Lewis Wolpert, an influential developmental biologist and prolific science communicator, died on January 28 at the age of 91. He was known for his findings on how cells in the developing embryo coordinate so that each plays the role needed in order for the organism to take shape.
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1929, Wolpert studied civil engineering as an undergraduate at the University of the Witwatersrand, and later went on to graduate school in soil mechanics at Imperial College London. “A friend told me that soil mechanics wasn’t very sexy and that some of my work could be relevant to the study of cell mechanics,” he recalled in an interview with The Scientist in 2011. So Wolpert switched to studying the mechanics of cell division at King’s College London, according to The Guardian, and later was promoted to a lecturer and reader there. He eventually moved to University College London and remained there until his retirement at age 74.
The Guardian reports that Wolpert worked with sea urchin embryos and Hydra, but eventually settled on chick embryos, which he used to study limb development. He avoided hands-on laboratory work, instead designing experiments that were carried out by his technician, Amata Hornbruch. Some of his most well-known work involved developing a model for how cells in a developing embryo “know” how they are situated in relationship to other parts of the organism.
See “Skeleton Keys”
Wolpert would often tell audiences that gastrulation, the stage about two weeks into human embryonic development when organized layers begin to form, was “truly the most important time in your life.” According to BioNews, this idea was influential, forming the basis for a UK policy that human embryos can’t be studied in vitro past the 14th day of development.
According to The Guardian, Wolpert began making appearances on BBC radio in the early 1980s. He also wrote multiple books aimed at general audiences, including Malignant Sadness, which combines his own experience with depression with research findings about the disease.
Wolpert’s science communication work drew some criticisms; The Guardian notes that his most recent two books were found to contain plagiarized passages, which he said was “totally inadvertent and due to carelessness.” And in a recent video, biologist and blogger PZ Myers cites examples of what he calls Wolpert’s “casual sexism,” such as his assertion that women, but less so men, have a genetically determined propensity to care for young children.
Wolpert’s accolades include being awarded the Royal Society’s highest honor, the Royal Medal, in 2018.
Wolpert is survived by his wife, Alison Hawkes, and his four children, two stepchildren, and six grandchildren.