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Cathie Marsh

Cathie Marsh

A Tribute to Cathie Marsh (née Suggitt) 1951-1993


‘Cathie was a passionate believer in the power of rigorous analysis and rational argument in furthering the ends of social science and in the pursuit of social justice.’(Angela Dale, CMU)

Cathie Marsh, born Cathie Suggitt and a pupil at GWLC 1962-1968, was a ‘force of nature’ personality, with the intellect, competence and capacity for sheer hard work to back up her energy and determination. 

She wanted to change the world for good – and she did, albeit in unusual ways not necessarily known to the public. She was a leading quantitative sociologist who clear-sightedly understood that idealism and/or ideology was not enough and worked passionately to establish the role of rigorous research using high-quality data as the key to influencing political decisions. 

Although many try to avoid statistics, as a dry and difficult subject divorced from everyday life, Cathie saw that the process of collecting and analysing data (what you choose to ask, and how you use it) could affect lives. Her survey work in London and Cambridge on massive social studies eg. on unemployment, underlined the value of statistical research in driving social change.

Her outstanding practice, research, teaching and publications led to the award of a Personal Chair in Quantitative Methods at the University of Manchester Department of Economics and Sociology, when she was only 40 and while she and her husband were bringing up two young sons.

Remarkably, she succeeded in persuading the Government to release samples of data from the 1991 Census for research purposes, something that had never been done before. She then spearheaded the foundation of the Census Microdata Unit, whose function was to research and analyse the information.

This was a meteoric career that ended abruptly when she died tragically in 1993, aged only 41. Her work influenced the field of social science and inspired colleagues and students alike. In recognition of her unique contribution, the unit that she founded was renamed the Cathie Marsh Institute for Social Research, now an internationally respected centre of excellence.

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Early Life

Cathie Suggitt was born in Dulwich in 1951. The daughter of teachers and the eldest of four sisters, she was enrolled at George Square in 1962, when her family moved to Edinburgh and her father took up a Head of Department post at George Watsons College. 

She was an all-rounder, and always one of the academic high achievers in her school year, excelling particularly in Classics. She also threw herself into wider school life, contributing regularly to the school magazine. Never one to shy away from the limelight or from a good argument, she became a keen member of the Literary and Debating Society, shining in inter-school debating competitions and taking part in events like the annual Burns Supper with GWC and an uproarious one-off  McGonagall  Supper with the Royal High School.

She loved acting in the annual House Shakespeare Competition and singing in the choir, making the most of both skills as the spellbinding  Sorceress in the school’s ambitious 1967 production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.  

Newspaper clipping of a photo from Dido and Aeneas from 1968

Organised sports had little appeal on the other hand; she arranged to avoid Wednesday sports afternoons by forming a new Madrigal Group that somehow got permission to practise then instead.  Given the leadership qualities she was already showing, her election as a prefect in Form VI was no surprise, even though her friends and family knew she was far from being a saint – both in and out of school she steadily chalked up many scrapes as well as respectable achievements. Outside school, she developed a flourishing social life and the beginnings of an interest in politics.

In the late 1960s, plenty of opportunities were emerging for girls to challenge accepted norms, from school skirt lengths to career ambitions, and she took them up with relish. As the end of her school career approached in 1968, she set her sights high, deciding to aim for an Oxbridge degree.  So as her classmates headed off to pastures new she stayed on for a further term to prepare for Oxbridge Entrance examinations – not in George Square but at George Watson’s College. This was the first year that girls were admitted to GWC, with Cathie and two other Oxbridge hopefuls from her year in the vanguard of what would eventually be full amalgamation of the two schools.

Three girls joining a boys’ school created plentiful press coverage and a stir all round - that Cathie and her two companions were more than capable of managing.

Newspaper clipping with the headline 'Two girls get a big welcome when they join 1000 boys'

 She duly gained a place at New Hall, one of Cambridge’s women’s colleges, embarking in 1969 on Oriental Studies. 

In 1968 there was turmoil and change everywhere, for example, the ‘Prague Spring’ Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, heavy losses and growing protest about the Vietnam war, civil rights disturbances and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jnr. and Robert F Kennedy, the launch of second wave feminism, and the near-revolutionary student riots in Paris. On the doorstep, The Troubles were beginning in Northern Ireland. 

Cathie and Dave

Cathie was not one for the side-lines!  A student visit to Mao Tse Tung’s China changed her academic ambitions. Oriental Studies, with its emphasis on centuries-old classical written language and literature, would be no help in her new goal: playing a part in changing the world. To do that, she needed more relevant and more political tools.  So she changed to Social and Political Sciences for Part II of her undergraduate career. It was through student politics and left wing activism that she met her husband, Dave Marsh.  Each the President of their respective Junior Common Rooms, they worked together on organising events, and they married while still undergraduates.

Early Career

Cathie is described by her friends and colleagues as someone who could ‘handle anything’.  She was clear thinking, intellectually rigorous, brave and passionate. She ‘wouldn’t take any nonsense’ (which for her, in the academic context included the almost wholesale drift of Sociology into case-study based ethno-methodology). She started a PhD but found this unsatisfactory and chose instead to join progressive colleagues in the SSRC Survey Unit in London where she learned the craft of a survey methodologist.

