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John Zachary Young

Professor Emeritus of Anatomy and Embryology, University College, London
1907 to 1997

John Zachary Young was born in Bristol 18 March 1907 to Constance and Philip Young and engineer. He was schooled at home until the age of nine when he was sent to a boarding school in Worcestershire. At thirteen he attended Marlborough College. In 1925 he entered Magdalen College Oxford where he studied zoology achieving a first in 1928.

Young remained at Oxford holding various college and university posts and in 1943 became Vice-President of Magdalen College. During World War II he served as leader of the Medical Research Council investigating nerve injuries. In 1945 he left Oxford having been appointed professor of human anatomy at University College London. His appointment was controversial however since he lacked the medical qualifications that holders of the post had in the past invariably possessed. Criticisms were soon shown to be unfounded and he remained there until his retirement in 1974. After this he kept busy at the Wellcome Foundation and the psychology department in Oxford.

One of Young’s major achievements as a scientist was in his work investigating the cellular mechanisms of memory through experiments on octopus. Using surgical experiments he shed light upon the operations of short- and long-term memory in their central nervous systems and the ways in which they reacted to and processed visual and tactile stimuli. His work was lasting yet his findings left even more complex questions in the problem of memory than those that it answered.

Young did not restrict himself to any narrow field of study. He invested a considerable degree of enthusiasm and energy into teaching zoology to students at Oxford and London and wrote what are considered to be classic textbooks The Life of Vertebrates (1950) and The Life of Mammals (1957). His dislike for borders and tradition led him to research in other fields than zoology most notably in philosophy and ethics. His Gifford Lectures ‘Programs of the Brain’ present the some of the philosophical fruits of his scientific labour in which he characterises the brain as a computer which relies on both a neurological memory and an evolutionary memory.

Young was awarded many honours in his lifetime including eight honorary degrees and fellowships of the Royal Society and the British Academy. In 1991 he was granted honorary citizenship of Naples.

Young died on 4 July 1997 in Oxford having suffered from heart failure. He left three children from two marriages.

His works include The Life of Vertebrates (1950) The Life of Mammals (1957) Introduction to the Study of Man (1971) Programs of the Brain (1978) and Philosophy and the Brain (1987).


  • Sam Addison, University of Aberdeen