Ruth van Heyningen, who has died aged 101, was a pioneering explorer of ophthalmic biochemistry, a field to which she made major contributions after she joined the Nuffield Laboratory of Ophthalmology, at Oxford University, in 1951.
Her research, much of which was carried out in collaboration with the laboratory’s then director, Antoinette (Tony) Pirie, was focused on the lens, in particular the biochemical pathways involved in the formation of cataracts. Tony and Ruth wrote a key book together, Biochemistry of the Eye (1956), which Ruth later said included almost everything that was known about the subject at that time.
Her work revealed novel pathways involved in cataract formation, and demonstrated, for instance, that monosaccharide sugars accumulate in the lenses of diabetic patients, generating sugar alcohols (polyols), including sorbitol, that are harmful to the lens. Using lenses obtained postmortem or after surgery, Ruth identified these compounds using paper chromatography and electrophoresis – the latest available separation methods – in the lenses of diabetic, but not non-diabetic, patients.
She was always modest, but confident of her carefully collected data, which she shared generously with colleagues. Her contributions to eye research included international projects, and the careers of several collaborators were founded on her initial findings.
Ruth was born in Newport, Monmouthshire, the daughter of Alan Treverton-Jones, a ship-owner, and his wife, Mildred (nee Garrod Thomas). Her father died when she was six, and her maternal grandfather, Sir Abraham Garrod Thomas, a doctor involved in local politics, became a major influence in her life.
After elementary school in Newport, Ruth was sent to Cheltenham Ladies’ college, as her mother had been. According to Ruth, the school was an unusual institution then, where the rules were both arbitrary and strict, and lacrosse was played before breakfast. She prospered in this atmosphere. Most of her friends went on, as she did, to successful professional careers in an era when that was not usually expected or encouraged for girls. In 1937, Ruth won an exhibition to Newnham College, Cambridge. She graduated in biochemistry in 1940, having spent the night before finals in an air-raid shelter.
One of Ruth’s younger tutors in biochemistry was William van Heyningen, known as Kits, who had come from South Africa in 1934 to do a PhD in the department. They married a month after her graduation. She then began a PhD, working with Robin Hill, a pioneer in the biochemistry of photosynthesis, and with the great enzymologist Malcolm Dixon.
However, this work, mostly on the effect of poison gases on metabolically important enzymes, was too secret to be published or even examined, so she was unable to complete the PhD by the time she and Kits moved to London. He did war work at the Wellcome Laboratories, and Ruth went to the Lister Institute to do research on blood group antigens.
In 1943, following the birth of their son, Simon, she gave up her work for a while, and she and Simon left London to escape the V bombs. They returned to London the following year, and a daughter, Joanna, was born in 1945, around the time of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ruth recalled being unpopular with some of the other mothers because the disastrous effects of the atom bombs had led them to be hostile to scientists – unfair for someone who was subsequently an active member of CND.
In 1947, the family moved to Oxford, where Kits was appointed to a post at the Sir William Dunn school of pathology. Ruth soon began work on a DPhil in the anatomy department under the supervision of Joseph Weiner, one of the contributors to the exposure of the Piltdown forgery. Ruth’s research on the composition of sweat (collected from exercising conscripted miners) was the subject of her DPhil thesis in 1951.
There were not many working female scientists with young children in those days, even in Oxford, although Pirie was one, and Dorothy Hodgkin’s children were contemporaries of Simon and Joanna. Ruth organised her life to fulfil all her roles brilliantly and with grace and modesty. After she retired in the late 1960s, she remained academically active, with continued collaborations with colleagues and 20 further publications emerging until 1998, including population surveys of cataract incidence.
In 1965, when Kits became the founding Master of St Cross College, Oxford, for graduate students, Ruth became a founding fellow. Before the college acquired proper premises, she helped to cement the college socially by holding dinner parties at their home in the village of North Hinksey. She was a determined feminist and a strong role model for many women, and maintained a longstanding interest in leftwing politics.
Kits died in 1989. Ruth is survived by Simon and Joanna, four grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
• Ruth Eleanor van Heyningen, biochemist, born 26 October 1917; died 24 October 2019