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Tributes paid to Professor Roger Carpenter at funeral in Caius Chapel

  • 17 November 2017

The funeral of Professor Roger Carpenter, a Fellow of Caius and admired teacher of neuroscience beloved by many generations of students, took place on 16 November 2017 in the College Chapel.

Family, friends, Fellows and current and former students packed the Chapel to hear a service led by the Dean, the Revd Dr Cally Hammond, with readings and music chosen by Prof Carpenter himself.

Three eulogies celebrated Prof Carpenter’s influential research, engaging and stimulating teaching, and love of music and walking, as well as the joy he took in his roles as husband, father and grandfather.

Formerly Professor of Oculomotor Physiology, Prof Carpenter became a Fellow of Caius in 1973, and served as Tutor, Registrary and Director of Studies in Medicine. He died on 27 October 2017, aged 72, after a long illness.

Delivering the first eulogy, Prof Carpenter’s son Jamie recalled that his father had described himself on an early Caius website as “Philosopher, mad scientist, and artiste extraordinaire". A lifelong lover of music who aged nine persuaded his parents to buy him a harmonium from a junkshop, his deepest passion was for Renaissance and Baroque music, and particularly Bach.

Prof Carpenter’s relationship with music perfectly encapsulated his general attitude to life, Jamie said. “There was no point doing anything unless you were going to throw yourself into it and do it to the best of your ability. But there was also no point in doing anything that you didn’t enjoy.”

His father had loved to walk in the Pyrenees and Dolomites, to cook (and appreciate pork pies) and to make “silly jokes”, he said, but also enthusiastically to question and debate. His Christian faith had returned in recent years, and this had helped him through his illness.

Speaking on behalf of students taught by Prof Carpenter, Dr Dunecan Massey recalled his supervision room as “an assault on the senses”, featuring antique and scientific artefacts including a home-built pipe organ and a slot machine adapted to generate “random yet plausible thesis titles”.

He was, said Dr Massey, “quite simply the best supervisor ever. He had a knack for making sense of things that managed to elude the rest of us. His explanations didn’t spoon-feed; rather they gave just enough for us to understand the subject… He taught us to ask ‘how?’, rather than ‘what?’. The very best teachers don’t only explain, they also encourage.”

Paying tribute to his former teacher’s near-legendary talent for writing upside down, acquired so that students sitting opposite him in supervisions could easily read his notes, Dr Massey summed up Prof Carpenter as “an inspiration and mentor”.

Professor James Fitzsimons, Life Fellow of Caius and Emeritus Professor of Medical Physiology, praised his former colleague as “an international authority in his field”. Prof Carpenter worked on the brain mechanisms of human decision, revealing through his research how examining saccadic movements of the eyes can be a highly informative way of studying underlying neural decision mechanisms.

Alongside his groundbreaking research, Prof Carpenter was “recognised as an outstanding teacher in the neurosciences”, winning awards for his teaching, said Prof Fitzsimons. His influence set a clear trend among his students: “His teaching inspired many Caians to combine experimental research with a medical career.”

Prof Carpenter would be remembered as “a stimulating member of the Fellowship” at Caius, he added. “He might agree with your point of view, but more often than not he would gently provoke you with another way of thinking… We have lost a good man.”

  • The Order of Service can be found here. For those who would like to make a donation to celebrate the memory of Prof Carpenter, details are provided of the Haematology Day Unit Fund at Addenbrookes Hospital, and of the Roger Carpenter Biomedical Students Research Fund, established by the College to encourage our students to undertake research projects in the general area of medical science.
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