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Elaine Funnell Memorial

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Professor Elaine Funnell passed away on 9th November 2019.

This is a place for everyone who knew Elaine to share our memories of her and through this to help celebrate her life.

If you would like to contribute please send your post to Grace Rice, grace.rice@mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk

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Elaine Funnell came late to academic life, entering the University of Reading as a mature student after a career as a music teacher in primary and secondary schools. She remained at Reading to undertake a PhD with Alan Allport. Within a year of starting the PhD, student and supervisor had published a paper in the world’s oldest scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London

Elaine then worked as a research fellow with Max Coltheart at Birkbeck College, studying acquired dyslexia. At the time, Birkbeck was a major centre for research in cognitive neuropsychology, the field to which Elaine would devote the next thirty years. At the end of her fellowship, Elaine was made a lecturer at Birkbeck. Four years later she moved to Royal Holloway where she achieved rapid promotion to Senior Lecturer then Professor of Neuropsychology. She held a succession of research grants from the Medical Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council, the Leverhulme Trust, the Wolfson Foundation and other bodies. Elaine studied semantic memory, its breakdown in semantic dementia and Alzheimer’s disease and its influence on reading, sentence comprehension and object recognition. Her collaborators included John Hodges, Michael Kopelman and Karalyn Patterson. 

At Royal Holloway, Elaine supervised eight of her own PhD students through to successful completion. One of Elaine’s first PhD students was Nikki Pitchford whose undergraduate project at York had analysed the speech and language problems experienced by a six-year-old girl following a stroke. Nikki and Elaine continued to monitor the girl’s recovery over a period of two years, reporting their findings in the journal Aphasiology. That project stimulated an interest in the under-investigated topic of acquired disorders in childhood that continued alongside Elaine’s work with adults. 

Elaine had a strong commitment to taking the fruits of research out to a wider audience. In 2004 she was President of the Psychology Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (now the British Science Association). She and Morag Stuart edited a book on learning to read that was designed to bring teachers up to date with research on the topic. Elaine and Glynn Humphreys produced a set of videos of patients with neuropsychological disorders that were widely used in undergraduate teaching. The videos were put together sensitively and were invaluable teaching aids. 

In the 1980s, Elaine was one of the founding members of the Cognitive Neuropsychology Interest Group which  provided a forum at which researchers could share findings and ideas. CogNIG, as it was known, was subsequently incorporated into the new British Neuropsychological Society. Elaine was a member of the Steering Group that laid the ground work for the BNS. She was the Society’s President from 2002 to 2004 and its archivist for many years. 

From left to right: Jo Willison, Narinder Kapur, Mike Kopelman, Elizabeth Warrington, Andrew Mayes, Barbara Wilson, Alan Baddeley, Karalyn Patterson, Elaine Funnell. 

Elaine’s efficiency and manifest common sense meant that she was always in demand. She was Honorary Secretary of the Experimental Psychology Society from 1993 to 1996 and was made an honorary life member in 2008. She also served on the committees of the British Aphasiology Society and the Cognitive Section of the British Psychological Society and was a member of the Psychology panel for the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise. 

Elaine was planning a volume of her publications in neuropsychology but was prevented by illness from bringing that project to fruition. Nikki Pitchford and Andy Ellis made their own selection and provided a Preface describing Elaine’s life and work. Acquired Disorders of Language in Adulthood and Childhood: Selected Works of Elaine Funnell (Routledge, 2017) also contains a paper with Michael Kopelman on verb processing in semantic dementia that Elaine was unable to complete, plus recollections of her by Alan Allport and Max Coltheart. Elaine made a deep, understated contribution to the development of neuropsychology in the UK. She will be missed. Colleagues are invited to use this page to share their own memories of her. 

Andy Ellis, 20th November 2019

I think I first met Elaine in the late 1970s (can that be true?!), when I was a postdoc at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford, and she was a mature graduate student. I don’t remember much about what we talked about, but I do remember Elaine herself, whose intelligence and patient-centred focus shone through everything she did. Our paths crossed in the following years at meetings of the British Neuropsychological Association and Experimental Psychology Society, and it was a pleasure to see her career flourish. She was always thoughtful, considerate and concerned that her research should have real application to help people’s lives. A lovely woman who will be much missed.

Dorothy Bishop, 10th February 2020

I knew Elaine through the Experimental Psychology Society.  I took over as Honorary Secretary when her term of office ended and I relied on her wise counsel for several years after that. I quickly came to understand what a generous and kind person she was – often giving up a great deal of time to help sort out my novice mistakes.  Veterans of EPS conference dinners will know the importance of the seating arrangements, and there was fierce competition to sit near Elaine.  She was quietly great company.  In later years we often discussed the similarities and differences between face and word processing.  She had a clear-sightedness that is not so common in our discipline. She will be sadly missed. 

