Mary Warnock, Baroness Warnock

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The Baroness Warnock

Helen Mary Wilson

(1924-04-14)14 April 1924
Died20 March 2019(2019-03-20) (aged 94)
Alma mater
Known forPhilosopher of morality, education, and mind, and a writer on existentialism
Board member ofActive Training and Education Trust
(m. 1949; died 1995)
RelativesDuncan Wilson (brother)

Helen Mary Warnock, Baroness Warnock, CH, DBE, FBA, FMedSci (née Wilson; 14 April 1924 – 20 March 2019) was an English philosopher of morality, education, and mind, and a writer on existentialism. She is best known for chairing an inquiry whose report formed the basis of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. She served as Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge from 1984 to 1991.

Early life and education[edit]

Warnock was born Helen Mary Wilson on 14 April 1924[1] in Winchester, England, and was the youngest of seven children. Her mother Ethel was the daughter of the successful banker and financier Felix Schuster.[2] Her father Archibald Edward Wilson (1875–1923) was a housemaster and German teacher at Winchester College and died before her birth.[3][4] Her mother did not marry again.[5]

Warnock was brought up by her mother and a nanny. She never knew her eldest brother, Malcolm (1907–1969), who had autism and was cared for in a nursing home, spending his last days in a Dorset hospital. Another brother died when very young. Her other brother, Duncan Wilson (1911–1983), was a British diplomat who became Ambassador to the Soviet Union before taking up an appointment as master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.[6] When Warnock was seven months old the family moved to Kelso House, a three-floor Victorian house, now the music centre at Peter Symonds College. She and her sister Stefana were cared for primarily by the family nanny. Warnock was educated as a boarder at St Swithun's School, Winchester, followed by Prior's Field School in the town of Guildford in Surrey.[2][6]

Warnock said that when she was a child she was embarrassed by her mother, who looked different from most people, often by wearing long flowing dark red clothes and walking with turned out feet. However, when Warnock was about 15 years old, she began to admire her mother's eccentricity and independent thinking.[6]

The family's inherited wealth offered Warnock a privileged education; starting in 1942 she studied classics at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. Her studies were interrupted during the war whilst she taught for two years at Sherborne School for Girls in Dorset. She returned to Oxford and graduated in 1948.[4][5]



From 1949–66, Warnock was a fellow and tutor in philosophy at St Hugh's College, Oxford.[3][7] In addition to her husband Geoffrey Warnock, then a fellow of Magdalen College, her circle during this period included the philosophers Isaiah Berlin, Stuart Hampshire, David Pears and Peter Strawson, as well the authors Kingsley Amis and David Cecil.[4] She participated in radio debates on philosophy broadcast on the Third Programme. She was invited to write on contemporary ethics for a series published by Oxford University Press, which led her to study Sartre and Existentialism, resulting in three books published between 1963 and 1970.[4]

She was Talbot Research Fellow at Lady Margaret Hall from 1972 until 1976. She published a book entitled Imagination in 1976.[4] From 1976–84, she was a senior research fellow at St Hugh's College, and was made an honorary fellow of the college in 1985. She served as mistress of Girton College, Cambridge from 1984 to 1991.[7] She retired in 1992, but continued to serve on public committees and to write and edit books, including The Uses of Philosophy (1992), Imagination and Time (1994) and An Intelligent Person's Guide to Ethics (1998).[4] She delivered the Gifford Lectures, entitled "Imagination and Understanding," at the University of Glasgow in 1992.[8] In 2000, she was a visiting professor of rhetoric at Gresham College, London.[9]

Warnock wrote extensively on ethics, existentialism, and philosophy of mind.[10]


In the early 1960s, whilst still teaching at St Hugh's College, Warnock took a seat on the Oxfordshire Local Education Authority. From 1966 to 1972, she was Headmistress at the Oxford High School for Girls, giving up the position when her husband was appointed principal of Hertford College, Oxford.[2][4] In the late 1970s, she published three books on the topic of education. In the 1980s and 1990s, she wrote a column for the Times Educational Supplement, as well as a pamphlet "Universities: Knowing Our Minds", and gave the Richard Dimbleby Lecture in 1985 on the topic, "Teacher Teach Thyself".[4]


Warnock was a member of the Independent Broadcasting Authority from 1972 to 1983. In 1980, she was considered for the post of Chair of the Board of Governors of the BBC.[2][11]

