Public Image of Scientists

Cataloguing of the Bodmer archive has been underway for around six months now, and it has been fascinating to learn about the sheer scope of Sir Walter’s career. There have been many dimensions to his work, and importantly, national science policy and science education has clearly been a real concern for the geneticist. In 1985, Bodmer chaired a Royal Society committee that sought to uncover public attitudes towards science. Included in the archive are papers relating to the Public Understanding of Science (PUS) and the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS), groups set up by the Royal Society. It has been argued that the PUS movement (more recently Public Engagement with Science and Technology) developed as a consequence of the Royal Society’s influential 1985 publication The Public Understanding of Science. Written by Walter Bodmer, it is also commonly known as the Bodmer Report. The purpose of the Report was to recommend initiatives for government, schools, universities and media amongst others (including scientists themselves) to work together in order to promote a scientifically literate population. The Report can be read here.

The Report also aimed to encourage a better relationship between scientists and the public, and in particular, that scientists communicate more effectively to their audiences. One of many issues addressed was the public image of scientists. A decade earlier, the New Scientist conducted a nationwide survey in an effort to monitor the public’s attitude to and awareness of science and scientists. According to the Bodmer Report, the outcome of the New Scientist survey “was a mixed bag, with scientists seeing scientists as typically approachable, sociable, open, unconventional, socially responsible, and popular with broad interests, while non-scientists saw scientists as typically the opposite”. Similar attitudes prevailed in later surveys carried out by various groups that submitted their findings to the Royal Society, as illustrated below.

Royal Society Letter
Example of written submission to the Royal Society from various societies including the BritishAcademy and British Association for the Advancement of Science (1984).

The papers of Sir Walter and Lady Julia Bodmer reveal this apparently common public perception of scientists could not be further from the case, and the personalities that come across in the archive are a far cry from the stereotypical scientist ‘who cannot be identified with the man on the street’. The papers (including many photographs) reveal a couple that were not just hard-working and committed to their careers and family, but also relaxed, sociable and popular.

After Lady Bodmer passed away in 2001, an obituary recalled ‘her strength, her humour, her infectious enthusiasm [and] her dedication to science’. A former colleague remarked, ‘I like to recollect Julia in her apartment at the top of the ICRF when Walter was playing piano and we were just having a friendly talk’. Music and the performing arts appear to have played an important part in the Bodmer’s lives. For instance, the collection includes papers concerning Sir Walter’s time as a Trustee and Chairman of the Board of Directors at the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance (now Trinity Laban). In fact, Sir Walter’s connection with Laban originated with his mother Sylvia Bodmer (1902-1989), who gained a reputation as one of the most distinguished exponents of modern dance and movement. Having danced as one of Rudolf von Laban’s pupils in Germany during the 1920s, she continued with her career in dance, choreography and teaching after moving to England.

kidney stakes
The Kidney Stakes

One of the quirkier parts of the collection I have come across recently perfectly captures the Bodmer’s sense of fun and love of music. The images highlighted here are an example of several songs and sonnets that were buried in a box of material relating to an International Histocompatibility Workshop. Written in Julia’s hand, the songs were intended for post-conference entertainment, possibly the event hosted by the Bodmers in Oxford, 1977.

the-dr-region-1
The DR Region

I never fully appreciated quite what to expect with a scientific archive, apart from the more predictable research and teaching related papers, and it has been fun uncovering some real gems in the collection. The archive stretches well beyond the laboratory and the world of science and genetics, offering a window into the lives of two prolific geneticists who enjoyed a broad range of interests and pastimes.

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