The sad death of Baroness Mary Warnock at the age of 94 has been covered in obituary columns of most major national newspapers and that in itself speaks volumes for what a remarkable and exceptional person she was.
My friendship with her grew from three principle factors. Firstly, she and her husband Geoffrey were patients of mine while they were living near Marlborough – in Axford. It was in that capacity that I came to know her intimately not least through my treatment of Geoffrey surrounding his death from a horrible, untreatable, but increasingly debilitating lung disorder.
Secondly, we also shared a love of classical music and in particular choral music. For both of us this had largely arisen from childhood and our first experience of such music in Winchester Cathedral.
Mary had been brought up and educated in Winchester. I had been at the Cathedral choir school and attended so many glorious services – as she had done – to the accompaniment of the music of Byrd, Palestrina, Gibbons, Tallis and of course JS Bach.
Bach’s St Matthew Passion was a particularly seminal work, a love of which we shared. On several occasions Mary, my wife Kate and I attended the annual performance by the London Bach Choir under Sir David Willcocks and more recently David Hill.
One of these performances was preceded over a whole day at his home in Avebury by an introduction to the work by Robin Nelson, one time Director of music at Marlborough College. Ten of us including Mary, gathered and heard the work brilliantly analysed. Followed the next day, by the journey with Mary to the Royal Festival Hall to hear this most moving of choral works.
In 1999 I invited Mary to undertake a live Desert Island Discs in Marlborough Town Hall where she spoke with great humility about her extraordinary life as the Headmistress of Oxford High School, Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge (while her husband was Principal of Hertford College Oxford) and cross bench Peeress in the House of Lords, before sharing with us her wide ranging choice of music.
But my friendship with her was very much deepened by the support she gave me over the issue of euthanasia.
I shall forever remember and be grateful to her for coming to my rescue following wide national publicity for an article that I had written for our practice magazine Pick Me Up. In this I admitted to having ‘assisted the dying’ of four patients of mine in the past year.
This was primarily to relieve the severe suffering that they were experiencing, while recognising that the relief I was giving would probably shorten their lives. But it was also in the knowledge that they would anyway die within the next few weeks from their terminal illnesses.
It was also done in the full understanding and acceptance by the patient and his/her family of the treatment that I was recommending and its probable outcome.
Having publicly supported the stance that I had taken, Mary was interviewed at length by The Times. She referred in particular to my treatment of her husband, but added that her views on euthanasia had been strengthened by talking to doctors while serving on the House of Lords select committee on euthanasia:
“I talked to lots of doctor who said they gave more drugs to help end their patients suffering. It’s something that doesn’t really need to be explicitly talked about. I don’t think the law needs to be changed because it would be so hard to define legislation as to how it should be carried out. Doctors already do this themselves and it works well”.
As a philosopher she had the most extraordinary ability to unravel every aspect of ethical issues from which she would reach the right conclusions, thus demonstrating an intellect that few people could possibly match. She also showed a deep humanity, humility and a warmth in her relationships with ordinary mortals like myself.
26 March 2019