Kevin J Connolly (1936-2015)

by Matthew Cobb

One of the key relationships in academic life is that between a PhD student and their supervisor. If everything goes well, the supervisor is part mentor, part in loco parentis, and by the end of the process, when the thesis is written up and passed, supervisor and student have learned as much as they can from each other, and it is time for both to move on. But the consequences of that relationship can shape the ex-student’s views, career and their entire life. Just as you never stop being your parent’s child, at some level you are always the student of your supervisor.

During my PhD research (1978-1981) at the University of Sheffield, I had two PhD supervisors – Dr Barrie Burnet in the Department of Genetics, and Professor Kevin Connolly in the Department of Psychology. Kevin’s death was announced yesterday by the University, where he had remained as Emeritus Professor of Psychology since 1999. It was Barrie who emailed me the sad news.

This is the only picture of Kevin I can find. It was apparently taken in the late 1980s:


Kevin’s research career was focused on two apparently unrelated subjects – the genetics of behaviour in Drosophila, and child development. His first paper was published in Nature in 1966, on the effect of food deprivation on locomotor behaviour in Drosophila (it was easier to get published in Nature back then…):


When he moved to Sheffield, where he eventually became Head of Department, Kevin teamed up with the geneticist Barrie Burnet, and together with a series of PhD students (including me), they produced a series of papers and reviews in the 1970s and 1980s on the effect of various mutations on fly and maggot behaviour. One of their first joint students was Lynn Eastwood, who later married Barrie. Kevin continued to publish on larval behaviour with the Chilean researcher Raul Godoy-Herera, who first came to visit Sheffield in the late 1970s.

Kevin and Barrie’s work on Drosophila mutations was pioneering – there were only few places in the world that were taking this approach at the time: Seymour Benzer’s lab in Caltech (which was clearly the inspiration for Kevin and Barrie), and Martin Heisenberg’s group in Germany being the two most influential labs. While Benzer focused on single genes and simple behaviours, and Heisenberg worked on the underlying neuroanatomy, Kevin and Barrie took a more holistic, ethological approach, looking in particular at the effects of mutations on the complex courtship behaviour of the fly or the movement of the maggot.

Nowadays there are hundreds of research groups around the world studying Drosophila neurobiology and behaviour – Kevin’s work helped to create this discipline, even if most of the people now doing this work will never have heard of him or Barrie. Here’s a brief review paper they published in 1981 in the British Medical Bulletin, showing the link between studies of behavioural mutations in Drosophila and human genetic defects:

Br Med Bull-1981-BURNET-107-13

I got interested in this field as a first year Psychology student at Sheffield, when I read an article in New Scientist in 1976 about an article published by Benzer’s group in which they created a Drosophila mutant that could not learn, which with typical humour they called dunce. I was immediately attracted to this approach, and by complete chance, was in one of the two places in the UK that did such work (the other was Edinburgh, where Aubrey Manning was Professor).

We even did a psychology practical on Drosophila behavioural mutants, including shaker and the delightfully named ether-a-go-go mutant, which would shake their legs – both these mutations turned out to be extremely important as they affect the way neurons function.

After my degree, I was lucky enough to get a PhD place with Kevin and Barrie, working first on learning and then, when that proved a dead end (entirely my fault), we shifted the topic to a comparative study of courtship behaviour in Drosophila species, with some primitive behaviour genetics, all of which led to four joint papers. I’m afraid I was a pretty lazy student and must have been frustrating, though neither Kevin nor Barrie ever showed any irritation with my slow progress.

Kevin’s work on child development was equally significant, though in a very different way. He focused on motor control in particular, and the way that children learn to manipulate objects. He also got interested in the way that iodine deficiency can affect development, and carried out several field trips to Papua New Guinea, and as a result the government instituted the addition of iodine to staple foods in order to reduce iodine deficiency in tribal regions. On one of these field trips that he had a heart attack and had to be flown back for intensive care. He recovered, and continued teaching and researching until 1999.

