Thursday, 28 June 2012

Sir Francis Knowles (1915 - 1974)

Sir Francis Gerald William Knowles, sixth baronet, biologist, was born on 9 March 1915 at Ottawa. He was educated in England, at Radley College and at Oriel College, Oxford, graduating BA (second class) in the honour school of zoology in 1936. Awarded the Oxford University Naples scholarship, he visited the Stazione Zoologica in 1937–8. He began investigating the role of hormones in the regulation of colour change in lampreys and crustaceans. He was awarded his MA and PhD in 1939.

When his scholarship ended in 1938 Knowles became senior biology master at Marlborough College Wiltshire. While at Marlborough he published several biological texts, including 'Man and other Living Things (1945) and 'Biology and Man' (1950), and also continued his researches on crustacean colour change, working during school holidays at marine biological laboratories with support from the Royal Society and the Nuffield Foundation. These activities gave his pupils an insight into scientific research that could have been found in few other schools at that time.

In 1948 Knowles married Ruth Jessie. They had one son, Charles Francis (b. 1951), and three daughters. (there was also a stepdaughter.) In 1953 Knowles succeeded his father as baronet.

In his later years at Marlborough, Knowles became aware of the new perspectives that had been opened in comparative endocrinology through the discovery of neurosecretion: the process by which certain nerve cells secrete hormones into the bloodstream. He was quick to exploit this concept, making skilful use of a variety of new techniques, including electron microscopy, which retained his special interest. Presentation of his results, delivered at international gatherings with calculated panache, brought him a reputation that led to his appointment in 1958 as lecturer, with special responsibility for electron microscopy, in the department of anatomy at Birmingham University.

Quickly establishing himself as a dynamic biologist, satisfied with nothing less than perfection in technique, Knowles expanded his researches to include the study of neurosecretory pathways in the brain and pituitary gland of the dogfish and, later, of the rhesus monkey. He was promoted reader in 1963, elected FRS in 1966, and was made professor of comparative endocrinology in 1967, in which year, however, he moved to the University of London as professor of anatomy at King's College.

At King's, Knowles soon abandoned primate research and turned once again to fish, despite the obvious difficulties of working on these animals from a London base. He took a full share in administration, serving with distinction as dean, and, at national level, becoming chairman of the biological sciences committee of the Science Research Council and a member of its science board. He organized the sixth international symposium on neurosecretion, which was held in London in September 1973. He took particular pleasure in the task, for this was the twentieth anniversary of the first symposium, where he had presented the results of his pioneering crustacean studies.

In 1955 he purchased Avebury Manor from Gabrielle Keiller, widow of Alexander Keiller. Restoration of the Manor became an absorbing love, and an outlet for his unerringly elegant taste. The house was first opened to the public in May 1956, but also served as a grand family home. Set against this background, remote from academic biology, he appeared to one of his colleagues as ‘a fascinating man who would really have been more at home in the eighteenth century’. To another he gave proof that ‘one could be both a distinguished scholar and a warm vibrant person’. Knowles died in London on 13 July 1974. He is buried at St. James Avebury.

Source; Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
E. J. W. Barrington, rev. (edited by Willow 2012)

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