Professor Colin Blakemore: The science of defiance

He is the animal rights movement's No 1 hate figure, and now the Government has fought shy of granting him the knighthood that usually goes with his top job. But within the medical research community, he is less a pariah than a pioneer, zealous in his defence of controversial methods
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The Independent Online

When the convicted arsonist and animal rights campaigner Barry Horne died in Worcester hospital in November 2001, after a sustained hunger strike, the security arrangements protecting Professor Colin Blakemore were put on alert. During one of Horne's previous hunger strikes, Blakemore's name had been found at the head of a hit list prepared by the terrorist group the Animal Rights Militia. It identified scientists ARM would attempt to murder if Horne died.

Blakemore was not attacked on that occasion. But the Waynflete Professor of Physiology at Oxford University was accustomed to the violent antagonism provoked by his research into the science of vision. Before Horne's final protest, Blakemore had already received two letter bombs, one of them wrapped in HIV-infected needles and addressed to his daughters. His family had endured missiles thrown through the windows of their home and regular death threats.

On "World Day for Laboratory Animals" in 1997, Blakemore's Oxford home was surrounded by 300 chanting activists wearing balaclavas. He chose to try to talk to them about his research which involves experiments on cats. The attempt to communicate did little to deter the extremists. By the end of the 1990s Blakemore was expressing frustration that organisations such as the Medical Research Council were not doing more to protect scientists who, like him, consider vivisection essential to advance the treatment of human ailments.

In May of this year Blakemore, the MRC's critic, was appointed its chief executive. A knighthood usually comes with the job. Last week a leak of the machinations surrounding the honours list revealed that Blakemore would not be getting one. Cabinet Office civil servants, under the guidance of the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Andrew Turnbull, feared that his "controversial" use of vivisection might make an award offensive to the animal rights lobby.

Blakemore responded with a furious attack on the Government, suggesting that the decision implied scant support for science and that ministers are supine in the face of activist pressure. Supporters speculated about payback for financial donations to the Labour Party made by animal rights groups before the 1997 election. Blakemore said he was considering resigning from the MRC.

The Labour MP Tam Dalyell, a former frontbench spokesman on science, says, "The last thing on Colin Blakemore's mind is a personal knighthood. Baubles are not his consideration. What is significant is whether the Government is prepared to support scientific work. He wants to know whether he will have the support of ministers in his work at the MRC."

Blakemore's friends agree that his anger had more to do with defending his profession and communicating the medical case for animal experiments than resentment at a personal snub. Professor Steven Rose of the Open University has known Blakemore since the latter was a young research scientist. Rose says, "I hope that if Colin were offered a knighthood he would refuse it. But he is absolutely right to be furious about the way in which he was denied one."

Blakemore confirms that he regards the snub as a professional not a personal issue. "The possibility of getting this wrong was huge. But I took this as a challenge to the central mission of the MRC. I love the job I am doing and I am totally committed to it, but I had to speak out." He says that his position at the MRC was "potentially compromised" by the impression that ministers regard scientists who use animals as embarrassing and the implication that they would be more popular if they did not.

Colin Blakemore has long been passionate about communicating the case for science and establishing dialogue with those who suspect scientists of ignoble motives. Rose says, "Once, after his work on the Boyd committee [which brought together vivisectionists and their opponents], one of the campaigners admitted that his daughter's squint had been corrected as a result of Colin's research on cats."

Blakemore's professional advancement has been predominantly smooth. He did not come from an academic family; his father was a radio operator during the Second World War and a television salesman afterwards. Young Colin was the first member of his family to go to university. He has not forgotten his origins and was recently overhead at a dinner party offering a forthright defence of his working-class credentials.

He was born, an only child, in Stratford-upon-Avon in June 1944. He attributes his success to a primary school headmistress who told his parents that "this boy might pass the 11-plus". They scraped together the money to pay for one year at a fee-paying primary school. Blakemore describes it as "a good investment". He did pass and won a place at the King Henry VIII School in Coventry, then a selective grammar.

In 1962 Blakemore won a state scholarship to study natural science at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. He graduated with first-class honours in 1965 and crossed the Atlantic to do postgraduate research in physiological optics at the University of California's Neurosensory Laboratory at Berkeley. From there his advancement was dramatic. In 1976 he delivered the BBC's Reith lectures. Academic appointments and honours followed. Blakemore has held his chair at Oxford University since 1979. In 2001 he was appointed chairman of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Throughout his career he has made television programmes and delivered public lectures intended to further the understanding and acceptance of science. Tam Dalyell says, "Blakemore has borne the standard not only for himself but for many others involved in animal research. He is a brave fighter, someone who is willing to take people on."

Blakemore has not reserved that courage solely for the defence of vivisection. He has called for radical reform of the education system, including a broader curriculum to replace A-levels and to allow sixth-formers to study both science and the arts, as they do in most of Europe. He has also discussed the case for decriminalising cannabis.

As an academic adviser to government Blakemore has worked on the health implications of mobile telephones and advised the Home Office and the Police Federation on telecommunications. Steven Rose says that the scientific community expects him to be a formidable chief executive of the MRC: "People have high hopes for him. He is very skilled at committee work and exceedingly clear-minded. He does not tolerate fools gladly but he has a reputation for excellence as a manager."

Blakemore is a sophisticated man. One eminent friend describes him as "not frivolous, but more than capable of holding his own at high table. He is not a scientific nerd. He wears his scholarship lightly". At school he studied A-level art and considered becoming an artist, but realised "I would have been terrible". Tam Dalyell confirms that "he is very cultured". He has lectured at the Royal College of Art.

Colin Blakemore is married to Andrée Elizabeth Washbourne. They met at school when he was just 15 and have three daughters of whom he is, understandably, very protective. He describes them as "tremendously supportive", although he recalls one daughter's embarrassment as a teenager when her school had to be evacuated due to a bomb threat and she realised that it was because of what he did. Despite that, one daughter has followed her father into neuroscience. He is immensely proud of her but adamant that "she does not use animals in her work".