Professor Jane Mellanby 1938-2021

by Tim Oates, 09 March 2021
Professor Jane Mellanaby speaking at a Cambridge Assessment Network seminar in 2019

Scientist, educator and thinker

It is with great regret that we announce the death of Professor Jane Mellanby, who died peacefully in the presence of family. Cambridge Assessment has enjoyed a long relationship of close collaboration with Jane; her lecture for the Cambridge Assessment Network broke new ground in understanding the importance of key elements of early literacy.

When Jane spoke, people listened. She could capture a person’s attention in moments. I have been with her in lecture halls and alongside her in schools and seen the immediate rapport she could develop. No time wasted, no undue deference or concern about context - straight to the issues: ‘This is the problem, this is its cause, and this is what we need to do about it’. 

I loved working with Jane. We spend many hours digging deeply into educational issues and challenges - she was always so clear about what we knew, what we did not, and what we could do with the secure knowledge that we have. 

I remember a problem when working on the National Curriculum - an issue with the sequencing of acquisition of knowledge. I jumped in the car with a colleague, drove to Oxford, and spent a day with Jane mapping out the research which we had on developmental phases and distinct stages of cognitive development. It was a normal day with Jane - no point unevidenced, no conjecture presented as fact, clear discrimination between those things in which we have confidence and those things which remain uncertain. Jane’s wise counsel that day lives in the National Curriculum, a curriculum which - as we know from the results of three major international surveys - has led to significant improvement in the attainment of young children. 

More recently, in presenting her work on complex grammar to a minister, I witnessed that same clarity of thought lead a politician to understand immediately the significance of the work. I have seen the understandably cautious response of many politicians when listening to researchers. But on this day, when the quality of the work was clear and Jane laid out the implications for social justice, the reaction was swift: ‘I need this in my next major speech, we need to act on this, and quickly’. No one could overestimate the force of her commitment and the power of her intellect. The resonance of that force will continue in both her field and in education, and in the lives of those privileged to have worked alongside her. 

Soon after Jane Mellanby’s death, Baroness Susan Greenfield wrote: 

"A mentor has been described as someone who believes in you more than you believe in yourself: this is the most fitting epitaph for this most inspirational of women." 

Mentorship is indeed a recurrent theme in Jane Mellanby’s multi-facetted 60-year career at Oxford. Her election in 2016 to an honorary fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians was to honour her contribution to the lives and careers of ‘a whole generation of doctors’. Often unorthodox in her selection and approach, and with a determination to help potential students from difficult backgrounds, she inspired first fear and then fierce loyalty and love from those she championed – many of whom hold positions of importance worldwide. 

Born in Sheffield in 1938, Jane came from a scientific family and was determined to follow in their footsteps. During a wartime childhood full of upheaval, including the divorce of her parents, she was a brilliant but difficult pupil – perhaps giving her insight into such students later on. Her lifetime’s dedication to promoting science for girls and women may also have been sparked not only by her scientist mother but also by having to attend science A level classes at a neighbouring boys school – physics and chemistry were not even taught at her girls’ school.

In 1956 she went up to Somerville College, Oxford, to read Botany, Physiology and Chemistry, and this was followed by a D.Phil on intermediary metabolism with Sir Hans Krebs. Ignoring Krebs’ advice that marriage would ‘end her career’, in 1961 she married Oliver Impey, to whom she was happily married for 54 years until his death in 2005, and with whom she had four children. Combining it all was a battle, especially given the societal attitudes of the time, but this only served to strengthen her interest in issues of gender equality in science, and her extraordinary energy and determination won out every time. She began as a neurochemist, working with tetanus toxin and botulinum toxin as a Research Associate at Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, and with Professor Larry Weizkranz she went on to set up a Neurochemistry unit in the new Department of Experimental Psychology in South Parks Road. 

From 1971 Jane had a Tutorial fellowship at St Hilda’s, and her flair as a teacher and mentor was able to develop fully, as well as her interest in the issues of the college and the university as a whole – she fulfilled many other roles including Vice-Principal and Tutor for Admissions. Selecting and interviewing young people and trying to find potential candidates from a wide range of backgrounds gave her insight into the importance of prior school experience, as did her involvement in her children’s and grandchildren’s education. It was not surprising, then, that in the 1990s she moved away from neurophysiology towards psychology. 

Jane saw psychology as a fundamentally applied science. Active in school governance because of her shrewd judgement about education, her deep commitment to ensuring that no child is overlooked or underestimated drove her two decades of work on VESPARCH, a verbal and spatial reasoning test possessing unique measurement characteristics - it enables a child’s ability to be disentangled from the quality of the education in the school. Her science enabled her to see inequality and understand its causes; its meticulous and determined application enabled her actively to do something about it. 

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