Florence Bell and the hidden treasure

There has been quite a bit of discussion recently I’ve noticed on blogs and twitter about the right kind of popular history of science.  Whether or not we should have heroes, and what we mean by heroes, whether or not linear story telling is a good or bad thing, and so on.  All I would like to add to this discussion, is to say that I really don’t the public (yes I know there are many publics) cares, particularly, about these discussions.  I think there should be more history of science out there, and that there should be room for many different styles.  But also, I think that we can over intellectualise.  To convince people of the merits of non-heroic history of science storytelling, surely we just need some really well written examples?  I think, to paraphrase Becky in her H Word blog, the public do not necessarily require ‘heroes and linear, progressive narratives’, but the public does require page-turning writing.  That is the tricky bit.

So, while I don’t pretend this to be the brilliant writing required to win the argument, here at least is an attempt.  Decide for yourselves if it is for or against heroes, linear, progressive narratives and all.

Here’s a story I’ve been meaning to write up for a long time. The Astbury camera. To me, this story sums up all that is brilliant about working in a museum.

William Astbury joined Leeds University when the university still had strong links to the local textiles industry. Science had recently saved the UK silk industry, developing an artificial alternative to silk and part of Astbury’s job was to see what science might do for wool. To this end Astbury and his research assistant Florence Bell started to look at the structure of wool, essentially by firing X-rays at wool samples.

This work with X-ray and wool developed and out of it came a design for an X-ray camera – similar to an old fashioned glass plate or film camera but made of lead – as a means of recording results that could then be pored over. As part of her work looking at the protein fibres in wool Florence Bell took the first ever photograph of DNA.  This photograph, its importance unrecognised at the time, lay buried in her PhD thesis, in the University library for many years.  It is only in the last couple, that it has been resurrected and examined enthusiastically by historians.

Florence Bell’s story is perhap a story to come back to – a woman, making a name for herself in scientific research in the 1930s, now all but forgotten – but for now we will stick to the story of the camera. After Bell’s work, the camera continued to be used for many years. Slicker, mass produced versions followed and were used in labs across the world (including most famously Rosalind Franklin’s in London in the 1950s). Then research & teaching moved on & along with so many other scientific instruments the camera was replaced, its story all but forgotten. There was no university museum, so like so many other fantastically important but visually unremarkable instruments it could very easily have ended up in a skip.

Luckily for our story, the biochemist Dr John Lydon had recently joined the department and rescued it. He kept it in his office, on top of a filing cabinet, a daily reminder of his department’s great history. And there it stayed for 30 years, until one day Lydon got chatting with historian of science Dr (now professor) Greg Radick, who just happened to be very interested in Astbury & who also just happened to be setting up a museum.  That museum became the History of Science, Technology and Medicine Museum at Leeds (sometimes called the HPS Museum project) and Astbury’s camera has become our pride and joy, our very own hidden treasure.

And so there we have it.  It now sits proudly on display in the entrance to the Philosophy Department at Leeds University, pointed out to any student who will stop long enough to hear its story, a story not of a single inventor or scientist but of many individuals and institutions, of scientific enquiry but also of the whims, interests and sentimental attachments of a handful of individuals.

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Excuses for underachievement

I should begin by saying that these are not my excuses for underachievement exactly, but rather excuses I’ve come across in my research in history of science, that have made me feel better about my own time hungry distractions.  Barely a day goes by in which I don’t read the phrase (or something similar) ‘our hectic modern lives’.  Perhaps I should read fewer glossies aimed at middle aged women.  Meetings are the same.  Few reach an end without at least one person declaring ‘well I have so much to do’, or ‘I’ll try to fit it in, but I have so much on at the moment’, etc., etc.  Twitter is full of similar claims.  All of which suggests I’m not alone in feeling the need to justify my inability to get things done.  Luckily, history of science can provide a marvellous sense of perspective, while pleasingly giving the illusion of being a productive activity at the same time.  Its a win-win.  It turns out, historically no one had anytime to achieve anything either.  Here are a few of their excuses:

1788, William Herschel excuses some basic mathematics mistakes in a letter to Lalande: ‘I have so little leisure for practice that it would be no wonder, on account of the multiplicity of things that take up my time, and continually disturb my thoughts, when I am calculating, if I had made many more blunders than I have made… ‘

1810s, Adam Sedgwick wrote to a friend: ‘Here I am grinding away with six pupils. Under such circumstances it is impossible to advance one step. But I am compelled by circumstances to undergo this drudgery. When I look back on what I have done since I was elected Fellow I cannot discover that I have made any proficiency whatever, or gained one new idea.’

