Lives of the fellows

Edmund Briscoe Ford

b.23 April 1901 d.22 January 1986
MA DSc Oxon(1943) FRS(1946) Hon FRCP(1974) Hon DSc Liverp(1964)

Edmund Briscoe (‘Henry’) Ford died at Oxford where he had worked all his life. He was born at Papcastle, near Cockermouth, Cumbria, the son of Harold Dodsworth Ford and his wife Gertrude Emma Bennett. He was an undergraduate at Wadham College, then a lecturer in zoology and comparative anatomy, and later became an honorary fellow. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1946, being awarded the Darwin medal in 1954 and the medal of Helsinki in 1967. He was also one of the first scientists to be elected a fellow of All Souls College since the 17th century, where he served two terms as senior dean. From 1946-49 he was president of the Genetical Society of Great Britain.

Henry Ford’s interest in genetics led to his appointment as director of the genetics laboratory of the university, 1952-69, and as professor of ecological genetics, 1963-69. His work on natural selection, mainly carried out on butterflies and moths, was outstanding. He demonstrated that what had been purely theoretical predictions actually worked in the woods and the fields, and thus he was the originator of ecological genetics. He was the first to describe and define genetic polymorphism, that delicate balance between conformity and diversity, and he prophesied, correctly, that susceptibility to particular diseases was a factor in maintaining the human blood group polymorphisms, The associations of cancer of the stomach and group A. and of duodenal ulcer and group O, bore this out. In the sickle cell haemoglobinopathy the advantage of the heterozygote was excellently demonstrated as it protected children against malaria. In addition, his investigation of the pigments of Lepidoptera was one of the most successful early attempts at relating chemistry to classification.

He had a knack of selecting the right material for a particular investigation and a gift for picking good research workers and then giving them their heads: H B D Kettlewell throve on the peppered moth and industrial melanism; Arthur Cain excelled on the snail Cepaea nemoralis, demonstrating that natural selection by predators acted on a colour polymorphism; and Philip Sheppard [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.532] concentrated on the evolution of mimicry, particularly in the swallow-tailed butterfly Papilio dardanus, on which Ford’s monograph was the Bible. But there was more to come: Sheppard applied Ford’s suggestion about human blood groups to the Rh (rhesus) system, and with researches at the department of medicine at Liverpool University found a method of preventing Rh haemolytic disease of the newborn. It was for this type of work that the Nuffield Foundation, of which Henry was a trustee, set up the unit of medical genetics there, and it was a nice quirk that in the Rh polymorphism the heterozygote does not obey the rules, for it is always at a disadvantage.

Butterfly collecting hints at eccentricity, but in E B Ford this trait was combined with an extensive knowledge of history, literature, archaeology and religion - as well as genetics - which resulted in writings of great educational value. He also took an enthusiastic interest in heraldry. Further, he contributed much to the Prehistoric Society.

In 1984, with J S Haywood, he produced Church treasures in the Oxford district, Gloucester, Alan Sutton. The titles of his other books demonstrate his versatility: The Study of heredity, London, Thornton Butterworth, 1938; Mendelism and evolution, 6th ed. London, Methuen, 1967; Ecological genetics, London, Methuen, 1964, 4th ed. London, Chapman & Hall, 1975; Genetic polymorphism, London, Faber and Faber, 1965: Genetics for medical students, 6th ed. London, Methuen, 1967, 7th ed. London, Chapman & Hall, c.1973; Moths, London, Collins, 1955; Butterflies, London, Fontana, 1975, Genetics and adaptation, London, Edward Arnold, 1976, Understanding genetics, London, Faber, 1979, and Taking Genetics into the countryside, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, c. 1981. He was still writing at the time of his death. Some of these books went into many editions and every one is characterized by his lucid prose, so different from much modern scientific gobbledygook - he regarded molecular geneticists as incomprehensible interlopers. Butterflies proved to be a bestseller and it is not surprising that the ordinary reader devoured it with enthusiasm, for it opened up entirely new aims in butterfly observation and led the amateur painlessly into the mysteries of genetics and ecology.

Oxford has produced many eccentrics, but few in the same class as Henry. Although an endearing character in many ways he had a feline capacity to make his disapproval felt. He was a faithful and generous friend, but he froze those of whom he disapproved, and his attitude to women was exemplified when lecturing to undergraduates: when his audience was of mixed sex he always began ‘Gentlemen’, and on one occasion when only girls were present he is alleged to have walked out -‘... since there is no one here, there will be no lecture.’ He was unmarried.

Henry was a stimulating teacher and his breadth of knowledge profoundly impressed the young - who were also fascinated by his unpredictable reactions. He delighted to present himself to students as a terror. When apprehension faded, the imprint which endured was of a passion for poise, for meticulous thoroughness and, above all, for style. We shall never see his like again, and how far evolution can account for such a unique individual is a matter for wonder.

Sir Cyril Clarke
Sir Gordon Wolstenholme

[The Times, 23 and 30 Jan 1988; The Independent, 23 Jan 1988; Nature, Vol.332,3 Mar l988,Memorial Address All Souls Chapel,12 Mar 1988]

(Volume VIII, page 156)

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