Onora O’Neill

Philosopher, Honorary Fellow

Onora O’Neill was educated in Germany and London before coming to Somerville in 1959. She began by studying Modern History, but soon changed to PPP (Philosophy, Psychology and Physiology). After graduating, O’Neill went on to complete a doctorate at Harvard under the supervision of John Rawls.

During the 1970s, O’Neill taught at Barnard College, the women’s college in Columbia University, New York. She returned to Britain in 1977 and took up a post at the University of Essex as Professor of Philosophy. In 1992 she became Principal of Newnham College Cambridge, a post she held until 2006. O’Neill remains a Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Cambridge. She lectures and writes on justice and ethics, and in particular on the work of Immanuel Kant.

O’Neill was President of the British Academy in 1988-9 and chaired the Nuffield Foundation from 1998 to 2010. As Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve, she took her seat as a crossbench member of the House of Lords in 1999. She has served on the House of Lords Select Committees on Stem Cell Research, BBC Charter Review, Genomic Medicine and Nanotechnology and Food. From 2012 to 2016, O’Neill chaired the Equality and Human Rights Commission. In 2017, she won the Holberg Prize for her ‘distinguished and influential role in the field of philosophy and for shedding light on pressing intellectual and ethical questions of our time’. O’Neill is an Honorary Fellow of Somerville.

Did you know? Onora O’Neill changed subjects at Somerville after her history tutor, Barbara Harvey, sent her to see the renowned philosopher, Elizabeth Anscombe. ‘Barbara sent me to Elizabeth Anscombe, who interviewed me very nicely about causality,’ O’Neill recalls. ‘I wrote something on it and Anscombe apparently wrote a one-liner back to Miss Harvery which said “this girl is hungry for philosophy”. So I was allowed to change.’

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