Lives of the fellows

Gabriel (Sir) Horn

b.9 December 1927 d.2 August 2012
Kt(2002) BSc Birm(1952) MB ChB(1955) MD(1965) ScD Cantab(1975) FRS(1986) Hon DSc Birm(1999) Hon DSc Bristol(2003) FRCP(2007)

Sir Gabriel Horn was a distinguished neuroscientist who, as professor of zoology at the University of Cambridge, researched the neural mechanisms of learning and memory.

Gabriel was born in Birmingham, the youngest of four sons of Abraham Horn and Anne Horn (née Grill). Abraham was a tailor, a Jewish refugee from Poland, and Anne, who assisted her husband in the shop when she could, was of Jewish Austro-Hungarian descent, born in Whitechapel, London. Abraham often told stories about his time in the Russian Army, sometime before the turn of the 20th century. Occasionally, in these anecdotes (relayed in Yiddish and broken English) it was necessary for expert medical advice to be sought, from ‘ein grosse professor’. These men, as described by Abraham, had access to knowledge and wisdom unavailable to others, benevolent men who cared for both learning and mankind. This may have sparked an early interest in medicine for Gabriel. (Despite his enthusiasm for professors, Abraham doggedly maintained that to be a tailor was the best of all professions, the world lay at your feet.) These were certainly the only family conversations Gabriel could recall about science or indeed learning in general. He was, however, an independent learner and an exceedingly curious child: he annexed a small household cupboard and spent hours inspecting insects and dissecting worms.

Gabriel attended Westminster Road Infants and Junior School erratically, as he was often unwell. In 1939, as he was preparing to enter Birchfield Road Senior School, he was evacuated to Worcestershire. His first placement was an unhappy one, but he subsequently lived with Hubert and Edith Jones, a warm and enduring connection, which lasted his whole life and across the generations.

In 1943, Gabriel applied to Handsworth Technical College, on day release, to study civil engineering. By now his father was extremely unwell and Gabriel helped in the workroom and shop when he could. His academic achievements, up to this point, were quite pedestrian. He ascribed his intellectual awakening to a biology teacher, a local youth club organiser. This unidentified woman would read aloud from The science of life by H G Wells, Julian Huxley and G P Wells (London, Cassell & Co, 1929-1930). He was fascinated, and went on to read J Arthur Thomson’s Scientific riddles (London, Williams and Norgoode, 1932), excited to find that the answers to simple questions such as ‘How did life begin?’ and ‘Why do we fall asleep?’ had yet to be discovered.

By 1944 Gabriel’s enthusiasm for engineering had waned and he decided to read medicine, encouraged by his father’s GP, a Dr George, who took the time and trouble to explain medical matters to him. In 1947, he matriculated from Aston Technical College and Birmingham Technical College. National Service and the initial reluctance of Birmingham University to admit him temporarily interrupted his progress. However, he enjoyed his time in the Royal Air Force and gained valuable teaching experience there. He was known to be a warm and enthusiastic teacher, respected by his students.

In 1949 Gabriel threw himself into university life with gusto. He was chairman of the debating society, won the freshman’s prize in 1950 and the university scholarship (in anatomy and physiology) in 1951. He gained his BSc in anatomy and physiology in 1952 and qualified with the MB ChB in 1955.

Gabriel continued to be drawn to clinical science and medicine, a lifelong love. At the same time, he found himself torn between the practice of medicine and his fascination with experimental science. He continued to research and publish during his internships at Birmingham Children’s Hospital and the Birmingham and Midland Eye Hospital.

In 1956, at the recommendation of his mentor, Solly Zuckerman [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.612], Gabriel was appointed as a demonstrator in anatomy at Cambridge. In addition, he supervised in medicine and anatomy at King’s College, Cambridge, and in 1962 was elected to a fellowship.

Gabriel’s research into neurobiology and neuroscience continued. He collaborated with many colleagues: with Robert Hinde, he published Short-term changes in neural activity and behaviour in 1970 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press) and over many years he worked with Pat Bateson in the sub-department of animal behaviour at Madingley, Cambridge on learning and imprinted memory. He took several sabbaticals abroad in pursuit of his research, including placements at Berkeley, California, Makerere, Uganda and in Paris.

During Gabriel’s 18 years at the department of anatomy at Cambridge, he was promoted to lecturer and reader. From 1974 to 1977 he was appointed as professor and head of department at Bristol University. He returned to Cambridge as professor of zoology in 1977, and was head of the department from 1979 to 1994. Under his leadership, the department built on individual strengths whilst simultaneously developing a wide range of interdisciplinary research.

In 1992 Gabriel was elected master of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. He and his second wife Prill worked tirelessly, fundraising, investing in human capital and entertaining their many visitors, memorably the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh – this being the first visit to Oliver Cromwell’s former college by a reigning British monarch.

Gabriel took great pleasure in his role as Father Christmas at the college Christmas parties, enjoyed impromptu poetry readings at the Lodge, recorded a full-length version of A Christmas carol by Dickens in the college chapel and introduced occasional music evenings. When he could find the time, he wrote poetry, notably a quartet for his children, and painted a little. He was thrilled to exhibit some of his work at the Royal College of Physicians, in 2010.

Gabriel retired from Sidney Sussex in 1999. Family members imagined a quieter life ahead, more time for riding, cycling, walking, growing vegetables and painting, but Gabriel, a man of immense physical and intellectual energy, had no intention of slowing down. He chaired an independent review into the origins of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy), commissioned by the UK Government, the report of which was published in 2001, and an Academy of Medical Sciences’ investigation into brain science, addiction and drugs, published in 2008. He was a fellow of the Royal Society, receiving the Society’s Royal Medal in 2001. In 2002, he was knighted for services to neurobiology.

In 1952, Gabriel married Ann Soper, a zoology student and the daughter of Donald Soper, the Methodist minister and politician. They had four children: Mandy, Nigel, Andrew and Melissa. Their marriage was dissolved in 1979 and in 1980 he married Edith Priscilla Barrett (Prill), whom he had met at Madingley. He was survived by Prill, his children from his first marriage, eight grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

Mandy Horn

[Eulogy delivered by Tim Cox August 2012; The Telegraph 7 November 2012 – accessed 15 January 2019; Sidney Sussex College University of Cambridge Professor Sir Gabriel Horn (1927-2012) – accessed 15 January 2019; University of Cambridge CSaP Centre for Science and Policy Professor Sir Gabriel Horn – accessed 15 January 2019; Current Biology Vol 22 No 24 18 December 2012 – accessed 15 January 2019; Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society Sir Gabriel Horn 9 December 1927-2 August 2012 – accessed 15 January 2019; Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Horn, Sir Gabriel (1927-2012) – accessed 15 January 2019]

(Volume XII, page web)

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