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Obituary: Professor Lewis Wolpert, renowned developmental biologist

1 February 2021
Appeared in BioNews 1081

Professor Lewis Wolpert, a highly accomplished developmental biologist, science communicator and humanist, sadly died on 28 January 2021. 

Professor Wolpert's work on embryonic development has shaped our approach to both developmental biology and research ethics in profound ways.

Born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1929, Professor Wolpert attained his BSc in civil engineering at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Following this, he moved to the UK and subsequently undertook his doctoral studies at King's College, London. 

Professor Wolpert went on to achieve many accolades, he was awarded a CBE in 1990 and was admitted as a fellow of both the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Literature. Professor Wolpert also served as emeritus professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College, London.

Originally studying civil engineering gave Professor Wolpert a unique perspective on developmental biology, enabling him to approach it not as a molecular biologist, but as an engineer with an eye for structure and function.

Of his vibrant academic background, Professor Wolpert told Development in 2015: 'Having a civil engineering background gave me a very different perspective, and I applied my mechanics knowledge to the cells.'

Professor Wolpert's renowned French flag model posited that gradients of mobile signalling molecules may explain how different cell types and tissues are arranged in developing embryos. This model has become a fundamental tenet of our understanding of mechanisms in developmental biology. Numerous uncovered mechanisms of embryonic development have gone on to reflect this model, comprising major steps forward in our understanding of cell organisation.

Professor Wolpert's ideas had important implications for research ethics and guidelines regarding the use of human embryos in research. His often quoted, it is 'not birth, marriage or death, but gastrulation which is truly the most important time in your life' has guided both the science and policy of embryo research.

Gastrulation, the point at which the single outer layer of stem cells in the embryo fold inwards to form new layers of distinct cell types, occurs at 14 days after fertilisation. These words proved to have a powerful impact on policymaking in Britain, providing part of the rationale for the 14-day rule which dictates that a fertilised human embryo can be cultivated in vitro for no longer than 14 days (see BioNews 850).

In addition to his contributions to scientific research, Professor Wolpert was also a passionate and effective science communicator. The writer of a number of successful popular science books, including, Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The evolutionary origins of belief, and How We Live, and Why We Die, he was not only an influential biologist but also enthusiastically engaged in the philosophy of science and its application in wider society.

Professor Wolpert also wrote on the topic of depression and mental health. Sharing his experiences with depression, he was an advocate of mental health awareness. Wolpert's candidness undoubtedly touched the lives of many, giving hope and promise to others affected by mental illnesses.

Serving as vice-president of Humanists UK, Professor Wolpert also believed in secular thinking and in science as the foundation of understanding the world. He was one of a number of signatories on a letter to the UK Government in 2002 condemning the teaching of creationism in schools.

According to Humanists UK, he told a journalist in 2005: '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.'

A man of creativity, compassion, and rationality, Professor Wolpert leaves behind him a society enriched by his work.

An interview with Lewis Wolpert
Development |  4 August 2015
Humanists UK mourns Professor Lewis Wolpert CBE FRS (1929-2021)
Humanists UK |  28 January 2021
Lewis Wolpert
Royal Society |  28 January 2021
Professor Lewis Wolpert CBE FRS
Humanists UK |  16 October 2021
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