Victoria Braithwaite, a professor at Penn State University best known for her work on fish cognition, died at age 52 from pancreatic cancer late last month (September 30). One of the first scientists to systematically explore pain perception in fish, Braithwaite’s work stimulated debate about cognition in non-human animals, and helped inform animal welfare guidelines in scientific research.
“Victoria had an enormously successful career in trying to understand the minds of animals,” Susan Healy, a biologist at the University of St. Andrews in the UK who penned an obituary for Braithwaite for The Guardian, says in a statement from Penn State. “Given that we are still trying to do this with our own species, this has been no small challenge.”
Braithwaite was born the sixth of seven children of June and Alan Braithwaite in 1967 in Bradford in the UK. After an undergraduate degree at the University of Oxford, she spent the early 1990s studying how animals use visual or other sensory information to learn—beginning with pigeons during graduate research at Oxford and shifting her focus to fish for postdoc work at the University of Glasgow.
In 1995, Braithwaite took up a lectureship at the University of Edinburgh. It was there that she coauthored two seminal and, at the time, controversial papers laying out the case that fish feel pain. The data, she and her colleagues argued, demonstrated that fish show behaviors and physiology that are consistent with pain perception, or nociception.
Although her ideas have continued to receive pushback from members of the angling community and a few biologists, the findings have been widely replicated by other researchers and incorporated into the design of welfare guidelines for the research and farming of fish in the European Union and elsewhere.
“More and more people are willing to accept the facts,” Braithwaite told Smithsonian Magazine last year. “Fish do feel pain. It’s likely different from what humans feel, but it is still a kind of pain.”
In 2007, after 12 years at Edinburgh, Braithwaite moved to Penn State, where she taught courses on animal behavior and welfare alongside her research on how the environmental conditions of salmon and trout fisheries could influence fish cognition.
Her book Do Fish Feel Pain?, which presented her findings for a lay audience, was published in 2010. Reviewing the work for The Quarterly Review of Biology, Gil Rosenthal of Texas A&M University wrote that “Braithwaite is at her best when conveying the sophistication of fish behavior, and that sophistication alone should give pause to anyone who derives joy from dragging a live animal around by a hook through the mouth.”
A diagnosis of pancreatic cancer came as Braithwaite was preparing to move to Berlin to become the director of the IGB Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries.
Margaret Brittingham, a professor of wildlife resources at Penn State and Braithwaite’s colleague, says in the university statement that even faced with this news, Braithwaite maintained an upbeat and curious attitude towards the world.
“She never asked, ‘Why me?’” Brittingham says. “Instead, she noted that her tumor was of an incredibly rare type and marveled at the infinitesimal odds that she developed it. She remained positive until the end; it’s how she lived her entire life.”
Braithwaite is survived by five siblings, her two sons, James and Matthew, and two grandchildren.
Catherine Offord is an associate editor at The Scientist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.