She took part, for example, in using data to develop indicators of people’s ‘quality of life’ alongside the existing standard economic indicators. This was highly innovative: it would be another 30 years before measuring the nation’s ‘well-being’ became established.

The practical experience and the expert skill base she developed kept her grounded and served as a solid base for her later work, and for her first book, The Survey Method: the Contribution of Surveys to Sociological Explanation, which would appear in 1982. In this book, she argued passionately that the data collected in well-designed large-scale surveys were equally if not more important in telling us how society works, than the then-fashionable small-scale case-study investigations. 
When the SSRC Unit closed, in 1976, Cathie returned to Cambridge, becoming a Fellow of Newnham College, a lecturer in Sociology and ultimately Director of Studies in Social and Political Sciences. 

She completed her second book in 1988, Exploring Data: An Introduction to Data Analysis for Social Scientists. This book is regarded as a classic text, and, now into a second edition edited by Jane Elliott, is still widely used today in the social sciences.
The 1980s was an era of social upheaval in the UK. As traditional manufacturing industrial giants shrank or disappeared, mass unemployment was a huge societal scourge. Cathie collaborated on many projects looking at the shifting labour market and its effect on people’s lives, pursuing her belief that survey data could help to suggest new ways of tackling joblessness. 

Three covers showing Catherine March's books

Later Career

Apart from political and economic influences, both academia and everyday culture were changing due to the growing role of computer technology. Cathie had the vision to see its implications for quantitative social science research, as the potential for much larger data sets could be realised. 

Typically ‘ahead of her time’, she was one of the first researchers to ‘lug’ a portable computer around with her. She had a gift for clear communication, to help ordinary people make sense of social statistics, and she was a welcome media expert, memorably helping Peter Snow interpret his famous Swingometer in general election TV coverage.  Warm and kind, she cared about her students, though her intellectual ‘horsepower’ could be intimidating! And somehow alongside this full working life, she found time with her family and friends to swim, walk and attend theatre and opera. She was always great fun to be with. 

Catherine Marsh Hillwalking

The late 1980s brought many personal changes as Cathie’s husband accepted a hospital job in Manchester, ultimately becoming a Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery. Balancing full-time work in a demanding academic career with marriage and motherhood is a challenge for all women.  Even when the family was living across two places at opposite ends of the country, Cathie managed it with typical determination and energy. She would mechanically pump breast milk in the car as she commuted between Manchester and Cambridge, in order to freeze and then deliver best quality nutrition for baby Jamie. 

The dedication in her Exploring Data book says it all: “This book is dedicated to Jamie and Geoffrey, who were born between chapters 2 and 3 and 14 and 15 respectively.”

Cathie was excellent at thinking on her feet and was never at a loss for words. At various stages of her career she was to cross swords with “some pretty hefty politicians” (Dave Marsh), and was always able to speak up, hold her own and argue her case effectively. A colleague remembers how she always had a sheaf of figures in her handbag, that she would pull out and brandish to support arguments.

She eventually consolidated her career in Manchester, acquiring a hybrid teaching Fellowship post across the departments of Sociology and Econometrics. It was from here that she pulled off what has been described as a ‘huge political coup’. She chaired a government advisory body on the 1991 Census and spearheaded a successful push for research access to 10 percent of the precious household data that the census would yield – it was her research, showing how anonymity could be retained, that won the argument.  And since then, academic researchers have been able to analyse census material that would otherwise have been accessible only to government, thus opening up vital information that is in the public interest. 

Tragically, Cathie died in January 1993 aged just 41, from aggressive breast cancer. 

At an emotional Memorial service, 360 people came together to celebrate her achievements, her sense of fun and her kindness. As an extraordinary tribute to her memory, the unit that she had helped to found was renamed ‘The Cathie Marsh Institute for Social Research’ in her honour.

People she worked with continue to remember her with admiration and affection. Brendan Burchell, her colleague for 6 years and now Professor of Social Sciences and President of Magdalene College Cambridge, named her as one of his most influential mentors – someone who “shaped the way I think”. Musically and intellectually, she lives on through her sons – one a professional musician, one a creative photographer, film producer, presenter and environmental journalist.

Her husband Dave feels that although Cathie herself is gone, her strong ‘signal’ continues through the world, pulsing onwards through the lives and work of the many people who were touched and changed by her vision and energy.

A question that came up often in our conversations with her family and colleagues is ‘What would Cathie have become, if she had lived longer?’ First female Labour Prime Minister? We who knew her are convinced that she could have succeeded in doing anything she set her mind to!

To read more about Cathie Marsh, please explore the following links, which indicate the enormous respect and affection in which she was held by her academic colleagues and friends.

Cathy smiling holding a white cup

List of links

This tribute was written by Cathie’s school friends Alison Stancliffe and Sally MIllar, with input from her husband, sister and colleagues