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Eric Ashby (1904 - 1992):
Botanist; University administrator; Public scientist

Eric Ashby - © Godfrey Argent Studio

Eric Ashby was one of the outstanding professors of botany in the twentieth century, who also enjoyed the highest international reputation in tertiary education, throughout a career spanning over half a century. His specific legacy in Ulster was based on his incomparable tenure as Vice-Chancellor of Queen's University, Belfast, for the entire decade of the 1950s, a highly seminal period for the University during which he presided over a considerable expansion in staff and student numbers, a raising of (already high) academic standards at all levels, and promotion of the growing standing of Queen's University, nationally and internationally. He also launched and directed an ambitious buildings programme, which transformed the physical character of the University to its immense benefit. These legacies were highly significant for Belfast, Ulster and beyond.

Ashby was born in London and educated at the City of London School, entering Imperial College, London, where he graduated BSc in 1926, gaining first-class honours in botany and geology, winning the Forbes medal, before becoming a demonstrator at Imperial College in 1926, where he began his research on plant growth and development. His outstanding contribution in this field was his work with Lemna, a water plant only a few millimetres in size. The equipment which he designed himself for his experiments was a forerunner of the more complex and expensive phytotrons.

In 1929 Ashby was awarded a Commonwealth Fund fellowship which took him to the University of Chicago and the Desert Research Laboratory of the Carnegie Foundation. There he met many of the leading American botanists and acquired a firm grasp of genetics. He returned to Imperial College in 1931 and was appointed Lecturer. His research work included how to develop methods of describing and defining plant communities; a paper he published in 1935 (in the Annals of Botany) was a milestone, establishing him as an authority in plant physiology and other aspects of botany. In 1935 Ashby moved to the University of Bristol as a reader in botany, where he focused on genetics, then in a stage of rapid development.

In 1938 he was appointed to the chair of botany at the University of Sydney. During the Second World War he served on the Power Alcohol Committee of Inquiry set up to investigate the feasibility of producing power alcohol from surplus cereals and sugar cane. In 1940-42 he was chairman of the Australian National Research Council, and in 1942 he conducted an inquiry into the enlistment of scientific resources in war, at the request of the Australian prime minister. This led directly to his appointment by the Australian ministry of external affairs as scientific counsellor and chargé d'affaires at the Australian legation in Moscow (where he met many of the leading figures in the USSR, Stalin included). Back in Australia he was closely involved in the administrative development of universities in Canberra and Sydney, but in 1946 he returned to England as Harrison Professor of Botany and Director of Botanical Laboratories at the University of Manchester. During his three years there he built Manchester into one of the leading botanical schools in the United Kingdom. Ashby himself, despite his professed preference for "solving problems about people rather than problems about plants" would come to be regarded by botanists as one of the outstanding professors in that subject in the twentieth century.

In 1949 he was appointed Vice-Chancellor of Queen's University, Belfast, where he took up his post in 1950. This was a crucial time for Queen's, particularly in the wake of the 1944 Education Act, which led to a considerable demand for expansion in student places. This had particularly significant implications for a university which at that time was still a relatively small, provincial institution, limited in academic resources, whether as regards staff, physical facilities, or funding. Mainland British universities were funded by the Treasury in London whereas Queen's received its government funding from the Northern Ireland government's education budget. This could result in a discrepancy of nearly 100 per cent per student beside a comparable university in England. In 1952, Ashby, who had according to a later colleague "clear and appropriate strategic objectives and a mastery of the means of procuring them", was successful in persuading the Northern Ireland Government to invite the (United Kingdom) University Grants Committee, which had no responsibility regarding funding for Queen's, to visit and make funding recommendations to the Northern Ireland government. These were accepted, immediately boosting the income of Queen's University to a level almost at parity with other British universities - effectively doubling its revenue - and eventually enabling Ashby's ambitious programmes to be substantially realised.

Regarding academic staff, one of Ashby's chief policies concerned professorial appointments: given wide power by the Board or Curators, he sought out for chairs people in their thirties whom he thought would be likely to be leaders in their fields ten or more years later. His appointments were judicious and highly perspicacious: of the five scientific chairs he filled all were future Fellows of the Royal Society; non-scientific appointments would be scarcely less distinguished - during his tenure, 24 lecturers were promoted to chairs or equivalent posts outside Northern Ireland; nine professors moved to chairs in other parts of the UK, and a number of these would become university Vice-Chancellors.

The matter of buildings was a pressing priority. As Ashby himself pointed out, this was not merely to accommodate future growth but the already expanded numbers of students and new departments. Ashby oversaw the acquisition of a lot of property adjacent to the main site, and took close personal interest in almost all aspects of what became a considerable building programme, including negotiating with architects, and keeping in close touch with clerks of works of almost all projects, even discussing the relative merits of different local bricks. A large proportion of the architectural environment of the University area today remains a visual reminder of Ashby's Vice-Chancellorship - not least the prominent science and technology building which now bears his name. One buildings programme he tackled by improvisation: he encouraged the use of his greenhouse at the Vice-Chancellor's Lodge by Professor Heslop-Harrison, the botanist. Not only was this a prudent use of resources: Ashby, himself a botanist, was keen to be able to observe Heslop-Harrison's work at close quarters.

