DPhil Student (1950), first woman appointed University Lecturer in Physiology (retired 1992), Senior Research Fellow
Dr Marianne Fillenz moved to Oxford from New Zealand in 1950 to complete a DPhil in the Laboratory of Physiology with Sybil Cooper and David Whitteridge. She studied receptors responding to stretch of the eye muscles, ad her work showed clearly that an eye muscle length signal is indeed supplied to the brain in the cat, a fact later confirmed in humans, demonstrated in "Responses in the brainstem of the cat to stretch of extrinsic ocular muscles" (Journal of Physiology, 128, 1955). Following her studies, Dr Fillenz spent nine years as a College Lecturer at St Hilda’s College and as a University Demonstrator in the Laboratory of Physiology, alongside leading independent research in a large suite of labs in the Sherrington Building.
While her work across the 1950s was mainly devoted to motor physiology and eye muscles, years later her research interests evolved to focus on the anatomy and physiology of the autonomic nervous system, and she became the local expert on the subject. Marianne was one of the first people to use and develop the technique of voltammetry (electrochemical scanning of transmitters that transport signals from one neuron to another) to measure catecholamine release deep in the brain. Her landmark paper on this subject is entitled "Linear sweep voltammetry with carbon paste electrodes in the rat striatum" (Neuroscience, 7, 1982). Her technique of linear sweep voltammetry to measure dopamine release in the rat striatum in still much in use today. She went onto work closely with John Albery FRS to develop voltammetry electrodes for conveniently measuring many other substances, such as glucose, alcohol, amino acids, oxygen, CO2 and N2O. Consequently, her lab was positioned at the forefront of the application of measuring chemicals that could be detected directly at the electrode.
In 1963, Fillenz won a Tutorial Fellowship at St Anne’s College, remaining a loyal member of St Anne’s for the rest of her life. She also became the first woman to be appointed University Lecturer in Physiology at Oxford. In 1990, she published an important book, "Noradrenergic Neurons", examining the mechanisms regulating the release and synthesis of the neurotransmitter noradrenaline, which plays an important role in response to stress and the development of resistance to stress, as well as psychological mood itself. On her retirement from her University Lectureship in 1992, she received the title of Senior Research Fellow in recognition of her ongoing work. In 1999, she applied for a Doctor of Science based on her research output, and this was awarded by the Board of the Faculty of Physiological Sciences in 2000. In 2003, she published "Neuroscience: science of the brain: an introduction for young students".
Dr Fillenz was a devoted and much loved teacher, well known for her encouragement and mentorship of her undergraduate medical and physiology students, who were predominantly women, and included our current Head of Administrator and Finance Sally Vine. After her death in 2013, she was fondly remembered by former undergraduate student Dame Fiona Caldicott, who was first female President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Principal of Somerville College, and later National Data Guardian for Health and Social Care: “She was the archetypal personal tutor and a fantastic role model, combining her teaching and research duties with her family responsibilities, always without apparent difficulty. She was supportive even when challenging and I valued Marianne’s opinions increasingly as my undergraduate days receded. Without her I would not ultimately have come to Somerville, in an unexpected role, to fulfil the aspiration that I had had as a schoolgirl when I applied to read medicine.” She was also remembered by former student John Stein: "We will miss her exceptional friendliness, her interest in everything from local gossip to the place of humanity in the universe, her positive outlook and her quizzical responses to incautious remarks."
In 2018, the Department hosted the first in a series of lectures named in honour of Dr Fillenz. Read more about the Marianne Fillenz Memorial Lecture Series.
Read her Obituary by John Stein: Marianne Fillenz 1924 - 2013 on The Physiological Society website.