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Professor George Gow Brownlee’s lab notebooks now available

George Gow Brownlee (photograph from the Royal Society)

George Gow Brownlee (photograph from the Royal Society)

The archive of Professor George Gow Brownlee, FMedSci, FRS, is now available online. Professor Brownlee was born in 1942 and took his degree and then a PhD at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, studying under double Nobel Laureate Fred Sanger at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology (in 2014 he published a biography of Sanger). He worked for the Medical Research Council in Cambridge from 1966 until 1980 and then came to Oxford as a Fellow of Lincoln College and the first E.P. Abraham Professor of Chemical Pathology at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, a chair he held until retirement in 2008.

Professor Brownlee’s research interests were in molecular biology and he and his group made significant discoveries in sequencing RNA and DNA during the early days of that field of research. In 1977, his group discovered the existence of pseudogenes – abnormal, mutated genes – which are now known to be ubiquitous in the genome of all organisms. After 1980, Brownlee became more involved in applied medical problems, and managed to isolate the clotting factor IX gene (also known as Christmas factor), which is present in people with haemophilia B. This led to improved treatment for people with the disease. He went on to work on gene regulation in influenza. In 1999 he and Ervin Fodor, whose contributions feature heavily in this archive, were able to isolate recombinant influenza virus, which led to improved vaccines for children.

These lab notebooks, which span most of Professor Brownlee’s career, form a rich scientific record that interestingly covers failed experiments as well as the experiments that led to major discoveries. And as a bonus, the catalogue is based on Professor Brownlee’s own descriptions of the notebooks, so it offers a level of detail that couldn’t be replicated by anybody else. The archive is likely to be of interest to scientists in the field as well as medical historians.

The first rule of Pig Club…

Rulebook of Nailsworth Pig Club, from the Sir Stafford Cripps archive at the Bodleian Library [sc22/1c]

Rulebook of Nailsworth Pig Club, April 1918, from the Sir Stafford Cripps archive [sc22/1c]

There’s just something about this delightful little three page rulebook that tickles me. Perhaps it’s the use of phrases like ‘eligible pigs’. Otherwise, it’s a perfectly serious document which details the ins and outs of the provision, insurance and inspection of pigs and potatoes (pigs and potatoes!) raised by members of the club.

It appears to have been produced by Gloucestershire County Council and was presumably part of a county-, or country-wide effort to encourage people to raise their own food during the war (also done during the second world war). Despite the central concern of food production, though, it’s a surprisingly cheering document for people concerned with animal welfare, as it’s very specific that the animals must be healthy and well-cared for, and that insurance compensation would not be paid if ‘the death or sickness of a pig is attributed to bad food, insufficient attention, or other carelessness or ill-treatment’.

One of my favourite things about the rulebook is who it belonged to: Stafford Cripps, probably best known as Britain’s ambassador to Moscow in 1940-1942 and as the austerity chancellor from 1947-1950. When this document was produced however, Cripps was not yet a political high flier. A chemistry graduate and practicing lawyer, he was both married and in ill health in 1914, which meant that he was not called up. He kept himself busy with recruitment efforts and then volunteered for a year in France as a Red Cross ambulance driver. In late 1915 he offered his chemistry expertise to the Ministry of Munitions and was posted to one of the country’s biggest munitions factories in Queensferry, near Chester. From early 1916, Cripps was running it, and it took its toll on his health. In early 1918, when this rulebook was drawn up, he was convalescing from a physical breakdown. Somehow, though, he still managed to find the time and energy to serve as honorary secretary of the Nailsworth Pig Club. The now nearly 100 year old rulebook survives in his archive at the Bodleian Library.

Incidentally, the first rule of Pig Club?:

  1. NAME.–The Society shall be called the “Nailsworth Pig Club.”

Can’t argue with that.

Buying books on witchcraft in 17th-century London

Letter from bookseller Edward Millington, November 1673

Letter from bookseller Edward Millington, November 1673 (click to enlarge)

The Bodleian Library has acquired an extremely rare autograph letter by the 17th-century English bookseller and auctioneer Edward Millington. The letter, dated 29 November 1673, is only the second known item of correspondence in Millington’s hand and represents a significant addition to evidence of book trade in this period, not least because Millington’s correspondent is both a researcher of witchcraft and a woman. The addressee is  “the Lady Gerhard at Mr Sanders a woollen draper in York Streete near Covent Garden” ;  most probably Lady Jane Gerard, née Digby, baroness of Bromley. At the time the letter was written Lady Gerard had already lost her first husband, Charles Gerard, 4th baron Gerard of Bromley (d.1667) and was yet to marry her second,  Sir Edward Hungerford (1632-1711). Lady Gerard’s discovery of a ‘healing spring’ at Willowbridge in Staffordshire would be recorded in 1676 by her chaplain Samuel Gilbert in a pamphlet entitled ‘Fons sanitatis’ (London, 1676). She died in 1703.

