Marian Annett, née Drabble, 1931–2018

Marian Annett, circa 1988 (Photography Department, University of Leicester)

I found out on October 3, 2019, that British psychologist Marian Annett had passed away in April 2018. I was just (and still am) in the process of revising a paper on her work for resubmission with History of the Human Sciences. I am grieving like never before, because this is the first time that I’m grieving as a historian, not as a friend or family member. None of my historical actors (or actresses) had previously passed away while I was writing about them. And, frankly, Marian was alive to  me while I was working on my manuscript. I was in conversation with her. I still am.

In lieu of an obituary, which is currently being prepared by her colleagues Chris McManus and Alan Beaton, I want to let Marian speak. Not much is known about British female psychologists of the 20th century, and I’ll let Marian tell her story in her own words.


Transcript of Oral History Interview with Marian Annett

Conducted on July 11, 2016, at Marian Annett’s home in Coventry


Interviewer and Copyright: Tabea Cornel.

Does not qualify as human subject research.

Written informed consent provided by Marian Annett.

Cite as: Annett, Marian. Interview by Tabea Cornel. July 11, 2016. Coventry.


TC—Tabea Cornel

MA—Marian Annett

JA—John Annett


TC: So, one thing I would be interested in is—that’s more of a biographical nature, because I read on your CV that you practiced clinical psychology—so, what may to go back into research?


MA: Well, my whole career really has been—As my husband just told you, we met in an interview waiting room. And then we were both appointed. We were research assistants together and then got married. But the world being what it is, it was my husband’s career that made us move from place to place. He got invited back to Oxford to do a PhD, you know, a research assistant, and he started doing his PhD there. And I was trained as a clinical psychologist. So, I was invited then to go work at the Warneford Hospital, which was a, you know, a mental hospital. And I was always interested in research. And in the first job, I’ve been collecting my PhD work, which was on children’s thinking. I did my PhD particularly on the emphasis of [Jean] Piaget, you know [Jean] Piaget’s theory, that was in what I was really interested. But your question was, how did I get back into research. Yes, while on the clinical job, at the Warneford and Park hospitals, a branch of this hospital complex called Park, was changed to be a children’s unit while I was there. With a very, what shall I say, charismatic doctor, Dr. Christopher Ounsted, leading it. And he was very keen on epilepsy and EEG. So, all the children were routinely given EEGs and of course as a psychologist, and with other psychologists, all the children were routinely given psychological tests, particularly the W[echsler ]I[ntelligence ]S[cale for ]C[hildren], you see. So, I thought it would be great to do a little bit of research on the relationship between EEG foci and the psychological test results. So, I started that research line there at the hospital. But on the next move, yes, from Oxford, John was invited to Sheffield, by this time, Lucy was born, so, I’ve got babies and James on the way. So, of course, then we moved to Sheffield and then to Aberdeen, and, so, I got into the academic world, and I never really went back to the clinical world, but my—I suppose it has always informed my approach to things, the clinical background. I don’t know, does that answer your question?


TC: Yes, absolutely. The clinical approach is also obvious in your theory.


MA: Yes.


TC: I mean, you show it’s relevant for pathological conditions.


MA: Yes, that’s right.


TC: So, then, how did you start or think of approaching the topic of handedness, even though you were a trained psychologist, genetically? How did that come about?


MA: Well, psychology. At school I decided I was going to be a psychologist, at the age of fifteen, and at that point, a new teacher came to the school, teaching biology. And I immediately said: “Can I do biology?” So, the first thing I learned in biology was about [Charles] Darwin and [Gregor] Mendel, and I thought that was the most wonderful thing. So, I was very interested in it, but I never had any specific training—I have to admit—more than this Mendelian, you know, genetics that I learned in school. But also that first job that we were, I mentioned, that we both were appointed as research assistants, it was to somebody called [John] Fraser Roberts, who was a medical research geneticist. And we were supposed to be, what we were, testing children in [inaudible]. We had to go to schools, and he was interested in children who were siblings. And he was looking for genetic aspects, you see. So, indirectly, I was always linked with genetics, though I was never specifically trained in it, you see.


TC: That’s fascinating. So, then, can you tell me a little bit more about the use of mathematics and also computers in your work?


MA: Yes, well, the mathematics of the genetics, I have to confess, I never got beyond simple Mendelian genetics, really. But even to do that, you need some pretty complex computer programs to do all the calculations. Initially, I did more with a hand calculator, a desk calculator, and it used to take me two hours in the evening to do just one calculation in genetics, you see. But then I was fortunate enough to have colleagues and my son James, being a physicist, to get help with the computing side, so, that I now have computer programs that do the genetic calculations for my theory or for [Chris] McManus’s theory. But I didn’t write those myself. [chuckles] I had a lot of help with them.


TC: So, did I understand correctly, that your son, once he got into computers, actually wrote the programs for your theory?


MA: Yes, and also colleagues at Leicester.


TC: But, so, your family, in what roles were they involved in your research process?


