Mary Warnock, Baroness Warnock

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Mary Warnock, Baroness Warnock
Born Helen Mary Wilson
(1924-04-14) 14 April 1924 (age 95)
Winchester, Hampshire, England
Nationality English
Alma mater Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford
Era Contemporary philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Existentialism
The Right Honourable
The Baroness Warnock
Born Helen Mary Wilson
(1924-04-14) 14 April 1924 (age 95)
Winchester, Hampshire, England
Alma mater Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford
Known for Philosopher of morality, education and mind, and writer on existentialism
Title Baroness
Board member of Active Training and Education Trust
Spouse(s) Geoffrey Warnock
Children Five

Helen Mary Warnock, Baroness Warnock, DBE, FBA, FMedSci (née Wilson; born 14 April 1924) is an English philosopher of morality, education and mind, and writer on existentialism. From 1984 to 1991, she was Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge.

Early life

Warnock was born Mary Wilson on 14 April 1924 in Winchester, England, and was the youngest of seven children. Her mother was the daughter of the successful banker and financier Felix Schuster.[1] Her father Archie Wilson, a Scotsman, was a housemaster and taught German at Winchester College. He caught diphtheria in 1923 and consequently died of heart failure. Warnock was brought up by her mother and a nanny. She never knew her eldest sibling, Malcolm, who had autism and was cared for in a nursing home, spending his last days in a Dorset hospital. Her brother Sandy died when very young. Her other brother, Duncan, was a British diplomat who became Ambassador to the Soviet Union before taking up an appointment as master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.[2]

When Warnock was seven months old the family moved to Kelso House, a three-floor Victorian house, now the music centre at Peter Symonds College. She and her sister Stefana were cared for primarily by the family nanny. Warnock was educated as a boarder at St Swithun's School, Winchester.[1][2]

Warnock has said that when she was a child she was embarrassed by her mother, who looked different to most people, often by wearing long flowing dark red clothes and walking with turned out feet. However, when Warnock was about 15 years old, she began to admire her mother's eccentricity and independent thinking.[2]



Warnock studied at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and was made an Honorary Fellow in 1984. From 1949 to 1966, she was a Fellow and tutor in philosophy at St Hugh's College, Oxford. She was Talbot Research Fellow at Lady Margaret Hall (1972–76). From 1976 to 1984, she was a Senior Research Fellow at St Hugh's College, and was made an Honorary Fellow of the College in 1985. She then became Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge (1984–91).[3] Warnock delivered the Gifford Lectures, entitled "Imagination and Understanding," at the University of Glasgow in 1992. In 2000, she was a visiting professor of rhetoric at Gresham College, London.

Warnock has written extensively on ethics, existentialism and philosophy of mind.[4]


In the early 1960s, whilst still teaching at St Hugh's College, Warnock took a seat on the Oxfordshire local education authority. From 1966 to 1972, she was Headmistress at the Oxford High School for girls.[1] She is a patron of The Iris Project, a charity which promotes the teaching of classics.[5]


Warnock was a member of the Independent Broadcasting Authority from 1972 to 1983 and, in 1980, was considered for the post of Director General of the BBC.[1][6]

Public policy

Because of her background as an educationalist, Warnock was appointed in 1974 to chair a UK inquiry on special education. Her report, published in 1978, brought radical change in the field, by placing emphasis on the teaching of learning-disabled children in mainstream schools and introducing a system of "statementing" children in order for them to gain entitlement to special educational support. Warnock has since expressed dissatisfaction with the system she helped to create, calling it "appalling" because of the expense of its administration and its tendency to deny support to mildly disadvantaged children. She has recommended the establishment of a new inquiry.[1][7]

From 1979 to 1984, she sat on a Royal Commission on environmental pollution.[6]

From 1982 to 1984, she chaired the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology. Her report on this occasion gave rise to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, which governs human fertility treatment and experimentation using human embryos. Its effect has been to require licensing for procedures such as in vitro fertilisation and to ban research using human embryos more than 14 days old. According to Suzi Leather, a former chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, "perhaps the greatest achievement of the Warnock committee is that it managed to get an ethical consensus that people understood as well as shared".[1]

From 1984 to 1989, Warnock chaired a Home Office Committee on animal experimentation and since 1998 she has been a member of the Government advisory panel on spoliation.[6]

In 2008, Warnock, a committed advocate of euthanasia, caused controversy with an opinion that people with dementia should be allowed to elect to die if they felt they were "a burden to their family or the state".[8][9]

When 90 years old, Baroness Warnock took part enthusiastically in a review of her public life as documented by BBC Sound Archives (12 July 2014).[10]


Warnock is President of the Governing Council of The Active Training and Education Trust a.k.a. ATE Superweeks, which is a not-for-profit educational trust and charity.

Appointments and honours

In the 1984 New Year Honours she was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE).[11]

Warnock was created a life peer on 6 February 1985, taking the title Baroness Warnock, of Weeke, in the City of Winchester. She sat in the House of Lords as a crossbencher until her retirement from the House on 1 June 2015.[12]

In 1987, Warnock was awarded an Honorary D.Litt. degree by the University of Bath.[13]

Warnock was elected an Honorary Fellow of the British Academy (FBA) in 2000[14] and a Honorary Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences (FMedSci) in 2011.[15]

Personal life

Warnock married Geoffrey Warnock, later Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, in 1949. They had two sons and three daughters.[16][17]


As chairwoman of committees of inquiry:

As author:

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Brown, Andrew (19 July 2003). "The practical philosopher". The Guardian. Retrieved 11 October 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 "The House I Grew up In featuring Mary Warnock". The House I Grew Up In. 2008-09-17. BBC. BBC Radio 4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. "Girton College, Past Mistresses". Girton College, Cambridge. Retrieved 5 July 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Honderich, Ted (1995). The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1. publ. ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 907. ISBN 0-19-866132-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. "Patrons". Iris website. Retrieved 11 October 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 "Baroness Warnock". UK Parliament website. Retrieved 13 October 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Warnock, Mary (17 September 2010). "The cynical betrayal of my special needs children". The Telegraph. Retrieved 13 October 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Beckford, Martin (2008-09-19). "Baroness Warnock: Dementia sufferers may have a 'duty to die'". Telegraph. Retrieved 2009-02-03.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. "Dementia patients' 'right-to-die'". BBC News. 2008-09-19. Retrieved 2009-02-03.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 49583. p. 8. 31 December 1983.
  12. Retired members of the House of Lords
  13. "Honorary Graduates 1989 to present". University of Bath. Retrieved 18 February 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Honorary Fellows - website of the British Academy
  15. Fellow Baroness Mary Warnock FMedSci - website of the Academy of Medical Sciences
  16. "Belief transcript: Mary Warnock interview". BBC website. Retrieved 13 October 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. "House of Lords". TheyWorkForYou. 25 July 2013. Retrieved 3 August 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. "Digitisation activities :: Library". 2011-03-22. Retrieved 2011-08-12.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

Academic offices
Preceded by
Brenda Ryman
Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge
Succeeded by
Juliet J. D'Auvergne Campbell