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Tributes Paid to Professor Horace Barlow

Professor Horace Barlow (8 December 1921 – 5 July 2020) was a neuroscientist and Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge.

Professor Horace Barlow by Louise Riley-Smith, 2003

Horace Barlow was born into a scientific family: his mother was Nora Darwin, the granddaughter of Charles Darwin, who worked in the field of genetics with William Bateson at Cambridge and his paternal grandfather was physician to Queen Victoria’s household.

He studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge University and then completed medical training at Harvard Medical School and University College Hospital, London before returning to Cambridge to study neurophysiology under the tutelage of Lord Adrian. He was awarded an Sc.D in 1943.

His research investigated the visual system at the level of single neurons and their interactions in both humans and animals. His emphasis was on understanding the act of seeing through the underlying machinery of vision.

After holding various positions at Cambridge University he became Professor of Physiological Optics and Physiology at the University of California, Berkeley. He later returned to Cambridge, where he was Royal Society Research Professor of Physiology.

Professor Barlow was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1969 and was awarded the Society’s Royal Medal in 1993. In the same year (1993) he received the Australia Prize for research into the mechanisms of visual perception. His other awards include Swartz Prize for Theoretical and Computational Neuroscience (2009) and Ken Nakayama Prize from the Vision Sciences Society (2016).

Trinity Fellow, Professor Roger Keynes, of the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, said:

Horace Barlow made seminal discoveries in brain physiology. After medical qualification he began research in the Cambridge Physiological Laboratory, recording electrical signals from single nerve cells in the frog’s eye. These showed that nerve cells are wired to detect essential features of the frog’s visual world, such as a small moving insect, and its direction. His approach paved the way for major advances in understanding how visual information in mammals is processed and stored in the brain. He also initiated psychophysical studies of human visual perception and wrote cogently on the brain in all its aspects, working in his departmental office and visiting Trinity well into his 90s.

Priyamvada Natarajan, Professor in the Departments of Astronomy and Physics at Yale University, and a Trinity alumna, said:

Deeply sad to hear the news of his passing. I fondly remember many wonderful conversations with Horace Barlow during my time at Trinity as a junior research fellow in 1997-2003. We chatted about science – in particular, about optics, and how the various wavelengths of light revealed disparate aspects of the cosmos and about the achromatic bending of light (gravitational lensing) that I worked on and its analogy to geometric optics. He patiently answered many of my naive questions about neuroscience and we were both ardent fans of Ramon Cajal’s drawings of neurons. Horace was soft-spoken, utterly curious about the natural world, and remarkably insightful –  it was a privilege to know him.

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