MA: John, my husband, was interested in motor skills, and that’s how we came to have a peg board. He designed the peg board for me, on proper principles of Fitts’ Law and all that, you know, information theory at that time. That’s what he was interested in. And I wanted to go and test hemiplegic children. I wanted measures of their hand skill, and, so, that’s how he came to design this peg board, with fairly largish pegs and holes, so, that children with hemiplegic could do it, you see. So, John was certainly a big influence in that respect. But then, when I was in Hull and collected [inaudible] data through the media, through the local press, [inaudible] families of left-handed parents to contact me, and then I wanted to visit them. I had research assistants who could go with me sometimes, but when they couldn’t, Lucy and James were teenagers, so, they were old enough to go with me as ad hoc research assistants to help with the processing. [laughs]


TC: That’s fascinating.


MA: Throughout, you see, I’ve had to pick up what I could while John went on with his career. Because, as you realize, when we trained as psychologists, hardly anybody was doing psychology.  There were a very few psychologists about. And then the whole field exploded, so, and we were in short supply. I mean [inaudible]. Particularly in the 60s, John was attracted to a department in Aberdeen as a lecturer and they were expanding the department in Aberdeen, so, fast and, so, short of staff that I was taken on immediately as an assistant lecturer without even applying for the job. [chuckles] You know, they really needed people. So, that’s how got into the academic world. And then we came back to Hull and then John was professor at the Open University and designed the first courses at the open University. So, every— we moved about and I had to pick up what I could in these various places, you see.


TC: I see.


MA: Then we came to Warwick and I just sat—immediately came to here, in Coventry, to put James in school. And the local—the newspaper, I think it was the Times or the Guardian, advertised a job at the Polytechnic here. It was called Lanchester Polytechnic then, but it is now—then it went to Coventry Polytechnic, then Coventry University. So, besides this big university here, there is another university in town now, there is Coventry University. So, when we first came here, John was setting up a new department here in—at the University of Warwick, but I went to be principal psychologist at the Polytechnic, you see. So, we had both academic careers here. And then things went bit—they were not too keen on psychologists still; they hadn’t gotten the message. So, I was glad to go to Leicester when there was a post there and I’ve been there—or at least now attached as emeritus reader—ever since.


TC: Do you remember any major obstacles in your professional career?


MA: well, if there were any, I suppose it’s because I was moving all the time. But looking back, I wouldn’t have it any other way, because it gave me so many opportunities to do different things. I did at one point apply for a job when we were in Bedford, to lecture psychology in the medical school, because I could have commuted. And I didn’t get that job. I went down to meet the people and, well, we didn’t quite get on, let’s put it that way. But I’m glad we didn’t, because that would have tied me down, in a way. And doing things I don’t think I would have been so good at, trying to lecture to medical students. They’d be a very tough lot to lecture to, and I am not sure if I would be fit at that job, thinking about it.


TC: That’s true. And yet, despite all the different positions you had, you stuck to this one topic of handedness.


MA: Well, but I tackled it in different ways, you see, didn’t I? Through hemiplegic children, collecting questionnaire data as I could, but wherever I could, sending the questionnaires to the families, and, what else? Well, and then, trying to see—It took many years before I realized that there is a very simple genetic model of the Mendelian type could account for family data. I mean, I wasn’t expecting it. And all the geneticists I consulted, didn’t believe it or didn’t want to think about it even. It was all polygenes, well, it is still all polygenes, really. But I found that a very quite simple genetic model would fit. I don’t know if anybody else believes it, you see,  even now, because it goes against—Well, people look for the genes, and [inaudible] in most genes everywhere. So, it’s still by no means resolved. But I’m sure once people look at the data in the right way, or in the way I think it ought to be looked at, they will find it. But I may not live—I don’t think I’ll live to see it.


TC: have you ever tried, with geneticists, to actually find the gene?


MA: I have had some conversations, some exchanges with geneticists. Some other people who were interested prompted me or put them in touch with me to see if we could. But I suppose I don’t know enough about it really to interact with them properly. And once I start to say: “Chance is a major variable and it’s only a matter of probabilities and so”—Well, it didn’t work out. The things I was saying didn’t fit with the things they wanted to work with. So, I haven’t been able to directly work with geneticists myself.


TC: But that’s interesting, because nowadays, they all talk about “risk,” and that’s just a different term for chance.


MA: Yes, it is.


TC: It’s interesting that they do see it this way.


MA: Yeah.


TC:: Interesting. Are you sure that—so I also read in your book, you make that very obvious, the methods you work with, and you had people send you stories about, for example, how they were forced to write with their right hands. Are you sure that all these letters are lost or is there—


MA: Oh yes, I threw those away long ago. That was way back in Hull days in the 1960s. They were just personal letters people send, how, you know, people had their hand strapped behind their back and tied, things like that, and physically punished for using the left hand. That was in the 1920s and 30s. But towards the end of the 30s, people started to worry about stuttering. And then the Second World War came, and it seemed to be everything changed, the whole emphasis on making every child right with the right hand changed. But now, that’s even in recent times, I heard teachers say, well I still think they should use the right hand. There’s still some pressure, I’m sure, to use the right hand.


