Norman Ashton was the founding father of ocular pathology in the UK, and through his research countless thousands of premature babies were saved from blindness. He was born in London and educated at the West Kingston School, King's College and the Westminster Hospital Medical School. He gained the MRCS and LRCP in 1939, and held house officer posts and that of senior resident medical officer at the Westminster Hospital from 1939 to 1941. From then until the end of the Second World War he was director of pathology, Kent and Canterbury Hospital, and blood transfusion officer, East Kent, for the Emergency Medical Services.
From 1945 to 1947, he did military service as a full specialist pathologist in West Africa with the rank of major and later as officer commanding the Central Pathological Laboratory for the Middle East in Egypt with the rank of lieutenant colonel.
In 1947, he was appointed pathologist to the Westminster Hospital and in 1948 to the directorship of the Institute of Ophthalmology, London. This was an inspired appointment, which led to the development of his department as a focus of research and training with the highest international reputation. He was appointed professor of pathology in the University of London in 1957. In his department he trained the first generation of ocular pathologists in the UK and built up a research programme of the first importance. Ophthalmic surgeons at the Moorfields Eye Hospital (which he served through the Institute of Ophthalmology) relied on and were guided in their clinical practice and research by his knowledge and wisdom.
Norman Ashton's interests in ocular pathology ranged widely, but his major contributions were the elucidation of the nature and mechanism of diabetic and hypertensive retinopathies and the demonstration that excessive levels of oxygen given to premature babies caused obliteration of growing retinal vessels, followed by disorganised regrowth and scarring. Control of oxygen concentrations in incubators prevented this devastating cause of blindness.
The need to develop a European organisation for pathology led to his key role in establishing the European Pathology Society, of which he was elected life president. To raise funds for research, he joined with others in founding the charity Fight for Sight in 1965; he was chairman of it from 1980 until 1991. It is now the foremost source of funding for ophthalmological research in the UK.
His outstanding contributions were recognized nationally and internationally by election to many societies of ophthalmology and by numerous awards and prizes. He was elected FRS in 1971 and received the Buchanan medal of the Royal Society in 1996. Other awards included the Proctor gold medal (USA), the Doyne, Bowman and MacKenzie medals, the Lord Crook gold medal of the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers, and the two most prestigious international awards for contributions to ophthalmology, the Gonin gold medal (1978) and the Helen Keller prize (1996). He was elected an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine (1979), the Royal College of Ophthalmologists (1990) and the Royal College of Pathologists (1992) and was awarded an honorary DSc from the University of Chicago. He was appointed CBE in 1976.
Norman Ashton wrote and spoke with elegance and clarity. He was in great demand as an after dinner speaker (a role which he filled to perfection as master of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries from 1984 to 1985). On one occasion in Baltimore, the other speaker on the programme was the famous comedian Bob Hope who, after Ashton had spoken, said that he was glad that Norman was not a professional comedian himself. His wit made him a charming dinner companion and he was a popular member of the Garrick Club. He was also a talented painter (the College owns one of his paintings) and he received the Baron C ver Heyden de Lancey prize of the Royal Society of Medicine to quot;the most outstanding Fellow of the Society for his or her merit in furthering the link between art and medicine". To those who knew him only socially it came as something of a surprise to learn that in professional life he was an exacting colleague and a formidable advocate for his department.
Norman Ashton did not marry. He lived for many years in the cloisters at Westminster Abbey, where he was a steward.
[The Guardian 14 January 2000; The Times 26 January 2000; Brit.med.J.,2000,320,384]