Public policy[edit]

Because of her background as an educationalist, Warnock was appointed in 1974 to chair a UK inquiry on special education. Her report, published in 1978, brought radical change in the field, by placing emphasis on the teaching of learning-disabled children in mainstream schools and introducing a system of "statementing" children in order for them to gain entitlement to special educational support. Warnock subsequently expressed dissatisfaction with the system that she helped to create, calling it "appalling" because of the expense of its administration and its tendency to deny support to mildly disadvantaged children. She recommended the establishment of a new inquiry.[2][12]

From 1979–84, she sat on a Royal Commission on environmental pollution.[4][11] From 1982–84, she chaired the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology. Her report on this occasion gave rise to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, which governs human fertility treatment and experiments using human embryos.[3] Its effect has been to require licensing for procedures such as in vitro fertilisation and to ban research using human embryos more than 14 days old. According to Dame Susan Leather, a former chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, "perhaps the greatest achievement of the Warnock committee is that it managed to get an ethical consensus that people understood as well as shared".[2]

From 1984 to 1989, Warnock chaired a Home Office Committee on animal experimentation; she was a member of the Government advisory panel on spoliation from 1998.[11] In 2008, Warnock, a committed advocate of euthanasia, caused controversy with an opinion that people with dementia should be allowed to elect to die if they felt they were "a burden to their family or the state".[13][14] Aged 90, Warnock took part enthusiastically in a review of her public life as documented by BBC Sound Archives (12 July 2014).[15]

Charity appointments[edit]

Warnock was the President of Listening Books, a charity providing audiobooks for people who struggle to read due to an illness, disability, learning difficulty or mental health issue.[16] She was a patron of The Iris Project, a charity that promotes the teaching of classics.[17]

Appointments and honours[edit]

In the 1984 New Year Honours, she was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE).[4][18] Warnock was created a life peer on 6 February 1985, taking the title Baroness Warnock, of Weeke, in the City of Winchester.[19] She sat in the House of Lords as a crossbencher until her retirement from the House on 1 June 2015.[4][20] Warnock was appointed a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour (CH) in the 2017 New Year Honours for services to charity and to children with special education needs.[21]

Warnock was elected an honorary Fellow of the British Academy (FBA) in 2000[22] and an Honorary Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences (FMedSci) in 2011.[23] She was awarded an honorary D.Litt. degree by the University of Bath in 1987.[24] She was made an Honorary Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford[25] in 1984, and of Hertford College, Oxford in 1997.[26]

In 2018, she was named as one of the TES ten most influential people in education, in recognition of her work on special educational needs.[27] That same year, she was awarded the 2018 Dan David Prize for her work in bioethics.[28][29]

Personal life[edit]

Warnock married Geoffrey Warnock, later vice-chancellor of Oxford University, in 1949. They had two sons and three daughters; he died in 1995.[30][31] She died aged 94 on 20 March 2019.[3][4]

She was often described as an "atheist Anglican".[32]


As chair of committees of inquiry:

As author:

  • Ethics since 1900 (Oxford University Press, 1960); ISBN 0-9753662-2-X
  • The Philosophy of Sartre (Hutchinson University Press, 1963)[4]
  • Existentialist Ethics (London: Palgrave Macmillan, New York: Springer, 1967) ISBN 9780333011782[4]
  • Existentialism (Oxford Paperbacks, 1970) ISBN 0-19-888052-9[4]
  • Imagination (1976) ISBN 9780520037243[4]
  • Schools of Thought (Faber and Faber, 1977); ISBN 0-571-11161-0
  • Memory (1987) ISBN 9780571147830
  • The Uses of Philosophy (Blackwell, 1992) ISBN 9780631185833[4]
  • Imagination and Time (Blackwell Publishers, 1994) ISBN 0-631-19019-8[4]
  • Mary Warnock: A Memoir – People and Places (Duckworth, 2001); ISBN 0-7156-2955-7, ISBN 0-7156-3141-1
  • Making Babies: Is There a Right To Have Children? (2001) ISBN 9780192805003
  • The Intelligent Person's Guide to Ethics (1998) ISBN 9780715646151[4]
  • Nature and Mortality: Recollections of a Philosopher in Public Life (2004); ISBN 0-8264-7323-7
  • An Intelligent Person's Guide to Ethics (Duckworth, 2004); ISBN 0-7156-3320-1
  • Easeful Death, with Elisabeth MacDonald (OUP, 2008) ISBN 9780199561841
  • Dishonest to God: On Keeping Religion Out of Politics (Continuum, 2010); ISBN 978-1-4411-2712-9
  • Critical Reflections on Ownership (Edward Elgar, 2015); ISBN 978-1-78195-547-5[4]