The present letter reveals Lady Gerard to have had a serious interest in writings on witchcraft; tantalisingly, it seems to have been part of a longer correspondence with Millington, the rest of which is now lost. In it he recalls having promised Lady Gerard “an exact account of all the English authors of witchcraft both for and against,”  and mentions a previous “parcell of books” sold to her. Millington himself was well placed to advise on such a topic; in 1669, he had published John Wagstaffe’s ‘The question of witchcraft debated’ out of the print shop he ran at the sign of the Pelican on Duck Lane, Little Britain. By the time of this letter he had moved to his later premises, at the sign of the Bible, but was yet to make his name as an auctioneer; a career that would see him described by Thomas Herne as “certainly the best Auctioneer in the World, being a man of Great Wit and Fluency of Speech… [though] very impudent and saucy” [DNB].

Three early modern books on witches and witchcraft

Books on witches and witchcraft, as recommended by Edward Millington

By 1673 Millington was evidently active in the second-hand book trade; the purpose of this letter to Lady Gerard is to provide a list of further books he was able to supply, with prices. These include “Dr Dees Relation of his actions with spirits,” probably ‘A true & faithful relation of what passed for many yeers between Dr. John Dee […] and some spirits’ (London, 1659); “Ady’s Candle in the Darkness,” i.e. Thomas Ady’s ‘A candle in the dark: or, A treatise concerning the nature of witches & witchcraft’, first published London 1655, and “Lavater Of Walking Ghosts,” which must be an English translation of Ludwig Lavater’s  ‘De spectris, lemuribus et magnis atque insolitis fragoribus’, such as the one published in 1596 as ‘Of ghostes and spirites, walking by night, and of straunge noyses, crackes, and sundrie forewarnings, which commonly happen before the death of men…’. Copies of all three of the books recommended by Millington are available to researchers at the Bodleian – soon they will be able to consult them alongside Millington’s letter of recommendation.

–Jo Maddocks and Mike Webb

John Cowdery Kendrew archive now online

John Kendrew

John Cowdery Kendrew

The year 2017 marks the centenary of the birth of Sir John Cowdery Kendrew, biochemist, crystallograper, and Nobel laureate. The Bodleian Library has recently published an online catalogue: “Correspondence and papers of Sir John Cowdery Kendrew“.

The Kendrew archive is quite substantial – 397 boxes. The papers cover all stages of Kendrew’s life from his early school years at the Dragon School in Oxford and Clifton College in Bristol to his undergraduate years at Trinity College, Cambridge; his wartime experience (mostly as Scientific Officer in Cairo and later in India and Ceylon); and all stages of his later professional career, including his five years as President of
St. John’s College, Oxford.

By far the largest part of the collection is devoted to his research at a variety of institutions. Some of the papers are highly technical, covering numerous aspects of biology, chemistry, and crystallography. Kendrew was one of the earliest users of the EDSAC I computer. His correspondence is also extensive.

–Lawrence Mielniczuk

Papers of Margaret Pickles now available

The catalogue of a small collection of the papers of a twentieth-century female doctor is now available online, released as part of the Wellcome-Trust funded 75 Years of Penicillin in People project.

Margaret Pickles, known as Peggy, came to the University of Oxford to study botany but switched to physiology, earning her bachelor’s degree at Somerville College in 1936. After winning a competitive examination she studied for the next three years at the University College Hospital Medical School in London. She qualified as a doctor in 1939 and worked at the Bearsted Maternity Hospital and the Royal East Sussex Hospital in Hastings, returning to Oxford in 1941 to work at the Radcliffe Infirmary as the Nuffield Graduate Assistant in Pathology. She completed her doctorate (D.M.) at Somerville in 1947, which was published as Haemolytic disease of the newborn in 1949 and continued to work as a clinical pathologist and immunologist.

In 1950, aged 36, she married Alastair Robb-Smith, a distinguished pathologist who had been appointed Nuffield Reader in Pathology and head of pathology at Oxford’s clinical school (now the Nuffield Department of Medicine) in 1937, at the age of 29.

