Category Archives: Sciences

Collecting Space: The Inaugural Science and Technology Archives Group Conference

On Friday 17th of November I attended the inaugural Science and Technology Archives Group (STAG) conference held at the fantastic Dana Library and Research Centre. The theme was ‘Collecting Space’ and bought together a variety of people working in or with science and technology archives relating to the topic of ‘Space’. The day consisted of a variety of talks (with topics as varied as The Cassini probe to UFOs), a tour of the Skylark exhibition and a final discussion on the future direction of STAG.

What is STAG?

The Science and technology archives group is a recently formed group (September 2016) to celebrate and promote scientific archives and to to engage anyone that has an interest in the creation, use and preservation of such archives. 

The keynote presentation was by Professor Michele Dougherty, who gave us a fascinating insight into the Cassini project, aided by some amazing photos. 

Colour-coded version of an ISS NAC clear-filter image of Enceladus’ near surface plumes at the south pole of the moon. From Porco et al. 2006, doi: 10.1126/science.1123013

Her concern with regards to archiving data was context. We were told how her raw data could be given to an archive however it would be almost meaningless without the relevant information about context, for example calibration parameters. Without it data could be misinterpreted.

Dr James Peters from the University of Manchester told us of the unique challenges of the Jodrell Bank Observatory Archive, also called the ‘sleeping giant’. They have a vast amount of material that has yet to be accessioned but requires highly specialised scientific knowledge to understand it. Highlighting the importance of the relationships between the creator of an archive and the repository. Promoting use of the archive was of particular concern, which was also shared by Dr Sian Prosser of the Royal Astronomical Society archives. She spoke of the challenges for current collection development. I’m looking forward to finding out about the events and activities planned for their bi-centenary in 2020.

We also heard from Dr Tom Lean of the Oral History of British Science at the British library. This was a great example of the vast amount of knowledge and history that is effectively hidden. The success of a project is typically well documented however the stories of the things that went wrong or of the relationships between groups has the potential to be lost. Whilst they may be lacking in scientific research value, they reveal the personal side of the projects and are a reminder of the people and personalities behind world changing projects and discoveries.

Dr David Clarke spoke about the Ministry of Defence UFO files release program. I was surprised to hear that as recently as 2009 there was a government funded UFO desk. In 2009 these surviving records were transferred to the National Archives. All files were digitised and made available online. The demand and reach for this content was huge, with millions of views and downloads from over 160 countries. Such an archive, whilst people may dismiss its relevance and use scientifically, provides an amazing window into the psyche of the society at that time.

Dr Amy Chambers spoke about how much scientific research and knowledge can go into producing a film and used Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as an example. This was described as a science fiction dream + space documentary. Directors like Kubrick would delve deeply into the subject matter and speak to a whole host of professionals in both academia and industry to get the most up to date scientific thinking of the time. Even researching concepts that would potentially never make it on screen. This was highlighted as a way of capturing scientific knowledge and the current thoughts about the future of science at that point in history. Today it is no different, Interstellar, produced by Christopher Nolan, consulted Professor Kip Thorne and the collaboration produced a publication on gravitational lensing in the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity.

It was great to see the Dana research library and a small exhibition of some of the space related material that the Science Museum holds. There was the Apollo 11 flight plan that was signed by all the astronauts that took part and included a letter from the Independent Television News, as they used that book to help with the televised broadcast.

Apollo 11 flight plan

We also got to see the recently opened Skylark exhibition, celebrating British achievements in space research.

Scale model of the Skylark rocket at the exhibition entrance at the Science Museum, London

The final part of the conference was an open discussion focusing on the challenges and future of science and technology archives and how these could be addressed.

Awareness and exposure

From my experience of being a chemistry graduate, I can speak first hand of the lack of awareness of science archives. I feel that I was not alone, as during the course of a science degree, especially for research projects, archives are never really needed compared to other disciplines as most of the material we needed was found in online journals. Although I completed my degree some time ago, I feel this is still the case today when I speak to friends who study and work in the science sector. It seems that promotion of science and technology archives to scientists (at any stage of their career, but especially at the start) will make them aware of the rich source of material out there that can be of benefit to them, and subsequently they will become more involved and interested in creating and maintaining such archives.

Content

Science and technology archives, for an archivist with little to no knowledge of that particular area of science, understanding the vastly complex data and material is a potentially impossible job. The nomenclature used in scientific disciplines can be highly specialised and specific and so deciphering the material can be made extremely difficult.