TC: Yeah, my father got slapped in the face in the 70s for using the left hand, which is quite—But I also have the feeling that—


MA: In the 70s?


TC: Yes, and I think that Germans were much slower in abandoning—


MA: I think they were, yes I think they were. Yes, yeah.


TC: And I don’t quite know why, I have to figure it out. If it was Hitler’s fault or if there was anything else to it.


[both laugh]


TC: What else—yes. You said your model accounts for family data, but there is something that’s harder to explain, but you managed to do it, which is the maternal effect, that handedness gets inherited mostly from the mother.


MA: wild that’s what it seemed to be from the old family data, and even when I did a sort of polygenic analyses [inaudible]. It looked as though heritability was always greater from the mother. But later I came to see, and I think this is right, in the Behavior Genetics paper of 1999, that it is an artifact of the fact that children don’t recognize if their mothers are left-handed. Quite often children underestimate the left-handedness of their parents, particularly mothers. By just increasing the portion of left-handed mothers by 1%, by moving some of the children from right-right-right families to—right-handed children from right-right families to the left-right families, or the families of left-handed mothers, it worked. I think it’s just an underreporting. [phone rings] And where you can get data that is self-reporting both generations, you don’t have this distortion, I think. Might be the gardener delayed. [both chuckle] Yes.


TC: Do you think that the sex of a person is a problem or an additional obstacle in the research for handedness?


MA: I think there is some sex effect in the female [inaudible] slightly stronger Right Shift in their growth. But I don’t think it’s a very large effect. But it does mislead and upset some people. Quite often you get research where things work for one sex and they don’t for the other. And that makes it a bit difficult.


TC: What I found very interesting, when I looked at your handedness classifications with the scale, are you familiar with Kinsey scale of sexual desire? He has a similar scale, only that his is not from 127, it’s from 0 to 6. And he says that sexual desire is either entirely heterosexual or heterosexual with a slight interest in homosexuality. And, so, it’s similar to your handedness scale. Did you ever think—did you ever realized this proximity in scales?


MA: I mean, I have taught abnormal psychology in several places. So, I’ve certainly read about Kinsey, but I’ve never taken it seriously in that way. No, I hadn’t thought of that connection.


TC: Interesting. Because when I just saw it, I thought I know this scale from somewhere else. [inaudible] You just talked about abnormal psychology, which reminded me of Lombroso.


MA: Oh yes.


TC: Do you—you don’t—so you show a strong interest in history of science, and in particular philosophy of science, in your monograph.


MA: One has, yes, one ought to know something about that. I wouldn’t say it—I wouldn’t call myself an expert on that.


TC: But, so, what I’ve—What I would be interested in, so, you talk about Thomas Kuhn and shared paradigm shifts and things like this, have you ever considered the longer history of handedness research starting with Lombroso and his ideas of pathological left-handedness?


MA: Well, as you will know yourself if you’ve read in the field, there are many people who assume that anything that is not straight right-handedness is pathological. I mean the simplicity and everything that [Norman] Geschwind [inaudible, clock striking] and Stanley Coren talked about alinormal and, what was the term [Norman] Geschwind uses, it just slipped my mind at the moment. But, yes, they assume that there is a medical model. So, it’s implicit in medical thinking in a way. So, they—but what they’re not recognizing is natural variation—the biology of natural variation. The medical people want to say: “Everybody should be like this, and if they’re not, there’s something wrong.” So, there’s an enormous pathology assumption running through the literature, which I think is quite unjustified. There can be pathologies, of course, because children who have hemiplegias have to use the good hand, naturally. So, there can be some pathologies, but nothing like as much as it is implicit in [Norman] Geschwind’s model or [Stanley] Coren’s. Of course, Dorothy Bishop—whatever one does—seems to come back with: “Well, maybe that’s due to pathology in this sample.” But my samples are enormous, as you know, and taken from the general population of school children and students, so, I think to talk about—to  assume that effects are due to pathology, well it’s a cop-out, really, [inaudible] issue.


TC: Yeah, that’s true. Did you—which was the most fruitful research population that, your best research sample, where did you have the idea that you got the best data from?


MA: well, that’s a very difficult question, I think they all made their own contributions. But the most exciting was the first sample of families I visited in Hull of left—to left-handed parents. And I went to [inaudible] with research assistance or sometimes with one of my own family or they could have come to the lab as well to be tested as families. And when I first plotted that data, I had just as many children to the left as to the right. I couldn’t believe it. It fitted the theory far too beautifully. It was like Mendel’s initial data fitted his theory far too well, some people think. Certainly, it fitted so well, I couldn’t believe it. And it was really, really exciting. I mean, I think all the samples add something, you know. I can’t say one’s best, really.


TC: Do you think that there is something you did that [Norman] Geschwind and [Stanley] Coren, for example, did not do, which helped you gain better insights in handedness?