Mike Burton, 24th February 2020

Elaine was a wonderful colleague: wise, kind, clear-sighted and supportive. One of my first memories of her was a talk she gave at the EPS which was critical of Alan Baddeley’s work. I thought this was very brave for a junior researcher as she was then. A former Departmental Administrator wrote of her: “such an elegant and lovely lady and a great loss to her field”.

Liz Valentine, 25th February 2020

I shall always remember with fondness and appreciation the kindness and support Elaine gave me at the start of my academic career. Elaine supervised my PhD in Developmental Neuropsychology at Royal Holloway in the early 1990s, during which she taught me many things, including the strength of a single case study design, handling somewhat messy patient data, and managing the intricacies of academic life. Most of all, I respected her focus of putting patients first; a valuable lesson which I have extended to my own research. Elaine was an incredible mentor and friend. She will be greatly missed.

Nikki Pitchford, 25th February 2020

I had the pleasure of knowing Elaine as a colleague, from when she joined Royal Holloway in 1992 until her retirement.  As a colleague Elaine was always supportive and helpful; as a person she was graceful, lively, humorous and kind.  She was a great presence in the department and I remember her very fondly.

Andy MacLeod, 25th February 2020

Elaine was my contemporary in the Royal Holloway Psychology Department and she was in post when I retired.  We had a common interest in cognitive neuropsychology and my own interests and knowledge profited greatly from learning about her own areas of expertise.
Elaine was a most pleasant and entertaining colleague.  She was also a wise and sympathetic listener on matters both personal and professional, never too busy.  She remained dignified in argument and was a true diplomat in her ability to bring about change without causing offence (valuable skills in departmental board meetings!).

The application of academic neuropsychology to daily life and employment is not always immediately obvious but Elaine offered a unit on Communication that was much valued by students for just that reason.  It included  the individual presentation of a prepared topic without notes and to a strict time limit.  I noticed that it inspired students to wear smart dress and possibly a touch of make-up for the occasion –  signals, I imagined, that the assignment was indeed deemed realistic. 

A few years after I retired, I faced major surgery and was left feeling rather despondent. I remain most grateful to  Elaine and Graham, who played a signal role in helping me to pick up the threads, inviting me to their London residence and taking me to concerts at the Wigmore Hall.

Mary J. Pickersgill, 26th February 2020

I had the pleasure of knowing Elaine for many years as a colleague both at Birkbeck and Royal Holloway. She was a delight to work with and was outstanding as both as a researcher and teacher. She was also very kind and supportive in both roles. Although we had many fascinating discussions about language and cognition, my abiding memories are of the times that we talked about other things. Elaine had many interests outside work and we shared a love of France. I spent several happy days with her and Graham in the sunshine of the South of France  enjoying the wonderful weather and the local produce. I particularly remember an evening meal that Elaine cooked and we ate outside surrounded by olive trees and the sounds and smells of Provence. 

Margaret Harris, 26th February 2020

I have many fond memories of Elaine, who was one of the most generous and least self-seeking academics I have ever met. The earliest is from 1994, when I arrived at Royal Holloway. Elaine welcomed me with extraordinary warmth, especially given that I was not in her research field; she truly respected and valued colleagues from all the diverse sub-disciplines of our subject. In no time, I was sitting down to dinner in her house, being treated like a valued and long-standing friend, and not just once. She was an excellent cook, incidentally. Throughout our years as colleagues she would always be interested in how things were going for me and she always had interesting things to say. She was truly collegial, to an extent that few of us can match, and she remains in my thoughts.

Andy Smith, 26th February 2020

I was really lucky to have Elaine for a friend! I first met her when I was a postgraduate student at Birkbeck, at the seminars that Max held there. These seminars were attended by very eminent psychologists, and I was so grateful to Elaine for actually speaking to me and showing an interest in my work. 

After a few years, Elaine and I applied as a job-share for a lectureship at Birkbeck, and of course we made an unbeatable combination, with complementary research and teaching interests: truly a case of two for the price of one! Elaine was a wonderful colleague and contributed greatly to the life of the psychology department. People were genuinely sorry when she left to go to Royal Holloway (and this is not always the case in academia….).

