SEEK: Salford Environment for Expertise and Knowledge

February 2013

Review of Professor Uta Frith's BBC Radio 2 Desert Island Disc Interview

Peach, D 2013, 'Review of Professor Uta Frith's BBC Radio 2 Desert Island Disc Interview', in: The Psychologist, The British Psychological Society, Leicester, United Kingdom.


The Grand dame of British Science

Desert Island Discs' Kirsty Young introduces Professor Uta Frith as a 'grand dame of British science'. This is in light of her groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of autism, which led to an honorary damehood. Uta explains that to develop an understanding of autism it is necessary to look behind the behaviours to comprehend what is at the core of this phenomenon. Can we take the same approach to discover what is at the core of the phenomenon that is Uta Frith? 

Born in Germany in May 1941, Uta describes a childhood which was largely protected from the harsh realities of war. She reveals her mother's sense of determination and her father's artistic talents, which appear to have influenced her self-confidence and capacity to look at the world differently. Motivated by a passion to learn, Uta arrived in England where her interest in cognitive psychology was further inspired. It was here that she nurtured her career and her family, having two sons with her husband Chris Frith. 

Uta explains that her ability to manage a successful scientific career and a family was achieved by the employment of a full time nanny. Although recognising that this decision would be unpopular to some, Uta reflects that these choices were based on her own views of what she thought was right. Although this issue would not be presented in the same way to a man, Uta does not adopt an overt feminist stance but retains the clear mindedness of a scientist. 

Uta's sense of pragmatism and humility appear to be attributes which are woven throughout her personal and professional relationships. A fellow Professor, Athene Donald, recently described her as 'the exact opposite of a jerk', and for somebody who studies deficits in social communication it was striking how adept she was at complimenting Kirsty Young on her questions. 

I was also struck by Uta positioning her intellectual contributions to science as a small (albeit integral) part of the narrative. Her heroes are her participants with autism and their parents, from whose perspectives she has learned a great deal. Now in her retirement, she supports today's female scientists, hoping to inspire them to make time for fun via her 'science and shopping network'. 

Uta's enduring love for a profession which loves her right back was clear. She will never tire of discovery, admitting she is just as baffled by autism as she always was, and describing the brain as a garden, full of the most interesting things that have to be cultivated and constantly checked. It was also fascinating to hear of Uta's discovery of psychology, and her excitement at a pioneering time: the overturning of psychoanalysis. 'You don't have to just fall in with these big stories, you could look at it in a different way'. 

Accompanying her to the desert island will be a handwritten medieval manuscript and the doll's house made for her by her husband and sons. Uta says she remains a very great puzzle to herself, but to me these items reveal what is at her core; an inquisitive mind with a passion to understand others and a loving woman whose life is intrinsically woven into her family's genealogy. 


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Publication Details

Publication Title
The Psychologist

The British Psychological Society
Leicester, United Kingdom