

I next met her in the House of Lords where she was a fellow crossbencher and we would always have a good chat. She was a late joiner, like most crossbenchers, and neither of us was enormously vocal. We listened hard and did what we could. After she retired from the Lords, she would come in from time to time and we’d always have a quick chat in the corridor. Her hearing like my own was not so good, but she was always very alert and energetic.

Mary Warnock at Hertford College, Oxford, 1984
Mary Warnock at Hertford College, Oxford, 1984 Photograph: Jane Bown/The Observer

She once claimed that she was never “a real blood and bones philosopher”, or “much good” at the subject, but I do not believe that. She emerged from a very distinctive philosophical culture, as one of a formidable group of women in philosophy posts in Oxford who probably would not have got their jobs, or would have had a harder time getting them, had it not been for the war and large numbers of male philosophers off serving in the forces. While a lot of Oxford philosophy in that generation was extremely influenced by AJ Ayer and logical positivism, Mary Warnock, like Iris Murdoch, wrote on existentialism. They were interested in the virtues, in the imagination, in what we now call action theory, and were very removed from the positivistic culture that dominated in Oxford at the time.

What Mary will be most remembered for, though, is her contribution to public life. Most public reports have limited effect, but her report on fertilisation and embryology has had a profound influence. There are many people who would not be alive today, but for the approach it took to IVF. It is fascinating to think that one person, by being reasonable and a good listener, can have such an impact.

Onora O’Neill

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Public intellectuals have never been more vital. Let Mary Warnock be a guide | Sarah Ditum
The philosopher, who died last week, made huge contributions to British life. Why are her successors absent from the national conversation?

Sarah Ditum

24, Mar, 2019 @9:00 AM

Article image
Seven ways IVF changed the world – from Louise Brown to stem-cell research
The first ‘test-tube’ baby turns 40 this month, but the impact of in vitro fertilisation extends far beyond solutions to fertility problems

Philip Ball

08, Jul, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Toni Morrison remembered by Walter Mosley
The US crime writer remembers a literary great whose deep intellect, humanity and moral force inspired a generation of black Americans

Walter Mosley

15, Dec, 2019 @4:00 PM

Article image
Andrea Levy remembered by Bill Mayblin
The author’s husband recalls her sure-footed wisdom, humour and humanity and the uplifting task of going through the notes and drafts she left behind

Bill Mayblin

16, Dec, 2019 @9:30 AM

Article image
Judith Kerr remembered by Lauren Child
The former children’s laureate on the beloved author’s fascination with the ordinary detail of life – and an encounter with David Beckham

Lauren Child

14, Dec, 2019 @1:00 PM

Article image
British philosopher Onora O’Neill wins $1m Berggruen prize
Cambridge emeritus professor is praised for combining ‘rigour with timely prescriptions for what we really need to do’

Kevin Rawlinson

04, Oct, 2017 @3:56 PM

Article image
HowTheLightGetsIn 2014: philosophy, music and thought for all

Festival director Hilary Lawson reveals what to expect at the philosophy and music festival, and how the event will challenge assumptions. Interview by Tom Lamont

Tom Lamont

26, Apr, 2014 @11:05 PM

Article image
Lyra McKee remembered by Sara Canning
Her partner on the murdered Northern Irish journalist who had time for everyone on both sides of the divide

Sara Canning

15, Dec, 2019 @9:00 AM

Article image
Gordon Banks remembered by Peter Shilton
One great England goalkeeper remembers his World Cup-winning predecessor for his work ethic, his down-to-earth nature – and the save of the century

Peter Shilton

15, Dec, 2019 @1:00 PM

Article image
Karl Lagerfeld remembered by Carine Roitfeld
The French fashion editor remembers a passionate man of ideas who always remembered the small details

Carine Roitfeld

14, Dec, 2019 @4:00 PM