Lives of the fellows

Barbara Rashbass

b.8 May 1934 d.6 April 2013
MB BS Lond(1958) DCH(1961) DCH(1968) FRCP(1995)

Barbara Rashbass was director and secretary of the Wolfson Foundation and the Wolfson Family Charitable Trust. Her parents, Leonard Emmanuel Cramer and Sarina Cramer née Klinger, were both company directors. She was educated at Godolphin School in Salisbury and then went on to study medicine at University College, London, graduating in 1958.

After house officer posts at University College Hospital, London, and Brighton, she immediately took off for a medical assistant post in Columbus, Ohio. After a year in general practice on her return she decided that clinical medicine was not for her and she embarked on a career in public health. Working for Middlesex County Council and then for the London Borough of Harrow, she gained a diploma in child health and one in public health. Having decided that a legal qualification might be useful, she also qualified as a barrister in 1969.

After eight years in public health, she decided on a career change and one that brought her to greater prominence in the medical research arena, first at the Medical Research Council (MRC) and later at the Wolfson Foundation.

Entering the MRC in 1968 as a medical officer, she rose through the ranks via secretaryship of the mental health and neuroscience board to become principal medical officer in 1983. Her reputation rose with her as she became known for her high intellect and capacity to handle difficult issues. Tactful and considerate to the numerous applicants for funds from the MRC, she was nevertheless clear and direct, so there was rarely any doubt or uncertainty in the responses they received. Her ability to deal with knotty questions was in evidence later on at least one occasion. The MRC had been slow to recognise the potential of in vitro fertilisation and its policy had been unsupportive of its early development. When probed in detail about this many years later, she played a civil servant’s straight bat and gave no confidences away, despite the questioner’s growing frustration.

Deciding on a change after 20 years at the MRC, she went to work at the Wolfson Foundation, where she stayed for 10 years until her retirement in 1997. She became the director and secretary of the Foundation and the Wolfson Family Charitable Trust. With grants of around £30 million to distribute each year, these were important and responsible positions, and she carried out her role with great distinction. Working closely with Lord (Leonard) Wolfson [Munk’s Roll, Vol.XII, web], a man who was widely respected and admired, but who could be difficult at times, she managed the Foundation with considerable aplomb. Never flustered, she became the face of the Foundation that medical researchers came to know and to trust, as she earned their respect and admiration.

In recognition of her services to medical research she was elected to the fellowship of the RCP in 1995 under a special by law (she had never taken the MRCP examination) and, in 1999, to a fellowship of University College London.

She had broad interests outside research funding. She became chairman of the Civil Service Commission science division boards, chairman of the London Borough of Harrow joint consultative committee and deputy chairman of Harrow Health Authority. She was a governor of the John Cabot City Technology Trust and deputy chairman of its college.

She continued an active life after retirement and took on a non-executive directorship of the Harrow and Hillingdon Healthcare NHS Trust and became a member of the development council of the Royal National Theatre.

She met and married her husband, Cyril Rashbass, while she was still a medical student. They married in 1956 and had two sons (Jeremy and Andrew) and a daughter (Penny). Cyril Rashbass rose to become a distinguished professor of neurophysiology at the University of Groningen. He died in 1982. She was survived by her three children, two of whom have followed her into medicine.

Lord Leslie Turnberg

(Volume XII, page web)

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