Obituary: Dame Janet Vaughan
Tuesday 12 January 1993
JANET VAUGHAN was Principal of Somerville College, Oxford, from 1945 to 1967, and a distinguished haematologist and radiation pathologist.
As a masterful and greatly loved Principal of Somerville, Vaughan witnessed, and did much to bring about, important changes in the position of women at Oxford University. But she would not have been such a memorable principal had she not also been an active research scientist at the Churchill Hospital. In her career as a scientist, the best came relatively late - in the work on the pathological effects of plutonium which she began in her fifties and which obtained world recognition, and in the Fellowship of the Royal Society, to which she was elected in her 80th year.
Janet Vaughan was born in 1899, the eldest of the four children of William Wyamar Vaughan and Margaret Vaughan, who was before her marriage Margaret Symonds. William Vaughan was then an assistant master at Clifton. Much later, when he was headmaster of Rugby School, but a widower, and Janet a young doctor, she helped with hospitality at Rugby at weekends. The Vaughans and the Symondses belonged to the intellectual circle of Victorian England, and each family had produced distinguished physicians. Janet chose this career in the belief that it would equip her for the good fight against poverty and social injustice - a cause which she embraced very early and, as events would show, for life. Her education, mainly at the hands of governesses, left her ill-prepared for Responsions at Oxford, and she passed this examination only at the third attempt. Then, however, she was able to enter Somerville College to read medicine. She took a First in Physiology, and proceeded to University College Hospital London for her clinical training. As a young doctor, she encountered the diseases of malnutrition and delivered babies in the slums of Camden Town, where newspapers often served for bedclothes. She was confirmed in her socialist convictions.
Vaughan became a friend of Virginia Woolf, who was also her cousin, and Woolf alludes, in A Room of One's Own (1929), to her pioneering treatment of pernicious anaemia with minced liver. For a time she lived in Bloomsbury, and it was here that she met David Gourlay. Their marriage, in 1930, and the birth of their two children, Mary and Priscilla, brought her great happiness. In her professional life, Janet kept her maiden name; but to the staff of the Wayfarers' Travel Agency, of which David Gourlay was co-founder, she was always 'Mrs Gourlay'. She abandoned her earlier intention of becoming a medical practitioner in favour of medical research. Her main interests at this time were in haematology. In 1939 she held an appointment in clinical pathology at the Hammersmith Hospital and, with others, conceived a design for blood banks for London. During the war, she directed the blood supply service for north-west London. In 1945 she went to Belgium on behalf of the Medical Research Council to investigate the treatment of starvation, and there she was asked to go further - into Germany, and to Belsen concentration camp. She was working in Belsen when the war ended.
Vaughan's long principalship of Somerville began within a few months of these events. Somerville liked to think that it nurtured brains but not bluestockings. Whatever the character of its undergraduates, there were too few of them, for at this time Oxford University still restricted numbers at the five women's colleges then in existence, and Somerville's quota was 160. The College is named after Mary Somerville, a mathematician and writer on natural science. Yet in 1945 only a small proportion of its undergraduate places was filled by mathematicians or scientists, and these subjects claimed only one of the fellowships.
For Somerville at this juncture, Vaughan was an inspired choice. She was a woman of extraordinary vitality and not a little impatience; to her, 24 hours represented quite a long time. In everything relating to the college she was an optimist - a great believer in having plans ready in case the money to execute them should suddenly materialise. By sheer force of personality, as it sometimes seemed, she could persuade cautious dons to reach bold decisions. Yet she had a certain vulnerability that made colleagues reluctant to disappoint her by holding back. Her style was inimitable and capable of carrying off any situation. She loved her new contact with the young, and they, for their part, loved her accessibility and her intuitive understanding of so many of their aspirations. And they were exhilarated by a principal who spoke her mind on controversial issues - and sometimes even, delightfully, on their tutors.
But underlying everything Vaughan did as principal, and the foundation of the huge respect that she enjoyed, was a relentless concern for excellence. She never identified excellence with academic achievement: a fine career mattered more than a good degree. But she did take an intense interest in the examination results each summer, and tutors, at this season, braced themselves for some pertinent comments on the class-lists. Yet in her eyes there was something even more important in a don's life than teaching, and it was research. She was excited by scholarship in any field of studies and believed that, if time was short, a scholar's time for research should be the last kind to be sacrificed. Nothing was more typical of her principalship than the encouragement of this order of priorities.
When Vaughan retired in 1967, 40 per cent of Somerville undergraduates - a much higher percentage than in 1945 - were reading science or mathematics. The total number of fellows had doubled, and at this level, too, science and mathematics were better represented. Two new buildings helped to accommodate a greatly enlarged number of undergraduates, and Somerville also possessed one of the first houses for graduate students to be built in Oxford. In most of the changes occurring in Somerville in the previous 22 years, and all the really important ones, Vaughan had been the prime mover. In that time, moreover, she had taken a prominent part in university life. She was elected to Hebdomadal Council within a short time of her arrival in Oxford. Yet she had also found time for what she sometimes called, only half in jest, her life as a statutory woman. This had taken off in 1944, when she served as a member of the Royal Commission on Equal Pay - she was the author of a Memorandum of Dissent from certain sections of the report - and included service as a trustee of the Nuffield Foundation from its inception in 1945 and a year as chairman of the Oxford Regional Hospital Board. In 1967, the university recognised her distinction in many fields by the conferment of the degree of DCL honoris causae at Encaenia.
Throughout her principalship Vaughan was very active in research: in fact she normally spent the greater part of every working day in her laboratory. 'Do they think I sit knitting?' was her invariable response if told that a caller had expected to find her in her room in college in a prime working period of the day. In the course of her early work as a haematologist she had published The Anaemias (1938), one of the first specialised books on blood diseases. From 1950, she worked on the biological hazards of radioactive isotopes and investigated the metabolism of nuclear fission products and fissile materials. During her principalship she had as many as 50 publications - a respectable output had she been a scientist with only one job - and more followed during her very active retirement. She published two further books, The Physiology of Bone (1970) and The Effects of Radiation on the Skeleton (1973). She played an important role in providing evidence for the International Commission on Radiological Protection and was one of the first to recognise the pathological effects of plutonium on bone.
Janet Vaughan was still publishing in her late eighties, and she drove a car to within a few years of her death. Though she was saddened by the disabilities of extreme old age, she bore them with fortitude and welcomed the acquisition of a wheelchair, when the time came, as a means to the recovery of her lost mobility. One of her last expeditions was to see the new quadrangle at Somerville.
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