Her interests extended beyond medicine. In 1960 she published The Birds of Blenheim Park with the Oxford Ornithological Society. She also continued her botanical studies, breeding daffodils at her married home, Thomas Chaucer’s House in Woodstock.

The collection comprises mainly her degree certificates and family photographs, and offers a glimpse into the life of a multi-talented female scientist working at a time when women were generally discouraged from professional work.

Gwyn Macfarlane’s research on Alexander Fleming is now available

(Robert) Gwyn Macfarlane [by Jmcperth (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons]

(Robert) Gwyn Macfarlane [by Jmcperth (own work), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

The catalogue of a small archive of the working papers of Gwyn Macfarlane (1907-1987), haematologist and biographer, is now available online, released as part of the Wellcome-Trust funded 75 Years of Penicillin in People project.

Macfarlane compiled these papers while researching his book Alexander Fleming, the Man and the Myth (1984). The book re-evaluated the work and reputation of the man whose paper on Penicillium mould inspired the development of the antibiotic drug penicillin by the Oxford University scientists Howard Florey, Ernst Chain and Norman Heatley. The archive includes revealing correspondence with people who were connected with the development of antibiotics, including members of Fleming’s family, nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin (whose archive we hold), Norman Heatley (archive at the Wellcome Library) and Edward Penley Abraham (we also hold his archive!).

Macfarlane himself was a clinical pathologist at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford and also held a chair in clinical pathology at the University of Oxford, focusing particularly on the treatment of haemophilia. During the second world war, he worked alongside members of the penicillin team, who did war work with Oxford’s blood transfusion service, and later became friends with Howard Florey. He wrote two biographies during his retirement, this biography of Fleming and a biography of Florey, Howard Florey: the making of a great scientist (1979).

Macfarlane was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1956. His FRS biography is Robert Gwyn Macfarlane, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, G.V.R. Born and D.J. Weatheral, Volume 35, 1990. You can find more about Macfarlane’s scientific career at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (subscription required), or, of course, at Wikipedia.

Bug busting heroes

On the 14th of March, I went with a small group of grad students and research scientists from the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology to Windale Primary School in Oxford to teach three groups of 9 to 10 year olds as part of Windale’s Science Week. The event was part of the Wellcome Trust-funded ‘Pencillin in People’ project which is celebrating the 75th anniversary of the development of penicillin at the Dunn School with a programme that also includes archival cataloguing, exhibitions and oral history.

Alexander Fleming's petri dish of Staph and Penicillium mould

Alexander Fleming’s petri dish of Staph (the white dots) and Penicillium mould (the big blob). Can you spot what’s happened?

This was the second of two identical events, the first hosted in the Dunn School Library on the 22nd of February for children from Pegasus Primary School in Oxford. The theme of the day was ‘Penicillin – From Mould to Medicine’, and the children circulated between three workstations, spending 20 minutes apiece exploring bacteria in a “Meet the Bacteria” session and then being introduced to the “Bug Busting Heroes” Alexander Fleming, Howard Florey, Ernst Chain and Norman Heatley and then, to finish, a session on “Making a Medicine” and the production of the penicillin drug.

They were asked to peer into a microscope to see a flea in the flesh; to see if they could spot what Alexander Fleming noticed in his famous petri dish of Staphyloccocus and magical mould; and to experience penicillin in action by bursting a “bacteria” balloon. They learned all sorts of new things (an embarrassing amount of it new to me too) including scientific terminology like bacterium and micro-organism and DNA; the variety of shapes bacteria take; and the amazing things these Oxford scientists achieved with salvaged equipment like bedpans and biscuit tins. They also learned what antibiotics do and what antibiotics don’t do, which is ever more important in a world of antibiotic-resistant bugs.

The plan for the day was to teach the children about this particular, awe-inspiring historical moment, a world-changing medical breakthrough that happened right here in their city – but we also wanted to inspire them with the wonder of discovery and, ultimately, to encourage them in the direction of science. Time will tell!

Percy Manning catalogue

The new catalogue of the Percy Manning collection is now available online.

Percy Manning centenary poster

Manning centenary

Percy Manning was a historian, folklorist and archaeologist with a special interest in Oxfordshire. When he died in 1917 he bequeathed his extensive collection to the Bodleian Library, the Ashmolean Museum and the Pitt Rivers Museum. It includes not only his own research notes and books on Oxfordshire history but also his personal collection of everything from medieval manorial records to watercolour paintings by established artists to actual archaeological finds (the archaeological papers went to the Ashmolean, and the artefacts to the Pitt Rivers). It’s a fascinating collection, full of hidden and forgotten histories as well as beautiful paintings and drawings of buildings and views across Oxfordshire which date back to the eighteenth century.