Here is one of his papers on Papua New Guinea, carried out with his colleague Margaret Martlew and published in 1996 in Child Development:


The Methods section shows how tough it was to do this work:


For all but a handful of academics who shape their field through amazing breakthroughs or insightful syntheses, the main legacy we leave takes the form of our students – the undergraduates who we (hopefully) inspire and inform in the lecture theatre, and the PhD students who we train. In the latter respect, Kevin and Barrie did pretty well – four of their students ended up as Professors at UK universities (myself, Ronnie Wilson at Ulster, my academic ‘big brother’ Bambos Kyriacou at Leicester, and the last of their joint students, Kevin O’Dell at Glasgow).

Kevin was heavily involved in the British Psychology Society (he was President for some years), and held a series of visiting chairs around the world. As well as his academic articles, chapters and edited volumes, he co-edited a book of quotations related to psychology Psychologically Speaking.

The last time I saw Kevin was about six years ago when he called me over from Manchester to go through his research library. He was clearing out his reprints, and gave me a huge collection of obscure but fascinating papers, many of which are hard if not impossible to obtain. I went with my children, who somehow got the impression his name was Ned, and behaved eerily well throughout. For many years afterwards when we wanted them not to mess about, they were asked to be on ‘Ned behaviour’.

A few months ago, I was interviewed by my University about my research and my career. One of the questions they asked me about was my ‘scientific hero’. I chose Kevin, and here’s what I said:


My last contact with Kevin was four years ago, when he sent me an Xmas e-mail:


Merry Christmas and all good wishes for 2012!


I have been out a bit out of things due to illness, do keep me up with
with your work. We might have a little Drosophila meeting in 2012, would be good
to see you.

The meeting never happened, sadly. And now it’s too late.

Vale, teacher!


  1. Jim Knight
    Posted December 17, 2015 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    Bummer, Matthew. I’m sorry for your loss…

  2. Dominic
    Posted December 17, 2015 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    A great teacher deserves to be remembered, in as far as any of us are remembered. Thanks for telling us about him.

    We all regret that we have neglected some friend… life sometimes gets in the way.

  3. Posted December 17, 2015 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    My deepest sympathies, Matthew. And thank you for this touching epitaph.

  4. DrBrydon
    Posted December 17, 2015 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing, Matthew. As Kipling wrote in his School Song:

    Wherefore praise we famous men
    From whose bays we borrow–
    They that put aside To-day–
    All the joys of their To-day–
    And with toil of their To-day
    Bought for us To-morrow!

  5. Paul D.
    Posted December 17, 2015 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    The human version of the ether-a-go-go gene, hERG, is notorious as a source of cardiac drug interactions. Drug development now routinely screens for interactions with the potassium ion channel protein encoded by this gene.

  6. Posted December 17, 2015 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Shame … an interesting (but connected) collection of activities and interests. And in my view this is one of the hardest things for outsiders (as I am now, but was not once) to academia to appreciate – we do benefit from people doing their own work and pursuing their interests, not getting pigeonholed into a predefined box of categories. (The hope of having a “big box with movable walls” is why I studied philosophy and “intersected” it with computing and to a lesser extent other things.)

  7. Diane G.
    Posted December 17, 2015 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    What a touching and also fascinating tribute to your mentor.

    “…the genetics of behaviour in Drosophila, and child development.” How does one even find a position that allows one to pursue such varied interests? That paper on human figure drawing is so thought-provoking; I would have thought that all children 10 to 15 years of age would be able to draw one, schooled or not. Strange to think that they never picked up a stick and drew in sand or mud. And of course it’s always jolting to realize that as late as the 1950’s there were corners of the world in which such studies could be carried out.

    How wonderful that your life intersected with such an inspirational scientist.

  8. Posted December 17, 2015 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    My condolences for your loss. He sounds like s great man.

  9. Posted December 18, 2015 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    Condolences. Thanks for sharing about him.

  10. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted December 20, 2015 at 3:13 am | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing!

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] Why Evolution is True: Kevin J Connolly (1936–2015) […]

%d bloggers like this: