Neurologist, campaigner, mum, wife and special friend 

Dr Jenny Vaughan, OBE, needs no introduction to the neurology audience as she achieved legendary status both as a brilliantly gifted neurologist and a fearless advocate for justice in the wider medical profession. Her premature death from metastatic breast cancer in March makes all the things she achieved in her 55 years even more remarkable.  

Dr Jenny Vaughan and her sons
Jenny and her sons at their Coronation street party June 2023

Born in Bristol on 25th June 1968 to Elizabeth, a nurse, and Leslie, a schoolteacher, it became apparent from her early years that Jenny was not only exceptionally intelligent (she perfectly recited a monologue from Shakespeare’s Hamlet aged 3!) but was also gifted with a passion to help others. Jenny initially had dreams of bringing clean water to Africa as a civil engineer, but her mother’s nursing experience and other influences led her to apply to medical school, gaining a place at Nottingham University. Jenny excelled in her studies, graduating with a First Class honours degree, and also had a fun-filled social life with her ever-present smile and cheeky humour. She even found time to learn to fly, gaining a Private Pilot’s Licence in 1992! 

After moving to London and marrying Matt, her medical interests began to focus on neurology, influenced by the tragic premature death of her stepfather from glioblastoma multiforme and encouraged by Professor Newsom-Davies and many others. It soon became clear that neurology perfectly suited Jenny’s meticulous and logical thinking. She particularly loved the detective work involved in tracking down a diagnosis. Jenny’s subspecialty interest in movement disorders led her to take up a PhD in the neurogenetics of Parkinson’s Disease under Professor Nick Wood at the Institute of Neurology, arriving just at a time when the genetic basis for some forms of the disease were being discovered.

As always Jenny threw herself into her research, tracking down a particularly intriguing family with a high incidence of PD, whizzing around the country to collect samples of DNA from sibling pairs. This led her to team up for the first time with Dr David Nicholl who happened to be doing his PhD in Birmingham on a similar family. Not only that, David also turned out to be a kindred spirit as a bold human rights campaigner, leading to a lifelong friendship. 

Jenny was appointed as a full time Consultant Neurologist at Imperial College (Charing Cross) and Ealing Hospital in 2003, continuing her academic interests with monthly neurogenetics and movement disorders clinics as well as plenty of general neurology. Even though she loved neurology, Jenny always wanted to follow her core instincts to campaign for justice and social improvement. This was to bring her into increasing national prominence in the coming years.  

Campaigner and a warrior 

Jenny had always had a remarkable ability to use the power of a persuasive argument to convince others to see sense and had demonstrated her abilities as a campaigner as the chair of the BMA Junior Members Forum. In 1998, she decided to stand as a Labour councillor in Hammersmith & Fulham, overturning a significant Conservative majority and going on to make a major contribution to health & social care policies in the Borough. This not only equipped Jenny for her key role in preventing the closure of the A&E Department at Ealing Hospital but brought her into contact with Catherine Sellu, Ealing’s A&E matron. She became aware that Catherine’s husband, David, a Consultant Colorectal Surgeon at Ealing had been charged and then surprisingly convicted of gross negligence manslaughter (GNM). Little did the Sellu family know that they had encountered the person who would not only rescue David from a wrongful conviction but also transform the UK law on GNM in healthcare.  

Dr Jenny Vaughan and her family
Jenny and family at OBE ceremony in Windsor Castle, March 2023.

Jenny became convinced that key evidence had not been presented at David’s original trial and that his conviction was unsafe. Despite being told that the chances of a successful appeal was almost zero, she worked tirelessly over the next three years to take an appeal to the High Court, spending hours with expert witnesses and barristers to construct a case.  Against all odds, in November 2016, David’s conviction was quashed by three appeal court judges.  Such was the impact of this decision that Jenny pledged to continue campaigning against the criminalisation of healthcare professionals and for a “Learn Not Blame” culture in the NHS. This led her into contact with the paediatrician Dr Hadiza Bawa-Garba, who had also been convicted of GNM and given a 2-year suspended sentence. Having examined the circumstances, Jenny and many others were appalled at this decision and fought for Dr Bawa-Garba to be restored to the GMC medical register.  As with David Sellu, Jenny’s determination and collaboration with like-minded campaigners brought success at the court of appeal.

