Lewis Wolpert (1929 – 2021): Memorial/Obituary

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Lewis Wolpert was a brilliant and inspiring scientist who made hugely significant contributions which underpin and influence our understanding of developmental biology today. He spent his career interested in how the fertilised egg can give rise to the whole embryo (and ultimately the adult) with one head, two arms, two legs, all its organs and importantly how cells become different from each other and how they ‘know’ what to become. His ideas revolutionised the way developmental biology was perceived and also reinvigorated, in particular, the key question of how pattern formation in embryonic development is achieved. He published over 200 scientific articles and received many accolades over his career for his work and services to science in the UK. These included a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) from the Queen, being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He was also a recipient of the Waddington Medal from the British Society for Developmental Biology and was awarded The Royal Society’s top honour, the Royal Medal in 2018. Lewis was also a gifted teacher and
communicator, including being the author of a textbook on developmental biology used around the world to train the next generation of developmental biologists. This contribution was recognised in 2003, by the award of the Viktor Hamburger Outstanding Educator Award from the Society of Developmental Biology in the USA. Lewis always enjoyed giving talks and lectures, having an infectious and persuasive enthusiasm coupled with a sharp sense of humour (Figure 1). He also published articles in popular science journals (aimed at the public) such as New Scientist,
Scientific American and The Scientist. Lewis also wrote several popular science books. He was a passionate advocate for the public understanding of science and was the Chair of The Royal Society/Royal Institution/British Association for the Advancement of Science Committee for Public Understanding of Science (1994-1998). For this contribution he was awarded The Royal Society Michael Faraday Medal for “excellence in communicating science to UK audiences”. He presented the prestigious Royal Institution Christmas Lectures in 1986 entitled ‘Frankenstein’s
Quest: development of life’. These lectures, six in total, are presented by leading scientists and aimed at the general public and broadcast on national television. On a personal level, Lewis influenced all who came into contact with him, shaped his students and postdocs careers and instilled in them, and the community as whole, a life-long love of developmental biology.
Original languageEnglish
Article number203673
Number of pages5
JournalCells & Development
Early online date24 Mar 2021
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2021

Bibliographical note

With thanks to Cheryll Tickle for constructive comments and reading the manuscript. Thanks also to the many former students and postdocs of Lewis Wolpert as well as former staff from the lab of Cheryll Tickle, for sharing memories and thoughts of Lewis. These include Keiichi Akita, Helge Amthor, Esther Bell, Martin J. Cohn, Megan Davey, Litsa Drossopoulou, Delphine Duprez, Philippa Francis-West, Pantelis Georgiades, Adrian Hardy, Han-Sung Jung, John McLachlan, Imelda McGonnell, Ronald Nittenberg, Ketan Patel, Michael K. Richardson, Joy Richman, Katie Robertson, Juan Jose Sanz, Geoff Shellswell, Jim Smith, Cheryll Tickle, Astrid Vogel.


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