MA: It’s a matter of taking it—assuming that there is natural biological variation. And I think I began at the age of fifteen with biology and [Gregor] Mendel and [Charles] Darwin—I think I’ve always had this idea that it must be approached as a matter of human biology, not medical, you see, but of natural biology. And some people just don’t think that way. But Oliver Zangwill was one of the first to—was the first person I heard talking about these things, and I think inspired me to start the research. And he was one of the first to say: “We must approach it as natural variation and look for whole samples unselected.” [doorbell rings] That’s probably the gardener, excuse me [MA gets up]. If John’s gone around the back with Gina [Rippon]. [MA returns.] Yes, we rely on our gardener. It took ages to find good gardener. We used to do it ourselves before, until a few years ago then, we suddenly couldn’t do it anymore. But to find a good gardener, you know, it’s something really, really precious. [both laugh]


TC: I believe that. And it is a big garden. It must be wonderful for kids.


MA: [chuckles] it used to be a tennis court on the front here, when we first came.


TC: Really? I’ve never played tennis in my life.


MA: Anyway. So, where were we? Oh, it’s that. Oliver Zangwill. I found this old photograph some time ago. That’s Oliver Zangwill on the left. And you could have it if you like, because I’ve got no use for it. I did have a piece of paper that explained who they were and exactly where it was taken. But I can’t find that piece of paper now. I think it was taken in the sort of 30s 40s. And he was a lecturer and then professor at Cambridge. And the chap on the right is, oh dear, the name has gone from me now, a very famous—a very brilliant psychologist, who got killed in an accident. His name will come back to me in a minute. Anyway, it’s Oliver is Zangwill. If you are interested in that, that’s a picture of him. So, all of her saying well, hearing him talk about it, he realized that to approach this question of human biology and find samples that were unselected for handedness or brain injuries. So, he took a whole sample of British war head injuries. The chaps were in there because they got head injuries, not because—but they were perfectly well and healthy before they were in the sample, that’s the important thing. And then you can look at relationships between handedness and the brain injury as a matter of biology. But he was one of the first that I understand to do that. And that was part of the inspiration for me to get started. And in the book, I use his approach, initially, as you probably remember, with—he managed to collect five samples, and I analyzed them in more detail to come up with the statistics that I’ve used as well. But many other people don’t. I mean, I analyzed this series that Zangwill had collected in detail in Cortex and showed all sorts of things that I think were really interesting. But immediately, Segalowitz and Bryden [1983] come back with some other approach that totally ignored our—I don’t want to be rude about these colleagues, but they totally ignored the, what shall I say, the natural vari—the unbiased sampling question, you see.


TC: What I found really interesting about what you just said, and also your book is this evolutionary thought that’s underlying the entire theory.


MA: Yes, yes.


TC: Is this what—is handedness to you, is handedness a model for a bigger question?


MA: Well, handedness is endemic throughout primates. They all got hands, and in all the primates, you have some animals that are better on the left and some that are better on the right. And that’s the fundamental background. So, many people, as you note, of working terribly hard to prove that there’s biases in other species, particularly Hopkins, I forget where he is now, but you must know [William D.] Hopkins and all of his attempts to show that chimpanzees are really right-handed after all. But if he—where he does show a bias to the right, it is a very small bias, compared with the—are you okay?


TC: Yeah, I just had to sneeze. Sorry, I have a bit of a hay fever.


MA: Tissue, tissues?


TC: I have many in my bag, thank you.


MA: Yeah. So, that’s a very big background, the evolution, simply chance biases, per individual personal development. And this is what solves the problem of twins that most people say, oh, genetics, well it can’t be because of twins. But if, if having this bias comes through your personal development in utero, it doesn’t matter whether you are twin or not. You’ve got your own chances of being right or left, you see. And that shows you why there could be as many right-left pairs in monozygotic or in dizygotic twins, almost exactly the same. But you can see a very slight bias in favor of the monozygotics’ being similar, but it’s a very tiny bias and you need absolutely enormous samples to see it.


TC: That’s really fascinating. How did you do animal research? Because I see from your publication list that you’ve also published on primates. How did you do that?


MA: Well, that was a bit of a joke. [both laugh] we have a very good zoo here, just not far from here, called Twycross Zoo, which specialized in primates a lot. And I particularly was interested—I knew that there was a lot of research and chimpanzees and a lot of chimps out there, but it was the gorillas I was interested in, because gorillas are much more difficult to find. And so I started going up to Twycross and just observing when they were feeding to collect the gorilla data. And then, if John and I were on a conference abroad, as we were in—oh I can’t remember where it was now, various places, Amsterdam—if there was a zoo, we went to find the gorillas, you see. [laughs] And we also went down—Howletts is another big zoo in the south of England, set up by John Aspinall, who is an interesting character, very keen on animals. So, we made it a sort of holiday, a weekend entertainment, to go and, wherever we were, go and look at the gorillas. So, John would observe one for me and I would observe another, you see.


