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Dr John Wattam-Bell

1953 - 2013

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Dr John Wattam-Bell, who was renowned for his research on the development of vision in new-borns, infants and children, died suddenly on December 30th. John's work contributed profoundly to our understanding of how this fundamental capacity emerges from early brain maturation as well as the ways in which it can develop abnormally in congenital disorders. His work was both practical and theoretical.

He helped to develop many methods for assessing vision and visually-guided behaviour in very young children, including eye-tracking and reaching tests, as well as pioneering “video-refraction” techniques to  measure long- and short-sightedness in babies and children. He developed innovative methods using electroencephalography and other techniques, such as brain imaging  for measuring brain activity, and much of this research was concerned with building models of the early development of distinct pathways for processing ‘what’ and ‘where’ information in the brain. These pathways develop at different rates post-natally and are susceptible to distinct patterns of breakdown in conditions such as Williams Syndrome, and John’s research characterised these patterns in considerable detail.

Following training as a neurophysiologist in Oxford, John joined the Visual Development Unit at Cambridge and  was a key member of the Unit for over 30 years. This world-famous research Centre, founded by his long-time collaborators Profs Jan Atkinson and Oliver Braddick, moved to UCL in 1993 and had long-term support from the Medical Research Council and EU.

John's engaging personality and relaxed good humour made him a valued colleague and a thoughtful, generous source of advice and support for colleagues as well as for many collaborators worldwide, and he was an inspiring teacher. He played a significant leadership role at UCL as Head of the Developmental Science Research Department. John will be greatly missed by all who had the pleasure of working alongside him. He is survived by his wife Anne and sons Richard and Duncan.


A website has been set up where friends and colleagues can write about their memories of or share thoughts about John Wattam-Bell. This is a place for everyone who knew John to share memories and celebrate his life.

If you would like to add your memories to this website please contact with the text you would like posted. We welcome any contribution, from short snippets to longer pieces. Please also feel free to pass this message on to colleagues or friends of John from outside PALS.