Lewis Wolpert bigraphy, stories - British biologist

Lewis Wolpert : biography

19 October 1929 -

Lewis Wolpert CBE FRS FRSL FMedSci (born 19 October 1929) is a developmental biologist, author, and broadcaster.


Wolpert was educated at the University of Witwatersrand (BSc), at Imperial College London, and at King's College London (PhD). he holds the position of Emeritus Professor of Biology as applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and developmental biology at University College London.

Biologists recognise Wolpert for elaborating and championing the ideas of positional information and positional value: molecular signals and internal cellular responses to them that enable cells to do the right thing in the right place during embryonic development. The essence of these concepts is that there is a dedicated set of molecules for spatial co-ordination of cells, identical across many species and across different developmental stages and tissues. The discovery of Hox gene codes in flies and vertebrates has largely vindicated Wolpert's positional-value concept, while identification of growth-factor morphogens in many species has supported the concept of positional information.

In addition to his scientific and research publications, he has written about his own experience of clinical depression in Malignant Sadness: The Anatomy of Depression (1999). He presented three television programmes based on the book and entitled A Living Hell on BBC2.

He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1980 and awarded the CBE in 1990. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999 and one of the first Fellows of the Academy of Medical Sciences in 1998.


In a 2005 article entitled "Spiked", The Guardian asked a series of scientists "What is the one thing everyone should learn about science?" Wolpert responded:

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. Also, science is value-free, as it explains the world as it is. Ethical issues arise only when science is applied to technology – from medicine to industry.

He has debated with Christian philosopher William Lane Craig about the existence of God.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1qh98DX3-L0

In a lecture entitled "Is Science Dangerous?", he expanded on this: "I regard it as ethically unacceptable and impractical to censor any aspect of trying to understand the nature of our world."

On 25 May 1994, Wolpert conducted an hour-long interview with Dr Francis Crick called "How the Brain 'sees'" for The Times Dillon Science Forum; Just Results Video Productions produced a video of the interview for The Times.

On 15 January 2004, Wolpert and biologist/parapsychologist Rupert Sheldrake engaged in a live debate regarding the evidence for telepathy. It took place at the Royal Society of Arts in London.

In the late 1960s Wolpert proposed the illustrative French flag model, which explains how signalling between cells early in morphogenesis could be used to inform cells with the same genetic regulatory network of their position and role.

He is credited with the famous quote: "It is not birth, marriage, or death, but gastrulation which is truly the most important time in your life."

An early book was The Unnatural Nature of Science. his most recent book is Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief (2006). In 2009 Wolpert published "How We Live And Why We Die: The Secret Lives of Cells".


In 1986 Wolpert was invited to deliver the Royal Institution Christmas Lecture on Frankenstein's Quest: Development of Life.


  • First published 1992 by Faber & Faber, London.

How we Live and Why We Die: The secret Lives of Cells, Norton, 2009

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