Professor ‘Twink’ Allen, remarkable vet and scientist who did groundbreaking work in equine reproduction – obituary

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Allen, left, with twin foals and Peter Burrell, former director of the National Stud
Allen, left, with twin foals and Peter Burrell, former director of the National Stud

Professor "Twink" Allen, who has died aged 80, was renowned internationally for his pioneering work in equine reproduction, notably for its application in the breeding of thoroughbred racehorses.

Born in New Zealand, and beginning his working life as a practising vet, in 1972 Allen was put in charge of the Equine Fertility Unit at Cambridge (it later moved to Newmarket), with which he was associated for 35 years. His work with veterinary colleagues there is credited with increasing the fertility rate in stallions from 70 to 95 per cent in only two decades, a major boost to the racing industry.

His particular area of expertise was early pregnancy in the mare. He and his team used ultrasonography for early and accurate diagnosis of problems in pregnancy, and they developed techniques for the transfer of embryos, both within and across species.

His work in this field led to the birth of the first identical twin foals produced by embryo splitting and the first successful birth of a horse from a frozen-thawed embryo.

In 1974 he and his colleagues drove a car to Poland with six horse embryos in the oviducts of two rabbits; the embryos were then transferred into mares, leading to the birth of three live foals. Allen also used embryo transfer to break new ground in the preservation of endangered species such as zebra and Przewalski’s horse.

The son of a commercial airline pilot, William Richard Allen (always known to family, friends and colleagues alike as “Twink”, a name derived from his love in childhood of the story Rip Van Winkle) was born in Auckland, New Zealand, on August 29 1940, and educated at Auckland Grammar School.

Intending to become a country vet, he graduated in Veterinary Science from the University of Sydney in 1965, and in the same year married an Australian girl, Diana Emms.

Twink Allen
Twink Allen

The couple returned to New Zealand where Twink set up in practice. But their lives were changed by a car accident in which their vehicle was hit head-on by a driver who had fallen asleep at the wheel. A lawnmower stored in the back of Twink’s car catapulted forwards, inflicting serious injuries to his hip and leg.

Confined to hospital for 18 months, and emerging with one leg significantly shorter than the other, he learned that Cambridge University’s department of Clinical Veterinary Medicine was seeking to recruit a research student. He applied, was accepted, and as soon as he was fit he and Diana embarked on the six-week voyage to Britain.

Having been awarded a PhD in 1970 Allen spent two years as a postdoctoral Fellow at the Animal Research Station in Cambridge, where he came to the notice of Peter Burrell, director of the National Stud at Newmarket.

Burrell was co-founder of the Equine Fertility Unit (EFU), and Allen was appointed its director. In 1995 he was installed as the Jim Joel Professor of Equine Reproduction at Cambridge.

On the EFU’s closure in 2007 Allen retired from his university post to set up the Paul Mellon Laboratory of Equine Reproduction at his own premises in Newmarket to continue his research.

Still busy in his seventies, in 2016 he went to the Sharjah Equine Hospital in the United Arab Emirates, where he worked on developing a range of modern reproductive technologies.

Although best-known for his work with horses, Allen also investigated fertility and reproduction in other species, notably camels and elephants, leading projects in Dubai and Africa. With support from Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum in the 1990s he founded the Dubai Camel Reproduction Unit.

Twink Allen was appointed CBE in 2002. He was a Fellow of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, received many international honours and awards, and was an Emeritus Professor at Robinson College, Cambridge. In 2018 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Symposia of Equine Reproduction.

Allen was a strong-willed individual who liked to push the boundaries in robust debate and was never afraid of controversy. But generations of colleagues and former students regarded him with great affection and admiration, not just for his professional achievements but also for his conviviality and gift for friendship.

He was a heavy smoker until his attempt to chase a man stealing his car left him breathless, leading him to seek the services of a hypnotist.

Peter Burrell, Twink Allen and the Queen
Peter Burrell, Twink Allen and the Queen

But he never abandoned his favourite tipple, gin. Once he was invited to Clarence House by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother to discuss her racehorses and was horrified to discover, when she offered him a gin and tonic, that she did not keep his favoured Bombay Sapphire. The following day he drove back to Clarence House with a bottle of the stuff, handing it to the butler to pass on to her.

In his younger days he hunted with the Cambridgeshire, and in later years with the Newmarket and Thurlow. He was the founding chairman of Vets for Hunting (now the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management).

His taste in music was catholic, ranging from opera to Country and Western, and he was an enthusiast on the dance floor at scientific conferences.

Twink Allen’s wife Diana, from whom he was separated, survives him with their three children: Jeremy, who practises as a vet in Newmarket; Felicity, a nurse who lives in Spain; and Catherine, who is married to the charismatic jockey Frankie Dettori. He is also survived by his partner Sandra Wilsher, with whom he worked at the Sharjah Equine Hospital until the time of his death.

Professor “Twink” Allen, born August 29 1940, died June 6 2021

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