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Obituary: David Millar Armstrong 1941–2018

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Obituary: David Millar Armstrong 1941–2018

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Written by Richards Apps and Tony Ridge, with help from Judy Harris


David Armstrong was a pioneer in understanding how the central nervous system controls movement. He was amongst the first to recognise the importance of combining anatomical, physiological and behavioural methods to advance knowledge of the brain pathways and mechanisms that underlie voluntary movement.

David was born and educated in Cumbria where at school he met his life-long partner and wife Lucy. His academic talent was recognised at an early age, and he won a scholarship to study Medicine at the University of Oxford. However, he soon recognised that his true interests lay in understanding fundamental physiological mechanisms, and he transferred to a BA in Physiology and graduated in 1963 with a first-class degree, and subsequently a masters in Neurophysiology by research in 1964.

David’s talent as a rising star in neurophysiology was recognised by Sir John Eccles who recruited him as a PhD student at the Australian National University in Canberra. Under the supervision of Eccles, David developed his long-standing interest in the mammalian cerebellum, and the critical importance of climbing fibre inputs from the inferior olive for the normal function of this major brain structure. He graduated from Canberra with a PhD degree in 1967 and moved the following year back to the UK to take up a lectureship at the University of Bristol where he remained for the rest of his career. He was an enthusiastic supporter of The Physiological Society, presenting numerous communications and chairing many sessions at The Society’s meetings throughout his career. David was also on the editorial board of The Journal of Physiology between 1979 and 1986.

David obtained his personal chair in Physiology at Bristol at the young age of 43 and was Head of the Department of Physiology from 1990 to 1995, and also from 2003 to 2004. He was an outstanding and greatly respected Head, who managed to strike the right balance between being supportive but not interfering. He was always kind and generous with ideas and advice – he understood the importance of giving individuals the freedom and space to find their own way, at their own pace. He also had the rare gift of recognising what was important and what was less so.

During his research career David published 74 full papers (21 in The Journal of Physiology alone) and numerous other communications with a focus on the motor cortex and cerebellum. This body of work included key anatomical and physiological evidence to support the hypothesis that the cerebellum is modular in organisation. In the 1960s this was a controversial idea, but is now accepted as the framework to explore cerebellar contributions to movement control and indeed many other functions. David’s neurophysiological studies in awake behaving cats were also ground breaking, and included compelling evidence that climbing fibre inputs to the cerebellum carry information about sensory errors. This is a concept that has shaped many studies since, and remains central to our understanding of how the cerebellum contributes to the coordination and modification of skilled movements.

Beyond research David was also a gifted and popular teacher of undergraduates, no doubt helped by his ability to understand and empathise with young people. David would tell the medical students that neurophysiology was in his blood and that his family coat of arms featured a pair of crossed tendon hammers!

David was in many ways a Renaissance man; his contribution was in science, but he also had wide ranging interests in art and society. For his inaugural lecture, rather than present his internationally acclaimed work on the motor system, instead he chose to give his talk on the plague in Cumbria in the early seventeenth century, including his own epidemiological research based on careful analysis of church records. After he retired he developed his interests in mediaeval church carved pew ends. He also had a life-long interest in photography. His favourite subject was sea birds on his beloved Orkney Islands, where he and Lucy owned a croft and spent their retirement enjoying summer holidays with their two children Catherine and James and grandchildren.

Several years ago David suffered the cruel irony of a cerebellar stroke, from which he never recovered, and Lucy cared for him until he died last August aged 77.

Good people are valuable, and David was a good person. We miss him.

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