Administratively, he opened up the process of decision-making, holding open staff meetings prior to Academic Council (that is, decision-making) meetings, made himself personally accessible at all times, and was especially efficient as a chairman, including of committees of which he was ex officio in the chair, meticulously preparing beforehand. Such were his intellectual command and natural authority, not hindered by his imposing physical presence, coupled with the personal respect and esteem held for him that it was said that he never gave an order, because he never had to. It is also notable that, throughout his long career, he seldom served on a committee without chairing it.

He continued throughout this time to be involved in a wide range of activities outside the university. Within Northern Ireland, he was chairman of the Northern Ireland Advisory Council for Education, and vice-president of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts. In the United Kingdom more generally, including as chairman of the Scientific Grants Committee, and the Postgraduate Grants Committee, of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, and served on the government's Tizard Advisory Council on Scientific Policy, the Advisory Council on Scientific and Industrial Research, the Nuffield Provincial Hospitals Trust, and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. Internationally, he was vice-chairman of the Association of Universities of the British Commonwealth, and was member of several advisory groups of the Inter-University Council. These activities also served to raise the international profile of Queen's.

Domestically, Ashby once pointed up the relationship between Queen's University and the wider Ulster community in a radio broadcast, when he said that it was probable that the average Ulster person received their medical and dental treatment from a Queen's graduate, they or their children were taught by Queen's graduates, they travelled on roads and railways built and maintained by Queen's graduates, and if they had to go to Law, they would find many Queen's graduates there as well.

Ashby's term as Vice-Chancellor of Queen's, described later as "one of the great masterclasses in British and Irish university history", ended in 1959, when he became Master of Clare College, Cambridge, the first to be so appointed from outside that University. His tenure there saw the foundation of Clare Hall, which was initially a centre for advanced study but eventually became a separate college (typically, Ashby was not slow in securing international funding), and the admission of women as undergraduates. He also supported changes in the admissions policy of the College, which theretofore had concentrated on a limited number of traditional public schools.

Of course, his interests spread more widely than just the College and University (whose Vice-Chancellor he was from 1967-69) and included environmental pollution and genetic engineering in agriculture. He was the first chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution established in 1970, chaired a working party set up jointly by the Medical Research and Agricultural Research Councils to examine possible risks to the environment from genetically engineered organisms. In 1978 helped set up the prestigious Tanner Lectures on Human Values and gave the inaugural lecture in 1979, entitled "The Search for an Environmental Ethic". 

Ashby was not finished with Queen's, though, and was Chancellor from 1970 until 1983. A ceremonial post, this brought him back each year to the university which he had done so much to build up, and many hundreds of graduands received their parchments from the resplendently-robed Chancellor (a pageboy was required to carry the train) at the annual Ceremonies of Graduation, at which he spoke before presiding over the Honorary Graduates' Dinner.

His many publications included Scientist in Russia, 1947, Masters and Scholars, 1970, The Rise of the Student Estate, 1970 (with Mary Anderson), and Reconciling Man with the Environment, 1978. He also published his own and his wife's translations of works on botany from the German. His numerous papers on botany covered heterosis, growth analysis and leaf morphogenesis, and ageing and heteroblasty. Much of this work is still regarded as highly influential by what today are called peer-group reviewers.

He was knighted in 1956, elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1963, and raised to the peerage as Baron Ashby of Brandon in 1973 (he sat on the crossbenches as a working peer, including on a House of Lords select committee on EC Commission proposals). He was also a Trustee of the British Museum, a founder member of the Society for Experimental Botany, President of the British Association for the Advancement of science 1962-61 and a Fellow of the Linnaean Society.

His academic honours encompass a list of some 25 honorary doctorates from universities across the world, including his almae matres of London and Chicago; honorary Fellowships from Imperial College, London, the Royal Institute of Chemistry, the Institute of Biology, Davenport College, Yale University, and Clare Hall, Cambridge. He was a Foreign Member of the American Academy of Arts and Science, and the Venezuelan Academy of Science; he was also awarded the Order of Andrés Bello from that country.

Ashby's lifelong private passion was music, especially chamber music, and wherever he resided would seek out playing partners, whether students in his Cambridge days, or members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra; his own instrument had once belonged to a violist who played under the composer Joseph Haydn. Even in his eighties, he would risk missing a flight in order to discuss a Mozart piece with an enthusiastic undergraduate. His only athletic interests were aquatic; he had tried water polo during his time in the USA, but preferred his morning swim in the lake at his residence when Vice-Chancellor of Queen's; he was a fit octogenarian, at 87 still cycling each morning to the local shop. Though he was essentially quite a serious, though assuredly congenial, man, he was certainly not humourless. When he told his English colleagues he was taking up a post in Ireland he deflected the usual wisecracks about the population of his destination, but nonetheless could not help but smile when, driving off the ferry at Larne, he saw the two direction signs which in those days confronted the traveller: each stated accurately that Belfast was 14 miles away, but one pointed left, the other right.

After retirement he lived in Cambridge; he died in Addenbrooke's Hospital in that city. His portrait by Ruskin Spear is on display in the Great Hall, Queen's University, Belfast.

Born: 24 August 1904
Died: 22 October 1992
Richard Froggatt

Wesley McCann; Sir Peter Froggatt


Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, vol 41; A Jackson & DN Livingstone, Queen's Thinkers, Belfast 2008; The Independent, 28.10.1992 (obituary by Sir Peter Froggatt); BM Walker & A McCreary, Degrees of Excellence, Belfast 1994; LA Clarkson, A University in Troubled Times, Dublin 2004; private information; personal knowledge; private correspondence