Duncan Dallas, 1940-2014

A man who revolutionised public engagement with science has died

May 8, 2014

Duncan Dallas was born in Elgin, Moray on October 1940 and completed his schooling in Newcastle before going on to study chemistry at Balliol College, Oxford. While there, he was selected for the BBC’s graduate training scheme and initially worked in current affairs.

The decisive break came in 1968 when Mr Dallas was recruited into the documentary unit at Yorkshire Television in Leeds. At first, he concentrated on programmes about places near and far, whether evoking family holidays in Scarborough – in the Bafta-nominated It Never Seemed to Rain – or travelling with the presenter Alan Whicker for a programme on the South Seas. Yet when Yorkshire Television began producing scientific programmes for ITV, his manifest ability to engage intellectually with experts of every kind made him a natural choice as head of science.

Here Mr Dallas was responsible for everything from an award-winning documentary about patients with post-encephalitic parkinsonism, Awakenings (1974), inspired by Oliver Sacks’ book of the same name, to a much more popular question-and-answer series with well-known scientific names, Don’t Ask Me (1974-78). He went on to create a production company, XYTV, but the real turning point came in 1998, when he read about the death of Marc Sautet, the instigator of the Café Philosophique movement in France.

This spurred Mr Dallas to launch Café Scientifique, an informal gathering where people could meet to talk about science. From its launch in a wine bar opposite his home in Leeds, it was an immediate success and sparked a national and then international phenomenon, spread largely by word of mouth although with the support of the British Council and funding from the Wellcome Foundation.

Tom Shakespeare, senior lecturer at Norwich Medical School, University of East Anglia, worked with Mr Dallas from 1999 until his death on “developing the Café Scientifique model in the UK, in schools, in Africa…By inventing the idea and promoting it…at home and abroad, Duncan did more than any other single individual to promote public engagement with science. He was a maverick who was happiest challenging the status quo and destabilising assumptions. But I also found him consistently kind and supportive. He was predictably unpredictable.”

Mr Dallas spent much time caring for his second wife, Elizabeth Brice (1957-2011), a sufferer from multiple sclerosis who became a leading campaigner for the therapeutic use of cannabis. He died of bowel cancer on 11 April and is survived by his four children and five grandchildren.


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