Created with the financial support of the Marc Fitch Fund, this new finding aid brings together all our existing descriptions of the Percy Manning archive, which were previously scattered across a variety of book, manuscript, map and even music catalogues. It also allowed us to do something new: to list all the Oxfordshire places that are named or referenced in the collection, whether it’s a manorial map of Bladon, or a snippet of folklore from Bicester. If you live in Oxfordshire, try searching for your town, village, or city, and see what you can find!

Oxford is celebrating Percy Manning’s centenary this spring with an array of events and activities including (but not limited to!) an exhibition in the Weston Library, a study day on 18 February at the Oxford University Department of Continuing Education, a lecture at the Weston on 22 March, a museum trail at the Pitt Rivers Museum, an Ashmolean showcase of Percy Manning’s archaeological finds and a City Museum exhibition on Mummers and Maypoles. Other events include the unveiling of a blue plaque, family activities, music workshops, and a Centenary Celebration Concert with Magpie Lane and the Headington Quarry Morris Dancers. Full listings are available at the Folk in Oxford website.

‘We used to correspond’: the letters of Barbara Pym and Philip Larkin

A reading of the letters of Philip Larkin and Barbara Pym by Oliver Ford Davies and Triona Adams, with an introduction by Anthony Thwaite, OBE.

Date: 10 December 2016, 6.00pm – 8.00pm

Venue: Blackwell Hall, Weston Library, Broad Street, Oxford, OX1 3BG

When Philip Larkin first wrote to Barbara Pym in 1961 it was the minor poet approaching the celebrated novelist. While their literary fortunes were to change dramatically the correspondence and the friendship remained steady over nearly 20 years. Highly entertaining, fascinating and often deeply moving, the Pym-Larkin letters tell the story of an extraordinary relationship between two very different characters united in their passion for the written word and of fall and rise of a literary career.

Tickets cost £20, including refreshments.

To book please contact the Friends of the Bodleian Administrator on 01865 277234 or at fob@bodleian.ox.ac.uk.

Further details at http://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/bodley/friends/fob-events/2016/we-used-to-correspond

Norman Heatley Lecture, 2016

On the 1st of November, Jeremy Farrar, the director of the global medical research charity the Wellcome Trust and a former professor of tropical medicine at the University of Oxford, came to the Weston Library to deliver the annual Norman Heatley Lecture which this year celebrated the 75th anniversary of the first clinical trials of penicillin in Oxford in 1941.

Norman Heatley (and cat) with one of his original ceramic penicillin culture vessels

An older Norman Heatley (and cat) with one of his original ceramic penicillin vessels – a modified bed pan. Image from penicillinstory.org.

In those very early days penicillin was enormously difficult to make, both unstable and finicky to extract. So difficult, in fact, that the patient in one of the very first clinical trials, a policeman called Albert Alexander, died when they ran out of the drug only five days into his treatment. It was Norman Heatley, who worked at Oxford’s Sir William Dunn School of Pathology alongside Howard Florey and Ernst Chain, who was the practical genius who invented the tools and techniques which made it possible to extract and purify penicillin in a large enough quantity to reliably use on humans.

In this year’s Norman Heatley Lecture – “1941 to 2041– a changing world” – Jeremy Farrar focused on the astonishing advances in global health care in the 75 years since the development of penicillin, but also on some of the challenges that we now face. Those challenges include ever more antibiotic resistance; the greater likelihood of global pandemics as more people travel further, more quickly; and the sharp increase we’ve seen in the amount of time it takes to get from the research stage to a workable, useable drug.

Technicians making penicillin in the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, University of Oxford, using Norman Heatley's modified bedpans, 1941.

Two technicians extracting penicillin in the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, University of Oxford, using Norman Heatley’s modified bedpans, 1941.

To accompany the lecture a small display in the Weston Library’s Blackwell Hall featured items from the Bodleian’s important collection of documents from the early years of antibiotics, including this photograph of two of the “pencillin girls” (Ruth Callow, Claire Inayat, Betty Cooke, Peggy Gardner, Megan Lankaster and Patricia McKegney) who were recruited to make enough of the drug for clinical trials.