- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
Sir Colin Blakemore, the former Oxford Professor of Physiology and head of the Medical Research Council, who has died aged 78, endured threats, letter bombs and even parcels of HIV-infected hypodermic needles sent to his children, yet he remained Britain’s most outspoken advocate of vivisection and became one of the country’s best-known scientists, campaigning on issues such as drugs policy and libel reform.
Blakemore dated the beginning of his persecution to the implementation of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, a piece of legislation which regulates the use of laboratory animals.
The act seems to have spurred the animal rights group Animal Aid (AA) into a change of tactics: “They conceived a strategy to single out one particular individual and to focus on their work. They looked for someone working not on rats or mice, but on familiar animals, like cats or dogs, and on young animals. I’m afraid that person was me.”
In the 1970s Blakemore had conducted experiments that involved sewing new-born kittens’ eyelids shut in order to study the development of their visual cortex. These experiments advanced medical understanding of amblyopia – the most common form of child blindness – to the point where it can now be cured.
In 1987 AA published a pamphlet, Blinded by Science, written by a former student of Blakemore’s, describing his experiments in lurid (and one-sided) terms. Subsequently the Sunday Mirror published pages of allegations illustrated by doctored photographs showing kittens with eyelids criss-crossed with stitches.
Rejecting advice to keep his head down, Blakemore came out fighting, obtained a Press Council ruling against the Sunday Mirror and won the backing of the Medical Research Council, which found nothing wrong with his work.
Determined to argue the case for animal research, he set up the Boyd Group for members of animal rights groups to get round the table with vivisectionists and was pleased when one of the campaigners admitted that his daughter’s squint had been corrected as a result of Blakemore’s research on cats.
Blakemore had worked in France where, he recalled, animal experiments were often carried out next to hospitals: “People walked past seeing monkeys with implants. The lesson I learnt was ‘don’t pretend it doesn’t happen’. That has been my approach all along.”
Ironically, the publicity helped to establish Blakemore as one of those rare scientists who could communicate complex scientific concepts in an engaging way. In 1988 he was given his own BBC television series, The Mind Machine.
But in the meantime, he and his family had become targets for an extremist fringe of the animal liberation movement. They endured missiles thrown through the windows of their Oxford home, paint stripper poured over their car, regular death threats, and on one occasion a parcel containing a bomb wrapped in HIV-infected needles, addressed to Blakemore’s daughter.
On “World Day for Laboratory Animals” in 1997, Blakemore’s home was surrounded by 300 chanting activists wearing balaclavas. While his wife Andrée was pregnant she received an anonymous telephone call from a man who said he hoped that her baby would be born blind. Their house had to be fitted with panic buttons, triple locks and a safe room.
Blakemore would not retreat. Instead he became even more determined to make people see how animal experimentation was essential to the progress of science: “I hate working with animals. I think it is wrong and I think it is evil but I think that, for now, it is a utilitarian equation, that it is necessary.”
He rejected the idea that animals have “rights”: “The reason why I don’t mistreat my own cat is not because it has some kind of rights. It’s because I try to be a decent person. Our primary responsibility is to our own species.”
Thus he supported a ban on animal testing for cosmetics, opposed fox hunting and tried to avoid eating factory-farmed meat. Animal experimentation, he suggested, was arguably “the most noble thing we do to animals. If their use in research benefits people, that is much more morally justifiable than eating animals for pleasure.”
Blakemore’s persecution abated somewhat after the prosecution for harassment of Cynthia O’Neill, one of the main ring-leaders of the protest, in 2000. By this time the case for vivisection was so well-established that Blakemore was able to report that, as she was led away from the dock, a policeman, noticing pills in her bag, asked her “How do you know animals were not used to create these?”
An only child, Colin Brian Blakemore was born at Stratford-upon-Avon on June 1 1944. His father was a television salesman and young Colin was the first member of his family to stay on at school beyond the age of 14. “My parents ... were mystified when I joined a record library and filled the house with Bruckner and Shostakovich,” he recalled. “I had a hunger for culture and for making a better world, very common in the postwar Attlee years.”
He attributed his success to a primary school headmistress who told his parents that their son might pass the 11-plus. They scraped together the money to pay for one year at a fee-paying primary school and he duly won a place at the King Henry VIII School in Coventry.
There, in addition to science, he did A-level art and considered becoming an artist. Though he soon gave up the idea, he retained an interest and would later give lectures at the Royal College of Art.
In 1962 Blakemore won a state scholarship to study Medicine at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. He intended to be a doctor, but found the academic side of the course more interesting than the clinical.
It was the dawn of the post-Crick and Watson scientific era dominated by genetics, and he was inspired by Professor Richard Gregory’s lectures on visual perception and how neurons decode messages from the eyes.
After graduating with a First in 1965, he went on a Harkness scholarship to Berkeley and studied the visual cortex with Horace Barlow, a great-grandson of Charles Darwin.
After completing a doctorate, he returned to Cambridge, where a promising experimental career set him up to become, in 1975, the Waynflete Professor of Physiology at Oxford and a Fellow of Magdalen College.
In 1976, at the age of 32, he became the youngest ever Reith lecturer, delivering a series of talks on “Mechanics of the Mind”.
Blakemore was director of the James S McDonnell and MRC Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience at Oxford for eight years and served as president of the Biosciences Federation (now the Society of Biology), the British Neuroscience Association and the Physiological Society, and as president and chairman of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (now the British Science Association). In 1989 he won the Royal Society’s Michael Faraday award for his work to involve the public in science,
Though Blakemore criticised the Medical Research Council for not doing more to help scientists involved in vivisection, in 2003 he was appointed the organisation’s chief executive.
A knighthood usually comes with the job, but a leak of the machinations surrounding the honours list revealed that Blakemore would not be getting one, Cabinet Office civil servants apparently fearing that his “controversial” espousal of vivisection might make an award offensive to the animal rights lobby.
Blakemore responded with a furious attack on the Labour Government, suggesting that the decision implied scant support for science and that ministers were supine in the face of activist pressure. He threatened to resign unless the government made clear it supported scientists engaged in animal research, which the then science minister, David Sainsbury, duly did. But there was no knighthood until the 2014 Birthday Honours.
Blakemore never confined his public utterances to the defence of vivisection. He called for radical reform of the education system, including a broader curriculum to replace A-levels, called for a review of the role of religion in British state schools and for a ban on the teaching of creationism as scientifically valid. He also suggested that alcohol and tobacco should be classed as more dangerous than LSD or Ecstasy, and that all drugs should be legalised.
In the wake of the BSE crisis, he supported the case for banning sales of beef and, as an academic adviser to government, worked on the health implications of mobile telephones and advised the Home Office and the Police Federation on telecommunications.
On the completion of his appointment at the MRC in 2007, Blakemore returned to a Professorship of Neuroscience at Oxford. He also held a Professorship at the University of Warwick and served as chairman of the general advisory committee on science at the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
After his official retirement he held emeritus positions at Oxford and at Duke-National University of Singapore Graduate Medical School, and was Yeung Kin Man Endowed Chair Professor in Neuroscience and Senior Fellow at the Hong Kong Institute for Advanced Study, City University of Hong Kong.
The recipient of numerous prizes and academic honours, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1992.
Though he listed his recreation in Who’s Who as “wasting time”, nothing could be further from the truth. A fitness enthusiast, Blakemore ran every day and could complete marathons in under three hours. Aged 53 he ran the Olympic centenary event from Marathon to Athens, coming first in his age group.
He married, in 1965, Andrée Washbourne, whom he met at school when he was just 15. They had three daughters.
Sir Colin Blakemore, born June 1 1944, died June 27 2022