Phyllis Hetzel: Senior civil servant who helped secure full status for Lucy Cavendish College

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The Independent Online

Phyllis Hetzel had a long and distinguished career in the civil service, during a period when it was unusual for women to have careers at all.

And then, in 1979, at an age when others might have been thinking about stepping back from public life, she was elected the third president of the fledgling Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge. Her experience of the difficulties facing professional women balancing career and family responsibilities, and memories of her undergraduate days in Cambridge, made her sympathetic to the aims of the college for mature women. She was instrumental in its gaining Approved Foundation Status in 1984 – a vital step towards becoming a full college of the university, which was ultimately achieved in 1997.

Born in London in 1918, Phyllis Bertha Mabel was the daughter of Stanley and Bertha Myson. She was educated at Wimbledon high school and Newnham College, Cambridge, where she gained first-class honours in history. Her intention had been to do research on the Renaissance but the war intervened. She married John James in 1941, and in the same year joined the Board of Trade as a civil servant, becoming a principal in 1947, when married women were first eligible to hold permanent positions, and assistant secretary in 1960. In 1957-58, as the holder of a Commonwealth (now Harkness) Scholarship she conducted research into the effect of television on the film industry.

Her first husband died in 1962; after spells in the Department of Economic Affairs and Ministry of Technology she joined the Department of Trade and Industry in 1970, becoming assistant under-secretary of state in 1972 and regional director of the NW Region, 1972-1975. She retired in 1975 on marrying to Lord Bowden of Chesterfield, a scientist and educationalist, but served on the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and the Local Boundary Commission for England and the West Midlands Committee of the National Trust 1976-1981.

There followed a number of appointments in Manchester and it was here, in 1977, that she first heard about Lucy Cavendish College when its President, Dr Kate Bertram, gave a talk to the Manchester Association of Cambridge University Women.

Phyllis Bowden was immediately interested, and she came to the college two years later at a crucial time in its development. Her political and administrative skills were used to good effect: on arrival she had three aims: to obtain recognition of Lucy Cavendish as an Approved Foundation of the University, to improve its finances and to promote its activities more widely. She fulfilled all of these, as well as gaining the respect and affection of the fellows and students for the support she gave them. In 1983 she was elected to the Council of Senate of Cambridge University, and there she secured Approved Foundation Status. When she left the college in 1984 its administration was in good order and it was gaining in self-confidence and in respect in the university.

In 1983 her marriage to Lord Bowden was dissolved and she moved to California where, in 1985, she married Ralph Dorn Hetzel, an artist and former head of the California Institute of the Arts. She served on the Board of American Friends of Cambridge University Inc. and was vice-president of the Oxford and Cambridge Club of Los Angeles for several years.

After Hetzel's death she returned to live in Cambridge, where she was an honorary fellow of Lucy Cavendish College and was also for period registrar of the roll and a bye-fellow of Newnham College. In her eighties she began researching into the life and career of the architect Basil Champneys, together with her daughter, and her extensive papers have been deposited in Newnham College.

Her publications include Regional development: the theory and the practice (1976), and Lucy Cavendish College: the crucial years 1979-1984, which was published by the college in 2004.

Her interests included writing short stories, garden history, visiting galleries and historic houses, conservation, watercolour landscapepainting, and music, especially playing the piano.

Phyllis Bertha Mabel Myson, civil and public servant: born London 10 June 1918; Board of Trade 1941, principal 1947, asst secretary 1960; Dept of Economic Affairs 1964–69; Ministry of Technology 1969–70; Dept of Trade and Industry 1970–75, asst under-secretary of state 1972; president, Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge 1979–84; married 1941 John Henry Lewis James (died 1962; one daughter), 1974 Lord Bowden (divorced 1983, died 1989), 1985 Ralph Hetzel (died 1994); died Cambridge 6 January 2011.

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