Biological Sciences

James Ashworth

The name, if not the face, of Professor Ashworth is remembered every day as students and staff work in the building he brought about - Ashworth Laboratories.

Portrait of James Ashworth

His research focused largely on the cells and nerve fibres of polychaete worms, but he is best recognised for transforming zoology in Edinburgh from a cramped and penniless state to its present day purpose-built home.

In 1926 his effort and determination brought the University a Christmas present of a £74,000 donation that meant work on the new home of zoology could finally start.

Early career

James Ashworth originally intended to study chemistry but fortunately for Edinburgh was converted to biology by a charismatic lecturer, gaining his BSc at the University of London in 1895. Just 6 years later he became a lecturer in invertebrate biology here in Edinburgh.

His reputation started to grow as he met with success studying the giant cells and nerve fibres of polychaete worms. Having been made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, awarded their Keith Medal and elected Fellow of the Royal Society by 1917, he was then appointed Professor of Zoology for the University of Edinburgh.


At this time society began to embrace the return of soldiers from the end of World War I. University was filling up and resources were being stretched to the limit with a lack of both space and facilities.

In 1923 Laurence Puller, a keen marine zoologist was so appalled by the conditions that he donated £20,000. Professor Ashworth knew that an entirely new building was needed and made it his aim to remedy the situation.

Having gained another £18,000 from the Carnegie Trust Professor Ashworth appealed in person to the John D Rockefeller International Education Board and on Christmas Eve in 1926 the University received a letter donating £74,000.

The new building

Ashworth worked very closely with the architects John Lorimer and John F Matthews to create a purpose-built building not only containing a lecture theatre and research and teaching labs but also a suite of rooms for the museum collection.

Special glass was used that reduces the sun’s UV rays, protecting the specimens. Phyllis Bone was brought in to create oval plaques displaying animals from the different habitats of the world. They are still the first things a visitor notices when approaching the building.

Professor Ashworth was rightly proud of his building and was zealous in its protection, famously making a student replace a 15 foot work-bench after they scored their name into its surface.

Whilst new buildings have sprung up around the Kings Buildings campus, and the original construction has been extended, the impressive front of the zoology building still retains its prominent position as people approach along Mayfield Road.

Related Links

Zoology in Edinburgh