Oration for Professor Frances Ashcroft by Professor Gordon Campbell
On the occasion of being awarded Doctor of Science summer 2007
Frances Ashcroft is a medical physiologist, and so a student of the processes of the human body. Indeed, she rejoices in the title of Royal Society GlaxoSmithKline Research Professor of Physiology at the University of Oxford. The road to that multi-syllabic eminence began in rural Dorset, where young Fran attended a village school; the teaching staff of two included her mother. She became enamoured of the natural world, including birds, badgers, pond life and rare plants such as wild orchids. At night she read, sometimes about the natural world, but also about the world of the imagination as represented in poems and novels. The scientific and artistic sides of her personality, which are bound together by her creativity, both originate in this childhood.
Frances went to Cambridge, where she read Natural Sciences, a capacious degree that allows students with a wide range of scientific interests to indulge their passions. Frances gravitated towards zoology, the subject that she was to pursue for her PhD at Cambridge. In 1978 she moved to Leicester, where she held a post-doctoral fellowship with Peter Stanfield, to whom she remains grateful for outstanding scientific training; Peter is now at Warwick University, but Frances’s other mentor at Leicester, Nick Standen, is still here and is now a professor in our Department of Cell Physiology and Pharmacology. Frances’s work was focussed on ion channels, which are the tiny pores needed for the conduction of nerve and muscle impulses. This may seem an abstruse interest, but ion channels allow us to walk and talk and think, and when they malfunction, the results are sometimes unexpected. In the world of domestic animals, goats collapse when startled, pigs die shivering and horses suffer paralysis. In humans, malfunctioning ion channels can result in cystic fibrosis, epilepsy and cardiac arrest. In the case of Frances Ashcroft, it is the role of ion channels in diabetes that has long been at the centre of her research.
Frances published on these topics in learned journals such as Science, Nature, and Journal of Physiology, but she never forsook her childhood naturalist interests: one day she brought a fox skin in to the department to cure it - and the smell almost caused the evacuation of the third floor of the Medical Sciences Building. It was at Leicester that she began to discuss the idea of working on pancreatic islets, an area that she was to take up when she left us for a short spell in Los Angeles and a permanent post in Oxford. Her first major success in Oxford came in 1984 with her demonstration of potassium channels sensitive to the metabolism of glucose. She went on to investigate several inherited disorders of the potassium channels and the sulphonylurea receptor which forms part of the channel complex. Perhaps most importantly, she elucidated the science behind the treatment of Type II diabetes (the variety that affects older patients). In layman’s terms, her research concerns the process whereby a rise in blood sugar level causes the release of the hormone insulin from the pancreas; her particular interest is in how this process is impeded in people with Type II diabetes, and in how drugs can be used to treat this condition. She has also identified a genetic form of neonatal diabetes, and in this case her research has facilitated improvements in medication, including a shift from daily injections to pills.
The importance of this research is self-evident, but the science that lies behind it is of a complexity and sophistication that can only be achieved by a scientist of very unusual abilities. Frances Ashcroft is such a scientist, and her accomplishments are widely recognised. In 1996 she was appointed Professor of Physiology at Oxford, and in 1999 she was elected as the 8000th Fellow of the Royal Society of London; in an organisation that has in the past not been known for its willingness to honour women scientists, this was a rare distinction, and remains so. The value of her work has also been recognised internationally, most recently by the American Physiological Society, which in April conferred on her its highest honour, the Walter B. Cannon Award.
Anyone who thinks that academics lead lives of quiet reflection should follow Frances for a day. She conducts research, and for many years served as her own technician to repair electronic failures; she writes scientific papers, teaches medical students, lectures throughout Britain and very often abroad, fundraises, and writes books. One of these books, called Life at the Extremes, aspires to explain to the general reader the science of human survival in extreme environments such as mountain tops, under water and in extreme heat and cold. This book could have been written in her study, but Frances characteristically chose to undertake field work at high altitude and at sea, subjecting herself to many of the extremes that she describes. The creative interests of her childhood are still very much in evidence in her reflections on the relationship of science to literature and the visual arts; she recently produced an exhibition with the artist Benedict Rubbra about the different ways that artists and scientists perceive the world. A recent scientific initiative is the Oxford Centre for Gene Function, a multidisciplinary research centre that aims to decode the information generated by the Human Genome Project and characterize the function of human genes.
Mr Chancellor, on the recommendation of the Senate and of the Council, I present to you Frances Ashcroft, that you may confer upon her the degree of Doctor of Science.