As editor:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Rubinstein, William D.; Jolles, Michael; Rubinstein, Hilary L. (22 February 2011). The Palgrave Dictionary of Anglo-Jewish History. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 9781403939104 – via Google Books.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Brown, Andrew (19 July 2003). "The practical philosopher". The Guardian. Retrieved 11 October 2011.
  3. ^ a b c d Devlin, Hannah (21 March 2019). "Philosopher Mary Warnock dies aged 94". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 21 March 2019.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u O'Grady, Jane (21 March 2019). "Lady Warnock obituary". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 21 March 2019.
  5. ^ a b c d "Mary Warnock". The Gifford Lectures. 18 August 2014. Retrieved 22 March 2019.
  6. ^ a b c "The House I Grew up In featuring Mary Warnock". The House I Grew Up In. 17 September 2008. BBC. BBC Radio 4.
  7. ^ a b "Girton College, Past Mistresses". Girton College, Cambridge. Retrieved 5 July 2015.
  8. ^ "Imagination and Understanding". The Gifford Lectures. 18 August 2014. Retrieved 22 March 2019.
  9. ^ "List of professors". Gresham College. Archived from the original on 19 October 2004. Retrieved 22 March 2019.
  10. ^ Honderich, Ted (1995). The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1. publ. ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 907. ISBN 0-19-866132-0.
  11. ^ a b c "Baroness Warnock". UK Parliament website. Archived from the original on 12 October 2011. Retrieved 13 October 2011.
  12. ^ Warnock, Mary (17 September 2010). "The cynical betrayal of my special needs children". The Telegraph. Retrieved 13 October 2011.
  13. ^ Beckford, Martin (19 September 2008). "Baroness Warnock: Dementia sufferers may have a 'duty to die'". Telegraph. Retrieved 3 February 2009.
  14. ^ "Dementia patients' 'right-to-die'". BBC News. Retrieved 3 September 2009.
  15. ^ "BBC Radio 4 – Meeting Myself Coming Back, Series 6, Mary Warnock". 12 July 2014. Retrieved 2 January 2017.
  16. ^ "Listening Books – UK audiobook charity | Our people". Retrieved 21 August 2017.
  17. ^ "Patrons". Iris website. Archived from the original on 4 October 2011. Retrieved 11 October 2011.
  18. ^ "No. 49583". The London Gazette (Supplement). 31 December 1983. p. 8.
  19. ^ "No. 50031". The London Gazette. 11 February 1985.
  20. ^ "Retired members of the House of Lords – UK Parliament". Retrieved 2 January 2017.
  21. ^ "No. 61803". The London Gazette (1st supplement). 31 December 2016. p. N27.
  22. ^ Honorary Fellows Archived 29 June 2015 at the Wayback Machine – website of the British Academy
  23. ^ Fellow Baroness Mary Warnock FMedSci – website of the Academy of Medical Sciences
  24. ^ "Honorary Graduates 1989 to present". University of Bath. Retrieved 18 February 2012.
  25. ^ "Honorary and Emeritus Fellows". Lady Margaret Hall. Retrieved 22 March 2019.
  26. ^ "Baroness Warnock". Hertford College | University of Oxford. Retrieved 22 March 2019.
  27. ^ "Tes people of the year 2018: Baroness Mary Warnock". TES. Times Educational Supplement.
  28. ^ "PET patron wins prestigious award - BioNews". 12 February 2018. Retrieved 25 October 2020.
  29. ^ "Science historians, bioethicists head Dan David Prize winners". Haaretz. Retrieved 25 October 2020.
  30. ^ "Belief transcript: Mary Warnock interview". Wayback Machine. Archived from the original on 6 February 2007.
  31. ^ "House of Lords". TheyWorkForYou. 25 July 2013. Retrieved 3 August 2013.
  32. ^ "Obituary: Mary Warnock died on March 20th". The Economist. 28 March 2019.
  33. ^ "Digitisation activities". Archived from the original on 29 September 2007. Retrieved 12 August 2011.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Academic offices
Preceded by Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge
Succeeded by