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Obituary: Saffron Whitehead (1948 – 2019)

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Obituary: Saffron Whitehead (1948 – 2019)

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Emeritus Professor of Endocrinology Saffron Whitehead died on 18 February 2019. She will be remembered for raising the profile of endocrinology and women’s health through her research, writing, media and public engagement activities. She was a happy person who lived life to the full and possessed the rare ability to infect those around her with a positive attitude to life. She will be greatly missed by all who knew her.

Saffron Whitehead was an eminent scientist with a passion for endocrinology and a real champion for women’s health. She was a prolific author, and her latest book Managing Obesity: a practical guide for clinicians was published with co-author Gul Bano earlier this year. Across her academic career, she published 55 notable papers, five reviews and three endocrinology textbooks, which became definitive texts on many university degree courses. Saffron was a thoughtful and supportive colleague and supervisor, who gave willingly of her vast font of knowledge and wisdom.

Saffron graduated from University College London (1967 – 1970) with a BSc Physiology (Hons) and gained her PhD in 1974 at McMaster University in Canada, where she specialised in Medical Sciences (Neuroendocrinology). Long before it became mainstream, she was researching the interactions of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) and hormones and how they impact on fertility and cancer. Saffron joined St George’s University of London in 1978 as lecturer in endocrinology and reproduction. She was responsible, along with Helen Mason, for creating the third year Science of Reproduction module for the BSc/iBSc in Biomedical Science, and will be remembered fondly by her students across the years.

To help advance the public discussion around better understanding of science, she wrote articles for the general media in publications such as New Scientist and The Guardian, under her married name, Saffron Davies. She was a constant advocate of women in science, having herself combined raising a family while maintaining a scientific career. She also contributed regularly to TV and radio shows, including appearances on BBC4’s “The Fantastical World of Hormones” with John Wass and Radio 4’s “Woman’s Hour”. She was the scientific advisor on Tide Tables a 2011 play supported by the Wellcome Trust and the Society for Endocrinology (SfE). The play centred on the challenges of midlife as a time of significant biological change.

Saffron contributed to her scientific field beyond her teaching and research responsibilities with active roles in both The Physiological Society and the Society for Endocrinology. She was a Member of The Physiological Society from 1980, edited Physiology News (1994 – 1998) and served on the Committee (1995 – 1999). On the Society’s History & Archives Committee, Saffron could be relied on to lighten the mood with sometimes mischievous but always perceptive suggestions offered with her characteristic throaty chuckle. Saffron served on the editorial board of The Endocrinologist for many years and was its editor from 2004 – 2005. She was the Chair of the Public Engagement committee for the SfE, also managing press enquiries on publications and scientific breakthroughs for that society. Saffron was hard-working but always full of fun.

The lasting memory of Saffron is her resilience and tenacity. A memorable example occurred during a trip from St Petersburg to Moscow following the IUPS Congress in 1997. Saffron, together with Tilli Tansey and Bridget Lumb, spent a week living on a boat on the Neva river during the Congress and then headed off for a cultural trip to Moscow. Embarking on the overnight train for Moscow, Saffron was not intimidated by the request from a Kalashnikov-bearing official to pay a bribe before boarding the train. She confronted him and told him exactly where he could put the money. Needless to say all three boarded the train and arrived in Moscow the following morning.

Despite retiring several years ago, Saffron was still actively teaching and was a personal tutor at St George’s. As well as these obligations, Saffron was a governor for Oak Lodge School for the deaf, and volunteered with the Shaw Trust, a charity helping people gain an education, enter work, develop their career, improve their wellbeing or rebuild their lives. She was an active tennis player and loved to play the piano. Saffron is survived by her husband John Davies, three sons, daughters-in-law and four grandchildren.

Written by Suman Rice, Dafydd Walters and Bridget Lumb

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