Jane Wardle 1950-2015

Professor Til Wykes pays tribute to a remarkable and inspiring woman.

Frances Jane Wardle – known to everyone as Jane - died on 20 October 2015 just short of her 65th birthday. She was an outstanding behavioural scientist who was recognised by eight Fellowships of prestigious organisations, including the British Psychological Society, Academies of Social Sciences and Medical Sciences and, most recently, the British Academy. She chaired the BPS’ Division of Health Psychology and was co-founding editor of the British Journal of Health Psychology from 1995-2001. She contributed not only to research but also to academic leadership and support for junior scientists, who benefited in so many ways from her mentorship.

Jane gained a BA degree in psychology and physiology at St Anne’s College, Oxford in 1973. She went immediately to the Institute of Psychiatry to train as a clinical psychologist before lecturing medical students and providing individual therapy at the Maudsley hospital. In 1991 she joined the Imperial Cancer Research Fund Health Behaviour Unit moving it to University College London in 1996 and becoming its Director in 1997.There she expanded her interests in eating disorders into examining how to change behaviour to encourage healthy eating and ultimately healthy living. Her influential research added a psychological dimension to cancer studies by improving the acceptability of screening, particularly to under-privileged groups. She also discovered how genes influence styles of eating behaviour which ultimately affects when to stop eating the food on your plate. With her husband Andrew, she made pioneering contributions to the study of how an individual’s happiness and wellbeing appear to have favourable effects on physical health risk and survival.

Her ground-breaking work had wide ranging impacts, not just on science but also on health strategy and policy. Thanks to her research, there has been a change in government policy on screening for colorectal cancer, public acceptance of the vaccine for the human papillomavirus and new ways of promoting fruit and vegetables to children. Her research on people with obesity made her think hard about stigma and how it pervades people's perceptions of individuals. She was affected by people's life stories and wanted to know much more about how these changed an individual's expectations and control over their eating. This was the beginning of her lifelong interest in making the individual and their personal experiences at the core of her research.

All this makes Jane sound like many other brilliant and successful scientists. A good degree and hard work produced multiple rewards. But she was much more than that and her own background and upbringing illustrate some of the factors that we, as psychologists, are trying to identify and understand to improve population wellbeing and to help individuals to overcome lifecourse disadvantage.

Her early life is worthy of a Hollywood film script. If I didn't know it to be true I would have a hard time believing there wasn't some embellishment. To say she wasn't born with a silver spoon would be a total understatement. She came from a broken home, with little money, a mother with many long admissions to hospital for mental illness, and her early education was marked by going to 13 different schools. Her parents split up when she and her two brothers were very young and so they experienced brief spells in children’s homes when her mother was not able to look after them. Jane took on the family caregiver – a role now recognised and supported. Her stories about the escapades the children had on the many occasions when they were without parental supervision are worthy of Enid Blyton or Jacqueline Wilson. For instance, she was close to her artist father, Peter, but he was often absent so, at times, Jane’s only method of contacting him was to leave a note in a bookshop and hope he would get it before they were taken in hand by social services. When she lived with Peter at Wytham Abbey near Oxford there were occasions when the children had to hide in the loft from the authorities. There was also an incident when the postman reported the family to the NSPCC for keeping two small children in a garage.

Jane’s early resourcefulness was also apparent when at the age of 16, she read about an Oxford school that she thought sounded interesting so she went along and spoke to the headmistress. She explained that she would like to attend but if there was any question of a fee then it would need to be waived. The headmistress was clearly impressed and gave Jane a place. The school was Oxford High School and the headmistress was Mary Warnock, who not only became Jane's teacher but also offered Jane a home from time to time.

So was Jane born with resilience, optimism, initiative and sheer guts to get things done in the face of much opposition or were these developed with her life experiences? Whatever the answer she clearly possessed them early in her life.

She was diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia in 1997, a disorder more often associated with older people. But finding out about this diagnosis was not straightforward. After a routine blood test the hospital saw the number of a Dr Wardle in the notes and thought this was the patient's doctor. They rang her office and left an answer machine message. This twist of fate meant many people knew even before she was told. The diagnosis was devastating for Jane, then a mother of two children aged 12 and 18, and aged only 46 herself. Not only did she have to face the chance of an earlier death but she also faced the stigma head on. Should she tell or not? What would her colleagues think about her work, would it affect her ability to get a grant or the chance of promotion? She "came out" spectacularly in an article in the Observer that was both candid and moving.

Andrew Steptoe, a leading psychologist as well, was her devoted husband and supporter and frequently a research collaborator. Jane was also a dedicated mother to Lucy and Matt, step-mother to Will, and grandmother to Dorsey, Oscar and Leonidas. She took her duties in all spheres of life seriously. She was a good friend to many and helped with our personal traumas, negotiated with our ex partners, let you move into her dining room when at a low ebb and shared wise advice. She always had a tinkling “Hello” and a warm and generous welcome for all – friends and colleagues. But I should also mention her interest in gossip, her irreverent sense of humour and her sense of fashion which made her a true star as well as simply fun to know. Whether it was the latest interesting paper in the BMJ, a parliamentary debate, a story in the Guardian or the latest book she was reading, she was always incisive, entertaining and smart. Every evening spent with Jane meant gaining some new insight into the human condition or her own character, even if it was just about her inability to eat anything green except peas.

She will be missed by many as the mountain of emails and cards received by her family attest. Most describe the help she gave them, some describe her forceful nature and the impact of her science but all say she was an inspiring and remarkable woman. That should be the title of the film about her life.

- Professor Til Wykes is Professor of Clinical Psychology and Rehabilitation at Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London. Read more from our archive. Our editor Jon Sutton would like to add that he was lucky enough to meet Jane, and agrees wholeheartedly with Til that she was instantly inspiring, remarkable, forceful, wise, generous. 

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber