Sir Gabriel Horn, 1927-2012

August 16, 2012

A distinguished scientist who broke new ground in bridging the gap between neurophysiology and animal behaviour has died.

Sir Gabriel Horn was born on 9 December 19 and educated at Handsworth Technical School in Birmingham, although he left at 16 to work in his parents' tailoring business. However, he continued to study at night school and, after national service in the Royal Air Force (1947-49), took a medical degree at the University of Birmingham.

After house appointments at children's and eye hospitals in Birmingham (1955-56), Sir Gabriel began a long association with the University of Cambridge as a demonstrator in anatomy. He became lecturer in anatomy in 1962 and reader in neurobiology 10 years later, before being appointed chair of anatomy at the University of Bristol (1974-77).

It is a tribute to Sir Gabriel's remarkable range of interests that he returned to Cambridge in 1977 as professor of zoology and then served as head of department from 1978 to 1994. He was master of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge from 1992 to 1999 and deputy vice-chancellor of the university between 1994 and 1997.

A passionate researcher, Sir Gabriel was convinced that only deep understanding of the underlying neurobiology would lead to the effective treatment of many terrible diseases. Some of his early work focused on thyroid deficiency, but he soon developed an interest, which was highly unusual at the time, in the ways neurobiology translates into behaviour. This led to a 30-year collaboration with Sir Patrick Bateson, now emeritus professor of ethology at Cambridge, on the mechanisms of imprinting and early learning in chickens.

His highly original and inventive work in such areas gained Sir Gabriel a Royal Society Royal Medal in 2001 and a knighthood "for services to neurobiology and to the advancement of scientific research" in 2002.

He was amused to discover that his research into whether it was possible to implant a memory into a brain was namechecked in a thriller.

Sir Patrick remembers Sir Gabriel as "an immensely energetic, charming, warm collaborator".

"Even as a medical student he impressed his professor of anatomy, Sir Solly Zuckerman [later the government's chief scientific adviser], as an outstandingly brilliant man," he said. "The Cambridge department of zoology was a very broad department, and he was just the right person to lead it. He also ran a series of seminars for civil servants, which proved highly effective in bringing many branches of science to the people who really needed to know about it."

Sir Gabriel died on 2 August and is survived by his second wife, two sons and two daughters.

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