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Lawrence Weiskrantz (1926–2018)

Richard Passingham with an appreciation.

09 March 2018

The man we called 'Larry' was born in America, but he was not born into advantage. His father who was a GP died when Larry was six, and his mother sent him to Girard College, a boarding school that was described as being 'for poor white male orphans'. Nonetheless he went on to Swarthmore College, where he was taught by Wolfgang Kohler, the founder of Gestalt psychology. Larry graduated with the highest honours and went on to do his PhD at Harvard.

He came to Cambridge in the UK in 1956, and it is there that his career took off. It was therefore a great shock to Cambridge when in 1967 he left to become Head of the Department of Experimental Psychology in Oxford. He was attracted by the fact that the university had agreed to build a large modern building to house both psychology and zoology.  A joint department was appropriate since Larry was a pioneer in promoting the biological study of psychology.

So what was working with Larry like? Notoriously he liked puns, but these were evidence of a freewheeling and creative mind. Larry was always full of new ideas and interested in what others were doing, asking questions and making suggestions. To put it simply he was ever curious and inventive.

For many years Larry had worked on the brain areas that support our ability to interpret the visual world but this also involves our memory of what we perceive. So with Elizabeth Warrington he studied patients with amnesia. They discovered that the patients showed evidence of learning, even though they were unaware that they were doing so. [Search 'Blindsight in hindsight' on our website.]

Larry's interest in this lack of awareness led him to go on to examine patients who were blind because of damage to their visual cortex. He made the astonishing discovery that they could nonetheless guess accurately in which direction a visual stimulus was moving, even though they were not aware of seeing the stimulus itself. Typically for Larry he coined a punning word for this: 'blindsight'. It was this finding that made it possible to start on the scientific study of consciousness.

But it was not just Larry's scientific research that made him such an important figure. His influence lives on through the work of distinguished scientists who learned under him, such as Charlie Gross, Sue Iversen, Nick Humphrey and Mel Goodale.

And it lives on in another way. Larry built up the Department of Experimental Psychology in Oxford until it was not only the best in Europe, but also ranked joint second in the world with Stanford. This led to a flood of distinguished visitors: Jerry Bruner who was on the staff for a time, and others such as Hans Lucas Teuber and Endel Tulving.

As one might expect, all this led to honours. Larry was not only elected a Fellow of the Royal Society but also a Fellow of the European Academy and a Fellow of the American National Academy of Sciences. On top of that, Larry was the founding president of the European Brain and Behaviour Society as well as a President of the Association for the Scientific study of Consciousness.

With Donald Broadbent, who was born in the same year, Larry was simply the most important and influential psychologist in this country.

Professor Richard Passingham, Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford

See also 'Blindsight in hindsight'