Obituary: Dame Janet Vaughan
Thursday 14 January 1993
Among her ancestors were a 17th-century alchemist, twin brother to the poet Henry Vaughan, and an 18th-century President of the Royal College of Physicians. Her grandfathers were Halford Vaughan, Regius Professor of History at Oxford, and John Addington Symonds, historian of the Italian Renaissance.
She moved easily from her Oxford laboratory to the elegance of Radcliffe House, or her later home at Wolvercote, with her beautiful china, the engravings from Thornton's Temple of Flora, the little Signac watercolour. There she would fling herself eagerly into talk about politics, poetry, gardens or the latest book about Bloomsbury, on which she could be quite caustic, having known all the main characters herself.
She had gone down from Somerville in 1922, before I went up, and I only met her after the Second World War though I already knew her husband David Gourlay, through whose Wayfarers' Travel Agency my husband and I had done all our foreign travel in the Thirties. Kindly, humorous and utterly dependable, David provided exactly the right balance to his wife's brilliance. As consort to the Principal of Somerville he played his part beautifully, but with a kind of amused detachment. Their holidays in Italy, France and the Alps were high points in her life, and when he died in 1963, printed on the order of service for his funeral were Tennyson's lines:
O love, we two shall go no longer
To lands of summer across the sea
nor did Janet go abroad on holiday again. Retirement from Somerville meant more time for research, for reading, for her garden, her family and her friends - whom she had a genius for helping in any problem or distress. Still slim and handsome, her hair still raven till late into her seventies, she and her yellow Mini were a familiar sight all over Oxford. She had had an eventful career, but her talk seldom lingered on the past. It was all on the present and the future: political developments all over the world, new knowledge in science, her grandchildrens' interests and careers, Her intelligence was as quick as ever. She was often consulted about the effects of radiation; she revelled in the stimulus of discussing intricate problems with scientists half her age - whom she would then treat to a delicious lunch cooked by herself. In her 80th year she was elected FRS on the strength of recent research. Two years ago she told me sadly: 'I've written my last paper, and I can't any longer grasp the physics and mathematics I need for my subject.'
She was a great Principal, a great presence, and a marvellous friend.
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