Born: April 14, 1924;

Died: March 20, 2019

BARONESS Warnock, who has died aged 94, was a philosopher whose academic work concentrated on ethics, imagination and the existentialists (particularly the French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre) and who served as Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge, from 1984 to 1991; she was best-known, however, for her work on public committees, most notably when she chaired the inquiry which led to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990.

The inquiry’s report established the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, the first statutory body regulating issues such as IVF, surrogacy and stem cell research; the ethical questions involved were highly controversial, and many of the committee’s recommendations – particularly that experiments could be conducted on embryos less than 14 days old – were vigorously opposed by pro-life groups. But the Warnock Report’s conclusions, which also included recommendations on the rights of sperm donors, the outlawing of surrogacy agencies, and the storage of fertilised embryos, were generally accepted as having found a sensible via media between the competing demands of scientific research and religious teaching.

Mary Warnock, who had also been active in the public debates and committees investigating topics such as special needs education and euthanasia, had in fact initially opposed the extension of the law to cover stem cell research; though she was an atheist and in philosophical terms subscribed to a kind of modified Utilitarianism, she lent considerable weight to public sentiment, feeling that people’s moral intuitions were often more naturally indicative of the correct course of action than dogmatic logical conclusions.

Her view of philosophy as a generalism which offered useful ways of approaching such issues was probably what made her such an effective figure in the public debate, though she readily admitted that, as an academic philosopher, she had little original to offer. She was nonetheless highly industrious, publishing around 20 books, and an effective and well-informed teacher.

Helen Mary Wilson was born on April 14, 1924 at Winchester, seven months after the death of her father Archibald, who had been a housemaster and languages teacher at Winchester College; her mother Ethel was the daughter of Sir Felix Schuster, Bt, a successful Jewish financier and Liberal politician who himself served on numerous Royal Commissions and government committees.

Mary was the youngest of seven children, including an autistic brother whom she never knew, and was educated privately at home, and then at Prior’s Field School at Guildford. The model of a formidable bluestocking, she went on to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, in 1942 to study Greats (Classics, with a particular focus on ancient philosophy). The war interrupted her studies and she joined the Army, though in the end was posted to a teaching job at Sherborne School for Girls in Dorset. She returned to Oxford after the war and graduated with a first, then completed a BPhil.

In 1949, she married Geoffrey Warnock who was, like her, from Winchester and had just been elected a fellow of Magdalen College; he was the author of English Philosophy since 1900 and edited the work of his colleague JL Austin, which made a significant contribution to what was known as “ordinary language” philosophy; he was later to become Principal of Hertford College and Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University. Mary Warnock, meanwhile, became a fellow and tutor at St Hugh’s College (which was then all-female), and was engaged in the lively philosophical circle which included such figures as Isaiah Berlin, Peter Strawson and James Urmson.

Despite bringing up a young family – the couple had five children – and her teaching duties, she found time to contribute to radio debates on the Third Programme and was asked by Oxford University Press to produce a book for their Home University Library series; Ethics since 1900 appeared in 1960. At the suggestion of Austin, she also looked into the work of Sartre, which had not yet been translated into English. Existentialism fascinated her, though she was annoyed by the obscurantism of many of its proponents, and she produced three books which attempted to disseminate their ideas to a wider audience in clearer terms. The first was an introduction to Sartre (1963); it was followed by Existential Ethics (1967) and Existentialism (1970).

During the 1960s, Mary Warnock also became involved in education as a subject, after serving on the Oxfordshire Local Education Authority and then, from 1966 to 1972, as headmistress of the Oxford High School for Girls. At that time she became highly sceptical of comprehensive education and “child-centred” teaching doctrines and, convinced of the value of selection and “elitism”, resigned from the Labour Party. She was, however, later to be equally critical of education policies, particularly the introduction of market assessments of teaching and publication, brought in by Margaret Thatcher’s government.

On her husband’s appointment to Hertford, she left schools to return as a fellow to Lady Margaret Hall, and also joined the board of the Independent Broadcasting Authority. In 1974, she was asked to chair a committee on special educational needs, where she argued forcefully for provision to be tailored to the needs of each child, and for more to be done to accommodate those with learning difficulties in mainstream schools. The report, published in 1978, led to an overhaul of the system, though she was critical of how much of it was implemented.

In 1976, she published Imagination, a historical survey of the role mental imagery played in perception in the epistemology of major philosophers, such as Hume and Kant, which drew in part from Sartre’s work on the subject in the 1930s. Memory (1987) and Imagination and Time (1994) covered related ground. From 1979-84, she sat on the Royal Commission into pollution and, after her work on fertilisation, from 1984-89 chaired a Home Office Committee on the ethics of animal experiments.

She was appointed DBE in 1984 and elevated to the peerage, as Baroness Warnock of Weekes, the following year; in the Lords, she was a frequent contributor from the crossbenches to debates on ethical issues, particularly euthanasia, of which she was a strong supporter. She also became Mistress of Girton, retiring in 1991, three years after her husband had left Hertford. They settled in Wiltshire, but she continued her public life with committees and the Lords, and became a fellow of the British Academy in 2000. She was appointed a Companion of Honour in 2017.

Her husband’s death in 1995 was a severe blow, but she soon returned to work, publishing two memoirs (in 2001 and 2004) and an Intelligent Person’s Guide to Ethics (1998). She died at home after a fall, and is survived by four of her five children; one of her daughters predeceased her.