Sir Brian Keith Follett

Doctor of Laws

18 July 2005 - Orator: Professor Peter Haggett

Madam Chancellor: Brian Follett

In the light of the sombre events in London eleven days ago, it is worth recalling a university degree ceremony held here in 1941 at the height of the Bristol blitz.  The account comes from the diary of an Australian Prime Minister, the late Sir Robert Menzies.  He writes:

I went down to Bristol to receive a degree at the hands of the Chancellor, Mr Winston Churchill.  … During the previous evening the Great Hall of the University was destroyed.  When we arrived the ruins were smoking; there was wreckage everywhere.  Members of the faculties arrived [for the ceremony] wearing their academic robes over their smoke-stained battledress.  It represented the triumph of academic continuity over temporary disaster.

That was over sixty years ago and Churchill – our third and longest-serving Chancellor (to date) – was determined that that the life of his university would go on and that one day this hall would be rebuilt.  And so it was that, twenty years later, a then undergraduate who stands robed before us today, recalls that outside his final-year laboratory (in a shed only a few yards away from here), the new oaken arches were being fashioned by local craftsmen.  Those carved timbers grace the roof of this great building today. 

Brian Follett had come up to Bristol in 1957 from Bournemouth School, winning a rare university Open Exhibition to read Biological Chemistry (Biochemistry under today’s label).  At that time all exhibitioners had to be interviewed by the Vice-Chancellor himself and so came under Sir Philip’s steely examination.  As expected of exhibitioners, he graduated with First Class honours.  That degree was for Brian, as it will be with so many of you in this hall today, a key – a key to open the door to many other chambers.  Its award was what Churchill would have called “the end of the beginning”.

From 1960 the pace began to pick up.  A Bristol doctorate in pharmacology was followed by post-doctoral work in the United States.  He returned to a lectureship at Leeds, then moved to become Reader and Professor at the University of Wales at Bangor.  Then came a return to Bristol in 1978, first as professor of zoology and later as Head of the School of Biological Sciences.  His loyalty in returning to his alma mater was rewarded with the then prevailing ‘Bristol premium’ -- a ten per cent pay cut (!) – on the impeccable logic (occasionally used by Vice Chancellors since) that the university and city brought so many other benefits that stipend was a secondary, even incidental matter. 

If we had been honouring Brian Follett today only as an outstanding Bristol scientist then the remainder of my story would go on to talk about his pioneering research over this period.  Here he made fundamental contributions to the precise under standing of ‘radio-immunossay’.  This transforming method increased our capacity to measure hormones by about 10 million times.  He was to go on to apply this technique at Bristol to improve our understanding of the hormonal cycles as manifested in mammals and birds.  These cycles control the brain’s reactions to changing day length and thus the intrinsic clockwork which controls so much biological activity from breeding to moulting, from fat accumulation to migration.  For this fundamental work he was elected to a fellowship of the Royal Society in 1984.

But during his period as a Bristol professor his skills at running a busy Department were also being honed.  Madam Chancellor, I recall so well the words of a previous Vice-Chancellor on receiving a letter from Brian.  I had come into his Senate House office on some minor PVC duty or other to find him waving a piece of paper.  “I like letters from Follett” said Merrison.  “Clear diagnosis of the problem, practical suggestions for a solution, even finds part of the money (the smaller part, mind you) himself !” 

This practical, down=to-earth problem-solving ability was not to go unnoticed outside Bristol.  In 1987 he succeeded another outstanding Bristol biologist, Sir David Smith, as Biological Secretary and Vice President of the Royal Society and in 1993 he left Bristol to take up the Vice-Chancellorship of Warwick University.  Here he took over an already rising university and drove it to ever new heights, challenging institutions like Imperial College in the UGC research rankings and making it clearly the outstanding challenger to Oxbridge amongst the new post-war foundations.

His success at the Royal Society and at Warwick inevitably caught the eye of government and soon Sir Brian (he was knighted for services to science in 1992) was being called on to handle a sack-full of difficult hot potatoes.  One of the hottest amongst them was chairing an inquiry into the foot-and-mouth outbreak and laying down the guidelines for a vaccination policy – rather than mass slaughter – as a containment policy for when that disease recurs (as it surely will, one day) to threaten our farming.  Another was to examine some of the fall-out from the Alder Hey hospital inquiry.

Sir Brian is no stranger to being a victim at honorary degree congregations – indeed universities in three continents have already so honoured him.  But it is significant that not all these have been for science.  Oxford recently awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Letters for his signal contributions to British libraries through the influential Follett reports.  For his experience at Warwick had given him insights well outside the confines of hard science.  And so in later years he has been called on increasingly to lead reforms on the arts side of the house.  Thus he is currently chairman of the new, and much-welcomed, Arts and Humanities Research Council.  Sir Brian has retained his love of teaching and the challenge of imparting his enthusiasm for science to undergraduates.  He continued to teach while a Warwick V-C and, as an honorary professor of zoology at Oxford, he continues to give lectures and tutorials to this day.  It is therefore not surprising that he also manages to fit in yet another major commitment, as Chairman of the Teacher Training Agency.

Madam Chancellor.  From the arcane mysteries of biochemistry to the dusty corners of the Bodleian, from histology to history, from pharmacology to philosophy, from the Royal Society to the RSC at Stratford.  I can find no better example to hold before today’s audience of the merits and flexibility of starting off graduate life with a sound Bristol first degree.  As the opening line from the 124th Psalm on the open book of learning within the university Coat of Arms reads “Nisi quia Dominus”.  In the light of the rest of that psalm, this can be very loosely translated (and no academic can resist a mistranslation that serves his purpose) as “Unless the Lord’s house is well founded …”.  His career reminds all those graduating today that, on a firm foundation (that is, a degree which is ‘shipshape and Bristol fashion’), can be built many, many different structures, some wholly undreamed of at the very time of graduation. 

And for Sir Brian, as for not a few of our graduates, (and as for the public orator) his achievements have been built on an enduring partnership.  It was here – as a graduate student – that he began married life with Deb whose endocrinology and publishing interests have so complemented his own.  We are so pleased that Lady Follett is also with us today to share in what is in some senses a family home-coming.

Madam Chancellor.  It is my privilege to commend to you Brian Keith Follett, knight, path-breaking scientist, wise administrator, tireless public servant, friend of the humanities -- Bristol graduate – as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.


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