1818, Charles Babbage told John Herschel: ‘I am at present very much engaged with mineralogy and have not much time to think of abstract truth’

1835, Margaret Brodie Herschel to her mother, Emilia Stewart: ‘After tea there is singing & arranging French sentences with a box of letters till bed time at 8 o’clock, & then comes the only hours I have to read or write, learn German or copy for Herschel.’

Something to think about next time you get to the end of a day, having yet again failed to get as much done as you’d hoped.  You are not alone.  Quite the opposite, you’re in very good company.


What is the point of history of science?

History of science is interesting, makes us think and helps make sense of the products and processes of science that we see all around us.  However, I have never been completely sure why it should matter to the world around us, what purpose it serves.

I think this concern comes from two things.  It comes from spending a considerable amount of time studying practitioners of science and their attempts to argue for the societal importance of their subject.  It also comes from watching historians of science complain about discussions they’re left out of or gripe about scientists’ muscling in on their/our territory by attempting to write their own history.  Put the two together and it seems to me that as historians of science we have something very important to learn from the subjects of our research – they had to spell out their usefulness to others and so do we.

In 1830 John Herschel argued at length in his Preliminary Discourse on the study of natural philosophy that science made our individual lives more comfortable, and saved society as a whole from costly mistakes by informing our decisions. It could inspire us, he argued, to attempt things we never thought possible and, he concluded, was ultimately what made us ‘civilized’. In 1959 C. P. Snow asserted that science and engineering won the allies the second world war, and yet was vastly undervalued compared to Greek and Latin. Brian Cox more recently went further:

These curiosity led voyages of discovery across all scientific disciplines have delivered increased life expectancy, intercontinental air travel, modern telecommunications, freedom from drudgery of subsistence farming and a sweeping, inspiring and humbling vision of our place within an infinite sea of stars. But these are all in a sense spin offs. We explore because we are curious, not because we wish to develop grand views of reality or better widgets.

What is our equivalent?

From a purely personal point of view, I have found history of science has (1) given extra meaning to all the science I learned at school and in my undergraduate degree.  In has in a sense helped me learn science. (2) It has given personalities and motives to the great names of science, and introduces a plethora of additional, previously unknown characters to the story.  In doing this, it has made the idea of being a scientist or knowing someone who is a real life scientist appear much more attainable.  Put another way, history of science creates/ introduces realistic and attainable role models. (3) The final argument I have in favour of history of science is I think the best.  History of science bridges C. P. Snow’s two cultures, it is both on the side of the sciences and the humanities.  This allows it to see both sides, translate between the two and help break down that divide.

These are my reasons, they’re all very personal to me, to my life experience and my research interests.  Others I suspect have very different reasons.  I’d love to hear them, I just haven’t yet found a tackful way to ask.  Asking a historian of science what is the point of history of science sounds like the kind of question that could easily offend.  I know it didn’t go down well when I suggested to a group of academics that I liked museum work and journalism because it had the potential to reach a wider audience than the 5 people expected to read the average scholarly work.

As I write this, I feel fairly sure that this discussion must have gone on many times before, and among people far more qualified than me to formulate clever opinion.  If that is the case, and you’re reading this, and you know, let me know.  And let others know too.  I can’t help feeling the only reason historians of science are sometimes left out of debate is that often, people in the media and elsewhere don’t know what to do with us.  They don’t know where we fit in, what we might contribute.  Its up to us to make our usefulness clear.