Obituary: Jonathan Bacon
By: Sean Armstrong
Last updated: Tuesday, 23 November 2021
A biologist who led the Schools of Life Sciences (2002 - 2009) and Engineering and Informatics (2017 - 2020) Jonathan Bacon’s kindness, wisdom and joie-de-vivre were known to many at Sussex.
He arrived in 1984 when there was an infusion of ‘new-blood’ University lectureships. He was known for research on the neural circuits that allow cockroaches, sensing the slightest puff of air, to escape under the kitchen cupboard, and how they mature from simple nymphs to crafty adults.
This work won the 1987 President’s Medal of the Society of Biology, and led on to a rich scientific career with collaborators in Sussex and internationally. Jonathan was from 1991 to 1998 a core member of the University’s Interdisciplinary Research Centre in Invertebrate Neuroscience, before becoming Head of the Biology Department, and gaining promotion to a Chair, as Professor of Neuroscience, in 1999.
Jonathan Bacon was born in Sheffield, the son of Margaret and Dr Peter Bacon, who had been an RAF officer during the war before working as an engineer in the steel industry. He attended grammar school in Cardiff, but very much considered himself a Yorkshireman. His loyalty to Yorkshire was later shared with Sussex where he was an avid supporter of the Seagulls - Brighton & Hove Albion F.C.
A degree from Christ's College, Cambridge in 1972, and a Ph.D. in Manchester was followed by a move to the Max-Planck Institute at Seewiesen, Bavaria, which had been founded by the celebrated ethologist Konrad Lorenz. There he met Marion Nicolai, and they married 23 July 1982 in Starnberg. Jonathan took posts in Albany, New York and in Basel before settling in Lewes, where they raised three sons, living for many years on Southover High Street.
Jonathan was an extraordinary teacher, communicating his subject with showmanship and clarity. He loved the challenge of winning the interest of students in a new field, claiming that anyone worthy of a job at Sussex could teach anything in Life Sciences. In 2017, he won a University student-led award for Outstanding and Innovative teaching. John Sander of the International Office recalls that when visiting an Indian university, Jonathan leapt onto a desk to address the assembled students. In the space of an hour, he'd gone from being an anonymous foreigner to a respected - and loved - scientist. Much to his delight these new admirers crowd-surfed Jonathan back to the car.
Competitive and charismatic, Jonathan Bacon had a deep sense of duty. In Lewes, he helped revitalise the Southover Bonfire Society and was a Governor of Hurstpierpoint College. He was a fine sportsman, enjoying family skiing holidays and running marathons in the UK and abroad.
In 2017, as he was planning to semi-retire – to focus on researching the behaviours of ants and bees with Francis Ratnieks, and to sail his boat, Peverall, around Britain - Jonathan was asked to step in as Head of the School of Engineering and Informatics. Leading an organization that had its own motorsport team was a dream job, and he did it with professionalism, care and enthusiasm.
He found three months in the spring of 2018 to make the circumnavigation, and finally in September 2020 he retired as Emeritus Professor of Neuroscience, and of Engineering, and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Arizona.
In the summer of 2020, Jonathan was diagnosed with the illness that was to prove uncurable. In his final months, supported by his family, he took great pleasure in visits from relatives, friends and colleagues. He died on ‘the 5th’, as Lewes Bonfires were being lit, and is survived by Marion, sons Oliver, Simon and Nick, daughter-in-law Geraldine and grandchildren Joshua and Florence.
Authors: Daniel Osorio and Francis Ratnieks, School of Life Sciences