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Colin Blakemore Obit1944 – 2022

In piam Memoriam

It is with great sadness that I report the death of Professor Sir Colin Blakemore FRS, FMedSci, HonFRCP, HonFRSM, HonFRSB, HonFBPhS, MAE, Emeritus Professor of Physiology, University of Oxford, and Emeritus Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford.  Colin passed away peacefully at Sobell House on Monday 27th June surrounded by his daughters.  

Colin was a world-renowned neuroscientist and a passionate advocate for physiology who significantly contributed to our understanding of vision, and how the brain develops and adapts. He was influential in establishing the concept of ‘neural plasticity’ — how brain cells reorganise themselves in response to the environment after birth and even in adulthood. 

Born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1944, Colin was educated at Coventry’s King Henry VIII School before winning a state scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he gained a first-class honours degree (1965) and MA (1969) in Medical Sciences.  Following a PhD in Physiological Optics at the University of California, Berkley in 1968, he returned to Cambridge University as a Demonstrator, Lecturer in Physiology, Director of Medical Studies (Downing College), and Royal Society Locke Research Fellow until 1979.

Colin became Waynflete Professor of Physiology at the University of Oxford in 1979, the youngest to be appointed to the position at just 35 years old. This was three years after being the youngest person to give the BBC Radio 4 Reith lectures. He was also appointed to a Professorial Fellowship at Magdalen College that same year, holding both positions until 2007.  He was the longest serving Waynflete Professor in the history of the Department. The University awarded him a DSc higher degree in 1989. From 1990-96, Colin directed the McDonnell-Pew Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience, and from 1996-2003 the Oxford Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience. From 2003-07, Colin took Special Leave to serve as Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council. He returned as Professor of Neuroscience and Supernumerary Fellow at Magdalen College until 2012.

In late 2012, Colin was appointed to the newly created Professorship of Neuroscience & Philosophy at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, where he directed the Centre for the Study of the Senses. He remained an Emeritus Professor at DPAG until his death.

Colin was well known for his passionate belief in the importance of public engagement with research. He held several influential positions, including serving as President of the Biosciences Federation (now the Society of Biology), the British Neuroscience Association and The Physiological Society, and as President and Chairman of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (now the British Science Association). He presented and contributed to hundreds of radio and television broadcasts, wrote several popular science books and numerous articles for major British and overseas papers, worked for many medical charities and not-for-profit organisations, and served in advisory roles for several UK government departments, agencies, foundations and government departments overseas. Colin received a knighthood in 2014 for services to scientific research, policy, and outreach.

Colin was profoundly influential in the field of Visual Neuroscience. He was one of the first to demonstrate that the visual cortex undergoes active, adaptive change during very early development, helping the brain to match itself to the sensory environment. He went on to show that such plasticity results from changes in the shape and structure of nerve cells, the distribution of nerve fibres, and the selective death of nerve cells. His proven concept that the mammalian brain is 'plastic' is now a dominant theme in neuroscience. The plasticity of connections between nerve cells is thought to underlie many different types of learning and memory, as well as sensory development. He also demonstrated that the visual cortex is 'taken over' by the other senses, especially touch, in people who have been blind since infancy. Colin’s most recent work identified some of the genes involved in enabling nerve cells to modify their connections in response to the flow of nerve impulses through them. 

Colin was also well known in the world of arts and media.  He inspired artists Patrick Hughes and David Hockney, who painted Colin.  Last year, Patrick created and donated Popsee to the Department in honour of Colin, which will become a lasting memorial to him.

Colin was honoured for his scientific achievements by numerous prizes, including but not limited to the Royal Society’s Michael Faraday Prize (1989), the Royal Society of Medicine’s Ellison-Cliffe Medal (1993), the Alcon Research Institute Award (1996), the British Neuroscience Association Award for Outstanding Contribution to Neuroscience (2001), the Royal Society Ferrier Award and Lecture (2010), ten Honorary Degrees from British and overseas universities, and the highest award of the Society for Neuroscience – the Ralph W. Gerard Prize (2012).

Colin is survived by his three daughters, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore FBA FMedSci (Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience at Cambridge and co-director of the Wellcome Trust PhD Programme in Neuroscience at UCL), Jessica Blakemore, and Sophie Blakemore.  Colin’s wife, Andrée, passed away early this year.