TC: only the hand with which they ate—


MA: Well that’s what we—


TC: —or also grooming?


MA: we couldn’t do it. I explored [inaudible] tried to explore some machinery which they could have pressed or something, but I’m afraid they didn’t [inaudible].


TC: That would have been a great experiment. [both laugh] Human exceptionalism—do you think that handedness is the form of human exceptionalism or one form?


MA: I am not sure what you mean by human exceptionalism.


TC: That humans are different from the other animals


MA: But they’re not! Because all the chimpanzees are left-handed and right-handed.


TC: But they don’t have the right shift.


MA: Oh, yes, it’s the right shift that is characteristically human. So, in that sense it does make humans exceptional. In that sense, I mean the right shift. But it’s not present in all humans. And, again, medical people find that difficult to get their head around. Tim Crow is very interested in my theory, but he wanted to make it apply to everyone. So, he was—the Right Shift as a human-species characteristic. But it can’t be a human-species characteristic because not everybody got the Right-Shift Gene on my theory, you see.


TC: Oh.


MA: It’s a very difficult thing for medical people to get their head around. They want everybody to follow the same rules.


TC: Yes. That’s really interesting. Do you—Did you have the feeling that your work or your intentions were being misunderstood?


MA: Oh, always, always. Yes.


TC: Can you, I don’t know, the most important one or two instances?


MA: Well, I suppose my chapter on other theories shows you that just about everybody else tried to pick up the key idea that I introduced of chance, but interpreted it in a different way. And made their own theory out of it. I won’t mention any names, you know whom I’m talking about, really.


TC: Yes.


MA: Yes, they were all trying to home in on this theory, but used it in their own way or create—invent their own theory around it. And what I try to show was: my theory wasn’t invented at all. I discovered it on a very long research journey. And again, people don’t understand that. They think it comes out of your head all at once and if you change anything, all jump up and down and say it’s all wrong. But it’s a research journey. That’s what research is about: finding that you were wrong about something and then you have a happy surprise and you find something’s right that really is a surprise, I mean that’s what makes it interesting and worth doing. But if you’re not in that frame of mind, you don’t see it.


TC: Do you think that there was any objective referee ever in that, between your theory and the other theories that came after yours and pushed back?


MA: Objective referee—well, I kept getting published, didn’t I, you see? So, the referees must have been at least sympathetic enough. And certainly Oliver Zangwill helped me to my first research grant. Because, as I first got into this field, and started to think about genetic data, I managed to meet him at a conference and tried to show him what I was trying to do. And he said: “Well, apply to the Medical Research Council for a grant!” And he was on the board of it there and I got my first grant.


JA: Just come to tell you [inaudible] that Gina [Rippon] is now still sitting in there, the gardener is coming, I’ve got to look after Lucy making sandwiches.


MA: She’ll—yes, she’ll find something, you’ll show her all the things they are on her to make sandwiches off.


JA: That’s right.


MA: That’s fine. Good, good. We are doing fine.


JA: Oh good! I didn’t want to disturb you, but I’ll be fine.


MA: Are you alright? Well Lucy—Lucy is making the sandwiches.


JA: I’m just coming out to see because there was lots of activity going on


MA: Yes, I answered the ring for Joe to have send him where you were because, you see, you were out the back garden, somewhere.


JA: [inaudible] back garden [inaudible] Gina [Rippon]—


MA: Yeah, that‘s right. But Joe is okay, I opened the—


JA: Yes, he’s fine. He’s going to start weeding out that slab, where it’s drying up.


MA: Okay.


JA: Okay.


MA: Oh, very good, very good. Okay, my dear.


JA: [inaudible]


[all three chuckle]


TC: I’ll just ask very directly: Do you think that some of the reproaches against your theory have something to do with gender roles in academia?


MA: Well, I do! I think it’s implicit. Hardly anybody would admit to it exactly, but if you say: “This is this woman who has got this great theory, but here’s this young man who’s got a medical degree and he’s got a theory”—you got to believe him! I mean it’s absolutely implicit. And particularly, well, I don’t know how to quite put it, I’ve had a long exchange, I don’t mean to be too personal, but with a BBC person who wanted to know about tennis and why there are left-handed tennis players. So, I’ve exchanged several emails with her about my theory and how you would interpret the data and so on, but she’s plopped for Oldfield, you see. Oldfield sounds more respectable, he was a professor at Edinburgh and at Oxford before that, and all the rest of the world used Oldfield any way, don’t they, you see?


TC: They still do. The Edinburgh Handedness Inventory, until this day.


MA: Exactly, I know, yes, because it looks simple. And it looks intuitively attractive just to assign numbers to things and count them. But they are not asking what it is that they are assigning numbers to, you see. Well, I can see that that’s a very difficult thing. But I think that, through my peg task, I’ve got an objective window, or some objective way, of looking at the value of the different items and so. And the—my handedness categories do follow—appear, in every other way, you look at eyedness, footedness, number of left-handed relatives, that’s hard. So, there is some objective basis to it, which is born out of the other data, though I arrived at it through peg moving data. But, of course, some people absolutely deny that preference has got anything to do with skill. Well, to me, that is absolutely ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. But, you know, they think they can get away with it.


