Obituary: Lord Ashby
Wednesday 28 October 1992
ERIC ASHBY was an influential figure both at Cambridge University - where he was Master of Clare College from 1959 to 1975 - and Queen's University, Belfast, where he was Vice-Chancellor in 1950-59 and Chancellor in 1970- 83. He was also the first Chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, from 1970 to 1973, and in the 1940s a professor of botany at the University of Sydney and at Manchester University.
Ashby was born in 1904 and educated at the City of London School. His basic botanical training was at Imperial College, London, and after graduation he began research in plant physiology. He was particularly interested in the factors affecting the growth- rate of plants. In order to eliminate as far as possible variation between individual plants, he chose a small water plant, the duckweed, which enabled him to grow many hundreds of plants in any individual experiment and thus simplify the statistical treatment necessary for critical work. This was very much in line with current thinking. The middle 1930s were a period in which the rapidly developing statistical methods were being applied to biology. Ashby was very interested in this and it influenced him all his life. Similarly, when in Australia, his ecological work dealt with the application of statistical treatments to plant ecology and this persuaded many others to take a more rigorous approach to their research.
Ashby's main contributions to biology lay in organising and stimulating others. When he moved from Sydney to Manchester in 1946 he took over the moribund department and in a few years he had gathered together an active group of young colleagues and transformed it into one of the leading teaching and research centres of botany in the United Kingdom. His organising ability showed itself at its best in the way he dealt with problems of practical classes in the immediate post- war years.
The enormous influx of returning ex-servicemen meant that in Sydney the first-year botany practical classes contained approximately 600 medical students, 500 pharmacy students and 600 science, arts and agriculture students. To provide material for these it was necessary to design a course which would use what could be purchased in bulk from markets and if, for example, the Professor of Botany decided to use tulips or some more exotic flowers it led to strange fluctuations in the market price. In order to get the maximum use from the restricted laboratory space he devised a highly efficient turnover system: as one class ended a group of technicians came in with trolleys clearing the debris of the previous class, hotly followed by a second group setting out trays of material and reagents which had been prepared while the first class was in progress - a bit like air hostesses serving meals. In the university his administrative ability was much in demand first as dean of the faculty and then, in 1942-44, as chairman of the professorial board.
One of Ashby's contributions while in Australia was to achieve a much closer co-operation between the government research organisation, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), and the universities. He arranged for a unit of the plant physiology section of the CSIR concerned with the storage and transport of fruit and vegetables to be housed in his department, leading to a close association which was of immense benefit to both organisations. His general administrative ability was recognised far outside the university and he acted as a consultant to the government in many ways, and was chairman of the Australian National Research Council in 1940-42. This led to his being sent to Russia in 1944 by the Australian Ministry of External Affairs as a counsellor in the Australian legation in Moscow. His account of this period in Scientist in Russia (1947) gave readers many an insight into the Soviet Union that they could get from few other sources.
Ashby's ability to ease difficulties for other workers showed in many ways as for example in his compiling a German/English vocabulary of botanical terms with his wife Helen in 1938. Physically he was a big man and always seemed extremely fit, whether at fieldwork or during long hours at his desk. When he moved from Sydney to Manchester he left behind a large active department with a keenly motivated staff and a highly successful government research unit in which he had taken a very personal interest.
Ashby moved to Belfast in 1950, as President and Vice-Chancellor of Queen's University, where he became increasingly interested in general education and the efficient use of educational resources. His oft-repeated question about the justification of small departments is still relevant: 'Is it right to have a small department of physics at, say, Lancaster, or would it be cheaper to hire Rolls- Royces and send the Lancaster students to Manchester for their physics?' His book The Rise of the Student Estate (1970) and his contributions on the statistical treatment of examination marks and gradings are examples of his spreading interest. He was not a great botanist and it is doubtful if many will refer to his strictly botanical papers, but he was an outstanding professor of botany. His drive, his enthusiasm, his ability to get facilities for his staff and students, made him an excellent leader. In a way he was fortunate that he lived and worked in a period in which it was possible to be an all-rounder and still achieve excellence.
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