In memory of Baroness Mary Warnock, Headmistress of Oxford High School

It was with great sadness that we learnt of the death of our former Oxford High headmistress Baroness Warnock.


Mary Warnock CH, DBE, philosopher and politician was born in 1924. She died on March 20, 2019, aged 94 and was Head of Oxford High School from 1966 to 1972, with two of her daughters attending OHS too. Mary was a Classicist and Moral Philosopher before she joined OHS and was renowned for having a bold intellect and robust common sense, qualities that epitomise the spirit of an OHS girl.

She was born Helen Mary Wilson in Winchester, Hampshire, where her father, Archie, who died before she was born, had been a housemaster at the College. Her mother, Ethel, was the daughter of the émigré Jewish wool merchant Felix Schuster, who set up what became National Westminster Bank. She was educated at St Swithun’s School, Winchester, where, she recalled, “All the cleverest girls were doing classics and I was jolly well going to be one of them.” She won a place at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, as the senior scholar of her year.

She married Geoffrey Warnock who became principal of Hertford College, Oxford, later vice-chancellor of Oxford University. In 1979, she joined the government’s Advisory Committee on Animal Experiments and was made a life peer in 1985, sitting as an Independent in the House of Lords.  Mary was to become Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge in 1985 which was the first time that a husband and wife were heads of an Oxford and a Cambridge college at the same time. Between 1982 and 1984, Mary Warnock chaired the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology, arguably one of the most significant periods in her life. As author of the 1984 Warnock report on Human Fertilisation and Embryology, she was able to deliver a consensus on the bioethical issues of human fertilisation and experimentation on embryos and, accordingly, public policy was legally enshrined in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990. This then created, in 1991, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority which governs treatments such as IVF, surrogate motherhood and licensed experimentation using human embryos, providing the embryo is no more than 14 days old. Her legacy is that this legal framework has since facilitated medical breakthroughs in areas such as embryo cloning and stem cell research.

A true Oxford High Original, Oxford High will be holding an inaugural Warnock Memorial Lecture in her honour in Spring 2020 and has also renamed their extended research project programme in her name.