It is with deep sadness that we learned of the death of our patron, the eminent neurobiologist and humanist campaigner Sir Colin Blakemore.
Born in Stratford-upon-Avon in June 1944, Sir Colin’s love of science was first kindled after winning a place at the King Henry VIII grammar school in Coventry, where he went on to win a scholarship to study medical sciences at Cambridge. He completed a PhD at the University of California in Berkeley, and then spent 11 years in the Department of Physiology at Cambridge University, before becoming Waynflete Professor of Physiology at Oxford University in 1979. From 1996–2003 he was Director of the Medical Research Council Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience at Oxford, before becoming Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council from 2003 until 2007, when he returned to Oxford as Professor of Neuroscience.
Colin’s passion for science extended beyond his own academic achievements, and his life was marked by a consistent commitment to education and to understanding of science. In 1997-1998, he served as President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (now the British Science Association), and then as chair of its board from 2001-2004, steering the organisation’s governance. He also served as President of the Association of British Science Writers, and was awarded innumerable prizes from medical and scientific academies and societies. In 2014, he received a knighthood for services to scientific research, policy, and outreach.
His career was not without controversy, particularly when it came to his stance on animal testing, but he was always courageous in the pursuit of scientific progress, even when faced with violent opposition. His experience of nearly being assassinated with a parcel bomb only strengthened his resolve to promote better dialogue between scientists and the public, drawing on a humanist conviction that greater understanding of the world around us could ease tensions, dispel misapprehensions, and promote social harmony.
Anticipating an entire era of popular science communicators, and in many ways paving the way for many of today’s widely loved broadcaster-scientists, Colin was described by the Royal Society as ‘one of Britain’s most influential communicators of science’. He was a frequent contributor to radio and television programmes, including the BBC Reith Lecture in 1976 and the 13-part BBC2 series The Mind Machine. He also wrote opinion columns for most of the national newspapers, and his books for the general public include Mechanics of the Mind (for which he won the Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science), Images and Understanding, Mindwaves, The Mind Machine, Gender and Society, and The Oxford Companion to the Body.
In the 1990s, Colin was appointed a patron of Humanists UK both for his work improving public understanding of science and for his achievements in neurobiology. In that capacity, he was a devoted campaigner for a better world, and took a special interest in Humanists UK’s campaigns for a better education, and for better science lessons in particular. He was also one of 43 scientists who and philosophers in 2002 who wrote to Prime Minister Tony Blair to highlight concerns about the teaching of creationism as science in British schools. In 2003, he wrote with other Humanists UK patrons to the Prime Minister and Home Secretary as part of a popular campaign to make Darwin Day a public holiday, in the spirit of promoting greater public recognition of the sciences. In 2011, he was helped launch Humanists UK’s successful ‘Teach Evolution, Not Creationism’ campaign, which led to funding rules changing in 2014 to ban creationism in English state schools and make teaching evolution compulsory. In 2019, he was part of a successful push to repeat the campaign in Wales.
He also had a deep belief in the value of educating children from different backgrounds side by side, and was dismayed by the UK’s system of discriminatory faith schools. In 2001, he was one of the signatories who spearheaded a letter in the Independent urging the Government to reconsider its plans to expand religious schools. In 2014, he made headlines by joining forces with other humanists and religious leaders in calling for a wholesale review of the role of religion in schools. In 2019, he was again part of a partially successful major intervention from 180 humanists and religious leaders challenging plans for a new wave of 100% selective religious schools.
He was also deeply passionate about more people understanding what humanism is, and more non-religious people with humanist values and convictions being able to put a name to their beliefs. In 2011, he was part of a project alongside the comedians Ed Byrne and Lucy Porter, writers David Nobbs, Zoe Margolis, and Polly Toynbee, and the philosopher AC Grayling to create The Really Simple Guide to Humanism, a special website full of video content designed for use in schools, whose resources later became integrated with Humanists UK’s teacher-facing website Understanding Humanism. He helped to launch Humanists UK’s ecology-focused programme ‘Humanists for a Better World’, which relaunched as Humanist Climate Action in 2021.
Tributes to Sir Colin have poured in from those who knew him and who admired his work.
