Finding the right answers is important, said the neuroanatomist, but finding the right questions first is vital.


By Dr Alex May

Ray Guillery FRS, neuroanatomist, and Dr Lee’s professor of anatomy and fellow of Hertford College, Oxford, from 1984 to 1996, died on 7 April 2017, aged 87. He was born Rainer Walter Guillery in Greifswald, in north-eastern Germany, on 28 August 1929. His father, Hermann Guillery, was a pathologist from a Rhineland Catholic family. His mother, Eva, née Hackel, a laboratory technician, was from a Russian-Jewish family who had escaped after the Bolshevik revolution.

Ray GuilleryOn both sides he had distinguished scientific forebears: his maternal grandfather was an apothecary, his paternal grandfather an ophthalmologist, and a great-great-uncle on his father’s side was Otto Deiters, a pioneering neuroscientist who gave the first accurate description of nerve cells, identified the cells’ axon and its dendrites, and gave his name to the lateral vestibular nucleus (‘Deiters’s nucleus’) before dying of typhoid fever at the age of 29.

Guillery’s parents divorced when he was two, and he was brought up with his older sister by their mother, initially in Berlin, where he attended the Rudolf Steiner school. In 1938 the family fled, his mother escaping to London, where she took a job as a housekeeper. After a short spell in Switzerland, looked after by a family friend, Guillery joined his sister at a school in Holland, but they were on holiday in England when the Second World War broke out. Evacuated to Oxford, he was sponsored by Oxford Quakers to attend Sibford School, near Banbury, staying during the school holidays with Wilfrid Le Gros Clark, Dr Lee’s professor of anatomy, and his wife Freda, who was active in the Oxford Refugee Committee. By the end of the war, he said, ‘I was an adolescent who was able to think of himself, proudly, as English.’

At that time Sibford had no sixth form, so at his mother’s insistence (he wanted to become a carpenter) Guillery went to a grammar school for two years to prepare for the Higher School Certificate. In 1948 he won a scholarship to read medicine at University College, London, but after a year, encouraged by John Z Young, he switched to anatomy, taking his BSc in 1951. He stayed on to do research, under Young’s supervision, on the hypothalamus, for which he was awarded his PhD in 1954. In December that year he married Margot Pepper, a medical student at St Mary’s Hospital who later became a dermatologist; they had three sons and a daughter.

Guillery had joined the teaching staff of the anatomy department at UCL as an assistant lecturer in 1953; he remained there, with the exception of a year’s sabbatical in 1960-1 at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he worked with Jerzy Rose, until 1964, for the last year as a reader. At UCL he continued his studies of the hypothalamus, using innovative staining techniques developed by Walle Nauta to trace the fibres from the fornix to the anterior thalamic nuclei, and later to elucidate the fibre pathways of the hypothalamus itself. He also began to use electron microscopy, at first to study synaptic structures in the brains of lizards and later to investigate synapses in the visual cortex in several species.

In 1964 Guillery returned to the University of Wisconsin at Madison as an associate professor, subsequently being made a full professor. In 1977 he moved to the University of Chicago as a professor in the department of pharmacological and physiological sciences. At both universities he helped establish new graduate neuroscience programmes while continuing his own research into thalamocortical organisation and cortico-thalamo-cortical pathways, concentrating in particular on the visual cortex. He was particularly known for a ‘citation classic’ in 1973, which demonstrated the developmental anomaly in visual pathways associated with albinism, and his work more generally on the structural organisation of the mammalian visual system. In 1983, towards the end of his time in the United States (and having retained his British citizenship), he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Guillery had received several approaches to return to Oxford before he finally agreed to do so, taking up the Dr Lee’s chair of anatomy (and taking a ‘major drop in salary’) in 1984. In Oxford, despite ‘an administrative structure that I later learned was not understood by anyone’, and a convention that senior staff should be little involved in teaching, he helped establish the new graduate neuroscience programme, and made several important appointments. His own research continued to focus on the optic chiasm and its development, but he also became more interested in the role of the thalamus. He was founding editor-in-chief of the European Journal of Neuroscience from 1988 to 1992 and president of the Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland in 1994-6.

On reaching the statutory retirement age in 1996, Guillery was obliged to vacate the Dr Lee’s chair, but he had no intention of retiring, and from 1996 to 2002 he returned once again to the University of Wisconsin at Madison as a visiting professor. From 2007 to 2010 he was a professor of anatomy at Marmara University in Istanbul, where his daughter now lived; he was as always enthusiastic about his work and his ‘wonderful colleagues’ despite ‘limited funding, poor infrastructure, and inadequate library facilities’. In 2010 he returned to live in Oxford, where he was made an honorary emeritus research fellow in the MRC Anatomical Neuropharmacology Unit (from 2015 the Brain Network Dynamics Unit), as well as an active figure in the Barton community.

Guillery was remembered fondly by friends, colleagues and neighbours for his warmth, personal interest,The Brain As A Tool – Ray Guillery numerous small acts of kindness, and wry sense of humour. He always insisted that work should be ‘fun’. To his students he was ‘first and foremost a mentor’: ‘He knew how to teach. He would lead his students to a certain point, and then leave them floundering, knowing that they would swim in the end’. Reflecting on his own career, he said:

‘The view, widely held today, that good research should be addressing a “soluble” problem owes much to K Popper and more to PB Medawar. The more realistic view, that some of the most important research one can do is to look in a challenging area, such as the brain, and there work to define a soluble problem, is a less fashionable view I learned from JZ Young. Solving the soluble problems is often far easier than finding them.’

He wrote a very large number of journal articles, either as sole author or more often in collaboration with others. He described himself as primarily ‘a descriptive anatomist’ — ‘a term that is often, especially in grant reviews, linked with “merely”, as though the work were easy or unnecessary’. But in 2001 he published Exploring the Thalamus with S Murray Sherman — avowedly not a textbook, but an exploration of existing knowledge together with more hypothetical and conjectural interpretations. In 2013 they followed up their own earlier suggestions for future research with Functional Connections of Cortical Areas, developing the conceptual path laid out in their first book. At the time of his death Guillery had just finished working on a new book, The Brain as a Tool: A Neuroscientist’s View, to be published by OUP later this year, with a new set of anatomical illustrations by Dr Lizzie Burns. He was survived by his children; his marriage, though initially happy, had ended in divorce in 2000.

  • Look out for Oxford Today’s discussion of consciousness with John Jefferys, Professor of Neuroscience, in July.

Dr Alex May (St John’s, 1982) is research editor at Oxford DNB. Brain image by Adrian Grosu via Shutterstock. Ray Guillery portrait courtesy of the Royal Society. Book jacket by OUP.