Lisa Jardine dies: the historian who cared about ethical issues

In her books she showed that scientific progress was often the result of cut-throat competition between pioneers

Marcus Williamson
Monday 26 October 2015 19:56 GMT
Lisa Jardine was professor of renaissance studies at UCL
Lisa Jardine was professor of renaissance studies at UCL (Rex)

Lisa Jardine, who has died aged 71, made enormous contributions to human knowledge in the fields of history, science and philosophy. Most recently professor of renaissance studies at University College London (UCL), she was a prolific writer who published numerous essays and 17 books on a wide variety of subjects ranging from the philosopher Francis Bacon to questions of human fertilisation.

Jardine was born in Oxford in 1944, the eldest of four daughters of the sculptor Rita Coblentz and the great mathematician and biologist Jacob Bronowski, known for his television series and book The Ascent of Man. She was educated at Cheltenham Ladies’ College and the University of Essex. Having been awarded an MA in English at Essex, she went up to Cambridge where she gained a doctorate.

The year 1974 brought both joy – the publication of her first book, based on her doctoral thesis, Francis Bacon: Discovery and the Art of Discourse, and the appearance of her father’s magnum opus on television and in print – but tragedy, too, when he died of a heart attack, just a year after its completion.

Jardine later wrote: “Bruno’s sudden death when [my parents] were both in their prime (she was 55) was a terrible blow. They had just got the last of their four daughters off to college and expected at last to enjoy the freedom of the empty nest. Rita was, for some time, inconsolable. In truth, she never recovered from her loss. But with characteristic determination she embarked on the career in public life she had been unable to have as ‘Dr Bronowski’s wife’.”

Jardine remembered her father in a later interview as “a resolute believer that there is nothing so difficult that a person in the street can’t understand it, as long as you don’t let them know that it is difficult”, and also noted “that is a mantra that I have stuck to all my life, too.”

Jardine joined Queen Mary University of London in 1990, where she later became centenary professor of renaissance studies and director of the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters, positions she held until 2011.

She was chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the independent body which regulates fertility clinics and oversees embyro research, from 2008 to 2014. Her time there saw the introduction of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. She described its Royal assent as a “momentous day”, noting that “Parliament has provided a clear framework for the future and a solid base on which to regulate 21st-century practice within 21st-century law.”

She fought successfully against the organisation’s abolition during the “bonfire of the quangos” announced by George Osborne after the 2010 election. Speaking to this newspaper in 2013 following the announcement of her impending retirement from the regulator, she said, “There are two moments in medicine that are unlike any other bits of medicine: the creation of life and the destruction of life. Assisted reproduction and assisted dying are the two poles. I don’t think any responsible nation, ethically or clinically ought ever not to regulate those... I am proud of taking the HFEA from a position of antagonism with the sector to one of dialogue and mutual understanding.”

The current HFEA chair, Sally Cheshire, told The Independent: “Lisa led the HFEA through a challenging period when its continued existence was under review. Despite this, important scientific and ethical advancements were brought into the public domain during that time, including the world-leading work on mitochondrial donation, which Lisa spearheaded. As chair, she brought immense intellect, scientific rigour, and the confidence to speak out passionately for patients, especially those who were unsuccessful.”

Jardine, who married the scientist Nicholas Jardine in 1969, and later, in 1982, the architect John Hare, appeared widely in the media. She dealt with issues of science, ethics and philosophy and was a regular contributor to A Point of View on Radio 4. Her Seven Ages of Science, broadcast over seven half-hour episodes for BBC Radio 4, was groundbreaking in its treatment and broad coverage of the history of science from the 17th century to the present day.

“Producer Anna Buckley had the original idea,” Jardine said in 2013. “When she sent me her sketch breakdown of each of her seven ages, I was captivated, because it was an idea I immediately connected with intellectually... it was Anna’s fantastically well-informed choice for the seven ages (originally Age of Experiment, Exploration, Opportunity, Inspiration, Laboratory, War and Now – I proposed Age of Ingenuity later) that I really warmed to.”

Her biographical works on eminent figures in science and literature included Erasmus, Shakespeare and Robert Hooke – the lesser-known British scientist whom she termed “London’s Leonardo” and whose life became the subject of two of her books – and the great architect Christopher Wren. Her most recent biographical work had been on the artist Grayson Perry, who had become a friend.

In Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution (2000) she held that scientific developments did not occur in isolation but through cross-disciplinary research and often cut-throat competition between the pioneers. Citing figures such as Isaac Newton, Johannes Kepler and Christopher Wren, she showed that progress arises as much from the conflict of ideas as it does from concurrence.

Jardine was accorded numerous awards and honours including honorary doctorates of letters from the University of St Andrews, Sheffield Hallam University and the Open University, as well as an honorary doctorate of science from the University of Aberdeen. In 2012 she was made an honorary fellow of the British Science Association and served as its president during 2013-14. Her acclaimed book Going Dutch: How England Plundered Holland’s Glory won the 2009 Cundill International Prize in History, the world’s largest prize for non-fiction.

Last year she followed in her father’s footsteps to deliver a Conway Memorial Lecture, titled Things I Never Knew about my Father, taking as its theme Jacob Bronowski’s life and work.

On Desert Island Discs in June she showed her musical tastes to be as eclectic as her intellectual repertoire. Having already asked for the full 12 volumes of P.S. Allen’s Latin Letters of Erasmus of Rotterdam as her “book”, she requested music ranging from Mozart’s “Dovo Sono” to “Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads.

Lisa Jardine, historian and scientist: born Oxford 12 April 1944; married first 1969 Nicholas Jardine (one daughter, one son); second 1982 John Hare (one son); CBE 2005; FRS 2015; died 25 October 2015.

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