Obituary: Jane Wadsworth

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The Independent Online
Jane Wadsworth came to public prominence for her work on the 1994 National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, notoriously banned from public funding five years earlier by the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. When it was eventually funded by the Wellcome Trust, it became the largest and most authoritative survey of sexual behaviour ever undertaken.

"A middle-aged woman with dangly ear-rings" as a journalist once dubbed her, Wadsworth seemed an unlikely individual to be analysing and describing the intimate activities of the British public. Her background was cultured but conventional. She was born Jane Arnott during the Second World War, the eldest of four children, and moved to Sevenoaks when her father was demobbed and established his GP's practice there.

Jane had a quintessentially Home Counties upbringing. She attended West Heath School and learned to love music, to ride a horse and to sail; she then went on to read Mathematics at St Andrews University. These formative experiences endowed her with a graciousness and social ease that were her hallmark, but also with a reserve which some found intimidating.

She met her husband Michael Wadsworth in her first job, as a computer programmer, in London, then moved with him to Edinburgh, where their first child, Emma, was born. She never quite gave up paid employment while her children were young, and when the family returned to London she worked part-time at the Institute for Social Studies in Medical Care, beginning a lasting family connection with the social scientist Ann Cartwright.

When Wadsworth's second child, Harry, went to school, she did an MSc in Medical Statistics at the London School of Hygiene, then took a series of research posts in London, Bristol and Exeter. She collected friends in every place she worked.

In 1983 she joined St Mary's Hospital Medical School, Paddington, as Lecturer (later Senior Lecturer) in Medical Statistics. She played a central role in a number of clinical studies there, most notably the National Childhood Encephalopathy Study with Professor David Miller and a major study of pelvic pain syndrome with Professor Richard Beard.

She was not a theoretical statistician, though she had a thorough knowledge of statistical techniques and was skilled in applying these across a wide range of research projects. Her real interest was in helping younger colleagues and clinicians who would arrive in her office with an armful of data, thinking that somewhere in it there might be the answer to a question that needed asking.

She had a gift for communicating with doctors and for reconstructing their initial efforts into realistic research projects. She was enormously generous to those who wanted to collaborate with her but firmly showed the door to those who tried to treat her like a handmaiden. She hated self- promotion in others and would not tolerate it in herself. In the increasingly competitive academic world, however, this meant that her contribution, though widely appreciated by her colleagues, had not yet led to further promotion.

With the onset of the Aids epidemic, she became involved in early work to establish the pattern of HIV infection in Britain and to describe its likely spread. This led to the first ever attempt in the UK to conduct a survey about sexual behaviour using a random sample of the population.

This was uncharted territory for sex research. Jane Wadsworth was excited by the possibilities it opened up and for the first time took a leading role in initiating her own research programme. Her personal life was more difficult over this period, however, and the end of the 1980s saw the painful break-up of her marriage.

After several years of painstaking groundwork, Wadsworth and her co- investigators Julia Field, Anne Johnson and Kaye Wellings embarked on a study which entailed asking 18,876 men and women detailed questions about their sex lives. Horizon filmed it for television and Jane Wadsworth became a media star, recognised the next day by her greengrocer and the ticket collector at her tube station. She was delighted by such encounters but never took her fleeting fame too seriously.

In 1994 she and her co- investigators published Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, and a popular version, Sexual Behaviour in Britain, which was serialised in the Independent on Sunday. Those who were looking for the sensational findings of Kinsey or the titillating accounts of a Hite Report were to be disappointed. The tabloid press were inclined to dismiss the results as boring and predictable. But Wadsworth took pride in the fact that the rigorous nature of the survey legitimised sexual behaviour as a subject for serious scientific study.

The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles provided both the model and the gold standard for sex surveys in a number of other countries. This brought invitations for Jane Wadsworth to lecture all over the world; these she enjoyed to the full, travelling often with her new partner, John McEwan. She had an immense enthusiasm for life and died too young, aged 55.

Mary Boulton

Margaret Jane Helen Arnott, medical statistician: born 1 May 1942; Scientific Officer, Department of Medical Physics, St Bartholomew's Hospital, London 1976-79; Research Associate, Department of Child Health, Bristol University and Paediatric Research Unit, Exeter University 1979-83; Lecturer in Medical Statistics, St Mary's Hospital Medical School, London 1983-89, Senior Lecturer 1989-97; Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society 1976; married 1966 Michael Wadsworth (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1991); died London 12 July 1997.