As I got to know her, the quality I most admired as she went about her own work was the creativity she displayed in devising tasks that were exactly right for testing her hypotheses. I think we most discussed the single case studies she carried out with both children, some of whom had suffered damage to their brains, and adults. Elaine left no stone unturned in investigating people’s difficulties, and trying to think of ways to make things better for them. Ironically, as it turned out, she developed a particular interest in semantic dementia, and followed one of her case study patients over several years, charting her gradual loss of vocabulary and the ability to explain herself. I often thought of that as I experienced Elaine’s own decline, although we did have some fun trying to understand each other! On one occasion, we were walking near her home in the countryside around Marlow, following slowly behind our faster spouses. Elaine suddenly stopped and said, “Those two chaps look jolly nice!”. “Well, yes”, I replied, “They are jolly nice! They’re our lovely husbands!”.  

I gradually noticed something was awry with Elaine when we met at meetings of the Forum for Research in Literacy and Language, of which Elaine was a founding member. She had always had an idiosyncratic take on issues, but gradually her contributions became harder to follow. At the last meeting she attended, I asked her how she was going to get home, and she said she would take the train (she had stopped driving by then). I asked her which station she got the train at, but she couldn’t remember. I had to prompt her with “I think it’s probably Marylebone?”, which she recognised. We set off together to walk to Euston Road and I tried to persuade her to take the 205 bus to the station, but she insisted she preferred to walk, and that she’d had a very pleasant walk from the station to get to the meeting. I said goodbye to her with grave misgivings, but she did walk to Marylebone and she did get safely home.

Elaine was endlessly supportive, kind and patient. She loved the work she did and was a research scientist to her very marrow. She never felt the need to seek glory by trumpeting her achievements: the work itself was what mattered to her.  Whilst I’m relieved that she is no longer imprisoned in the devastation wrought by dementia, I miss her terribly.

Morag Stuart, 26th February 2020

Elaine had a big influence on the initial part of my career at Royal Holloway and is very special to me.  She supported me to come to Royal Holloway in the first instance, and provided kind and effective mentorship in the first years of my appointment.  Much of this mentorship seemed to happen over lunches at our local pub.  I don’t know how she found the time, but it meant a lot to me.  I still remember Elaine’s advice to me about grant writing – the need to articulate “why this?”, “why me?” and “why now?” – the same advice I now pass on to my junior colleagues. 

Many people will know of Elaine’s deep influence on our understanding of language and reading, but as others have observed, what was important to Elaine was not how many papers or which journals the work was published in, but the quality of the work itself, and more importantly the individuals behind the data points.  She had come to academia relatively late, and maybe as a result of her previous experiences, she was able to capture the bigger picture in her work, moving effortlessly between developmental, neuropsychological, and typical adult populations.

Elaine was very concerned with the wellbeing and success of the early career researchers around her, and was a founding member of the Forum for Research on Literacy and Language (FRiLL).  This regional network provides a space to develop new ideas and to discuss new findings, and provides many new researchers their first opportunity to give a research talk.  Indeed, the first talk I gave in the UK was at a FRiLL meeting organised by Elaine.  This network is still very active and retains the supportive culture that Elaine instilled from the beginning.  

Many have described Elaine as calm, kind, and supportive, and that was also my experience.  But the memory most etched into my brain is one of her crying with laughter with Morag Stuart at a FRiLL meeting … a very nice way to remember her.

Kathy Rastle, 27th February 2020

I first met Elaine when the steering group for the British Neuropsychological Society, which I was somehow on, used to meet regularly in the Psychology Dept. at Birkbeck. It was Elaine who made us welcome, and saw that we were all comfortable and well supplied with cups of tea. I also met her around that time at meetings of the Special Interest Group in Cognitive Neuropsychology at Grange-over-Sands, where the other side of Elaine shone through – her mental sharpness and the beautiful logic and clarity of her research talks. One of my lasting memories is of an early BNS meeting at which the slide projector (remember them?) blew up in the middle of Elaine’s talk. She did not bat an eyelid, but simply pulled out a set of overheads (remember them too?), and continued on an overhead projector as if nothing had happened!

