Humanists UK mourns Professor Lewis Wolpert CBE FRS (1929-2021)

28 January, 2021

Professor Lewis Wolpert

Humanists UK is deeply sad to announce the death of its patron and former Vice President, Professor Lewis Wolpert.

Lewis Wolpert had a distinguished career in developmental biology and was widely regarded as a leading authority on the development of cells. He is recognised in particular for developing the concept of positional information and positional value: molecular signals and internal cellular responses to them that enable cells to do the right thing in the right place during embryonic development.

His research had wide applications, and he believed it would be instrumental in the study and eventual defeat of pernicious ailments like Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.

His work was not without accolades. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1980 and awarded the CBE in 1990. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999 and one of the first Fellows of the Academy of Medical Sciences in 1998. In 2000, he won the Royal Society of London’s prestigious 2000 Michael Faraday Prize for science communication, which was followed in 2003 by the Hamburger Prize for Education. More recently, he was bestowed the Royal Medal in 2018 by the Queen.

He was also Emeritus Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine at University College, London. He was chairman of the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science for four years and wrote and spoke widely on scientific issues. He published a number of popular science books, including The Unnatural Nature of Science, Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief, and How We Live And Why We Die: The Secret Lives of Cells.

When asked by a journalist in 2005, ‘What is the one thing everyone should learn about science?’ he responded:

‘I would teach the world that science is the best way to understand the world, and that for any set of observations, there is only one correct explanation… it explains the world as it is.’

In his role as patron and a Vice President of Humanists UK, he was an activist and a campaigner for a better world. In 2002, he was one of the 43 scientists and philosophers who signed a letter to Tony Blair and relevant Government departments, deploring the teaching of creationism in schools, and in 2009, joined other eminent scientists in an – ultimately successful – bid to see the theory of evolution enshrined in science curriculums across England. In 2019, he reunited with his fellow leading science communicators to tell the Welsh Government to follow the example since set by England in teaching evolution and forbidding creationism. He was also one of many signatories to a letter supporting a holiday on Charles Darwin’s birthday, published in The Times on February 12, 2003, and also sent to the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary.

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented:

‘We are deeply saddened by this news. Lewis was a great entertainer and communicator of complex scientific ideas and a committed humanist. He will be much missed.’