As Colin’s last University Lecturer he appointed during his time as Waynflete Professor and Head of Department, I will always be grateful to him for his kindness and continued support over the years.  This Department and British science owe Colin Blakemore (and his family) a great public debt for the bravery showed in defending animal research.  I was so pleased we could offer him a Festschrift last August after he was tragically diagnosed with motor neuron disease, and rename the Large Lecture Theatre as the Blakemore Lecture Theatre.  Colin was the most eloquent communicator of science, which was beautifully illustrated when I interviewed him for The Journal of Physiology in 2012.  Please watch it here.   From today, the Sherrington Public Understanding of Science Prize Lecture will be known as the Blakemore Public Understanding of Science Prize Lecture in recognition of the love and affection he was held by his many colleagues and pupils in Oxford and from around the world.

[Many of my colleagues will shortly be sharing their thoughts and memories of Colin, which will appear below over the next few days and weeks. Tributes can be emailed to communications@dpag.ox.ac.uk].

 

David Paterson

Head of Department

 

"It is entirely because of Colin that I wanted to study the brain. When I was at school, I heard about his BBC radio Reith lectures and was spellbound by the inspirational and engaging way he told the story of the “Mechanics of the Mind”. I applied to do a DPhil with him and while his lab was full at the time, he later welcomed me to Oxford when I was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship. After a brief but successful collaboration, he remained a very close colleague and supportive head of department, helping to open up a number of opportunities that have been crucial to the development of my career. Colin was an outstanding scientist and the range of topics he worked on at different times is simply awesome. His remarkable ability to communicate science – whether it be to medical students or more widely – and to publicly and bravely address issues like the need for using animals in medical research also made him stand out. I always remained slightly in awe of Colin, but I’m also delighted to have been able to call him a good friend." (Professor Andrew King, Wellcome Principal Research Fellow and Director of the Centre for Integrative Neuroscience).

"Colin hired me back in 1998 to administer the Oxford Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience and I'll be forever grateful for the opportunity.  I learned so much. One abiding memory of Colin is being in the passenger seat of the lab car whilst he furiously drove - we were chasing the Heathrow coach which due to his perennial tardiness he'd missed. When we caught up with it, Colin grabbed his bag and sprinted off and I was left sitting at the side of the road to take the car back to ULP. Another memory comes from one of his spells in the JR. Apparently a nurse had asked him what he did. He mentioned Oxford University and the nurse said she'd only heard of Oxford  Brookes and was there a second university then? He was an incredible man. Such an achiever. RIP Colin." (Sally Harte).

"Colin was a passionate neuroscientist who inspired people of all ages.  His legacy is not just the  outstanding scientific contributions he made but also the younger scientists who worked with him and who went on to forge their own successful careers as neuroscientists.  He will be sorely missed." (Professor Dame Kay Davies, Dr Lee’s Professor of Anatomy Emeritus).

“There are very few who had more profound influence on my life as Colin. He shaped my academic research career first as my DPhil supervisor, then mentor, later colleague and close friend. I owe it all to him! His spirit will survive in several generations of neuroscientists around the World.” (Professor Zoltán Molnár, Professor of Developmental Neuroscience).

"I had the privilege of being one of Colin’s secretaries for over 7 years in the mid 90s / early 2000s in Oxford, before I moved north and remained up here.  I still remember the job interview vividly and that view from the old office looking out across the university parks, and remember feeling so delighted when I was offered the position after what was a long interview!  It was a really great job and no two days were ever the same. He gave me the nickname Sherlock Shepherd!  Because I could always ‘find things out’ when required to.

     He was the sort of man that noticed when you put in hours over and above your contracted ones (in the days before flexitime existed!) and arranged by handwritten letter for you to be paid for that extra time (without you even knowing until your payslip arrived!);  Someone who even after many years of barely any contact beyond the yearly Happy Birthdays, brief Email catch ups or job references, would invite you to his 70th birthday celebration among many big names in the sciences and arts.  Tim also worked closely with him for a number of years and that is how we met in fact.

     This last 18 months he would always reply honestly to me until only a month ago, to let me know how he was when he must have received so many messages from other people. He was a character indeed, with a proper twinkle in his eye and it does feel very strange that he’s gone.  I’ve shed a few tears of reminiscence today despite I knew it was coming. 

     Rest well Sir; your molecules and legacy, and all of our memories and stories will be part of this big old universe, and thank you personally for all the audio tapes and interesting work, the soirées,  the parties and the dramas. For always finding time to reply. For that uniquely recognisable handwriting.

     Our deepest condolences to all of the family at this very sad time." (Tina Andrews).

