Obituary: Dr Jill Curtis

Dr Jill Curtis – 17 January 1942 to 17 December 2017

Jill was born in Rawtenstall, Lancashire and raised in Bacup close to the West Yorkshire border. As a child she was a keen Girl Guide and loved being outdoors, taking part in camping trips and Youth Hosteling all over the North of England. Jill developed a particular interest in Botany with a distinct focus on wild orchids and she discovered a new type of primrose.

Jill did brilliantly academically and set off to Nottingham University to study her bachelor degree at the School of Agriculture, Sutton Bonnington. In her final year, she was awarded the Elizabeth and J D Marsden Prize for outstanding students.

Jill then moved to the University of Wales to study her PhD on ‘Immunology in Pigs’. Her friend Jane, who sat next to her in lectures, noted that Jill “could listen, write notes in mirror writing, and do the Guardian cryptic crossword, all at the same time!”

Jill continued her studies on the immunology of livestock at the Langford Field Station, part of the University of Bristol. It was here that she met Chris, and the two fell in love and married in 1970.

Chris and Jill’s wedding

 

Chris had been offered a research post in India and the two set off at very short notice for four fascinating years on the subcontinent. Jill was the best help and support in Chris’s work, and remained so always; she did much of the practical stuff and acted as Chris’s assistant when he was away on field trips, which was quite often. Jill also undertook her own research interests including work on immunology and nerve regeneration in Leprosy with her co-worker Dr Indira Nath, who became a firm friend.

After India, Jill and Chris spent time in Germany before coming back to London and setting up home in their flat in Primrose Hill. Jill became a committed member of the Camden Labour Party, and did lots of canvassing; she absolutely did her bit for the struggle.

Jill and Chris worked in excess of 24 hours a day, they had the most powerful work ethic and discipline, and their understanding of the importance of the work they did made them all the more committed. They were both serious scientists who were completely focused on what they were doing, and together they were an incredible team. Jill often declared how fortunate she and Chris were to work at something they both loved.

In the Autumn of 1994 Jill enrolled to study for a Master’s degree in Applied Molecular Biology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She was awarded a distinction for her MSc and then joined a research group within the Department of Medical Parasitology working alongside Prof David Warhurst and then PhD student Manoj Duraisingh (now a professor at Harvard). Jill specialised in investigating drug resistance in the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum.

Chris and Jill also had a cottage in Somerset named Evercreech. Jill and Chris were very hospitable and often invited groups of students to come and visit. Anyone who stayed would recall how the conversations tended to focus on mosquitoes, malaria and primroses.

Chris and Jill at Well’s

 

Jill and Chris had no children of their own, but they had children in their lives with their nieces and nephews, and the many students and PhD students who studied and worked with them over the years.

About twenty years ago when Jill was in her mid-fifties, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and everything changed. She understood her diagnosis as only a scientist could, and because of her work in nerve regeneration, she immediately put herself forward for experimental treatments, even agreeing to have electrodes implanted in her brain so that doctors could monitor her progress.

Chris looked after her and would arrange everything she needed before he set off for work on his bike. He was the most tremendous support and when he died ten years ago it was the most devastating blow for Jill. She became reliant on help from carers and though she was apprehensive at first, her carers became good companions and treated her with great love and affection.

Jill continued to offer support to her foreign PhD students, helping with corrections in their grammar and clarifying the meaning of their work so that they could successfully complete their studies.

Jill’s condition progressed, and last April after she spent four months in hospital, she returned to her flat confined to bed. In December Jill developed a chest infection and she was moved to a Marie Curie hospice. On 17th December Jill died, she was 75 years old.

Jill was a brave and inspiring woman; she was intelligent, and her powerful moral compass steered her, not to some corporate financial benefit, but to the helping of others and improving the lot of everyone. When her cruel condition manifested, she refused to let it define her and she carried on with great determination, not just for herself but with the hope that she could help improve the treatment of her condition for the benefit of others.

Chris and Jill absolutely made a difference, they were full of good will and compassion and this applied to all aspects of their lives.

All condolences are with her family, her sister Pam, nieces Jane, Roz, Alison, Stephanie and nephews Michael, Jim and David.

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