Janet Vaughan

(1899-1993) – Physiologist, Principal of Somerville 1945-67

Janet Vaughan grew up in Bristol and came to Somerville in 1919 to study Medicine, graduating with a First (despite having, as she said herself, nothing more than ‘a little ladylike botany’ when she arrived).

Vaughan went on to train as a doctor at University College Hospital. Her medical work in London’s slums gave her a lifelong commitment to socialism and also inspired her to take up work as a research pathologist looking at blood disorders. As part of the UK’s preparations for the Second World War, Vaughan began to develop a system for separating, storing and moving blood, creating Britain’s first national blood banks (the modified milk bottle used to store blood became known as a ‘Janet Vaughan’). At the end of the War, Vaughan was asked to go to Belsen at the head of a Medical Research Council Team to carry out research into how those suffering from starvation could best be treated (‘I am here,’ she wrote, ‘trying to do science in hell’).

The first scientist to be Principal of Somerville, Vaughan was also, for a time, the only scientist to be a head of house in Oxford. By the time Vaughan retired as Principal, 40% of the college’s students were scientists. Throughout her tenure, she continue to work in the lab and write academic papers. She also served on the Royal Commission for Equal Pay and as a founder Trustee of the Nuffield Foundation. When asked once in a radio interview how she managed to fit so much into her life, Vaughan said simply, ‘I never played bridge’.

You can read an article about Janet Vaughan’s work for the prisoners of Belsen, written to commemorate the 75thanniversary of the camp’s liberation, here.

Did you know? Janet Vaughan’s mother was a close friend of Virginia Woolf, and Woolf once described Janet Vaughan as ‘an attractive woman: competent, disinterested, taking blood tests all day to solve abstract problems’.

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