Faced with an increasingly violent animal rights movement, most scientists who worked with laboratory animals in the 1980s and 90s kept their heads down. Not Colin Blakemore. Despite threats to himself and his family, including a parcel bomb opened by his children (which failed to detonate), he continued to defend the use of animals in his research on the brain.
Blakemore, who has died of motor neurone disease aged 78, was a persuasive communicator. He wrote and spoke about science with warmth and easy elegance and these qualities, evident early in his career, made him much in demand in print and broadcast media. In 1976, aged 32, he became the youngest person to give the BBC Radio 4 Reith Lectures. Entitled Mechanics of the Mind, the six lectures linked neuroscience to society through topics including sleep, language, consciousness and mental illness. Blakemore subsequently presented a 13-part series, The Mind Machine, on BBC Two in 1988, and published a number of popular books. He received several awards for science communication, including the Royal Society’s Michael Faraday prize.
Blakemore’s research sought to understand why children born with a squint, so that the inputs the brain receives from each eye do not match, could grow up with profoundly impaired vision in one eye, a condition known as amblyopia. His experiments on the developing visual systems of cats suggested that patching the eyes of affected children briefly during an early critical period of development could establish new visual pathways and improve their vision. These studies contributed to a growing understanding of neural plasticity – the idea that the brain retains the ability to rewire itself in response to changes in its environment – which has radically revised the traditional view that brain damage is irreversible.
Blakemore’s advocacy of the use of animals in research emphasised the strictly regulated practice in British laboratories. “It is important for everyone who uses animals in their research to think constantly about two things,” he wrote in an online discussion organised by Understanding Animal Research in 2016. “Whether the benefits of the research really outweigh the moral cost of using animals; and whether it might be possible to develop new alternative methods.” Yet his outspokenness made him a target. He took police advice on making his home and family more secure, installing a safe room and each morning checking for explosive devices under his car. The harassment lessened after one of his main pursuers was prosecuted in 2000.
His commitment to dialogue on the issue led him to set up a thinktank in 1992, in partnership with Les Ward, who was then director of Advocates for Animals. The Boyd Group, originally chaired by the Edinburgh medical ethicist Kenneth Boyd, brought together a variety of individuals and organisations who rejected violence and lawbreaking and tried to reach consensus.
In 2003 Blakemore was appointed chief executive of the Medical Research Council, the government-funded body that operates medical research institutes and distributes grants. The council had recently been criticised by the House of Commons select committee on science and technology for poor management. Blakemore immediately canvassed disgruntled researchers and instituted reforms, eventually winning increased support from the government.
Within months of his appointment the Sunday Times published a leaked document showing that, unlike every previous MRC chief, civil servants had deemed him “unsuitable” to receive a knighthood, because of his uncompromising stance on animal research. Blakemore threatened to resign unless a minister publicly restated the government’s backing for scientists who used animals in their laboratories. He received support from the prime minister, Tony Blair, but was not knighted until 2014, six years after the end of his term as chief executive.
Brought up in the Church of England, Blakemore renounced any religious faith in his teens. He was a patron of Humanists UK, contributing to its campaigns for better science education. He was one of the signatories of a letter the organisation sent to Blair in 2002, calling for a legal requirement that creation stories should not be taught in the national curriculum “as anything other than religious myths”, and for the teaching of Darwinian evolution to be introduced in key stage 2.
In an interview with the New Statesman in 2008, Blakemore described himself as an “old leftwing libertarian”. Among his many government advisory roles, he was a member of the UK Drug Policy Commission. With Prof David Nutt and others, in 2007 he co-authored a controversial letter to the Lancet assessing the harms of legal and illegal substances, including alcohol and tobacco, and arguing that policy should be based on level of harm.
When, two years later, Nutt was sacked from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, Blakemore worked with the Science Media Centre to submit a set of principles to the science and technology select committee for its report on scientific advice and evidence, advocating for the independence of advisers and a policy of openness.
Blakemore was born during the second world war at a military hospital in Stratford-upon-Avon. At the time his mother, Beryl (nee Smith), was a member of the land army and his father, Norman, was in the RAF: Colin was their only child. They set up home in a rented terrace house in the working-class district of Radford in Coventry. When Colin was five years old his father left active service and became a television repair engineer: the family was one of the first in the area to own a TV.
Colin initially attended the local primary school, but when he performed well above the average for his age, his parents scraped together the funds to send him from the age of seven to the fee-paying junior section of King Henry VIII school in Coventry. Solitary in his early years, he developed a passion for natural history and science, conducting experiments on the behaviour of woodlice and avidly watching David Attenborough’s Zoo Quest programmes.
Passing the 11-plus exam entitled him to free secondary education in the senior school. He excelled at science, art and sports, and won a scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, to study medical sciences. He went to the University of California at Berkeley on a Harkness fellowship for his PhD in 1965, where he worked with Horace Barlow on binocular vision in cats. He returned to Cambridge in 1968 to take up a lectureship in physiology, becoming a fellow and director of studies at Downing College in 1971.
In 1979, aged 35, he was appointed Waynflete professor of physiology and fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford. Researchers in Blakemore’s group pursued the theme of neural plasticity, investigating disorders of brain development that might lead to cognitive disorders such as autism and dyslexia, and exploring the underlying brain pathology in Huntington’s disease.
After retiring in 2007 he held chairs at the University of Warwick, the School of Advanced Study at the University of London, and the Hong Kong Institute for Advanced Study at the City University of Hong Kong. During his career he held numerous visiting professorships and other academic honours. His even more numerous public service appointments included chairing the British Association for the Advancement of Science and board membership of several charities devoted to neurological disease.
He was president of the Motor Neurone Disease Association from 2008 until 2019. A long-distance runner who completed 18 marathons and maintained an enviable level of fitness until well into his 70s, Blakemore was himself diagnosed with this fatal neurodegenerative condition in 2021.
His wife, Andrée (nee Washbourne), a former ballet dancer whom he met when they were both 15 years old and married in 1965, died in January. He is survived by his daughters, Sarah-Jayne, Sophie and Jessica.