Obituary: Professor Heather van der Lely



Note: This obituary previously appeared in a shortened version in the Times. Since it has not been published anywhere else, I post it here in its full version with the authorisation of its author, Alistair Macdonald.

Professor Heather van der Lely was dismissed as a no hoper when she left school at 16 with few qualifications; but within 30 years she had become a world-renowned scientist who pioneered the understanding of why some children have difficulty acquiring language.

She was an unusual academic by any standards who fitted none of the usual stereotypes. Her silk and linen Italian designer clothes, which would not have been out of place on a Milan catwalk, disguised an inquiring mind and rigorous academic discipline. She led the field in identifying Specific Language Impairment in children, understanding what causes it and helping a significant number overcome it.

The pre-eminent cognitive scientist Professor Steven Pinker of Harvard University describes her as unique among language researchers in discovering and documenting a type of language impairment that is restricted to grammar. Pinker spotted her potential 25 years ago. He recognised immediately that she was ‘one of the worst writers but one of the best thinkers in her field’.

Little wonder. Her severe dyslexia had never been recognised as a child. She always felt she had been written off as not very bright. She used to say that at the end of her school career she was patted on the head and told she was only capable of working at a children’s day nursery near her home village in Herefordshire.

But van der Lely had an intense interest in children and their development. Within two years she was running the nursery with 60 children and then applied to train as a nursery nurse. She was told this was impossible without A levels which she rapidly acquired at night school in Gloucester. By this time she wanted to become a speech and language therapist but was told this required a degree. Spurred on by the rejection, she won a place at Birmingham City University.

She drove there daily for three years at breakneck speed in her decaying saloon car and achieved a First in Speech and Language Pathology and Therapeutics. At the same time, she and her first husband, Graham van der Lely, were building their own house near Ross-on-Wye. She then moved rapidly through jobs as a part-time speech and language therapist to Birkbeck College, University of London, to study for her PhD. Sleep was always a minor consideration.

But in 1990 her life began to unravel when she was misdiagnosed with a terminal brain tumour. She was given only months to live so gave up work to enjoy what little time she had left. However, a year later she was back at work with a post-doctoral Fellowship at Birkbeck. This was the start of a glittering academic career and an unconventional lifestyle she chased for the rest of her life.

During the week she lived and worked in London. On a Friday she would return home to the West Country and devoted herself to punishing hours in the garden. Friends would find her, chainsaw in hand, cutting back shrubs and trees dressed in little more than an African turban. This was followed by fiercely-competitive games of lawn tennis with family and friends on the court she had laid. The annual relaying and marking of the court, carried out with scientific precision, was so infamous among friends and neighbours that most would hide if called on to help.

Van der Lely was intensely physical. Despite a debilitating leg condition which dogged her last 20 years, she was a powerful wild swimmer. She liked to test her friends by taking them for a dip in a dangerously swift section of the River Wye.

Born in Herefordshire, Heather Karen Jane Barr was the second daughter of Sam Barr, founder of the successful Welton Stud and one of the leading figures in the world of eventing. She distinguished herself at an early age by her bravery as a rider, always happy to take on recently-broken horses.  Her country upbringing  also made her a keen amateur botanist with an eclectic knowledge of wild flowers and grasses.

 But time spent travelling between her two lives was, she felt, time wasted. Friends were treated to death-defying rides in a series of battered BMWs for which she picked up a string of speeding convictions and even a ban on one occasion. She was pulled in by the police for the last time only a few months before she died at the age of 58. After months of intensive chemo-therapy she had lost her hair but pulled off her wig to argue her case more persuasively with a shaken Pc. She won the argument.

In 2001 she was offered the Chair of Developmental Language Disorders and Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London and founded a Centre to further her work. It had taken her only 10 years from gaining her doctorate. Her research expanded into Europe as she became vice-chair of a 25-nation research project.  Visiting professorships followed in Berlin, Louvain and Harvard.

Van der Lely invested years in developing an early warning system for children at risk of language disorder and potential reading difficulties. Her Grammar and Phonology Screen, GAPS, was devised as a quick, cheap and easily-administered test to be used by a wide range of professionals and parents. It evaluates a child’s basic grammatical and phonological abilities, crucial in understanding teachers’ instructions and learning the link between speech sounds and print. Current figures suggest 7 per cent of children have SLI, affecting more than 500,000 in the UK. A similar number suffer from forms of specific reading difficulties.

But she increasingly found UCL an uncongenial academic environment.  A rival even suggested that one of the children in her early ground-breaking studies, AZ, did not actually exist. A letter from AZ’s parents after her death revealed that he was very much alive. He had been unable to speak or understand speech at the age of five but van der Lely had personally watched over his development and intervened to help him secure a university place. He is now a successful motion graphic designer in London. She left UCL to pursue collaborative work in Europe and at Harvard.

Van der Lely's final paper may have opened up a whole new area of study about the possible connections between language impairments found in children and the impairments seen in neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntingdon's.

Eighteen months ago she suddenly became ill and was diagnosed with terminal cancer. But she refused to give in: she drew up plans to re-shape her home and garden, produced her final research paper and set up a trust to further her work. She married her partner of her later years, Professor Paul Richens, just four weeks before she died.
Professor Heather van der Lely, scientist, born 19 July 1955; died 17 February 2014.

Alistair Macdonald.

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