Michael Meredith Swann, Baron Swann, FRS,[1] FRSE (1 March 1920 – 22 September 1990) was a British molecular and cell biologist. He was appointed chairman of the BBC, awarded a knighthood and subsequently a life peerage.

The Lord Swann
Michael Swann 1987.jpg
Michael Swann in 1987
Michael Meredith Swann

(1920-03-01)1 March 1920
Died2 September 1990(1990-09-02) (aged 70)
EducationWinchester College, Hampshire
Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge
Known forThe mechanisms of cell division and fertilisation
Spouse(s)Tess Gleadowe (1942–1990; his death); 4 children
Scientific career
InstitutionsUniversity of Cambridge
University of Edinburgh

Early LifeEdit

Swann was born in Cambridge, the eldest of three children of pathologist Meredith Blake Robson Swann and his wife, Marjorie Dykes.[2]

Swann was educated at King's College School, Cambridge,[3] and then at Winchester College, a boarding independent school for boys in the city of Winchester in Hampshire, where he was an Exhibitioner. He then studied Zoology at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he graduated MA.[4]

Life and worksEdit

He served with the British Army during World War II, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel, and being Mentioned in Dispatches.[5] From 1946 Swann lectured in zoology at the University of Cambridge, his former Alma Mater.[6]

He moved to Edinburgh University as Professor of Natural History in 1952. In 1953 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. His proposers were James Ritchie, John Gaddum, Sir Maurice Yonge and Harold Callan. He won the Society's Makdougall Brisbane Prize for 1970/72. In 1962 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London.[7]

His academic work was on the mechanisms of cell division and fertilisation. He used cell polarisation methods to understand the changes in molecular organisation of the mitotic spindle. With his collaborator Murdoch Mitchison, he found evidence in support of a new theory of cell division. He collaborated with Victor Rothschild in experiments on changes in membrane structure during fertilisation.

From 1965 to 1974, he was the Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Edinburgh University. In 1968, he was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Science by the University of Leicester.[8] During his term as Principal, he encountered difficulty with students led by Gordon Brown who had unusually been elected as Rector of the University.[9] He received a knighthood in the 1972 Birthday Honours,[10] having the honour conferred by the Queen herself on 5 December 1972.[11]

He was Chairman of the Governors of the BBC from 1973 to 1980 having been appointed by Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath, who admired his strong leadership during student protests at Edinburgh University.[12] He was created a life peer as Baron Swann, of Coln St Denys in the County of Gloucestershire on 16 February 1981.[13][14] In 1980 Swann became Provost of Oriel College,[15] although he resigned after nine months,[16] and was also Chancellor of the University of York from 1979 until his death.[17]

He died in London on 22 September 1990.


The Michael Swann Building of the University of Edinburgh at Kings Buildings is named after him. It continues to be used for work on cell division and fertilisation to this day.


In 1942, he married Tess Gleadowe (died 2009). They had two sons and two daughters.

The Swann building is the main home of biological sciences at the Edinburgh University.


  1. ^ Mitchison, J. M. (1991). "Michael Meredith Swann Baron Swann of Coln Denys. March 1920-22 September 1990". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 37: 446–460. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1991.0023.
  2. ^ "Swann, Michael Meredith, Baron Swann (1920–1990), biologist and public servant". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-40021. Retrieved 3 May 2019.
  3. ^ Henderson, RJ (1981). A History of King's College Choir School Cambridge. ISBN 978-0950752808.
  4. ^ "Michael Meredith Swann". JSTOR 770039. Missing or empty |url= (help)
  5. ^ "Lord Swann, 70, Former Chief of BBC And Educator, Dies", Associated Press via New York Times. 24 September 1990.
  6. ^ Profile, University of York. York.ac.uk; retrieved 2 June 2014.
  7. ^ Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 0 902 198 84 X.
  8. ^ Honorary Graduates, le.ac.uk; retrieved 2 June 2014.
  9. ^ Lady Tess Swann obituary, The Independent, 13 October 2009.
  10. ^ "No. 45678". The London Gazette (Supplement). 3 June 1972. p. 6256.
  11. ^ "No. 45849". The London Gazette. 12 December 1972. p. 14743.
  12. ^ BBC Chairmen listing The BBC
  13. ^ "No. 48529". The London Gazette. 19 February 1981. p. 2441.
  14. ^ Heraldic Media Ltd., Patrick Cracoft-Brennan Cracroft Peerage Database v5.2
  15. ^ "Who, Where and When: The History & Constitution of the University of Glasgow Oxford" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 25 July 2006. Retrieved 3 April 2008.. University of Glasgow
  16. ^ Sisman, Adam (2010). Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. p. 451.
  17. ^ Greg Dyke to be Chancellor of the University of York. BBC. 11 November 2003

External linksEdit

Media offices
Preceded by
Lord Hill
Chairman of the BBC Board of Governors
Succeeded by
George Howard
Academic offices
Preceded by
Edward Victor Appleton
Principals of the University of Edinburgh
Succeeded by
Sir Hugh Robson
Preceded by
The Right Honourable The Lord Clark
Chancellor of University of York
Succeeded by
Janet Baker