Scientist Dame Mary Archer

150 150 Rob McGibbon

subject photo

Published: 20 April 2013

Scientist Dame Mary Archer:

‘I was diagnosed with high-risk bladder cancer in 2010, so I had it removed and reconstructed from my intestine. The new one works much better’


We ask a celebrity a set of devilishly probing questions – and only accept THE definitive answer. This week it’s scientist Dame Mary Archer’s turn… 


The prized possession you value above all others...A ruby necklace, earrings and bracelet my husband Jeffrey gave me for our ruby [40th] wedding anniversary in 2006. They’re very special.   

The unqualified regret you wish you could amend...Not getting to see my son William sing solo in a choral concert at his prep school when he was 11. I was working. He’s never forgotten it!

The way you would spend your fantasy 24 hours, with no travel restrictions...I would begin with a 3km jog near our home in Cambridge. I’m 68 now and a run sets me up for the day. Then I’d attend a seminar about converting sunlight into fuel at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. I’d join Jeffrey and the boys [sons James, 38, and William, 40, and his four-month-old baby Alexander] at our favourite restaurant, Lucio in Chelsea. I’d have sea bass followed by affogato – their homemade ice cream – which is wicked. I’d go to the RSC theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in the afternoon to see Much Ado About Nothing, then visit our home, called Writers’ Block, in Majorca for a swim. I’d have dinner at Tempo in Mayfair, making sure I have some Pouilly Fumé wine and lemon tart, then I’d sing in the choir at a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the Royal Albert Hall. 

The temptation you wish you could resist...Playing with my Bengal cat Sunita when I should be working.

The book that holds an everlasting resonance...A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu by Marcel Proust. It’s full of so many truths about life.

The priority activity if you were the Invisible Woman for a day...I’d visit pubs and stub out the cigarettes being smoked by young women. It’s so tragic to see girls ruining their health.

The pet hate that makes your hackles rise...Bad spelling or punctuation. I like to take out my editorial red pen to make corrections when I see errors.

The film you can watch time and time again...A Man For All Seasons from 1966. I particularly loved Susannah York as Thomas More’s daughter Margaret. She was so beautiful.

The person who has influenced you most...Sir George Porter, who was director of the Royal Institution when I was researching chemistry there in the 70s. He kindled my interest in solar energy. He sadly died in 2002.

The figure from history for whom you’d most like to buy a pie and a pint...The great 19th-century scientist Michael Faraday. He created the dynamo and electric motor. I’d like to show him what happened thanks to his work.

The piece of wisdom you would pass on to a child...The same piece of advice my father Harold gave me when I was young: never let anything you don’t understand pass you by. In other words, ask questions.

The unlikely interest that engages your curiosity...Tap dancing. I can’t do it, but I have wild moments when I think it’d be fun to go on Strictly Come Dancing. This is not to be encouraged! Jeffrey’s been asked many times.

The treasured item you lost and wish you could have again...My bladder! I was diagnosed with high-risk bladder cancer in 2010, so I had it removed and reconstructed from my intestine. The new one works much better.

The unending quest that drives you on...To be an expert in whatever I do.

The poem that touches your soul... BC:AD by UA Fanthorpe. She was my English teacher at Cheltenham Ladies’ College and a poet. This poem is so subtle and not a word is wasted.

The misapprehension about yourself you wish you could erase...That I wrote Jeffrey’s early books. I used to read them and correct his punctuation, but I never changed a syllable.

The event that altered the course of your life and character...Being accepted to read chemistry at Oxford University in 1962. It was transformative.

The crime you would commit knowing you could get away with it...To push anyone I see dropping litter headfirst into the nearest dustbin.

The song that means most to you...The Victorian religious ballad The Holy City from 1892. My father used to play it on the organ and taught me the words. It reminds me of him.

The happiest moment you will cherish forever...When Cambridge University Hospital won Trust Of The Year in 2008. I was chairman at the time.

The saddest time that shook your world...The death of my father from lung cancer in 1971 when he was 60. I was 26 and he died before I could tell him I was pregnant with William.

The unfulfilled ambition that continues to haunt you...To play the organ.

The philosophy that underpins your life...Be a force for good.

The order of service at your funeral... I’d like a service at Great St Mary’s church at Cambridge University beginning with Bach’s Fugue in E flat. Jeffrey would read from John Donne’s Meditations XVII – if he’s up to it! There’d be a wake at our house in Cambridge.

The way you want to be remembered...As a giver, not a taker.

The Plug...My book The Story Of The Old Vicarage, Grantchester can be ordered from, £10 plus p&p. All profits go to the Rupert Brooke Society.