Lewis Wolpert

b. 1929 – d. 2021

Lewis Wolpert was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999.

Lewis Wolpert remembered – by Jim Smith

It is a notable double distinction to have been a Fellow of both the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Literature. Lewis Wolpert was one of this very rare breed.

It is tempting to ascribe his introduction to literature to the time when, a few years after arriving from South Africa in 1954, as an engineer turned biologist, he found himself a lodger in the bohemian home of William and Hetta Empson in Hampstead. Living in the former basement billiard room, he was exposed to a changing and challenging cast of poets and writers. In addition to the Empsons themselves, there was Jill Neville who, in 1993, became Wolpert’s second wife. There were also Oliver Bernard, Louis MacNeice, Kathleen Raine and Fay Weldon.

It was from this perhaps over-invigorating background, one that valued ideas, opinions and intellectual honesty, that Lewis Wolpert emerged as a scientist. But not as a typical scientist and not as just a scientist. He was an atypical scientist not only because he was outstanding but also because he was outstandingly influential. His subject was developmental biology – the question of how an embryo develops into an adult organism. He was convinced there would be common mechanisms of embryonic development (a view driven partly by envy of molecular biologists, for whom common mechanisms were taken for granted), and with this in mind he introduced the concept of positional information, in which cells in the developing embryo have their positions defined in a coordinate system and use that information to define their subsequent behaviour, such as developing into muscle, skin, brain or bone. The idea gained acceptance not only because it was simple to understand, elegant, and had remarkable predictive power, but also because of Wolpert’s charismatic and witty presentation style – one could not fail to be drawn into his way of thinking, to see the embryo through his eyes, and then to reinterpret experiments in terms of his ideas. (Although he was not averse to reinterpreting the experiments of others for them. His words on meeting the scientist Cliff Tabin were typical: ‘Very interesting experiment, my boy, but you don’t really understand it – let me explain your data to you!’)

It was Wolpert’s charisma, together with a willingness to speak his mind and an apparent immunity to embarrassment (deriving, he said, from his classless status as a South African in London), that caused him to be more than just a scientist. He was a public intellectual, an interviewer, a broadcaster and a writer. He made clear his views on what science is and isn’t in his book The Unnatural Nature of Science (1992), and he was robust and even irascible about areas such as religion, ethics and philosophy. His most influential book, though, was about depression, from which he suffered in the mid 1990s. Malignant Sadness was written to allow Wolpert himself to understand depression, but it provided scientific understanding, succour and solace to many. In opening up about his depression, Wolpert was hailed by many as a hero, but he had no difficulty in doing so and emphasised that depression is a common illness of which no one should feel ashamed.

Of no less importance, Wolpert was a friend and loyal colleague. He was an unfailing supporter of young scientists and used his belief in science and his contacts in the media to good effect. Throughout his life he belied any idea that scientists might not love literature and he would devour the works of any new author he liked. He fitted no stereotype. I once asked whether he had, in effect, invented his own job, that of being Lewis Wolpert. He had to admit that to some extent he had.

Image credit: Michael Abrahams