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Brilliant British academic and anthropologist, Mary Douglas (1921-2007), was in kinship care as a child. 

Mary Douglas was the first child of Phyllis Twomey and Gilbert Tew, who worked for the Indian Civil Service. Her parents were on leave and travelling home from Gilbert’s posting in Burma when Mary was born in San Remo, Italy.  

British citizens serving in the Indian Civil Service often sent their children home to England to be educated and so it was for Mary and her younger sister Patricia. 

The two girls lived with their maternal grandparents in Totnes, an historical market town in Devon, in the southwest of England, until they were old enough to attend boarding school. They then went to Sacred Heart Convent in London.  

After the early death of her mother [when Mary was 12], closely followed by that of the maternal grandfather to whom she was devoted, Mary found a sense of security in the relatively hierarchical, secluded and safe world of school. Her Catholic commitments and social preferences were set for life (Fardon). 

Mary went on to Oxford University after school, followed by working in the Colonial Office during World War II. It was while she was serving in the Colonial Office that Mary Douglas became intrigued by anthropology, and she went back to Oxford in 1946 to take up the subject. She commenced her PhD in 1949, doing her fieldwork in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). 

In 1966, Douglas published Purity and Danger, her best-known work. She argued that humans divide the world into binary categories, eg, clean and dirty, things that should be on the floor and things that should not be. Things and people out of place are considered dangerous.  

Mary worked at University College London for twenty-five years and was the most widely read British social anthropologist of her generation. Towards the end of her life she talked about the importance to her of living with her grandparents and of attending Sacred Heart school: 

…[they] endowed her with a self confidence that had rarely been tested by situations of conflict: the hierarchical principle that governed both her grandparents’ and the Catholic boarding school offered her stability, security, and a sense of belonging and community (Buton & Soriano).

In 1992, Mary Douglas became a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2006.


Buton, Francois & Soriano, Eric. “Mary Douglas, A Taste for Hierarchy”. College de France, Books & Ideas, 2018. 

“Mary Douglas, Emeritus Professor, University College of London”. The Gifford Lectures. 

Fardon, Richard. “Dame Mary Douglas”. The Guardian, 18 May 2007. 

Image available here