From bottom in French to the prestigious Legion d’Honneur

Barbara Demeneix
Barbara Demeneix

Former Luton High School pupil Barbara Demeneix – who now lives in Paris – is basking in a trio of top notch achievements.

The distinguished biologist had just published Losing our Minds: Effects of Chemical Pollution on the Intellectual Capacity and Mental Health of Future Generations when she heard her prestigious Legion d’Honneur – awarded in 2004 – was to be upgraded.

And there was more to come. “The amazing thing was that on the same day I heard about the Legion d’Honneur promotion, I also got news that I had received the Medal of Innovation from the CNRS (the French Centre for Scientific Research),” she said.

“It was marvellous and people kept asking which I was most chuffed about,” she smiled.

“I think the answer is both equally. But the recognition provided by the Innovation Medal underlines the importance of government funding of basic research – in this case understanding how tadpoles become frogs! – which can lead to innovation and job creation in an area that has many socio-economic consequences and ramifications.”

Professor Demeneix, 64, is co-founder of an international company called WatchFrog which has developed ethical tests to determine the level and impact of various contaminants.

It is an ongoing concern that has prompted much of her work and led to her book.

The mother-of-two explained: “The more research I do, the more I realise that we have a global problem that affects the intellectual potential and mental health of the next generation, even in the womb.

“And the powers-that-be are not standing up to the industries responsible for these contaminants entering our atmosphere and waterways – shades of the fight again the tobacco and asbestos lobbies.”

Her current research invokes memories of Luton in the 1950s and 1960s.

“We used to go down to Leagrave to catch tadpoles and newts,” she recalled. “Can kids still do that today?

“Luton was such a stimulating place to live, not only because we could go up to London for concerts and the theatre but also because there were so many amateur orchestras.”

In those days Barbara played the double bass but she’s since swapped to the violin because it’s easier to take on her travels.

She’s happy to credit Luton High School’s excellent staff with her academic success. “They were mainly women and our chemistry teacher, Mrs Youssava, was inspirational,” she said.

But French mistress Miss Rollison would never have believed little Barbara Jenkins would end up in Paris: “I was always bottom of the class.”