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Professor Kevin Connolly 1937-2015

Remembered by Professor Matthew Cobb (University of Manchester).

19 April 2016

Professor Kevin Connolly, who has died aged 78, was Professor of Psychology at Sheffield University and a former President of the British Psychological Society. He excelled in two apparently contrasting areas of research: child development and the genetic control of behaviour in the vinegar fly, Drosophila. Brilliant, warm-hearted and argumentative, Connolly had a wide range of interests and fostered a broad approach to the study of behaviour and its underlying causes in both his colleagues and his students.

In 1963, before completing his PhD, Connolly published an essay against capital punishment, using Freudian categories to explain the desire to punish. This appeared in a book he co-authored with two other Catholic thinkers, but it represented an old approach to psychology that Connolly soon abandoned: it was at this period, when he was a Lecturer at Birkbeck College, that he became interested in the behaviour of Drosophila

For the rest of his career – he joined Harry Kay’s Department of Psychology at Sheffield University in 1965 and remained there – Kevin combined his fascination with fly behaviour genetics and important research on child development. 

Kevin’s work on Drosophila behaviour was truly pioneering. At a time when only a handful of laboratories around the world were using the fly to study behaviour, he helped to create the field of neurogenetics.

With a series of PhD students – many of them co-supervised with his friend and colleague, the Sheffield geneticist Dr Barrie Burnet – Connolly published 35 research papers on Drosophila behaviour, including articles in Science and Nature. These papers showed that even a simple fly could express complex behaviours that could be both precisely described and genetically dissected. 

Working mainly before the advent of fly molecular genetics, Connolly and his collaborators were nonetheless able to show the biochemical effects of a number of genes and to link these to behaviours. Thousands of people around the world who have studied fly neuroscience over the last few decades owe the shape and focus of their discipline at least partly to the work of Kevin Connolly.

Child development was the subject of most of Kevin’s publications, many of which were focused on motor control, in particular the way that children learn to manipulate objects. Much of this research was done with willing young volunteers in the Sheffield departmental nursery.

As well as being President of the BPS and the recipient of the BPS Spearman Medal, Kevin was also a member of many consultative panels for charities and government relating to childhood disability. During his career at Sheffield he served as both Head of the Department of Psychology and Dean of the Faculty of Pure Science. The author of over 150 scientific papers and of nine edited or co-authored books, Kevin was a Visiting Professor in eight universities around the world, while the list of places where he gave guest lectures reads like a Cook’s Traveller’s Handbook.

While Head of Department, Kevin oversaw the construction of a new Psychology building at the top of Western Bank in Sheffield, with a huge balcony overlooking the University playing fields. Complete with all the scientific mod cons – anechoic chamber, fly rooms, rodent facility and its own nursery – the building reflected the broad interests of the staff who Connolly led. Their expertise ranged from computational models of vision, through social and industrial psychology to communication in electric fish or human memory. This range of approaches was probably unique among Psychology departments at the time, and contrasts with many of today’s departments of Psychology or Neuroscience.

An important strand of Kevin’s approach to child development was his focus on how poverty and disability affect social, cognitive and motor behaviours. In his lectures he would link studies of the non-genetic transmission of deprivation in rat experiments to descriptions of the terrible consequences of social deprivation on children.

In the late 1970s Kevin became interested in the way that iodine deficiency can affect behavioural development, as shown in a paper he published with Peter Pharaoh in The Lancet in 1979. He subsequently conducted several field trips with Pharaoh to Papua New Guinea, where the diet of some indigenous people altered following the introduction of commercial iodine-free salt. In the past, warring tribes would have an annual truce that enabled then to collect iodine-rich salt from the top of a volcano. The inadvertent shift to a low iodine diet led to an outbreak of cretinism amongst the children. 

During these field trips Kevin would record child behaviour and correlate infant development with iodine intake. The ‘Methods’ section of a paper he published with his colleague Margaret Martlew in the journal Child Development, describing their work on children from villages in the Jimi valley in western Papua New Guinea, gives a flavour of the challenges involved. It also reveals Kevin’s commitment to the children he was studying: “When the material presented here was collected in 1982, all the villages (except one with an airstrip) could be reached only on foot and with difficulty. Journeys between villages took typically between half a day’s and a whole day’s hard walking over mountainous terrain.”

Given the difficulty of getting to the field sites, it is perhaps not surprising that on one of these field trips Kevin broke a leg – a particularly nasty open fracture – and after treatment with magic leaves by the local witch doctor, he had to be carried out of the jungle. He recovered in the UK without further treatment.

Partly as a result of Connolly and Pharaoh’s research, the government instituted the addition of iodine to salt in order to reduce iodine deficiency in tribal regions. Working in a period before research had to have ‘impact’, Kevin’s work most certainly did.

For leisure, Kevin enjoyed walking in the Peak District that was so close to his home, reading and buying books – he had a huge personal library, and particularly loved poetry – and viewing and buying paintings.

In the 1990s, Kevin became Emeritus Professor of Psychology and maintained a small office in the stone Victorian house next to the department he had constructed. Even late into his life, he continued to explore the possibilities of new areas of research – his final publication, on Drosophila, appeared in 2007. His apparently endless appetite for knowledge was eventually dimmed by Parkinson’s Disease, and he died in December 2015. He is survived by his wife, Colette, and their three daughters.

Professor Connolly, born 29 July 1937, died 11 December 2015.