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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