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Ann Buchanan obituary

By Terry Philpot
Many in Ann Buchanan’s social circle were unaware of her eminence due to her discretion about what she did
Many in Ann Buchanan’s social circle were unaware of her eminence due to her discretion about what she did Photograph: none

From the time of her research in the late 1980s, Ann Buchanan, who has died aged 80, was interested in the outcomes experienced by children in care. Through her work as a social worker, she showed that in adulthood such children developed significant mental health and other problems. Finding that the state did not always make the best parent, she looked at how to foster supportive positive family relationships for children’s wellbeing.

This interest broadened into many other issues regarding children’s welfare. The effects of divorce on children, their mental health, fathering, the role of grandparents – all these and more provided empirical evidence that informed government policy and resulted in books both authored by Ann, such as Cycles of Child Maltreatment (1996), and co-edited, such as Brothers and Sisters (2021, with Anna Rotkirch). While she did much to quantify the importance of family relations, what was rare about her academic work – as in her practice as a social worker – was that she was less interested in theories than in practical solutions.

Her work on outcomes tied in, too, with her early preoccupation with the lack of evidence for social work interventions – did they help service users or were they harmful?

Before the term was adopted, she was an advocate for evidence-based practice. She believed also that research should not gather dust on shelves but that researchers should promote their findings and its implications, as she did all over the world.

Buchanan defied expectations to become Oxford University’s first female professor of social work
Buchanan defied expectations to become Oxford University’s first female professor of social work Photograph: none

Even in nominal retirement, she advised governments in Russia, South Korea and elsewhere. In Greece she persuaded the authorities to improve conditions for Syrian refugee children, and was moved when, in China, her advice was taken that foster families, not institutionalisation, would best help those children orphaned by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. At home, many of her recommendations were later adopted in the Children (Leaving Care) Act of 2000.

Nothing in her background suggested her professional path. Indeed, quite the opposite: she was expected to follow the conventional path demanded of her class and time – marriage to a wealthy husband and motherhood. No woman in her extended family had been to university and only an aunt had had a professional career. Her father had no wish for an intellectual daughter, so, while her three brothers went to Eton, her education was patchy. But she defied expectations to eventually become Oxford University’s first female professor of social work, in 2006.

Ann was born in Winchester into the Barings banking dynasty, the daughter of Raymond Baring and his wife, Margaret (nee Campbell-Preston), and granddaughter of Sir Godfrey Baring, a Liberal MP. She did not see her father until 1945, when he returned from wartime service when she was four. During the war her happy childhood was spent with her Scottish cousins at Ardchattan Priory in Argyll, home of her formidable maternal grandmother.

The family moved to Bramley in Hampshire and, having failed her 11-plus, she went to St Mary’s school, Wantage, which she left at 16 to become a secretary. She was presented at court but adventure, not society, captured her imagination and at 20 she bought a one-way ticket to the US, where she worked as a secretary for Vogue in New York. She returned home, via the Pacific and Asia, with a work colleague as a travelling companion, the photojournalist Jill Krementz (who would later marry the novelist Kurt Vonnegut).

Back in London, Ann became an advertising copywriter. At 22, she married Alistair Buchanan, a widowed banker. Their first child, a son, was stillborn; Ann said that his loss felt like losing an arm or a leg. She also suffered two late miscarriages and several bouts of pneumonia. These experiences changed her life and she became determined to avoid being “a useless woman” living a “selfish” life.

In the early 70s, the family moved to Great Bedwyn in Wiltshire, but village life was not enough. In 1974, she joined Burderop hospital, near Swindon, as a research assistant. She left in 1980 to become a child psychiatric social worker, having gained a diploma in social work at Bath. She taught social work at Bracknell College, and in 1989 joined Southampton University as a lecturer. She was awarded a PhD the following year.

In 1994 the lack of an undergraduate degree did not deny her a lectureship at Oxford University, with a fellowship at St Hilda’s, where she was appointed dean in 1995. There, she strongly emphasised her pastoral role. She was based at the university’s department of social policy and intervention, which was under threat of closure. But, thanks in part to the prodigious volume and quality of her research, it went on to achieve the top ranking in the country and third in the world for research in social sciences.

Ann served on many bodies, including the Economic and Social Research Council, the council of the National Academy of Social Sciences, and the Baring Foundation. In 2012 she was made MBE.

At the time of her death, she had two more books planned. I was the fortunate recipient of her last to-be-published piece of work, a chapter on residential care for a book I am editing, sent a month before she died.

Many in her social circle were unaware of her eminence due to her discretion about what she did. Her warmth and hospitality hid a fierce commitment and determination, allied with a formidable work ethic.

Alistair died in 2021 and that year, having suffered a major heart attack in 2000, which threatened to seriously diminish her capacity for work, Ann underwent heart surgery. Undeterred, she booked a cruise to see the northern lights and died in her sleep off the coast of Scotland.

She is survived by three daughters, Katie, Tessa and Helen, and seven grandchildren.

• Ann Hermione Buchanan, academic and social worker, born 21 May 1941; died 13 February 2022

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