Obituary: Dame Janet Vaughan
CLICHES LIKE 'live wire' and 'human dynamo' were coined for Janet Vaughan. She overflowed with energy and enthusiasm, writes Evelyn Irons.
When she was 20 or so, and we were both undergraduates at Somerville College, Oxford, she would rush into my room in the middle of the night brandishing pages of her poems - written in her then, as always, almost illegible hand - which she was bursting to read aloud to anyone who would listen. She wrote fast and she spoke fast, as if she could hardly keep up with the torrent of her ideas.
Sixty years later, spending a few days with her at her house in Wolvercote, I found her immersed in a research project for the Prime Minister. Mrs Thatcher, who had read chemistry at Somerville while Janet Vaughan was principal of the college, wanted to pick her brains on the effect of plutonium on industrial workers. And Dame Janet, an authority on the subject, was compiling a dossier of information about it.
When Janet first went up to Oxford in the spring of 1919, she was 19 years old. She drove from the station to Oriel College; Somerville was housed there because the women's college had been used as a wartime military hospital. If she went to tea with a male student, she had to bring a chaperone, and she wore no academic gown, since women were not yet members of the university. Neither did they appear in the plays put on by the Oxford University Dramatic Society (OUDS); the professional actress Cathleen Nesbitt played Cleopatra in the OUDS production of Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra (later Nesbitt married Cecil Ramage, the undergraduate who was her leading man). Janet, who enjoyed acting, had to be content with the Somerville all-women production of the 25-year-old JM Barrie piece The Professors Love Story, in which she was a tall and stately Mildred, with a picture hat, parasol and ankle-length dress.
Several of her undergraduate contemporaries remained friends for life, notably Dr Enid Starkie, who became the brilliant French don of Somerville and one of Oxford's most celebrated eccentrics. In her last year (she died in 1970) Enid said that she 'owed everything' to Janet Vaughan, who visited her constantly at her house near the college, and saw to it that she got enough to eat. That was typical of Janet; she was boundlessly generous and kind.
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