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Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience

Remembering Horace Barlow, 1921-2020

It is with a heavy heart that we inform you that Horace Barlow, FRS, has passed away on Sunday 5th of July 2020. Horace was a titan of vision research, whose work set the basis for contemporary visual neuroscience. He came from a family of scientists: his mother, Nora Darwin, was a geneticist and Charles Darwin's granddaughter. Horace studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge and then went on to complete his studies at Harvard Medical School and University College Hospital in London before coming back to Cambridge in the late 1940s.

From the very beginning of his academic career he was interested in vision, having given a talk on colour vision to an undergraduate club while studying Natural Sciences, and becoming fascinated by the subject. In 1953, Barlow made a key development in vision research when, while recording electrical signals from nerve cells in the frog's eye, he discovered neurons in the frog brain that fired in response to specific visual stimuli, such as small insects. This study opened the way to many discoveries about the inner workings of the visual cortex in animals and humans. His work on visual inhibition was also essential to understanding how the brain processes visual information, discarding redundant stimuli. Horace had an interdisciplinary approach to his research and was a member of the Ratio Club, a group of prominent Cambridge scientists from different fields interested in the topic of cybernetics. He wrote extensively on the statistical processing of visual images and his work has been extremely influential in the field of image classification.

A Trinity College Fellow, Horace became Professor of Physiological Optics and Physiology at the University of California, Berkeley and Royal Society Research Professor of Physiology at the University of Cambridge. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1969 and was awarded the Society’s Royal Medal in 1993. His academic accolades include the Australia Prize for research into the mechanisms of visual perception, the Swartz Prize for Theoretical and Computational Neuroscience and the Ken Nakayama Prize from the Vision Sciences Society.

Horace was key member and a leading light for our Department, and was still involved with PDN events and seminars until very recently. Wolfram Schultz shares his memories of Horace and his contribution to our Department: "I knew Horace before coming to Cambridge in 2001 for his work on visual adaptation, which was also a basis for several of our studies on reward adaptation, and just today I cited him in a review article I am writing (his work from 1961, more than half a century ago). Horace helped me to start the Adrian Seminars in 2006 by suggesting them to me, and encouraging me, when the Anatomy and Physiology departments fused, and making contact with the Gatsby Foundation for many years of funding these seminars. He was an active member of our Adrian Committee and hosted several prominent speakers that also led to memorable dinners".

Roy Patterson also remembers Horace's focus and dedication: "Horace had the most amazing powers of concentration which I observed over many years in department talks and conferences around Cambridge. He sat motionless in the front row, never dozed off, and always posed an insightful, discussion provoking question at the end. It was absolutely amazing!"

Horace will be honoured with a private family funeral in the coming weeks. Horace's former colleagues are organising a scientific tribute to his life and work, to take place on a date close to Horace's 100th birthday next year.