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Colin Blakemore

Colin Blakemore is a British neurobiologist specializing in vision. He was formerly chief executive of the British Medical Research Council (MRC). He is best known to the public as the target of a long-running animal-rights campaign. According to The Observer, he has been both "one of the most powerful scientists in the [UK]" and "a hate figure for the animal rights movement". [1]


Background and research interests

Animal testing

Main articles
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Testing on: invertebrates ·
Frogs · Primates · Rabbits · Rodents
Animal testing regulations
History of animal testing
History of model organisms
Laboratory animal sources
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Biomedical Research
Animal rights/Animal welfare
Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act
Great ape research ban
International trade in primates

Controversial experiments
Britches · Brown Dog affair
Cambridge University primates
Pit of despair
Silver Spring monkeys
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Charles River Laboratories, Inc.
Covance · Harlan
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Nafovanny · Shamrock

Americans for Medical Progress
Boyd Group · BUAV
Dr Hadwen Trust · PETA
Foundation For Biomedical Research
National Anti-Vivisection Society
Physicians Committee
for Responsible Medicine
Primate Freedom Project
Pro-Test · SPEAK
Research Defence Society
Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty

Colin Blakemore · Carl Cohen
Gill Langley · Ingrid Newkirk
Neal Barnard · Jerry Vlasak
Simon Festing · Tipu Aziz


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Born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, he was educated at King Henry VIII School in Coventry and then won a state scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge where he gained a first-class degree in medical sciences, then completed his doctoral studies at the University of California, Berkeley, USA as a Harkness fellow. He returned to Cambridge to undertake post-doctoral research, before moving to the University of Oxford where he became Waynflete Professor of Physiology at the age of 35.

His research has focused on vision, the early development of the brain and, more recently, conditions like Huntington's and Alzheimer's disease. He has published over 220 scientific papers and a number of books on these subjects.

He was director of the MRC Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience for eight years and, in 1989, was awarded the Royal Society's Michael Faraday Prize for excellence in communicating science to UK audiences. [1] He has also served as president of the Biosciences Federation, British Neuroscience Association, the Physiological Society, and president and chairman of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Blakemore is a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association.

Animal testing and animal rights

Blakemore is outspoken in his support of the use of animal testing in medical research, though he has publicly denounced fox hunting and animal testing for cosmetics. [1]

He came to the attention of the animal rights movement while at Oxford University in the 1980s, when he carried out research into amblyopia and strabismus, conducting experiments that involved sewing kittens' eyes shut from birth in order to study the development of their visual cortex. Blakemore has said of the research that it was directly applicable to humans, and that "[t]hanks to it, and similar research, we now know why conditions like amblyopia — the most common form of child blindness — occur and are now able to tackle it and think of ways of preventing it." [1]

Since then, according to The Observer, he and his family have "endured assaults by masked terrorists, bombs sent to his children, letters laced with razor blades, a suicide bid by his wife, and more than a decade of attacks and abuse." [1]

In 1992, together with Les Ward of the anti-vivisection group Advocates for Animals, he co-founded a bipartisan think tank called the Boyd Group, to consider issues relating to animal experimentation.

In 1998, during the 68-day hunger strike of British animal-rights activist Barry Horne, Blakemore's life was threatened in a statement released by Robin Webb of the Animal Liberation Press Office on behalf of the Animal Rights Militia. Direct action against him has abated somewhat since the prosecution of Cynthia O'Neill for harassing him in 2000. [2][1]

At the MRC

In 2003, Blakemore succeeded Professor Sir George Radda as the head of the Medical Research Council, a national organisation that supports medical science with an annual budget of almost £500 million. The position came to an end in 2007. He was succeeded by Leszek Borysiewicz.

Honours controversy

Soon after his appointment to the MRC the The Sunday Times published a leaked British Cabinet Office document that suggested he was deemed unsuitable for inclusion in the 2004 New Year's Honours List because of his research on animals - research considered "controversial" by a British government committee that oversees matters of science and technology but widely supported by political leaders and the public. [3] In response, he threatened to resign, suggesting in interviews that his position as chief executive was now untenable:

It's a matter of principle. The mission statement of the MRC is explicit. There's a specific commitment to talk to the public about issues in medical research. How can I now go to our scientists, and ask them to risk talking about animal research, when there now appears to be evidence that in secret the government disapproves it, even though in public they've strongly encouraged it? [2]

A parliamentary inquiry investigating the matter implicated the Science and Technology Committee [3] chaired by Sir Richard Mottram. [3] After expressions of support for animal experimentation from then Prime Minister Tony Blair; Chief Scientific Adviser David King; Minister for Science Lord Sainsbury; and the wider scientific community, Blakemore withdrew his intention to resign. [4] As of 2007, he is the only MRC chief executive unrecognised by the British honours system.

National Institute for Medical Research taskforce

In 2003 the MRC announced plans to consider moving the National Institute for Medical Research, its flagship research facility, from its current location in Mill Hill to a new site in central London. As part of the consultation process a taskforce was convened, with Blakemore as chairman, to consider options for the size and location of the new NIMR. [5] During the process a number of senior staff at NIMR, including the then Director, opposed a move being proposed as the only option [6] believing "staying at Mill Hill should be considered." [7]

Robin Lovell-Badge, a scientist at NIMR who was a member of the taskforce, proposed this option be included in the official publication of the taskforce, something that Blakemore was opposed to. [8] After disagreeing on the issue, Lovell-Badge alleged that Blakemore had twice attempted to "coerce" him into agreement by threatening his job. Blakemore denied the allegations, describing them as "pure invention". [4]

A House of Commons select committee investigated the claims. They found "no specific credible evidence" to support the complaint, [4] reporting the allegation "would have carried more weight had it been made at the time rather than in public during the final stages of the decision making process when relations between NIMR and MRC management had fallen into mutual animosity." [9]

However, the committee did criticise Blakemore for his "heavy handed" lobbying of other taskforce members [10] and reported that a "more independent" figure than Blakemore should have chaired the taskforce. The report also criticised unnamed NIMR staff for an attempt at "undermining Blakemore's position." [11][12]


  1. ^ a b c d e McKie, Robin. "Scientist who stood up to terrorism and mob hate faces his toughest test". The Observer, September 14, 2003.
  2. ^ Fleet, Michael and Davies, Caroline. "Animal rights woman must keep away from don's home". The Daily Telegraph, February 24, 2000.
  3. ^ a b Leppard, David and Winnett, Robert. "Cursing mandarin in knighthood row". The Sunday Times, February 15, 2004.
  4. ^ a b "Blakemore criticised for 'heavy-handed' research review", Press Association, February 8, 2005.

Further reading

  • The Next Big Thing - 11 freeview video science discussion programmes chaired by Colin Blakemore produced by the BBC and the Vega Science Trust.
  • McKie, Robin. "Snubbed honours scientist 'to quit'". The Observer, December 21, 2003.
  • Select Committee on Public Administration, Minutes of Evidence. Examination of Witness (Questions 608-639). April 29, 2004.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Colin_Blakemore". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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