June 30, 2022
Sir Colin Blakemore, prominent neuroscientist, was born on June 1, 1944. He died of motor neurone disease on June 27, 2022, aged 78
Born in Stratford-upon-Avon on 1 June 1944, he was educated at King Henry VIII Schoolin Coventry and then won a state scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he gained a BA (first-class honours) in medical sciences in 1965 and was promoted to an MA in 1969. He obtained his PhD degree in Physiological Optics at the University of California, Berkeley, in the United States, as a Harkness Fellow in 1968. From 1968 to 1979, he was a Demonstrator and then Lecturer in Physiology at the University of Cambridge, and Director of Medical Studies at Downing College. From 1976 to 1979 he held the Royal Society Locke Research Fellowship.
His list of senior positions barely let up from then on, whether becoming the youngest person to deliver one the BBC’s Reith Lectures aged 32, to becoming a professor at Oxford University at the age of 35. He served as President and/or chair of learned societies, the Medical Research Council and the precursors to numerous modern institutions including the Royal Society of Biology, British Science Association and Understanding Animal Research.
Sir Colin’s research output was also predictably prolific. The crucial insight Blakemore helped bring to neuroscience was that the brain changes as patterns of activity influence it. In the first few months of life its changes are particularly dynamic, and its cells form billions of new connections. If you are deprived of sight at this crucial period vital connections between the eye and the brain are never made, and you will never see normally.
His research focused on vision, the early development of the brain and conditions such as stroke and Huntington’s disease. He was one of the first to show, in the late 1960s, that the visual cortex undergoes rapid adaption just after birth, and to show the process happened in the fibres of neural cells.
The theory that the brain is plastic, changeable and reorganises itself is now a mainstay of neuroscience — it is how we understand learning and memory. At that the time, however, it was controversial. Blakemore, as one of the scientists uncovering this great truth, provided another key piece of the puzzle: in those who have been blind since shortly after birth, the visual cortex becomes sensitive to input from other senses, such as touch. Blakemore went on to identify some of the genes involved in brain plasticity. “I think we will discover to our horror that many of the most personal and sacred aspects of individuality are determined genetically,” he once said
Due largely to his animal experiments, we are now able to treat conditions such as amblyopia, or lazy eye, the most common form of child blindness — as well as understanding the need to operate on squints in the first weeks of life.
Despite the fact that he had spent much of his career seeking a cure for forms of childhood blindness he would nevertheless receive death threats from people who consider themselves ‘animal rights’ activists. His “crime”, as these objectors s saw it, was that his research involved scientific tests on cats and nonhuman primates.
Over the previous two decades dramatized reports of his methods had been dribbled out by campaign groups — including details of an experiment involving the blinding, and sacrifice of, more than 30 kittens. Then, in 1987, the Sunday Mirror published a set of falsified allegations against Blakemore, including doctored photographs of cats with stitches drawn on to their eyelids.
Blakemore came out fighting, ignoring the advice of his peers. “I answered every letter,” he later recalled, “I got a Press Council ruling against the Sunday Mirror. I was so outraged by the lies and slur against my name.” The media circus that ensued had the effect of bolstering his career, and within a year he was presenting his own TV show — a documentary series on the brain called The Mind Machine. His natural, breezy delivery and talent for elucidating the complex turned him into an unofficial spokesman for his field.
But with every bullish response and reaffirmation of his views, Blakemore became more of a hate figure for extremist hate groups that began to target him personally.
In 1997 his wife, Andrée, watched terrified through the video monitors as a 300-strong mob of balaclava-clad activists tried to beat down her front door with a brick. On another occasion his daughters opened a package containing a ring of HIV-infected needles swaddling half a kilo of explosive. No one was ever seriously injured, but the campaign of harassment gave his children nightmares and drove his wife to attempt suicide. At one point when she was pregnant she picked up the phone to be told: “I hope your baby is born blind.”
Leading the mob, and ever the stickler for accuracy, a woman named Cynthia O’Neill claimed that Blakemore invented thalidomide (he would have been 8 years old), had a pharmaceutical company-funded swimming pool in his back garden, and was keeping the corpse of her cat in his refrigerator.
Still Blakemore never yielded. He set up the Boyd Group to try to facilitate dialogue between scientists and the activists opposed to their lifesaving work. He also spontaneously, live on radio, threatened to quit as CEO of the Medical Research Council if the British government didn’t offer its unequivocal support for animal research. It had been revealed to him by the host of the main UK politics radio show that he had been passed over several times for a peerage due to his support for animals in research and he made snap judgement. Later that day, a government spokesman announced the government’s unflinching support for animal research, despite the desire of a government minister to sack him, and Blakemore’s time at the MRC saw both its independence enhanced and its coffers boosted.
To the disbelief of his critics, he was a devoted cat owner and spoke out against both foxhunting and animal testing for cosmetics or household detergents. “I think animal experimentation is evil,” he once told a journalist. “If it weren’t necessary I would put the flags out. I don’t know one scientist who does it for pleasure — unlike hunters . . . or leather wearers,” he added, looking pointedly at his interviewer’s shoes.
He was an early proponent of openness in animal research and became the first recipient of a UAR Openness Award in 2014, at which he spoke of his experiences.
During the BSE crisis he called for banning beef, advising parents to stick to chicken (“safer than warm-blooded animals with hoofs”), and he also advocated for cannabis to be legalised. A humanist, he signed a letter with other academics calling for the government to reconsider its support for expanding the number of religious schools.
Above all, Sir Colin Blakemore was a lovely person, bright, friendly, talented, conscientious and rounded. He loved music and considered becoming an artist in his younger days. Brave and brilliant, a series of duodenal ulcers he suffered as a teen had been so bad he had almost bled to death, and he later said it had affected his outlook on life. “It gave me an early intimation of mortality. I always had the feeling that I’m not going to live for very long,” he said. “Hence the attitude that life had to be lived as fully as possible.”