Former Somerville Principal Daphne Park, most widely-remembered for her work as an intelligence officer during the Cold War, has been entered in the Dictionary of National Biography.
The ‘Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’ publishes articles on individuals reckoned to have made a significant impact on British life and was first published (as the ‘Dictionary of National Biography’) in 1882.
Daphne Park, born in 1921, was offered a scholarship to Somerville College to study modern European languages in 1940. The scholarship was contingent on her agreeing to teach and she therefore turned it down, as she was determined to become a diplomat. The scholarship was granted anyway and Park made a significant impact during her undergraduate years, founding the university’s Liberal Club and becoming only the second woman to speak at the Oxford Union.
In 1948 Park joined the Secret Intelligence Service. After stints in London and Paris, her first key posting was to Moscow in 1954 (with an official diplomatic service job title as cover). Postings followed in Africa: Leopoldville (1959-61) and Lusaka (1964-67). In 1960 she received an OBE.
She was exceptionally skilled at her work. Writing in the Guardian in 2010, Chris Mullin described how “beneath that Miss Marple exterior was a Rolls-Royce mind and a steely resolve which no doubt served her well in her chosen profession” (The Guardian, 28 March 2010).
Postings followed in Hanoi, Ulan Bator and back in the UK before Park retired in 1979. The following year she was elected Principal of Somerville College.
Park was a high-profile Principal whose external appointments included member of the British Library Board, Chairman of the Legal Aid Advisory Committee, Governor of the BCC, and Pro Vice-Chancellor of the University. She focused closely on fundraising, working hard to secure the College’s future. Despite her attempts to persuade the College to turn co-educational, Park was the last Principal to end her tenure at Somerville with male students still excluded.
Park died in Oxford in 2010. The Dictionary’s entry on Park ends with her description of herself, made to a Daily Telegraph interviewer in 2003.
“I’ve always looked like a cheerful, fat missionary,” she said. “It wouldn’t be any use if you went around looking sinister, would it?” (Daily Telegraph, 24 April 2003).