1944 – 2022
In piam Memoriam
Written by David Paterson, Head of Department, Department of Physiology, Anatomy & Genetics
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, Andree, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org].
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.
Andrew King, Wellcome Principal Research Fellow and Director of the Centre for Integrative Neuroscience