Other cases came her way for advice and support and Jenny joined with like-minded doctors to set up the Doctors Association UK and lead its ’Learn Not Blame’ campaign with the aim to achieve a ‘just culture’ in healthcare. She was invited by then Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to contribute to a rapid policy review conducted by Professor Sir Norman Williams, establishing recommendations as to what defines an ‘exceptionally bad performance’ by a doctor. The Doctors’ Association proved to be a powerful voice during the Covid-19 pandemic, especially speaking up for the provision of widespread, effective PPE for frontline healthcare workers. For all of this, Jenny was recognised in the 2023 New Year Honours list by the award of an OBE.  

Loyal friend and shared struggles 

Personally, our friendship began at Ealing Hospital in 2010. It was a wonderful place to work because everyone was so close and united. I was the medical SHO on call and contacted Jenny for a neurology review as I was concerned that a “psychiatric patient” about to be discharged may actually have undiagnosed auto-immune encephalitis.  Jenny was already on her Vespa motorbike in the car park but immediately came to see the patient with me. She reviewed the patient, spoke to the family with me, and agreed that this patient needed to stay for further investigations, which diagnosed NMDA encephalitis. Our conversation then turned to my Kurdish origins and I was so impressed that that she knew so much about my people, saying ‘I am sorry for all the suffering the Kurds have faced’. I knew from then that Jenny was a uniquely humble and special human being and even though I was “just an SHO” it was the start of a wonderful friendship.  

We went on to organise the Ealing Neurology/Ophthalmology PACES course together, having enormous fun in the process. She recruited her patients who were always happy to give up those weekends, often telling me “We are here as there is no doctor like Dr Vaughan”. The course was mainly attended by international doctors who were new to the NHS and often struggling to pass PACES. As well as preparing them for their exam Jenny really made them feel at ease but also offered her help to guide them in their wider roles, especially if they faced concerns.  

The first time I went to her home, I had no idea of her love for reptiles and she had no idea about my fear of reptiles. She couldn’t understand why I leaped on to her kitchen table as a huge iguana and an ancient tortoise ambled across the floor! Our friendship became closer when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was always there for me or at the end of the phone. Our roles reversed 7 months later when she received the same devastating diagnosis and our late-night calls and research about best treatments for breast cancer became a common topic. We also shared the same surgeon and oncologist, who saw how determined we were to beat the disease. Jenny and I encouraged each other to stay positive and I know that I couldn’t have done any of it without Jenny. Although we were no longer working in the same hospital, we would try to book the same annual neurology meetings together to catch-up, explore beautiful cities and have a heart to heart. We created wonderful memories when Jenny and her family came to our wedding in 2019 in Puglia, Italy, all of us dancing well into the night.  

Dr Jenny Vaughan and Dr Chinar Osman
Jenny and me at the ABN, Liverpool May 2017

Unfortunately, Jenny’s cancer relapsed in 2020 and her life returned to further rounds of treatment and the stress of scans. Her positive spirit, strong Christian faith and sheer determination made sure that she still made the most of life. She was my inspiration not only for my neurology career but also with all the selfless work she was involved in. As she always said, ‘I did it because it was the right thing to do’.  

Jenny was an extraordinary human being as well as a fantastic clinician, loved by colleagues and patients. She was a dedicated wife, a mother to two special boys and a unique friend in her own beautiful ways. The world was truly a better place with Jenny in it and she undoubtedly leaves the legacy of a better, fairer NHS. 

Rest in peace my friend.