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Mabel FitzGerald (1872-1973)
Mabel FitzGerald (1872-1973)

In 2015, in connection with our Athena SWAN Bronze Award, the Department started a new annual lecture series to be held in honour of Mabel FitzGerald.

Mabel FitzGerald has been all but forgotten in the study of human acclimatisation to high altitude. Her great scientific accomplishment was to demonstrate, over the long term, that it is oxygen, and not carbon dioxide, that determines how hard we breathe and sets the haemoglobin concentration in our blood. This she did by travelling around Colorado in 1911 making detailed physiological measurements of the populations living at different altitudes throughout the state.

Mabel FitzGerald had a middle class upbringing, but her life abruptly changed in 1895 when both her parents died. She came to live in Oxford with her four sisters in 1896 in a house in Crick Road, just north of the University Parks. She was fascinated by physiology and the University permitted her to attend classes informally from 1896-1899. She gained top marks in the examinations, but these could not count towards a degree because women could not be officially enrolled.

She was “rediscovered” by accident in the 1960s, still living in her house in Crick Road. With the help of the then Regius Professor of Medicine, Sir Richard Doll, the University of Oxford finally bestowed an honorary Master of Arts degree on her in 1972 – the first centenarian to receive one. Sir Richard wrote that her example first convinced Oxford “that women can do as well as men”. On bestowing the degree, the then Vice Chancellor, Alan Bullock, acknowledged that it had come three-quarters of a century too late. Based on her pioneering work in Colorado, Mabel FitzGerald became only the second female member of the American Physiological Society in 1913, but it was not until 1973 that she was made an honorary member of the British Physiological Society. She was then the American Physiological Society’s oldest living member.

 

This year's lecture will be given on January 21 2016 by Professor Christine Holt. The Inaugural Mabel FitzGerald Lecture was given in January 2015 by Professor Dame Linda Partridge.

 

List of Speakers

2016 - Professor Christine Holt // Wiring the brain: RNA-based mechanism of axon guidance and survival

2015 - Professor Dame Linda Partridge // The Science of Healthy Ageing