Sheila Jennett

Born: January 28, 1926’

Died: February 26, 2024

Professor Sheila Jennett, who has died aged 98, was a distinguished Glasgow University physiologist credited with establishing respiration as a special interest within Glasgow’s growing physiology department in the 1960s, making many contributions to scientific and medical journals and multi-author books.

Standing out someone who broke the glass ceiling throughout her career, her interests related to respiratory and cardiovascular physiology and pathophysiology. Appointed professor in the late 70s and later department head, her 1989 textbook Human Physiology became the staple for a generation of medical and life-science students in Glasgow and elsewhere.

Born and schooled in Liverpool, only-child Sheila Pope won a scholarship to the city’s university but only after switching from an all-girls to an all-boys school: the only way to complete the necessary scientific studies at the time. It was at medical school in the 1940s that she met her future husband and fellow student Bryan Jennett, later author of the Glasgow Coma Scale.

Thirteen years in clinical practice followed, first as an accomplished general surgeon and then in respiratory medicine with only short gaps as two sons then a daughter arrived. As Bryan moved from national service to a series of posts to gain experience, so she set up home around the country, whist working in no fewer than seven hospitals between Liverpool, Cardiff, Manchester and Glasgow and again always finding herself very much in the minority as a woman.

This clinical period included a fondly remembered spell alongside Ludwig Guttman at Stoke Mandeville in the 1950s as he pioneered the Spinal Injuries Unit, establishing the event that grew into the Paralympic Games. A fellowship relocated the whole family to UCLA for a year later in the 50s, with Sheila signed up to pen a regular column for the Guardian newspaper back home. For the distant UK readers, she brought to life the California lifestyle with its new-fangled supermarkets and other novelties; the ins and outs of life abroad with three children under the age of seven and their travels by ship (QE1), turboprop and cross-country train.

The birth of a third son tempted her towards the more regular hours of academia soon after the family settled in Glasgow in the early 60s. Joining the virtually all-male university physiology department she soon produced an MD thesis addressing drug-induced respiratory depression and later came her 1969 PhD, Hypoxia and Hyperoxia in Man.Alongside teaching commitments, the 1970s saw the publication of numerous papers in scientific and medical journals focussing on respiratory and cardiovascular physiology and pathophysiology which she went on to present around the world including in the US, Japan and the Antipodes. A number of these were co-authored with international neurosurgeons who had first travelled to Glasgow to work with her husband neurosurgeon, only to find themselves drawn to collaborate with Sheila as her work extended into the disorders associated with brain damage. As renowned for her teaching as her research she was equally well known as a sponsor and mentor for colleagues and PhD students from home and abroad.

Appointed titular professor in 1978, Jennett progressed into leadership – her promotion again celebrated as a milestone by female peers – and later released her definitive Human Physiology textbook. Recognised as a fair and progressive head of department, she was also in demand as examiner at the Royal Colleges in Glasgow and London; Kings College, as well as the Universities of Dublin, Belfast and Dundee. Made an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow in 1983 Sheila also served as Scottish representative on Home Office committees.

Research interest and university links continued after a 1991 retirement when she was sought out by major publishers. The Oxford Companion to the Body came out under her co-editorship with Colin Blakemore in 2001, the Churchill Livingstone Dictionary of Sport and Exercise Science and Medicine following in 2008.


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Life in a series of homes around Glasgow’s West End and a short spell in Bridge of Weir included five years in the university’s “Professors Square”. Now used as offices, this made for a spacious family home just a few hundred yards from the labs and lecture theatres of the West Medical Building.

In 1982, the local area hit the headlines thanks to the Hillhead by-election, Sheila enjoying a brief period of political activism in support of the SDP’s famous but short-lived victory there. Aged 80, Sheila fought off a mysterious and seemingly pre-meditated knife attack at her home: neither the motive nor culprit were ever established.

A girl-guide and then a walker with the Holiday Fellowship, Sheila was a lifelong explorer at home and abroad. A keen sailor over four decades and founding member of the Serpent Yacht Club, the family spent much of their leisure time on the West Coast either afloat in a series of six boats (latterly eponymously named Jenne-vive) or at a much-loved holiday home in Lochgoilhead.

Always enjoying the wind in her hair, Sheila took the wheel of no fewer than five convertible cars from her forties right through to her eighties. Along with a love of writing, Sheila Jennett was both a passionate, accomplished musician and a prolific artist: creative hobbies which inspired and live on in the interests and professions of her daughter, three sons, eight grandchildren and a further eight great-grandchildren.