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Mary Warnock

Mistress of Griton College, Cambridge

Mary Warnock, philosopher, was born Helen Mary Wilson on 14 April 1924 in Winchester. Her father was a housemaster at Winchester, but died seven months before Mary was born; her mother never remarried. Mary was educated at St. Swithun’s, an Anglican school where she concentrated on classics. She won a scholarship to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and began her studies there in 1942. One of her closest friends during this time was Charles de Gaulle’s daughter Elisabeth. After leaving briefly to teach at Sherborne School for Girls, she returned to Lady Margaret Hall to earn her first degree in 1948. She was made Honorary Fellow in 1984.

Warnock taught philosophy at St. Hugh’s College Oxford from 1949 to 1966 and was well regarded as a teacher. She became the first married Fellow of the college in 1959. Thanks to two books on existentialism in the 1960s she became a regular philosophy commentator on BBC Radio 3. She served as headmistress of the Oxford High School from 1966 to 1972. She was a member of the Independent Broadcasting Authority from 1973 to 1983 and was considered as a possible chair of governors of the BBC in 1980; she chaired a commission of inquiry into laboratory animal experiments and sat on a Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. Warnock was mistress of Girton College Cambridge from 1984 to 1991 and became a Life Peer in 1985 as ‘Baroness Warnock of Weeke’. In 2000 Warnock was a Visiting Professor of Rhetoric at Gresham College, London.

In 1949 she married philosopher Geoffrey Warnock and they had two sons and three daughters during the 1950s. Geoffrey, who late in his career served as Vice-Chancellor of Oxford and principal of Hertford College, retired in 1988 and died of degenerative lung disease in 1995. She herself passed away at the age of 94 on 20 March 2019.

Mary Warnock is perhaps best known for chairing two national committees of inquiry for Great Britain each of which published a significant report. The first (1974–78) reported on the education of handicapped children and young persons and resulted in Special Educational Needs (1978). The second and most influential inquiry dealt with the ethics of embryos and human fertilisation entitled A Question of Life: The Warnock Report on Human Fertilisation and Embryology (1984 reprinted 1985) which was published six years after the birth of the first test-tube baby. She returned to writing about issues related to the ethics of human reproduction in Making Babies: Is There a Right to Have Children? (2002).

Her other works include: Ethics Since 1900 (1960; 3rd ed. 1978); Jean-Paul Sartre (1963); The Philosophy of Sartre (1965); Existentialist Ethics (1967); Existentialism (1970); and What Must We Teach? (1977 with Tim Devlin), on the aims and objectives of education. She also published Schools of Thought (1977), Memory (1987), The Uses of Philosophy (1992), Imagination and Time (1994), An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Ethics (1998) and Nature and Morality: Recollections of a Philosopher in Public Life (2003). She edited several volumes including Sartre: A Collection of Critical Essays (1971), Women Philosophers (1995) and Art for All? Their Policies and Our Culture (2000 with Mark Wallinger). Her memoir Mary Warnock: A Memoir—People and Places was published in 2000.

  • Brannon Hancock, University of Glasgow