"I was deeply saddened to hear that Colin had lost his battle with motor neuron disease.  My deepest condolences to Sarah-Jayne, Jessica, Sophie, and the rest of his family.   There were two extraordinary Englishmen who inspired me to become a neuroscientist and medical researcher.   The first was David Attenborough, whose wonderful wildlife documentaries stimulated my interest in biology and behaviour, and second was Colin Blakemore, whose fabulous book (The Mind Machine) I received as a prize in my final year of school, and later influenced my decision to do a PhD in neuroscience.  When I asked Colin to support my fellowship application for a postdoctoral position in Oxford, I had not realized that he was the author of that wonderful book, but was instead drawn to the many seminal neuroscience journal articles he had published.  My six years in Oxford were transformative and I am deeply grateful for the outstanding opportunities I was given.   Colin was always kind, generous and encouraging.   His passion and optimism meant that he encouraged innovation and risk-taking, in an Oxford environment that facilitated intellectual independence and academic freedom.  Colin was very much a polymath and Renaissance man, with exceptional knowledge and skills which extended well beyond science, encompassing the broader human experience.   As a defender of medical research, he was inspirational and courageous, persisting in the face of adversity where many others would have run for cover.   As a communicator of science, he was without par.   I recall nominating him for the Florey Institute’s Kenneth Myer Lecture in Melbourne, where approximately two thousand members of the general public attended and were entertained by the best piece of science communication I have ever witnessed.   I will never forget Colin.  He not only devoted his life to the study of the brain, but was an extraordinary exemplar of a mind full of ideas, passion and productivity, that helped improve the world around him.   Colin leaves an exceptional legacy of multiple generations of international scientists, particularly neuroscientists, and members of the public who better understand science.   We can all follow his noble example, and try to better understand the world around us, and thus improve human health and reduce suffering." (Professor Anthony Hannan, Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, University of Melbourne).

"I was so sad to hear of Colin’s death. We first met at the MRC when I was their head of communications (1989 – 1996). I found out quickly that they didn’t support grant-holders whose work came under attack, leaving them to defend themselves. Trying to change this meant that I was in frequent contact with Colin, whose expertise, intelligence,  sense of fun (despite everything), and courage I much appreciated. When I was suspended and then fired from the MRC for confirming to a journalist that I had advised against their acceptance of money from the tobacco industry, Colin was my strongest supporter, even though he must have known that it would not help his cause with his funding agency. He was an exceptional person. I will miss him." (Mary Rice, science communication consultant).

"Professor Sir Colin Blakemore was a truly inspiring lecturer when I was at Oxford 1981-84 reading Physiological Sciences as a medical student. He was truly charismatic, filled the lecture theatre with energy and really nurtured a love of neuroscience in so many of us, his many undergraduate students. I think that it is true that he inspired a certain awe- his youth and energy seemingly at odds with his immense knowledge and authority. It was in no small part to him that I became fascinated by vision and chose to do a PhD in molecular genetics of optic neuropathies.
I shall always remember him with great admiration." (Professor Marcela Votruba, Professor of Ophthalmology & Hon. Consultant Ophthalmologist, School of Optometry & Vision Sciences & University Hospital Wales).

"Dear Professor Blakemore, Dear Colin, 

     I was so sorry to hear this news. Thank you for all that you have done for Neuroscience, here in the UK and globally. The legacy is unparalleled!  

     At a much smaller scale, thank you too for helping me so much. It is strange to think that it was nearly 30 years ago that we hatched the plan for me to join your lab and work on my FHS dissertation. I remember relentless experiments with Craig, Toby and, most importantly, Frank. That set in train almost everything that has followed in my academic career. 

     I do, though, also remember waiting ages for a sauce to reduce at a lab party at your house; travelling up to Keele University for The Physiological Society meeting; sitting next to you in random seminars where you could read a broadsheet newspaper and then, at the end, ask the decisive question that was so needed! Perhaps most importantly, I remember learning the importance of good science. 

     In a slight completion of the circle, I have just finished examining the FHS this year. I thought of you through the dissertation vivas. I hoped that at least some of the students might have had the experience that I had and would be inspired to continue on an academic neuroscience trajectory. The next batch of students will learn in the Blakemore Lecture Theatre, although, for me, there will never be anyone quite like you teaching them. 

