Lillian Mary Pickford (1902-2002)

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(Lillian) Mary Pickford (1902-2002), Professor of Physiology from 1966 to 1972, was Edinburgh University's second woman professor (after Elizabeth Wiskemann (1899-1971)), and the first to hold a personal chair.

Early Career

Pickford was born on 14 August 1902 in Jubbulpore, India, where her father was a tea and indigo planter. Educated in England from 1908, she went on to study physiology, zoology, and chemistry at Bedford College, London, graduating in 1925. In this period, there were few academic posts for women scientists, but she found a post-time post teaching the history of science at University College, London. She later moved to the Department of Pharmacology, working with Ernest Basil Verney (1894-1967) and Alfred Joseph Clark (1885-1941). Pickford left University College London to study clinical medicine, and was admitted MCRS and LRCP in 1933. In 1935, Pickford became the first female member of the Pharmacological Society. Following several years of hospital work, she returned to academia in 1936, when she was awarded a Beit Memorial Research Rellowship. She rejoined Verney at Cambridge University and continued work on the physiology of the kidney. In 1939, she published an article reporting her discovery of the antidiuretic effect of injecting acetylcholine into the brain, an important indicator that acetylcholine could be a transmitter in the central nervous system. In the same year, she was appointed Lecturer in Physiology in Edinburgh University's Faculty of Medicine.

Edinburgh University

During the Second World War, Pickford spent university vacations working as a locum in London. During the Blitz she helped patrol air-raid shelters and provided medical help. She graduated DSc in 1951 and in 1952 became Reader in Physiology. Her research on the neuroendocrine action of the hypothalamus and posterior pituitary gland led to major contributions to renal and reproductive physiology. In the 1950s, she studied the relationship between the release of the antidiuretic hormone (ADH or vasopressin) and oxytocin, establishg that they were separate hormones with different roles. She later investigated the ways in oestrogen influenced the effect of oxytocin and vasopressin on blood vessels.

In 1966, Pickford became only the second woman (after Elizabeth Wiskemann (1899-1971)) to hold a professorship at Edinburgh University, being awarded a personal chair in Physiology. In addition to many academic publications (60 papers and 13 book chapters), Pickford was the author of a popular paperback, The Central Role of Hormones (1969). Besides her academic achievements, Professor Pickford took an active interest in the welfare of students (particularly women) at Edinburgh University.

Later Years and Honours

After retiring in 1972, Pickford held a special professorship at Nottinghamshire University from 1973 to 1983, before returning to live in Edinburgh. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1954, a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1966, and a fellow of University College London in 1968. She was an honorary member of both the Physiological Society and Pharmacological Society. Pickford died on her 100th birthday on 14 August 2002.


  • John Morrison, 'Mary Pickford: Pioneer of Endocrinology, The Guardian, 27 August 2002 [[1], accessed 28 August 2014]
  • Ann Silver, 'Pickford, (Lillian) Mary (1902–2002)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) [[2], accessed 28 August 2014]