In the days when I worried that I might be something of an interloper in the austere world of cognitive neuropsychology, Elaine always had the knack of appearing warm, welcoming, and interested, as others have also noted, and we soon became friends. Moreover, although highly focussed on the development of cognitive theory, and very happy to adopt unconventional views on this, Elaine was also very interested in the practical applications of neuropsychology. An aspect of the latter was that we both became members of the scientific advisory panel to the Encephalitis Society in its early days. Another aspect was that she very much enjoyed visiting my clinic, which she did quite often, and where she would offer insights and wisdom that went well beyond the confines of neuropsychology. My hope was that this would lead to a productive collaboration and, after a couple of false starts, we began a series of very detailed studies on the use of past-tense regular and irregular verbs by a semantic dementia patient, and how this usage changed as the disease progressed. Elaine followed this patient for several years, patiently repeating tasks and incorporating new ones. She loved to think up new ways to test him, and to try out differing interpretations of the findings – she was not a person hidebound by a particular theoretical predisposition. Sadly, this work (really Elaine’s own) was never quite completed: we received some detailed, but thoughtful, reviewer comments and, to my surprise, Elaine did not respond with her usual alacrity. This was the beginning of her own illness. However, I was very pleased that the paper was eventually published as a chapter in Pitchford and Ellis’s volume of Elaine’s selected works.

Elaine’s other great quality was her kindness. Not only did she always treat patients with courtesy and respect but, in the case of our semantic dementia patient, she also provided huge support and counsel to his wife, frequently driving from Marlow to Kent to talk with her, something well beyond the demands of the research. Similarly, when an eminent colleague became withdrawn, depressed, and unwell, none of us quite knew what was happening, and whether to approach him or respect his privacy – it was Elaine who took the bit between her teeth, visiting him on several occasions and attempting to help.

My wife and I had the pleasure of getting to know Graham as well as Elaine in more recent years, greatly enjoying their company at opera in Holland Park or the Proms. The care Graham provided for Elaine in her illness was quite outstanding.

Michael Kopelman, 28th February 2020

Our paths crossed many times over more than 25 years, and I have many fond memories of Elaine’s kindness and generosity. She was a delightful person in so many ways.

Elaine was a really creative researcher. Although never strident, she definitely had her own views on most scientific matters, and she was robust in defending them. We had a number of common research interests for which our opinions diverged; it was always impressive to see how carefully and thoughtfully Elaine considered the evidence in each case. 

In addition to personal qualities of outstanding charm and intelligence, Elaine was exceptionally well-organised and efficient. She contributed much through her role as EPS Hon. Secretary and in work for other organisations too, including BNS, BPS and the British Association.

Although I developed an excellent professional relationship with Elaine, we got off to what might have been a bad start, when she gave me a bit of a ticking off about my dismissive response to a conference question I had considered particularly daft. She was right, and the reprimand was delivered so sensitively that it was impossible to take umbrage. Every time I succumb to this bad habit, I think of Elaine and resolve to attempt to get closer to her exemplary standards of politeness and diplomacy in future. It never works for long, but it is good to try.

Andy Young, 1st March 2020

Elaine was a colleague we will never forget. Always calm, kind and gracious. 
I have a particular memory which is an example of her kindness and generosity. I had an overseas research student who struggled with writing in English. I spoke to Elaine who very generously offered to assess her, and yes, the student did suffer from dyslexia. The student was so relieved to have an authoritative view. She said she had always struggled with reading and writing and had often wondered about dyslexia. She was so appreciative of Elaine’s expertise and kindness, and so was I.  I had enormous admiration both for her and for her scientific work. I am sure she has left many positive memories, and much inspiration.

Kate Loewenthal, 2nd March 2020

I came to the department a year or two after Elaine and have many very positive memories of her, all of which reflect her shining generosity of spirit. When I arrived she was one of the first people to make me feel welcome by inviting me to lunch, even though we’d never met before. It made a lasting impression. I’ll also never forget her professional support  – I doubt I would have made it to professor when I did if it hadn’t been for her proactive encouragement. I didn’t think I was ready, but she did! My lasting impression of Elaine is of someone who did things right – she was so principled in a way that is sadly all too rare. She really inspired me.

Bernice Andrews, 2nd March 2020

Recollections from Allan Allport

Elaine came to Reading University to study psychology as a mature student, in 1977, leaving behind a successful previous career as a music teacher. At that time Reading had an exceptionally lively group of faculty, research students, and undergraduates, all with a shared enthusiasm for the still comparatively new and rapidly expanding discipline of cognitive psychology. Elaine quickly became a part of this group. (The field acquired its name from the book, Cognitive Psychology, published by Ulric Neisser just ten years earlier.) She was fascinated by the contrasting cognitive processes involved in music and language, and the different systems of meaning and understanding that underlie them. 

