Professor conducted studies into sexual behaviour of mushrooms

Prof Lorna Casselton

Prof Lorna Casselton

First published in News

A GLOBETROTTING scientist who conducted pioneering research into how mushrooms reproduce, has died aged 75.

Professor Lorna Casselton was a biologist who specialised in the sexual development of fungi and, in particular, the analysis of the mushroom Coprinus cinereus, commonly known as the “gray shag”.

Her research identified key genes used by mushrooms in mating which allowed them to have many more than just two sexes and also to identify each other.

This finding took more than 20 years of analysis, but resulted in her becoming an elected fellow of the Royal Society.

And she would later become the society’s foreign secretary and its vice-president, travelling the world to represent British science in countries such as Nigeria, Ethiopia, Borneo and Tanzania.

The legacy she created in the role was significant. During her tenure she was to act as ambassador to 27 nations.

She spent the latter part of her academic career in Oxford, as a fellow at St Cross College.

Lorna Smith was born on July 18, 1938, in Rochford, Essex, to parents William and Cecile Smith.

The couple ran a small shop selling produce and seeds and this, coupled with her father’s amateur interest in biology, is said to have inspired Prof Casselton’s passion in the sciences.

She attended Southend High School for Girls, a grammar school in Southend-on-Sea, before going on to study botany at University College London in 1961, where she completed a bachelor of sciences degree as well as a PhD in 1964.

In 1966 she took a job as a lecturer at Royal Holloway, London, before she moved to Queen Mary, London, in 1967 where she was a professor of genetics from 1989 to 1991.

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Later that year she moved to Oxford to take a research position and in 1997 she became a senior research fellow and professor of fungal genetics in Oxford University’s department of plant sciences.

St Cross College, Oxford, also gave her a fellowship from 1993 to 2003, as well as an honorary fellowship afterwards.

In 1999, following her breakthrough discovery in the field of the sexual development of fungi, she was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and served on the governing council three years later.

In 2006 she was given the position of foreign secretary in the Royal Society, a prestigious role that pre-dates by 60 years the same position in the British Government.

One exploit of hers is particularly well remembered, from a visit she took to Borneo, aged 72.

She was visiting a rainforest research station in Danum Valley with her husband, Bill, when they were invited to scale a tree by rope to a height of 43 metres.

After reaching the platform in 45 minutes, she descended too quickly, causing her harness to lock, leaving her suspended 30ft in the air.

Clutching at her surroundings, she disturbed a wasps nest and was stung badly, reportedly punctuating the experience “vigorously”.

She escaped to tell the story, however. To immortalise the experience, a blue plaque is reported to have been placed on the tree.

Prof Casselton held the foreign secretary position until 2011 and in 2012 was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for her contributions to science.

Her first marriage, to Peter Casselton, ended in divorce. In the late 1970s she met her second husband, Bill Tollett, whom she married in 1981.She did not have any children.

In her spare time she also enjoyed gliding and was a qualified pilot.

In 2012 she went on a gliding holiday with Mr Tollett in New Zealand to mark the end of her time as the Royal Society’s foreign secretary.

Lorna Casselton died from cancer on February 14. She is survived by her husband, William Tollett.

A funeral was held on February 28 at Oxford Crematorium.

St Cross College has established an annual lecture and a scholarship for a student of biology, the Lorna Casselton Memorial, in her honour.

It will pay for an eminent biological scientist each year to give a keynote address.

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