Lives of the fellows

Rosalind Venetia Pitt-Rivers

b.4 March 1907 d.14 January 1990
BSc Lond(1930) MSc(1931) PhD(1939) FRS(1954) Hon FRCP(1986)

Rosalind Pitt-Rivers was born in London into an aristocratic family. Her father Anthony Morton Henley was the third son of the third Lord Henley and her mother, Sylvia Laura, was the third daughter of the fourth Lord Stanley. She was educated privately, by a French governess, until the age of 13 years when she passed through Notting Hill High School en route to gaining an MSc at Bedford College, University of London. She had ‘done the season’ in the conventional way before entering university and married the year she graduated. Her husband, George Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers, was a grandson of the distinguished archaeologist who founded the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford. He later became a Mosleyite and was detained during the second world war as an ‘enemy-sympathizer’.

After a spell as the hunting and shooting wife of a Dorset landowner, she returned to science in 1936 and joined Charles Harington’s department, later Sir Charles [Munk's Roll, Vol.VI, p.222], at University College Hospital medical school where she completed a PhD on the chemistry of glucosamides under the supervision of Albert Neuberger. In 1927 Harington had ingeniously synthesized thyroxine -the first hormone to be synthesized in the test-tube. When Harington moved to the National Institute for Medical Research, Ros joined him and transferred her interest to the thyroid hormones, hoping to identify compounds with antithyroid activity. Early in 1951 Jack Gross came to the NIMR from Canada, bearing a chromatogram of a thyroid extract with an unidentified iodine-containing spot. This proved to be triiodothyronine which they were soon able to show was the most active form of thyroid hormone. In recognition of this work she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1954.

When she retired from the NIMR in 1972 she returned to University College Hospital to resume work as a bench scientist until 1985, maintaining her usual practice of arriving at work at 7.30 a.m. and immediately discarding her shoes in favour of well-worn, rather sloppy slippers.

Ros was elected a Fellow of the College in 1986 but was unable to attend the admission ceremony because, she said, her ‘bones were dissolving’. The Fellowship was one of the many honours and distinctions she received. She was one of the great characters of the thyroid world, a superb bench scientist, an astute critic, always a helpful and courteous adviser - especially to the young, an amusing and popular companion and much loved by all who knew her.

Four years before her death she moved to Dorset, near to her son Anthony, who manages the Pitt-Rivers Estate at Hinton St Mary, and adapted surprisingly well to the non-academic world. Her characteristic wit, curiosity and enthusiasm for science and literature remained undiminished.

Sir Raymond Hoffenberg

[The Lancet, 1990,1,530;The Independent, 26 Jan 1990; MRC News, June 1990,47,pp.41-42]

(Volume IX, page 420)

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