[both laugh]


TC: Would you help me with the timeline? So, you published your first papers about the Right Shift theory before Oldfield published his inventory, is that correct?


MA: well, it was around the same time, wasn’t it?


TC: Okay.


MA: I was publishing in the 1960s, my first ones about the binomial distribution, when I was looking at this. But ‘64 was my first genetic attempt where I thought that mixed-handers would be heterozygotes, which was wrong, but it was a very important stage in the development of my thinking, you see. So, that was ‘64, in Nature. I was very lucky that the head editor of Nature was sufficiently interested in publishing it, because that’s a very prestigious thing.


TC: Oh yeah.


MA: And then, ‘67 I did the binomial thing. And that also—I mean, it was not exactly wrong, but it was an important stage in the development of the theory. ‘70, it was that I published the big classification of handedness by association article. I got the very kind computer people in Hull to develop this computer program for doing the—so that’s when I really got to grips with the kinds of mixed handedness and so. But it was ‘72 when I first published the idea of the Right-Shift theory. So, but Oldfield was thinking about it in ‘71. So, he was doing his research on handedness in Edinburgh totally independently. And he came to see me, actually, once in Hull. And he didn’t really want to know about binomial distributions and things. He tried to talk me out of it and said, you know, that can’t be of any interest really at all, you know. And I sort of hit him rough [inaudible, chuckles].


TC: Then why did he come to see you?


MA: I don’t know really, now that I think of it, yeah!


[both laugh]


TC: That’s interesting.


MA: Well, I shouldn’t perhaps have said that. One shouldn’t drag up these old things, really.


TC: Yes, but a different thing: Oldfield’s approach is very different from yours, because he does not talk about reason, the causes of handedness. He has this very pragmatic approach of just measuring handedness.


MA: That’s right. Yes, and that’s what most people want, you see. So, this person at the BBC, was, as I said, yes, she, I haven’t managed to find the proper website to look at it properly myself, so, I shouldn’t say too much about it, but from what I did see, yes, it’s—she invites people to do the E[dinburgh ]H[andedness ]I[nventory] to find out about your own handedness. I had explained to her in my emails how I thought she could use my handedness questionnaire to get to, you know, who’s strongly right-handed and lists and so on. But they seem to have ignored that altogether. It’s too complicated. See, it doesn’t fit with people’s simple—people expect it to be simple, you see. And, in principle, it should be left and right and so straight-forward, doesn’t it? And, so, if you start to say they’re more complicated, they don’t want to know. [chuckles]


TC: Interesting. But even the Edinburgh Handedness Inventory gives you a continuous scale from -100 to +100.


MA: Well, it is—it’s a bogus thing, really. Isn’t it? You see, if the numbers—if you don’t know what the numbers mean or why you assign those numbers—and it wasn’t even original! Because Crovitz and Zener [1962] had done exactly the same thing before. Oldfield simply put crosses and minuses out of four. But to rate on a 5-point scale, which is what it is, is what Crovitz and Zener [1962] had done.


TC: I totally missed that. Okay.


MA: I do mention them in the book, but I suppose not very strongly. [pauses, points at photograph] Kenneth Craik is the name of this man, Kenneth Craik. He was a very clever, psychologist, and unfortunately killed in a street accident in Cambridge.


TC: Aw.


MA: But who the middle person is, neither John nor I could remember.


TC: And he was very young when he got killed in that accident?


MA: Quite young. Soon after that picture was taken, I’m afraid, yeah.


TC: Aw, that’s unfortunate. There’s a—


MA: He would have been brilliant, after—he was doing very important work during the war on perceptual things with pilots, you know, very important applied work, which would have translated two very important developments. But unfortunately, he got killed.


TC: do you think it’s possible that the person in the middle is Oldfield?


MA: Well, John thought that, but I don’t think it is. They were friends, certainly, Zangwill and Oldfield, they published some things together. Let’s see, oh dear. [takes a close look at the picture] I don’t think Oldfield wore glasses, for instance.


TC: Ah, okay.


MA: I don’t know. I don’t think it’s Oldfield. Oldfield did come to Oxford to become prof there while I was there, a clinical psychologist at Warneford. And I did explore the idea of doing research with him. Then he wasn’t doing handedness research. Neither was I, I was still into conceptual thinking and so on. But anyway, it didn’t work out.


TC: Yeah, it’s interesting. I’ve been trying to get a hold of Oldfield’s archival papers.


MA: Oh yes.


TC: But they don’t seem to be anywhere. And I even wrote to the fifth Earl of Balfour, because Oldfield was married to the third Earl’s daughter, and I thought maybe they have family archive, but I haven’t heard back. I contacted every archive that could possibly have the papers.


