Revered and reviled: Profile: Colin Blakemore

Ros Wynne-Jones finds a calm rationality in the Oxford professor who provokes public outrage; profile; Colin Blakemore
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The Independent Online
Colin Blakemore says he hates the idea of animal experimentation and wants to stop it "as much as the Animal Liberation Front". He says he rarely eats meat because he cannot bear the thought of the intensive farming conditions most livestock suffer. He is devoted to the family cat.

These things are, in themselves, not particularly unusual. But from the man who is Britain's most vocal supporter of vivisection, they are unexpected. To animal rights groups, Professor Blakemore has been public enemy number one for over 10 years. To the extremist wing of the animal liberation movement, he has been a prime target for violent attacks. To the British public, he has been the scientist who sewed up kittens' eyelids.

Last week two things happened to the Oxford Professor of Physiology. Firstly, his property was once more the target of a terrorist attack, with paint stripper thrown over a car parked in the family drive and the tyres slashed. Secondly, he took over the latest in a series of distinguished academic positions, becoming President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS). This kind of a week is typical of the extremes of the 10 years since the pressure group Animal Aid first highlighted Blakemore's work with kittens. On the one hand he was once more being feted; on the other denounced.

The professor's new post is a prestigious one. It was at the BAAS, which was formed in the early 19th century to promote public understanding of science, that the discovery of the electron was first announced, the word "dinosaur" was first used, and the subject of evolution was famously debated by Bishop Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley. As science has now broken up into specialist academies, new discoveries are rarely presented at the Association nowadays, but its conceived role - promoting public understanding - is arguably more relevant today than ever before, in a Britain in a cold sweat over cloning and gene therapy, BSE and global warming.

Professor Blakemore is looking forward to his presidency immensely. He believes scientists should be accountable to the public, he has himself tried to be accountable in his own work. Yet, despite these efforts, in a public vote Colin Blakemore, the kitten experimenter, would quite possibly be the least popular man in science today.

To put it in the strongest emotive terms, this is a man who has sewed up the eyelids of kittens, effectively to blind them, studied the effect on their brains with electrodes, then killed them to study them further by cutting up their brains.

On the other hand, in similarly emotive terms, this is the man who has helped children see. The kitten experiments, in the end, considerably advanced medical understanding of amblyopia - the most common form of child blindness - to the point where it can now be cured.

If you accept that the former led to latter - which many of his opponents do not and many of his peers do - the question of whether the professor is a torturer or a scapegoat scientist comes down to whether you think the kitten deaths were an acceptable means to the end of saving children's sight. And on this question, Britain is very much divided.

When Colin Blakemore, a working class boy from Coventry, arrived at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in 1962 with a state scholarship, he intended to be a doctor. "It was the only profession I had really heard of," he says. He left with a first class degree and departed for the neurosensory laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.

After completing a Phd, he returned to Cambridge, where a promising experimental career set him up to become, in 1975, the Oxford Professor of Physiology, at the age of just 35. Contemporaries remember a confident young man blessed with youthful good looks, perhaps a little over-ambitious and publicity conscious, but both charming and clever.

Now 53, he still runs every day and completes marathons in under three hours. He has three children aged 18, 20 and 22, of whom he is intensely proud, and a wife, Andree, who is exhausted by 10 years of looking over her shoulder, but she supports her husband absolutely.

Beyond these snippets, the details of the private Colin Blakemore, a man who has learned to guard his personal life in the same way that he has learned to check under the family car for bombs each day, are shadowy.

In sharp contrast, the details of his transition from brilliant young professor to vilified vivisectionist are precise. The transformation came quite suddenly in March 1987.

According to Blakemore, as the 1986 Act of Parliament on vivisection came into force the pressure group Animal Aid decided it needed 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. My work was a ready-made cause."

Gill Langley, a scientific consultant to Animal Aid in the 1980s who had studied under Blakemore at Cambridge, wrote the AA pamphlet Blinded By Science that first drew attention to her former lecturer's work. "I very much regret what has since happened to Colin Blakemore and his family, the way they have been targeted," she says. "But you cannot not publish something because of what a handful of extremists might do with that information." Dr Langley says she considers Blakemore to be "a man of integrity with a particular blind spot". She adds: "You know, I suspect we agree about lots of other things. The stereotype of the sadistic scientist is a very convenient icon for people's anger and I believe it is very rarely true. I do not believe it is true of Colin Blakemore."

The same week the campaign was launched with the publication of Langley's pamphlet, a series of questions about Blakemore's work were raised in the House of Commons. The Sunday Mirror newspaper published pages of allegations against Blakemore, "where they had falsified photographs, drawing in stitches on pictures of kittens, onto their eyelids".

"I was advised by everyone to keep my head down and it would blow over," remembers Blakemore. "But I was so outraged by the lies and the slur against my name, that I could not let it pass. I answered every letter from the public. I got a Press Council ruling against the Sunday Mirror. I was investigated by the Medical Research Council and they found nothing wrong with my work. I won every step of the way."

Ironically, the press campaign against him also made him one of the first of the media-friendly scientists, able to communicate complex scientific concepts in an engaging way. In 1988 this quality - with the added pull of his sudden notoriety - won him his own television series The Mind Machine.

But, in the meantime, something else happened. Blakemore became a terrorist target as the extremist fringe of the animal liberation movement followed the lead of the pressure groups in singling him out. "I was threatened. My kids got threats. My wife was threatened. We received envelopes with razor blades in them, fake bombs and real bombs. Animal Aid retreated, washed their hands of me, but it was too late."

Blakemore, however, would not retreat. Instead he became even more evangelical in his desire to make people see how animal experimentation was essential to the progress of science.

In 1993, a Christmas present wrapped in red and white wrapping paper that was delivered to Professor Blakemore's house and handled by his children, turned out to be stuffed with half a pound of explosives and needles. Despite even this, the professor says he does not regret his decision not to keep quiet. "As a scientist, if you don't have honesty and integrity, you have nothing," he says. Then, suddenly: "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 is suddenly away, into an argument he has had to rehearse over and over in public debates, at dinner parties, with his wife and children who have lived for 10 years in fear because of his brilliant career.

"Think of all the things we do to animals. We keep them in battery farms, we laugh at them in the circus, we confine them as domestic pets. We also experiment on them, under anaesthetic, to bring medical and scientific benefit to the human race. The latter of these things is surely the better, the most worthwhile of all those things, yet it is the most controversial. Obviously I regret what it has done to my family, but I really had no choice. If I stopped now, I think it has all gone too far to make a difference anyway."

His lab, he says, uses only a dozen animals a year nowadays and has specifically developed techniques that will allow other scientists to avoid using animals in experiments. He has set up the Boyd Group where representatives of the different animal rights groups are at last sitting round a table with vivisectionists. He would even welcome the presence of the extremists at that table. He values the BAAS appointment as a sign that his work has been worthwhile.

He pauses, "I have reason to believe," he says slowly, "that they [the violent wing of the animal liberation movement] may have decided to up the ante and actually make an attempt on my life. I cannot tell you the details, but I know this from informed sources."

There is a chilling irony here, that a man might lose his life because it is deemed morally wrong for him to have taken the lives of kittens. But it is not beyond possibility. And if it should happen, the battle for Blakemore's reputation - martyr or torturer - will then really begin.