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Professor Uta Frith: oration

Read Dr Ailsa Russell's oration on Professor Uta Frith for the honorary degree of Doctor of Science in July 2016.


Professor Uta Frith
Professor Uta Frith

Professor Uta Frith was born in Germany. Her undergraduate degree studies in experimental psychology were at the Universität des Saarlandes, followed by training in clinical psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry, University of London.

Professor Uta Frith’s PhD was a set of ground-breaking studies of pattern detection in children with and without autism. This set the scene for a body of work which has pioneered the application of cognitive theories to the study of autism and other developmental conditions such as dyslexia.

In carefully studying cognitive processes, Professor Uta Frith has forged a path that has not only improved our understanding of the mind in autism but encouraged and inspired generations of researchers to follow suit. Her PhD students stand as leaders in the field and include among them Professors Simon Baron-Cohen and Francesca Happe.

The principal cognitive theories of autism, ‘theory of mind’ or ‘ mentalising’ and the weak central coherence theory, have emerged from her careful and well developed experimental work in collaboration with others. This is work that has a wider resonance beyond the autism research community in terms of our broader understanding of the mind.

The hallmark of Professor Uta Frith’s work is the careful, rigorous testing of excellent ideas which have emerged from her synthesis of the experimental literature. Her findings are interpreted within that wider literature allowing others to benefit from her wisdom and expertise. Her writing is clear and eloquent. Thus she stands as a benchmark for high quality, high impact research i.e. good ideas translated into good experiments with a relevance and applicability to the field.

Professor Uta Frith’s book ‘Autism, Explaining the Enigma’, published in 1989, is a seminal text for anyone working in the field. A bibliography published in 2008 listed over 250 papers in high impact journals, including Nature.

Professor Uta Frith has reflected in writing how 'my own lifetime coincides more or less with the presence of autism in the scientific and popular literature'. It would not be to overstate the influence of her work to describe this as more than a coincidence and to recognise that the presence of autism in the scientific and popular literature owes a great debt to her high quality research.

On a lighter note, one might say it is in the spelling of the name, one cannot say Autism without also saying Uta.

Despite her great stature in the field, Professor Uta Frith is known for her approachability and genuine interest and concern for others. Professor Uta Frith’s encouragement and support for women in science is evident not only in her own example as a prominent woman scientist, but in her work promoting the role of women in science.

She has worked with institutions such as the Royal Society and also had the courage to embrace the media including social media, founding support networks for women in science.

Professor Uta Frith is now Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Development at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, where she spent much of her career with funding from the Medical Research Council.

She has received honorary degrees from a number of universities. We are grateful that she has agreed not only to accept an honorary degree from the University of Bath but also to open the newly formed Centre for Applied Autism Research.

Professor Uta Frith is also a Fellow of the Royal Society and the British Academy, a member of the German National Academy Leopoldina and a Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences. In 2012 she received an Honorary Commander of the British Empire.

Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Professor Uta Frith who is eminently worthy to receive the Degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.

Dr Ailsa Russell Orator

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