She took courses taught by Max Coltheart, Alan Allport, Leslie Henderson and Lisanne Bainbridge. These were lively affairs, run predominantly in seminar form with a lot of input from the students themselves. (Ruth Campbell and Derek Besner were active contributors.) One of the core topics of study was how written or spoken words were recognized, produced, and understood. Around this time there was rapidly growing interest in studies of brain-injured patients, and how the patterns of their selectively impaired cognitive abilities, alongside other relatively intact ones, might throw light on the way cognitive processes were structured and organised in the brain. In the late 1970s this field of ‘cognitive neuropsychology’ effectively took off, following the pioneering work of two British partnerships, Marshall & Newcombe, and Shallice & Warrington. (John Marshall was another Reading graduate, as were John Morton and Tony Marcel, all active players in this exciting new field of research.) The year Elaine graduated, 1980, saw the publication of Deep Dyslexia, an epoch-making volume in this field, edited by Max Coltheart, Karalyn Patterson & John Marshall. 

Elaine had no hesitation: this was the field in which she wanted to make her academic career. She threw herself into her PhD research with huge enthusiasm, under my supervision. She brought to it another strand, the rehabilitation of neuropsychological patients via alternative or substitute channels of communication, which also stayed with her throughout her career. I have to say; working with Elaine was a delight. Our first joint publication appeared only a year into her PhD, and in the world’s oldest scientific journal, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. I can safely say, since the credit is hers, that it was a big hit. She completed her PhD thesis in 1983, thereafter moving to Birkbeck College to work with Max Coltheart on object naming and object concepts. Some of this research appeared later in a volume I co-edited, entitled Language perception and production: relationships between listening, speaking, reading, and writing, to which Elaine contributed two remarkable chapters. Her chosen field of research was by now clearly and very strongly established, and – equally clearly – she was making waves, and would continue to do so for the rest of her working life. 

Allan Allport

Reproduced with permission from N. Pitchford & A. W. Ellis (2017, Eds), Acquired Language Disorders in Adulthood and Childhood: Selected Works of Elaine Funnell. London: Routledge / Taylor & Francis, pp. ix-x. 

Recollections from Max Coltheart

As Alan mentions above, Elaine completed her PhD with him in 1983. I had heard her give talks on her work before she completed the degree and was very impressed by her theoretical acumen and the care with which she designed her cognitive-neuropsychological research, so I was very happy to get a grant from the Medical Research council in 1983-1986 to do work on disorders of reading, a grant which allowed me to offer Elaine a postdoctoral fellowship at Birkbeck.

By 1983 I had published various literature reviews and theoretical papers on acquired disorders of reading, and had been one of the organizers of the Deep Dyslexia conference at Oxford in 1979. But I felt a bit of a fraud because at that stage I had done very little empirical work involving testing the reading of actual live patients who had reading impairments caused by brain damage. Worse still, I was not sure that I would be able to do this. How upsetting might it be for me to see people who had previously been highly literate now stumbling at the simplest reading tests? And how upsetting might this be for the patients I would test?

Every Wednesday afternoon from August 1984 until the end of 1985, Elaine and I would travel on the Metropolitan Line tube from Euston Square near Birkbeck to West Harrow, to take tea with our patient HG and his wife at their home, and then to test HG’s reading and spelling (we reported these results in 1987 in one of the chapters Alan mentions above).  After the scones and strawberry jam and cream, I would take a back seat, and Elaine would administer our tests to HG. He was very surprised to find how difficult reading was for him now (he had been a very senior accountant and so highly literate). But he was not distressed by his difficulties with reading: bemused, sometimes amused, but not distressed. This was entirely due to the way Elaine interacted with him. The testing sessions were social encounters – she treated this stroke patient as another human being! – and also intellectual encounters – she could ask him why he could not read a particular word, and instead of bursting into tears he would think about it and offer explanations. He was particularly scathing about the peculiarities of English orthography, requiring for example a great deal of convincing when shown the word YACHT to read that it was that word. “Whatever are the C and the H doing there?” he wanted to know (his acquired dyslexia was surface dyslexia). “And surely there should be an O?” (his acquired dysgraphia was surface dysgraphia).

He was impaired at reading via a whole-word-representation reading route, and he was impaired at spelling via a whole-word-representation spelling route. Might one infer from this that there’s a single system of whole-word orthographic representations – a single orthographic lexicon – that is used both in reading and in spelling?  That is the question Elaine and I sought to answer in our chapter in 1987.

Since those days I have tested many patients, including some with particularly disabling conditions such as amnesia or dementia. I have not found this especially distressing and nor have the patients. I remain deeply grateful to Elaine for teaching me how to do this.

Max Coltheart

Reproduced with permission from N. Pitchford & A. W. Ellis (2017, Eds), Acquired Language Disorders in Adulthood and Childhood: Selected Works of Elaine Funnell. London: Routledge / Taylor & Francis, pp. xi-xii.