Colin Blakemore: neuroscientist who explored the symbiotic relation between art and science (2023)

Obituaries BMJ 2022; 378 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.o1910 (Published 02 August 2022) Cite this as: BMJ 2022;378:o1910

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Colin Blakemore made an outstanding contribution to understanding of vision and neural plasticity—how brain cells reorganise themselves in response to the environment after birth and even in adulthood. His research focused on vision, early development of the brain, and conditions central to establishing the neuronal plasticity concept, including stroke and Huntington’s disease.

Controversy

Blakemore was a prominent target for animal rights activists but vowed that he would not be silenced. He later insisted: “The consequences of bowing to the threat of violence were unthinkable.”

Over 20 years his commitment was unwavering despite letter bombs, letters laced with razor blades, and death threats. An anonymous telephone caller told his pregnant wife, Andrée: “I hope your baby is born deformed.” At one time his children were not allowed to leave the house unaccompanied. About 300 activists in balaclavas surrounded their home, smashing doors and windows.

Public debate about animal research sometimes featured libels reprinted by some newspapers as if they were fact. In 1987 Blakemore became the first researcher to win redress over a libel from the Press Complaints Commission. He did not sue the Sunday Mirror because if he had lost he would have had to pay his costs and most of the defendants’—perhaps way beyond a professorial salary.

In 1994 Blakemore became the first scientist to use a Research Defence Society libel fund. He was granted an injunction preventing Vernon Coleman, a one time GP, from publishing his home address. An animal rights campaigner and medical columnist of the People, Coleman had written several articles against Blakemore.

For many years, defending animal research was largely restricted to a few people. Many other researchers stayed behind laboratory walls at the behest of their universities, playing into the hands of the activists, who alleged that their silence indicated guilt.

(Video) Perception of Visual Space by Colin Blakemore

Government departments were also reportedly duplicitous. In Animal Warfare: The Story of the Animal Liberation Front, David Henshaw noted that several scientists had spoken about the “shameless betrayal by government bodies who reneged on research projects out of a combination of embarrassment over lurid publicity and outward cowardice in the face of bomb threats.”

Frustrated by lack of establishment support, Blakemore became chief executive of the Medical Research Council (MRC) in 2003. He was at the forefront of an initiative in 2005 in which more than 500 leading academics, including three Nobel laureates, 190 fellows of the Royal Society and medical royal colleges, and more than 250 academic professors, endorsed the need for animal research in the absence of effective non-animal models.

John Iredale, interim executive chair of the MRC, said, “Sir Colin persuaded many other researchers to be more open about the subject and was, I believe, instrumental in changing public attitudes.”

Science and art

In 2007 Blakemore returned to Oxford as professor of neuroscience and supernumerary fellow at Magdalen College. In 2012 he became the first professor of neuroscience and philosophy at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, where he directed the Centre for the Study of the Senses.

He became part of a team exploring the symbiotic relation between art and science. His collaborators included not only scientists and philosophers, but designers, galleries, chefs (including Heston Blumenthal), and artists (including David Hockney, who painted him). As a young man, Blakemore had contemplated a career in art.

Born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1944, Blakemore went to Coventry’s King Henry VIII School and won a state scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, gaining a first class honours degree and masters in medical sciences. The only son of Cedric Norman Blakemore, a TV repair engineer, and Beryl (née Smith), he was the first in the family to go to university.

The Times reported him saying that his parents had the most “gratifying hands-off” approach. “They were mystified when I joined a record library and filled the house with Bruckner and Shostakovich. I had a hunger for culture and making a better world, very common in the post-war Attlee years.”

He met his future wife, Andrée, at school when they were 15. She predeceased him this year. They had three children: Sarah-Jayne, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College, London (UCL); Sophie, a game designer; and Jessica, a doctoral student in psychiatry at UCL.

The neuropsychologist Richard Gregor, who wrote the highly acclaimed The Intelligent Eye (1970) and invented several optical instruments, inspired Blakemore’s interest in visual perception. Blakemore studied psychological optics at the University of California under the British neuroscientist Horace Barlow, Darwin’s great grandson. Influenced by the early computer scientists Barlow was a pioneer in seeing visual signals as information to be processed. What was meant to be one year in California for Blakemore became two and a doctorate.

He returned to Cambridge in the late 1960s as a demonstrator, lecturer in physiology, and director of medical studies (Downing College). In 1979, aged 35, he became Oxford’s youngest ever Waynflete professor of physiology. He then became the longest serving Waynflete professor.

Blakemore was also the youngest BBC Radio 4 Reith lecturer, thanks to a rare gift for elucidating the complex with elegance. His passion for public engagement prompted nearly a thousand broadcasts, including the 13 part BBC TV series The Mind Machine and a Royal Institution Christmas lecture. He also wrote several popular books and chaired the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which aimed to put science at the centre of public debate.

Knighted in 2014, Blakemore also called for science to be embedded at the heart of government through a department of science with a Cabinet seat. He complained that the word “culture” was something “discussed on BBC2 after Newsnight which didn’t include science.”

His wide ranging role as an ambassador for science rested on his reputation as a neuroscientist—as summarised by his Oxford colleague David Paterson, head of the department of physiology, anatomy, and genetics. Speaking at the Oxford Medical Sciences Division, Paterson said that neural plasticity had become a dominant theme in neuroscience. (It was initially controversial.) Paterson added, “The plasticity of connections between nerve cells is thought to underlie many different types of learning and memory, as well as sensory development.”

Blakemore had also demonstrated, he said, 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.”

Other tributes came from people whose careers Blakemore inspired and shaped and those who recall his sense of fun and mischief. Outside the laboratory, Blakemore maintained an enviable level of fitness into his 70s. He completed 18 marathons.

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In 2007, as MRC chief executive, he suggested that the council and the Motor Neurone [sic] Disease Association should jointly fund fellowships for young clinicians. He went on to speak at and host association events until 2018. In 2021 he was himself diagnosed with motor neuron disease.

Colin Brian Blakemore (b 1944; graduated BMedSci, Cambridge, 1965; PhD, FRS, FMedSci, honFRCP, honFRSM, honFRSB, honFBPhS, MAE), died from motor neuron disease on 27 June 2022

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