Obituary: Janet Semple

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The Independent Online
Janet Elizabeth Whates, historian: born 4 June 1943; Research Fellow Bentham Project 1993; married 1961 Andrew Semple (one son, one daughter); died London 27 March 1993.

My first encounter with Janet Semple was in 1984 when she appeared for an interview at the London School of Economics for a ESRC- funded studentship for Ph D research. Having raised a family, she had set out in her mid-forties on an M Sc course at the school and was considering further study. Though strongly recommended by her tutor, Allan Beattie, she used the interview to explain with characteristic modesty and great integrity why she should not receive the studentship: she was too old; others were more deserving or in greater need; and she might not finish on time. Nevertheless, she wanted to write a thesis on Jeremy Bentham, the 18th-century philosopher and jurist, and although the studentship went to another candidate, I agreed to supervise her thesis.

With a journalist's eye for a good story - her father had been a journalist and editor of the Birmingham Mail - she chose Bentham's panopticon prison scheme, which was much discussed by academics, largely under the influence of Foucault's Discipline and Punish, and was of contemporary significance following widespread unrest in British prisons.

A historian by training, she was the first scholar to examine thoroughly the voluminous manuscripts at University College London on the panopticon project. She established that Bentham's scheme for a privately operated model prison was central to his thought, and in addition made perfect sense in the political context of his time.

She worked on the thesis on a part- time basis and finished it in 1990. A revised version (Bentham's Prison: a study of the Panopticon Penitentiary) will be published by Oxford University Press later this year. She also wrote a brief but devastating critique of Foucault's account of Bentham's prison for Utilitas (1992), which did not engage in opposing one theory with another but concentrated on exposing Foucault's failure to grasp elementary facts concerning Bentham and 18th-century penology.

Her next project was to explore Bentham's writings on medicine and poor relief, and she began to examine a vast archive of unpublished material on these topics which also remain of great interest today. She played an important role in securing for the Bentham Project a grant from the Wellcome Trust to edit this material in the new edition of Bentham's Collected Works.

She was appointed a Research Fellow at the Bentham Project in January and, though feeling unwell, she attended meetings and carried on with her research almost to the day she went into hospital. She swiftly succumbed to cancer and left her family, friends and colleagues stunned by the sudden loss of so vibrant and determined a person and scholar.

(Photograph omitted)