Obituary: Charles Ford

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The Independent Culture
CHARLES FORD'S first of many contributions to mammalian cytogenetics was his involvement in the 1956 correction of the human chromosome number. This followed 30 years of uncertainty over whether humans had 47 or 48 chromosomes. Ford, with his colleague Hamerton, unequivocally showed the presence of 23 pairs in the germ cells from normal men, corroborating another report that 46 had been counted in dividing cells from cultures.

Soon, Ford, with others, showed correlations between aberrant chromosome numbers and some known human syndromes, such as Turner's and Klinefelter's - revelations that not only brought about a world-wide surge of interest in human chromosomes, but also produced increasing differences in the reporting of observations. In an attempt to resolve disparities, Ford was instrumental in convening a study group to lay foundations for an acceptable international nomenclature system. The resulting Denver Report, published in 1960, became the forerunner of further updates which are still produced to this day.

The techniques for observing human chromosomes had been perfected at the Medical Research Council's (MRC) Radiobiology Unit at Harwell - where Ford was head of cytogenetics from 1947 to 1971 - by using the tissues of other mammals as models. At the time Ford also thought of combining these developments with the expertise available on site in order to study radiation effects on animal cells. The mouse geneticists Toby Carter, Mary Lyon and Tony Searle supplied numerous mouse stocks carrying radiation-induced chromosome aberrations. These provided important insights into many aspects of the effects of genome unbalance and into estimates of genetic risk.

One aberration proved doubly useful in presenting a much smaller chromosome than normal which Ford used as a marker to trace donor cell contributions in the ongoing experiments of John Loutit, Spedding Micklem and David Barnes to "rescue" lethally irradiated mice. The information obtained proved invaluable in establishing the basic principles of immunosuppression and the transplantation of tissue such as human bone-marrow.

In over 20 years of association with animal cytogenetics at Harwell and then at the Dunn School in Oxford, Ford became involved with the chromosomes of innumerable species, from the shrew to the sheep, and in a variety of situations - from proving the existence of hybrid wallabies at a zoo to the chromosome screening of athletes competing at the Mexico City Olympic Games. At all times his enthusiasm was inspirational and was in part acknowledged by his election to a Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1965 and by the compilation in 1978 of a special issue of the international journal, Cytogenetics & Cell Genetics, in honour of his 65th birthday.

Although widely regarded as one of the founder fathers of a golden era in mammalian cytogenetics, Ford had graduated as a botanist from King's College London. He worked briefly on the chromosomes of his much-loved evening primrose, before departing in 1938 for a seven year war-interrupted stint as the geneticist at the Rubber Research Scheme in the then Ceylon.

Following increasing concern and the lack of knowledge regarding the chromosome damaging effects of radiation, Ford was recruited in 1946 to the Department of Atomic Energy at Chalk River, in Canada, and then, three years later, he went to head the Cytogenetics Section at the newly founded MRC Unit at Harwell. Destined to work with one of the classic tools for chromosome breakage study, bean root-tips, he found they failed to grow because of the toxic effects of copper leached from the new pipework. To fill in the time while awaiting replacement pipes he turned from plants to animals. He never looked back. One growth failure led to the initiation of memorable growth in another area.

Charles Ford married Jean Dowling in 1940 and she gave him tremendous care and support over all the years. His interests were many, travelling, the great outdoors, sport of all kind with an extra passion for rugby union - with many a biennial seminar given in Edinburgh strangely coinciding with the weekend of the Calcutta Cup. He listed "friends" as one of his interests; we will certainly miss his company.

Ted Evans

Charles Edmund Ford, cytogeneticist: born 24 October 1912; Demonstrator, Department of Botany, King's College London 1926-38; geneticist, Rubber Research Scheme, Ceylon 1938-41, 1944-45; Principal Scientific Officer, Department of Atomic Energy, Ministry of Supply, Chalk River Laboratories, Ontario 1946-49; Head of Cytogenetics Section, MRC Radiobiology Unit, Harwell 1949-71; FRS 1965; member, MRC External Staff, Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, Oxford 1971-78; married 1940 Jean Dowling (four sons); died Abingdon, Oxfordshire 7 January 1999.