Obituary: Lord Ashby

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The Independent Online
Eric Ashby, botanist and university administrator, born 24 August 1904, Lecturer Imperial College of Science London 1931-35, Reader in Botany Bristol University 1935-37, Professor of Botany University of Sydney 1938-46, Counsellor and Charge d'Affaires Australian Legation Moscow 1945-46, Harrison Professor of Botany and Director of Botanical Laboratories Manchester University 1946-50, President and Vice-Chancellor Queen's University Belfast 1950-59, Kt 1956, Master of Clare College Cambridge 1959-75 (Life Fellow 1975-92), FRS 1963, Vice-Chancellor Cambridge University 1967-69, Chancellor Queen's University Belfast 1970-83, Chairman Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution 1970-73, created 1973 Baron Ashby, married 1931 Helen Farries (two sons), died Cambridge 22 October 1992.

ERIC ASHBY's appointment as Master of Clare College, Cambridge, was his first official contact with Cambridge, but he took no time to beome acclimatised and to begin making his mark on college and university, without upsetting any feelings, writes Sir Brian Pippard.

The college had a good record in science, less good elsewhere, and one of his first tasks was to draw in a wider range of talented students. In due course, when he had piloted a far from unanimous governing body into agreeing to admit women students - Clare was, with King's and Churchill, one of the first mixed colleges - he had the satisfaction of seeing a well-integrated undergraduate body achieve outstanding academic success, year after year. One unforeseen bonus was the first-class chapel choir of mixed voices, and a regular intake of talented instrumentalists, to Eric's great satisfaction, for he was a keen chamber-music player. Almost to the end he took lessons in the viola, and only a few years ago, well over 80 years old, he sold his two instruments in order to buy one of still better qulaity; and he never gave up his daily practice.

Soon after his arrival he was asked to serve as vice-chairman under Lord Bridges on the syndicate appointed to consider the relations between university and colleges. The Master's Lodge at Clare became the focus of delicate discussions on how to persuade colleges to admit more Fellows and take more interest in research students. The resulting report, with its proposals for legislation to achieve the much-needed modernisation, persuaded the colleges to act immediately before worse occurred. This might be seen as a paradigm of Eric's administrative gifts, an illustration of what the Fellows of Clare had been told when they began to think about enticing him from Belfast: 'He is the only Vice-Chancellor who doesn't give orders; he doesn't need to.'

His calm presence and wise advice served Cambridge well when, as Vice-Chancellor, he dealt with the first surge of the students' revolt in the late Sixties. If now we can look back on the whole business as a very minor eruption it is so to a considerable degree because of the skill with which he deployed what students castigated as 'repressive liberalism' - making no attempt to defend customs and practices of small intrinsic worth, while ensuring that the senior members were united in defending the essentials of intellectual culture.

The problem of university teachers without college fellowships, and research students inadequately cared for, did not vanish altogether with the Bridges Report, and in the mid-Sixties pressure developed within the governing body of Clare for more to be done. After many meetings of committees and sub-committees, with Eric as chairman and with much imaginative input from the members, the college took the bold step of setting aside a considerable fraction of its wealth to found a daughter college, Clare Hall, for graduates and visiting scholars. Ashby himself negotiated for extra finance from American foundations and saw to it that the resulting institution got off to a good start. From then on he never interfered in its business, but as the first, and for many years the only, Honorary Fellow he showed how proud he was of its success by the frequency of his appearances at lunch.

It is not always that an effective administrator is loved by all with whom he has dealings. Eric Ashby was such a one, and Cambridge will remember him with gratitude and real affection.

(Photograph omitted)