Some scientists barely impinge on the general public consciousness, yet have an enormous influence on others. One of these was Alison Brading, Professor Emerita of Pharmacology at Oxford University and former Fellow and Tutor of Lady Margaret Hall. Yesterday she was laid to rest after her heart and lungs finally gave up the struggle of coping with the aftermath of the polio that infected her in her youth.
The college chapel was packed with her former students and colleagues. Formal obituaries will appear elsewhere, but as I am one of the students that Alison set on the road to a fulfilling career, I wanted to add my personal memory.
I first met Alison when I went for interview at LMH, hoping to be admitted to read physiology and psychology. This was a late subject choice, and one I had totally failed to prepare for in my sixth form studies. I presented myself, aged 17, having offered papers in French and History in the Oxford entrance exam (you had to take it in those days) and planning to take A levels in those subjects plus English.
I had O levels (the predecessors to GCSE) in Biology and Physics-with-Chemistry, so was not an entirely hopeless case, but the college seemed doubtful about my reading physiology and tried to steer me towards philosophy instead. I was convinced, however, that I needed a solid biological underpinning if I was to make sense of the experimental psychology course.
Alison seemed to accept my argument, but clearly needed to establish that I had some basis to start from. ‘What is the function of water in the body?’, she asked. ‘Transport’, I answered, and to this day I have no idea how that word floated into my head. ‘That sounds all right’, she murmured benignly, and the interview was more or less over.
And that is the story of how I came to do a science degree with arts A levels. I won’t say there weren’t some sticky patches on the way, and Alison played an important role in helping to keep me going when times got tough.
It was was an article of faith with her that you could do anything you wanted if you put your mind to it. And as we heard from her brother during the funeral service, this was a lesson she had learned from her own experience. Having left school with a place to read medicine at Oxford, she had contracted polio in Nigeria during the summer holidays. Two years later she had survived the infection with her mind and spirit defiantly intact, but unable to walk.
To its shame (this would not happen today), Oxford withdrew its offer because of her disability. She studied at Bristol, and finally arrived at Oxford in the mid-1960s to begin a pioneering research career specialising in the physiology of smooth muscle. As tutor in physiological sciences at LMH she acted as mentor and friend to generations of doctors, psychologists and research scientists – and one science writer.