MA: Yeah, oh dear. Well, course, it was John Marshall who worked with him up there. But John Marshall died, of course he died. No, I’d be surprised if there were any archival papers myself.


TC: I just think he didn’t publish that much.


MA: No, he didn’t. It’s just that one paper, really.


TC: So, it would be—and, so, it doesn’t give me enough food for thought, you know, I don’t understand his way of thinking from just one paper. So, that’s—


MA: well, what shall I say? [inaudible] I didn’t know him very well personally, although I did think at one point I might be able to work with him in a research question, in different things. As I said, neither of us was strong into handedness at that time. But it didn’t work out. Yes. [redacted] And I think he retreated from Oxford and got himself set up with the research unit by the MRC up in Edinburgh to have a more sheltered academic life, if you see what I mean, than being a professor of the big department. [redacted]


TC: [redacted]


MA: [redacted]


TC: [redacted]


MA: [redacted]


TC: [redacted]


MA: [redacted]


TC: [redacted] What else did I want to—yes, so, the bigger—I have two more questions, and then we’ve pretty much made it through really—touched on everything I wanted to know. But one big question is what you see as your biggest contribution in general to the field of psychology, or maybe also genetics.


MA: [laughs] I can’t claim to have made a contribution to genetics, because I’m not a geneticist, and I haven’t really got the knowledge to, particularly to interact with modern genetics, which is—keeps going off in horrible complex ways, as far as I can see. [both laugh] Though, as you probably know, [Thomas Scarri and William Brandler] at Oxford ha[ve] made attempts to locate the genes or whatever through using peg board data that was collected on a large sample of dyslexics in Oxford. It’s all—that data collection was inspired by my approach. And they have found some effects, but I can’t marry them with my own way of looking at things, you see what I mean. Like— [chuckles] The whole approach of the Right-Shift Theory, as a research journey, as a whole makes it hang together. Any one bit of it wouldn’t carry a lot of weight. But because it is a whole series of jigsaw pieces that, to me, fall into place, I think it’s what makes it worth paying attention to.


TC: That’s interesting that you say that. Because I thought it could be many things. It could be just the insight into the right shift, it could be proving that genetic models work within psychology, but I think this is a very, very interesting answer. That’s basically this sticking to it and solving the puzzle, the journey.


MA: Yes, the journey. Largely, as a hobby, really, because as I explained, I was teaching particularly here at the polytechnic, which is now Coventry University, for thirteen years before I went to Leicester. But in neither place was I employed to do research. I had to fit in the research in my own time and space, you see. So, it was a hobby, really, yeah.


TC: What were your working hours? I can’t even—as a mother of two children.


MA: Yes, well, they got teenage years by that time. And if they were very competent children, as you can imagine, in good schools and so on. In fact, Lucy—we were in Bedford, when John was a professor at Open University. We got her into a very good school and she was doing her GCSE, this sort of thing. And then he got tempted to come here, and to have moved Lucy at that time would have been impossible, but the school had a small boarding house, really for—the school, for many years, had worked for people abroad, you know, service people, the British people who were serving out on the Empire were sending their children here to board. And so they managed to get Lucy into that boarding school. So, effectively, she left home at about the age off fifteen. Because of these changes of—I mean, she had got to be pretty independent, in a way. Of course, we always kept in touch and we came for holidays and such. And James was a very independent character, you could imagine, you know. He is left-handed, by the way, which I was already working on handedness for a few years, well, I started in the late 50s, as I said, and he was born in ‘61. And the first time I could prop him up on the floor of the sitting room, you know, against the sofa, and he’d have things to reach, it was his left hand always from the beginning. But he’s a brilliant physicist, you see. So, I was always convinced that being left-handed is no handicap or so. All the people who have tried to [inaudible] left-handedness as a policy, I’ve never believed it because many of my best friends in school days were left-handed. And cousins, I’ve got left-handed cousins. I’ve just never believed it was all pathol—it could be a pathology. And certainly not James. Though, at his school, you see, being left-handed, he was a little bit slower in the verbal side. He doesn’t talk much now. He’s a very quiet sort of person. So, his first elementary school, they really didn’t know he was very clever. [both laugh] But as soon as we could get him into a school where there was some selection of proper teaching, they did find out he was very clever. [laughs]


TC: Then he just had bad teachers in the first—


MA: Well, they’re not primed for that sort of cleverness, you see. It’s going to be verbal cleverness, hasn’t it? But the quiet sort of cleverness, which is mathematical, they don’t pick up on. [chuckles]


TC: So, was it your cousins and your family experience with left-handed people who first sparked your interest in left-handedness?


MA: Well, as a research question, it was hearing Oliver Zangwill talk about it, as I said. But I suppose I was always interested in the sense that I had so many friends.


TC: Interesting.


MA: In that sense, and cousins, female cousins, on both sides of the family. So, it’s not surprising that I got through to my son, you see what I mean. [chuckles]


TC: Were they converted, your family members and siblings?


MA: No, oh no.