Humanists UK President Dr Adam Rutherford said:
‘Colin Blakemore was the complete package. An extraordinary scientist whose outstanding work evolved our knowledge of vision, of brain development, neuroplasticity, and neurodegeneration. He was also eloquent and fun – and generous in sharing his knowledge and charm. He was a brilliant, inspirational science communicator, in lectures, on television, and on radio, and a thoughtful and effective campaigner for the ethical use of animals in medical research. In the face of direct violence aimed at his family, he stood fast in his belief that minimal and heavily regulated animal research was a necessary part of the progress of knowledge and the alleviation of human suffering.
‘He promoted science and rationality in public, in the academy and in politics, and fought against pseudoscience in its myriad forms. I did not know him well, but on the few times we met, and the one time we drank whisky together, he was funny and kind. Colin’s legacy is not just in his science, and love of science, but in his family. My thoughts and love are with them all.’
Humanists UK Vice President Professor AC Grayling paid tribute as well, saying:
‘Colin Blakemore was a brilliant scientist and a lovely, friendly man, always inspiringly curious and enthusiastic. This is a great loss, really so.’
Humanists UK Vice President Professor Jim Al-Khalili said:
‘Colin Blakemore was not only a true giant of British science, but one of those exceptional human beings and larger-than-life characters whose remarkable achievements we look back on with awe. As a neuroscientist he pioneered the idea that the brain has the ability to change even in adulthood, and as the youngest ever Reith Lecturer at just 32, one the most influential science communicators of his generation. Because of his work in medical research he was targeted by animal rights campaigners for many years, but rather than keeping a low profile as advised, he worked with the activists explaining the ethics of his research.
‘No doubt, Colin, your long list of achievements will be listed elsewhere, so I just want to say friend, colleague, humanist campaigner, educator, charity worker, global advocate for science, and of course marathon runner, goodbye and thank you for being such an inspiration to me and to so many others.’
Humanists UK patron Professor Raymond Tallis eulogised Colin in saying:
‘Sir Colin Blakemore was a truly admirable figure in British science and intellectual life. Through his contributions as path-breaking neuroscientist, as a courageous defender of animal research, as a science communicator, and as a supporter of humanism, he has left an enduring legacy.’
Humanists UK patron Professor Christopher French said:
‘Colin Blakemore will be sadly missed. In his life and career, he consistently demonstrated the highest levels of integrity and a firm commitment to rationality, honesty, and openness. He made major contributions to neuroscience and, as a science communicator, he was second to none. Humanism has lost one of its brightest stars.’
Humanists UK patron Professor Richard Dawkins remembered Colin by saying:
‘I’m not in the same field of biology as Colin Blakemore but any biologist couldn’t help respecting him as a neuroscientist of immense distinction. He arrived in Oxford as something of a golden boy, Waynflete Professor in the footsteps of Sherrington at the remarkably young age of 35. At Oxford I knew him socially as a connoisseur of the arts, and as a generous host, together with his wife Andrée, who tragically died recently. He was my goto authority on visual physiology, always ready with friendly answers to my naïve questions. When he saw me after I suffered a mild stroke in 2016 he startled me by asking, without preamble but with a disarming smile and a forthright directness that I found endearing, ”How’s your brain?”
‘Helped by a sharp wit, and a boyish charm which never left him, he was a brilliant communicator of science, highly articulate but never intimidating as some fluent speakers can be. He was a man of strong principle, as was shown by his brave public support of Sir Tim Hunt when that Nobel laureate was traduced. It was in the same spirit of loyalty to decency and truth that Colin was a lifelong humanist and staunch supporter of Humanists UK.’
Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson, who worked alongside Colin in the course of a number of humanist campaigns and schools initiatives, added:
‘Colin saw scientific understanding as a powerful force for improving the quality of people’s lives, and this same motivation was evident in his years of devoted humanist activism. I will always remember and be grateful for his generous support, and send my love and condolences to his family and friends.’
Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.
Humanists UK has over 180 patrons who support its work in various ways through their expertise and prominence in various fields. Existing patrons include significant figures from the spheres of science, philosophy, human rights activism, politics, the arts, and broadcasting. Alongside its patrons, Humanists UK has a President and a number of Vice Presidents. From June 2022, its President has been scientist and broadcaster Dr Adam Rutherford, supported by Vice Presidents Professor Jim Al-Khalili, Professor Alice Roberts, Shaparak Khorsandi, Polly Toynbee, and Professor A C Grayling.