Ashby, William Ross 1903 - 1972


(1903-1972), psychiatrist, pioneer in cybernetics and systems theory

William Ross Ashby (also known as Ross Ashby) was born in Lewisham, London on 6 September 1903. He was educated at Worcester College and Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and gained his BA in Zoology in 1924. Ashby then went on to pursue a medical degree at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, before receiving his Diploma in Psychological Medicine from Bethlem Royal Hospital, London in 1930. Ashby spent the next three decades in various psychiatric posts, serving as a Clinical Psychiatrist for London County Council (1930-1936), a Research Pathologist for St Andrew’s Hospital, Northampton (1936-1947), and then Director of Research at Barnwood House, Gloucester, a private psychiatric institution.

In 1959, Ashby succeeded Frederick Lucien Golla (1878-1968) as Director of the Burden Neurological Institute, Bristol, an independent research unit specialising in the investigation and treatment of neurological, psychological, and psychiatric disorders. However, his tenure at the Burden proved unpopular with several key researchers, who resigned in protest over his management methods, which included mandatory examinations and the hiring of private investigators to look into employees’ private lives. Pushed to resign from the post, Ashby left Britain entirely to take up a position at the Biological Computer Laboratory at the University of Illinois in January 1961, where he remained until his retirement in 1970.

Beyond his psychiatric work, Ashby is recognised as an early pioneer in the field of cybernetics, the study of feedback and control systems in humans and machines. He co-founded the Ratio Club, an informal dining and discussion group which met between 1949 and 1955 and provided a key social outlet for cybernetic enthusiasts. He also wrote the seminal cybernetic text Design for the Brain in 1950 and invented several cybernetic machines, most notably the “homeostat” in 1946-1947, a self-correcting electronic feedback machine designed to model the adaptive qualities of the human brain.

In March 1972, Ashby was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. He died on 15 November 1972.