Dr Wendy Ewart, MBE

Doctor of Science

Thursday 21 July 2016 at 10.30 am - Orator: Professor David Langley

Mr Vice-Chancellor

The University of Bristol awards honorary degrees to those individuals who merit special recognition for outstanding achievement and distinction in their field. Honorary graduates are sometimes an alumnus of the University, frequently an influential figure on both the local and international stage, and occasionally someone who inspires others to greater things. In Dr Wendy Ewart we have all these things.

Wendy was, until her recent retirement, Chief of Strategy and Deputy Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council, making her one of the most senior and influential figures in clinical and biomedical science in the UK.  Her roles have put her in the heart of Government decision making on science and its funding, where she is acknowledged as having helped to preserve the amount of budget for UK science.  She was responsible for the development of the MRC’s Strategic Plan ‘Research Changes Lives’ which underpinned their science and research training funding. Wendy was also responsible for international strategy, including global health, an indication of her long standing interest in health and capacity building in developing countries. She led the MRC’s rigorous evaluation programme, which captured outcome information and helped provide evidence of the impact of MRC’s research. She is particularly proud of this achievement since it helped convince scientists of the importance of communicating how important UK science is, particularly to politicians and the public at large, and in language people could relate to.

Wendy was once challenged by a senior professor about the point of a research strategy explaining that when he retired, “they’ll replace me with another one of me”.  “Will they?”, replied Wendy, suggesting there are alternative paths to follow, which involve taking tough, informed decisions about focused areas of excellent science and societal need to pursue, and where, why and how.  She believes the best definition of a strategy comes from Blackadder: ‘it’s a cunning plan’. 

Wendy obtained her BSc in Physiology and Biochemistry at the University of Southampton and came to Bristol with her new husband Ian in 1972, both to do a PhD. Her subject was neuroscience and his chemistry. They bought a house in Brislington for £4,500, which they sold three years later for £7,000, and Wendy recalls hosting dinner parties where international students would turn up in national costume, including Japanese kimono. She has memories of catching the bus every day to the University for three years, of walking up Christmas Steps, and eating sandwiches with Ian on the bench outside this building every lunchtime. Wendy enthuses about her time at Bristol and describes it as the pre-eminent hotbed of neuroscience and an amazingly exciting place to be. That said, Wendy wasn’t always a model student and on the day of her first wedding anniversary she managed to lose ten months of experimental data when her computer crashed. Yes, she had to start again.

Wendy is defined by an overwhelming sense of fair play, but this has, on occasion, led her to have conflicts with the establishment and authority, which she believes can be a strength. After Bristol, she was appointed to an academic position at the London Hospital Medical School, where she was often criticised for being too much on the side of students, and always fighting their corner. She feels lucky not to have been sacked back then, and ironically this attitude would win plaudits today and her NSS score would be much prized.

Wendy is an incredible role model and mentor, particularly so to women. She was, for example, the only woman on the Executive Board of the MRC. She has been an advisor, counsellor, coach and friend to many, including myself, where her ability to say the ‘bleeding obvious’ is highly valued. She reflected with me that as a female scientist ‘back then’ you often had to pretend you’d been away somewhere rather than on maternity leave otherwise many male colleagues wouldn’t take you seriously, nor make any allowance that you might have been up all night feeding your baby. She believes this experience is still relevant, but progress means women and carers can now take time out and not be perceived as a lesser scientist. That said, Wendy acknowledges how tough it was to run a laboratory with three children under five, and support Ian who worked long hours having re-trained as a medical doctor, reasons she moved to the Wellcome Trust as a scientific programme manager.

Wendy has held a number of trustee positions but most significantly, together with Ian, founded the Alexander Ewart Fund for Nepal, in memory of their late son who was tragically killed in an accident whilst volunteering there.  Nobody close to Wendy can fail to underestimate the impact of Ali’s sudden loss on the family. Whilst in Nepal, Alex wrote every day in his pocket book about his experience of living in a faraway rural place, and of his journey of faith, hope and love, which were published in ‘The Alex Diaries’ after his death. In meeting with Wendy to prepare for this oration, she was keen Ali was remembered today as he is still very much part of their lives. Wendy was equally keen to recognise how ‘extraordinarily wonderful’ her daughters Ellie and Clara have been. She said of all her achievements seeing them grow up into fine, caring and wonderful adults has been the most wonderful. Since 2004, the Alex Fund has raised £200,000 to help improve literacy rates in two rural schools in Nepal, where Ali was a voluntary teacher.  Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a third of the population living below the international poverty line of $1 per day. With the help of the Alex Fund, both schools have been able to improve the education they give to their students and thereby act as a beacon of excellence across Nepal, where literacy rate is only 55%. In 2013, their work was recognised by an award from the British Council.

Alex played the flute and, in retirement, Wendy has taken this up for the first time, using his instrument. She has learnt her theory by watching YouTube and recently joined fifty ‘youngsters’ for their grade 5 practical examination, where most assumed she was there as grandmother to one of the children. She wasn’t and she passed.

In 2015, Wendy was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire for services to medical research. She has also been awarded a Fellowship by Faculty of Medicine, Imperial College London, in recognition of her outstanding achievements. She told me this honorary degree is best of all, and admitted she burst into tears on receipt of the letter advising her of it.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Dr Wendy Ewart MBE as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.

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