     Take care, rest well and thank you." (Professor Arjune Sen, Head, Oxford Epilepsy Research Group)

"Like my other friends and colleagues here, I am devastated by the loss of my dear mentor and great friend. I was among Colin’s first appointments when he came to Oxford and I enjoyed 22 wonderful years (1980-2002) working closely with him in what was then the University Laboratory of Physiology. For the last 13 of those years, I was his other half as co-director on an MRC Programme Grant that encompassed both visual and auditory neuroscience. However, to call myself the other half with Colin is a hugely inappropriate division of the pie. I always felt more like the other eighth, in keeping, I guess with what us hearing people always thought was our minnow’s share of the national research pot . . . but Colin never made us feel that way.

     One of the things I loved most about Colin, as did all of us younger brothers and sisters of his in the 1980s, was his great sense of fun and mischief. For the sake of propriety, I can’t go into any details here. But following the birth in 2020 of my grandson, Rafferty, to my daughter Jess, who still lives in Oxford (Stadhampton), I had the good fortune to see Colin during each of three post-Covid . . . and post-MND visits in June 2021 and March and June this year. I’d like to share an anecdote about what happened on my last visit, on 12th June, just before he went to Sobell House. When I knocked at the familiar door on Northmoor Road, Colin’s daughter Sarah-Jayne opened for me and we hugged for a moment before going upstairs to where Colin was in bed, helping Sarah choose music for his funeral. He was busy typing words into his speech-talking smart phone, adding occasional grunts of reinforcement. I was just adjusting to this sombre scene when, flicking through his laptop play-list, up popped the Monty Python Communist Quiz in which Karl Marx, Che Guevara, Mao Tse Tung and V.I. Lenin were being asked questions about British pop culture, competing for the top-prize, a beautiful, faux-leather lounge suite. Things weren’t going well for the comrades, given their lack of knowledge about English FA Cup winners. For example, none of them even got the trick question that Coventry City had never won the FA Cup. But that all changed when the line of questioning moved to the Eurovision Song Contest: “Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson sang in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1959. What, Mao Tse Tung, was the title of their song”? “Sing Little Birdie” replied Mao correctly, with a cheesy Chinese accent. Colin was rolling all over the place and grunting like crazy. We all three had tears of laughter rolling down our cheeks.

     In loving memory, Dave."  (David R. Moore, Director, Communication Sciences Research Center, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Professor of Otolaryngology and Neuroscience, University of Cincinnati, Ohio, USA, Professor of Auditory Neuroscience, Manchester Centre for Audiology and Deafness, University of Manchester).

"I well remember Colin Blakemore’s arrival in the University Laboratory of Physiology in 1979. Having become a dedicated researcher, I was concerned how someone at that age (mid-thirties) could become the head of a large department without kissing goodbye to a successful research career.   However, Colin put my mind at rest – and of course, he was right.    I also remember expressing the hope that he was not going to be too much of a new broom!

     One major change he made was to have large parts of Physiology’s pastel front hall painted in brick red.  Big tubs of tall ferns/aspidistras were also installed. It certainly made an impression……there were some interesting comments!

     Another major change was to turn the ground floor Staff common room into a research lab.   Colin’s main objective was to ensure that everyone, regardless of status, took their breaks together in the first-floor common room, previously reserved for Academics.  It was a nice idea: however, people nevertheless continued to sit in cliques but at the new, larger, round tables.

     My daughter and I had an enjoyable time at a party in Colin & Andree’s North Oxford home: they were very hospitable.  Always the generous host, Colin circulated regularly to ensure all glasses were filled. I regretted frequently having to decline due to driving home with my 15-yr-old!

     Finally, I will never forget Colin Blakemore’s help when I encountered difficulties with University admin over the offer of a 1-yr post in the USA. By then I’d worked for the university for more than 20 years:  however, I was told it would create a precedent if they allowed me to take a 1-year sabbatical. Thus, I must give up my job, cash in my pension, and keep my fingers crossed in the event of a suitable post becoming available when I came back. Colin wrote to them setting out terms of my likely re-employment in the Physiology Department upon my return.  His letter was very straightforward and supportive. Their subsequent volte-face allowed me to take leave for a year. Thank you, Colin, for enabling me to have a memorable experience in America!" (Linda M. Castell, Associate Fellow, Green Templeton College, University of Oxford).

 

Read The Telegraph obituary: Sir Colin Blakemore, head of the Medical Research Council who encountered violent opposition to his support for vivisection – obituary.

Read The Times obituary: Sir Colin Blakemore obituary.

Read the BBC News report: Tributes paid to Oxford neuroscientist Professor Sir Colin Blakemore.

Read the Motor Neurone Disease Association (MND) announcement: Announcement of the death of Prof Sir Colin Blakemore.

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