Colin Blakemore, a science communicator and pioneering neuroscientist who was among the first researchers to explain brain plasticity, died on June 27 at the age of 78 after receiving hospice care for motor neuron disease, his daughter Sarah-Jayne announced via Twitter.
Born June 1, 1944, in Stratford-Upon-Avon in England, Colin Blakemore showed academic aptitude early on. According to a tribute from the University of Oxford, Blakemore received a state scholarship to attend Cambridge University’s Corpus Christi College. He studied medical sciences and graduated with honors in 1965. He took only two and a half years after his graduation to earn his PhD in physiological optics from the University of California, Berkeley.
At age 24, he became a lecturer at the University of Oxford, where he would later be promoted to professor and fellow. He studied brain development, including binocular depth perception and spatial awareness, showing how vision developed and demonstrating the brain’s plasticity in making neural connections.
Blakemore was often the target of animal rights activists due to the nature of his studies, which involved restricting animals’ sight by sewing their eyes shut. Though he anesthetized the animals and used the same techniques performed on human babies with eye injuries, he faced harassment from extremists for years, including threats to kidnap his children. Once, a package addressed to his daughters arrived at his house containing a bomb covered in purportedly HIV-tainted needles. Yet he continued his research and repeatedly tried to engage with the protesters.
“Research on animals is evil,” Blakemore told The Scientist in 2002, “but a necessary evil if it is balanced against the benefits that accrue.” According to The Guardian, Blakemore joined the Boyd Group think tank in the early 1990s, providing researchers and nonviolent animal rights activists a space to discuss the issue.
In 2003, Blakemore became chief of Britain’s Medical Research Council (MRC). Though all of his predecessors had received a knighthood upon taking that position, he was repeatedly denied that honor because of his unwavering support for animal experimentation. He famously threatened to resign from his position if “political expediency” on a controversial subject would take precedence over honoring objective merit. He was involved in further controversy in 2005 when there were rumors he threatened to fire a scientist at the National Institute for Medical Research, one of the MRC’s flagship institutions, who did not support certain decisions, though he was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing. Blakemore stepped down from the MRC in 2007.
In 2012, he retired from Oxford as a professor emeritus. Among his many awards and honorifics, he finally received a knighthood in 2014.
“So many of the tributes to Colin have focused on his bravery,” writes journalist Fiona Fox in a blog post for Science Media Centre recounting some the more harrowing aspects of the harassment he endured, “and I sense that we find Colin’s death harder to take because so few of us feel able to emulate his courage.”
He is preceded in death by his wife Andrée Elizabeth Washbourne, whom he met as a teenager. He is survived by his three daughters.