Philosopher Mary Warnock dies aged 94

The philosopher Mary Warnock, whose work laid the foundations for special needs education and for the regulation of fertility treatments, has died aged 94.

After an early career researching ethics and philosophy and then as a headteacher, Lady Warnock was appointed in 1974 to chair a UK inquiry on special education. Her subsequent report brought about radical change by placing priority on teaching children with special educational needs within mainstream schools, and introduced the system of “statementing” children, which provides additional support.

In the early 1980s, Warnock went on to chair an inquiry into human fertilisation and embryology, which gave rise to the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, which governs fertility treatments such as IVF, and scientific research. She was widely praised for achieving ethical consensus around deeply controversial issues, such as experimentation using human embryos.

Peter Braude, an emeritus professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at King’s College London, who gave evidence to Warnock’s fertility inquiry, described her as inspiring, wise and thoroughly nice. “Her thinking and speaking was always so precise, and her questioning deep and revealing,” he said.

Born on 13 April 1924 as Helen Mary Wilson, she was the youngest of seven children. She was brought up by her mother and a nanny – her father, who had been a housemaster and German teacher at Winchester College, died shortly before she was born. Warnock never knew her eldest brother, Malcolm, who had autism and was cared for in a nursing home.

She studied at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and from 1949–66 was a fellow and tutor in philosophy at Oxford, before becoming headteacher at Oxford high school for girls. In 1949 she married Geoffrey Warnock, who was later vice-chancellor of Oxford University, and together they had two sons and three daughters.

Her 1978 report on special educational needs laid the blueprint for the inclusion of children with learning difficulties within mainstream education. The 1981 Education Act brought in the duty to include children with special educational needs and disabilities.

Warnock has since criticised unintended consequences of the system she helped to create, calling the expense of administration and the tendency to deny support to mildly disadvantaged children “appalling”.

Warnock’s human fertility and embryology inquiry is credited with establishing the principle of an arms-length licensing body, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, a system that has been adopted in countries around the world. She also helped establish the “14-day limit” of human embryo culture, which allowed scientific research on early stage embryos to support investigations of fundamental aspects of human biology.

Prof Robin Lovell-Badge, the head of stem cell biology and developmental genetics at the Francis Crick Institute in London, said: “It was her foresight that led to robust but flexible regulations that deal with a sensitive area, and which are often the envy of other countries. She was always determined that ‘ignorance and prejudice should not be allowed to dictate the outcome’ of legislation. We will greatly miss her clear and level-headed thinking, her wisdom and common sense, and her unfailing support.”

Fiona Watt, the executive chair of the Medical Research Council, described Warnock as a “legend”, saying she paved the way for a regulatory system for fertility treatments that allows scientists to develop new techniques and use them within a robust ethical framework. “The influence of the Warnock report continues to guide research both here and in many other countries around the world,” she said.


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