TC: That’s good. Okay. Then, another big question: is there anything about your career that you regret?


MA: [laughs] Well, in the past I might have regretted having to move around all the time. But it’s not just a matter of feminism or saying, oh females must—I wouldn’t have wanted my career to take precedence over John’s. I always had to pick—it made much more sense for the family for him to be doing well and going up through the stages of the profession. And through that we came here, got this house, and got them into good schools and so on. So, it always paid off letting John’s career take precedence and I picked up what I could along the way. But, because of the demands for psychologists anyway, I’ve been always able to pick up something.


TC: And why did it make more sense for him to—


MA: Well, for the sake of the family as a whole. And his career was progressing so well. It wouldn’t have made sense to say to him: “Well, you stay at home now and look after the children while I do.” It would have ruined his career. And the progress for the whole family was much better that he should go ahead and then I could pick up what was going as well.


TC: And you did so much. You know, my mother she stayed home. I have two brothers, and my mother stayed home until the youngest was in elementary school. And then she started a job in the morning, just a 50% job as a secretary. And she always made us our lunch packet, and then left the house with us, and she was back by the time we returned. So, there was no career for her, you know.


MA: Yes, yes.


TC: She just made some money on the side to get out of the house at all.


MA: Yes, of course.


TC: And you really developed your whole theory, that’s impressive.


MA: Well, yes, let me think. When I was going to go out of the house, I always employed someone to come in. I never [inaudible] my children out into nurseries or something. I always employed someone that I regarded as a sort of kind of grandmother sort of figure. Somebody who had children themselves and like looking after children to come into the house and be with them. And they also go to nursery school, and usually only for the mornings, and then I would be at home in the afternoon or something like that. So, no, it worked out that way. And that’s it, it was a hobby really, all through.


TC: That’s fantastic. I can’t even imagine. [both chuckle] What you do for a hobby, other people can—


MA: Well, I’ve always played the piano as well. But I had to—could never play that as much as I would have liked to. [chuckles] And my hands have got such [inaudible], I can’t play as much as I would like to, but never mind.


TC: Do you know the—oh man, Ravel composed for the left hand.


MA: Yes, quite, that’s right.


TC: Yes, that’s amazing. I want to look into that to, because I think it’s fascinating.


MA: Well, it was Wittgenstein’s brother, you see, who lost his right arm in the First World War and was a pianist. And it was for him that Ravel wrote the Concerto for the Left Hand.


TC: That’s fascinating. There are even novels written about it. There is a biography of Wittgenstein’s, but then there’s the novel, I think it’s a German one. It’s just called yes concert for the left hand.


MA: Oh yes.


TC: And my father gave it to me.


MA: Oh really?


TC: I haven’t had time to read it yet. But he also plays the piano, and he’s left-handed. And so he’s really interested in my dissertation topic.


MA: Oh really? Good, good.


TC: So, he gave me that book. So, I’ll have to read it. Yeah, that’s the first question people usually ask me: “You’re writing with your right hand, why are you interested in left-handedness?”


MA: Yeah, well how did you get interested in doing that? Because your father is left-handed, or—


TC: I wouldn’t even be able to tell you—so I kept reading—I was interested in neuroscience before I get interested in handedness, and I kept reading in the papers that they exclude left-handed individuals from their studies.


MA: Oh yes, yes.


TC: And then they also specify sex in the studies.


MA: Yes, yes.


TC: So, then I started thinking they—oh, and then they say they exclude every wind within E[dinburgh ]H[andedness ]I[nventory] score lower than 80 or 50, and they only have males. And I thought why are—why is male/female still such a dichotomy, even though we could measure hormone levels, or we could specify their genome, or whatever, the chromosomes, but we now have the scale for handedness, but then, what we do is not look at the research data as a function of the handedness score, but we just exclude all the left-handers.


MA: Yes, it is assuming that science ought to relate to everyone. There ought to be a general rule. And to find the general rule, that’s right, they say, well, we’ll have right-handed males and then we’ve excluded all these funny things that are going on, that are messing the data up. But it’s quite the wrong approach, really. You are quite right, yes.


TC: And I think that’s why—so it was really something that I found in the neuroscientific papers. I was interested about experiments and the classification of research subjects, ended then the handedness just jumped out at me, in particular when I read a Nature paper, and I forgot the author, I talked to Gina [Rippon] about it, and the—I think it’s a female author, who tries to argue for the need of more left-handed research subjects. Because she says we only look at the brands of right-handed people, and then pretend that this is what you just said, the general—what every brain looks like. And she says, we already started integrating female mice into our research labs, but why not also include left-handed humans? And that made a lot of sense for me.


MA: Yes, absolutely. What it does, because, as I said right at the beginning, it’s a denial of natural variation, and what this person is saying, and you’ve got to bring the natural variation back in to see what’s happening, you see.

Cite this blog post
Tabea Cornel (2019, November 22). Marian Annett, née Drabble, 1931–2018. The Semipermeable Membrane. Retrieved June 19, 2024, from

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