This problem could be resolved in one of two ways. Firstly, the creator of the material or a scientist working in that area can be consulted. Whilst this can be time consuming, it is a necessity as the highly specialised nature of certain topics, can mean there are only a handful of people that can understand the work. Secondly, when the material is created, the creator should be encouraged to explain and store data in a way that will allow future users to understand and contextualise the data better.

As science and technology companies can be highly secretive entities, problems with exploiting sensitive material arise. It was suggested maybe seeking the advice of other specialist archive groups that have dealt with highly sensitive archives.

It appears that there is still a great deal of work to do to promote access, exploitation and awareness of current science and technology archives (for both creators and users). STAG is a fantastic way to get like minds together to discuss and implement solutions. I’m really looking forward to seeing how this develops and hopefully I will be able to contribute to this exciting, worthwhile and necessary future for science and technology archives.

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.

Now available: Catalogue of the Archive of Sir James Gowans

The Archive of the immunologist Sir James Gowans  (b.1924) is now available (online catalogue).

James Learmonth ‘Jim’ Gowans, after obtaining his medical degree from King’s College Hospital in 1947, came to Oxford on a Medical Research Council Studentship to work under Howard Florey, and was awarded a DPhil in 1953.

During the 1950s he did pioneering work on the life cycle of the lymphocyte, establishing that the small lymphocyte continuously recirculated from the blood to the lymph and back again, and that this cell was at the centre of immunological responses.
In 1962 he became Henry Dale Research Professor of the Royal Society at the Dunn School of Pathology, University of Oxford, and from 1963 he was also Director of the Medical Research Council’s Cellular Immunology Research Unit at the Dunn School.

In 1977 Gowans left his research career to become the Secretary of the Medical Research Council and during 10 years in office oversaw, or was involved with, a number of major projects and initiatives, notably the establishment of Celltech as a company to develop biotechnology research into commercial opportunities, folic acid trials to prevent the development of neural tube defects, the Rothschild proposals for the reorganisation of medical research funding in the UK, the setup of the Voluntary Licensing Authority for Human in-vitro Fertilization and Embryology, and MRC AIDS Directed Programme.
From 1989-1993 Gowans was the Secretary-General of the Human Frontier Science Program, Strasbourg.

Alongside his posts at the Medical Research Council and the Human Frontier Science Program, and after his retirement, Gowans was a consultant and advisor, non-executive director or trustee for a number of companies, organisations and charities, including the World Health Organization Programme on AIDS, 3i – Investment in Industries, the Tavistock Trust, the Charing Cross Sunley Research Centre, Synaptica, EICOS – European Initiative for Communicators of Science, St. Christopher’s Hospice, General Motors Cancer Research Foundation.
Amongst many awards he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1963, and knighted in 1982.

The archive mainly comprises professional and scientific correspondence, and related papers such as briefing papers and reports, relating to all stages of Gowans’s career, as well as general (personal) correspondence, papers relating to awards, honours and memberships, conferences and visits, publications, and selected photographs.

The material was catalogued with the generous support of Sir James Gowans.

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

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.

New catalogue: The archive of Mabel FitzGerald

The catalogue of the archive of Mabel Purefoy FitzGerald is now available online.

Mabel FitzGerald (1872-1973) was of one of the first women to attend classes in histology, physiology and other pre-medical subjects at the University of Oxford in the 1890s, and despite being denied the opportunity to take a degree or enter medical school, she embarked on an eventful career as a physiologist and clinical pathologist which led her from Oxford to Denmark, to Canada, the USA and Edinburgh.

FitzGerald Archive postcard

She became most recognized for her pioneering research on the physiology of breathing and her participation in the subsequently celebrated medical expedition to Pikes Peak, Colorado, in 1911. Her findings, gathered during extensive travels to remote Colorado mining towns, and published 1913 as The Changes in the Breathing and the Blood at Various High Altitudes, remain the accepted account until today of how the concentration of CO2 in the lung and haemoglobin vary with altitude in full acclimatization.

Working with Sir William Osler, John Scott Haldane, CS Sherrington and other eminent scientists, FitzGerald also successfully pursued an eclectic variety of other research interests from bacteriology and immunology to neuroanatomy and gastroenterology – for example, investigating (…and discovering!) the origin of hydrochloric acid in the gastric tubules.
In 1915 FitzGerald took up a position as Clinical Pathologist at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, and in 1920 was appointed Lecturer in Practical Bacteriology at the School of Medicine of the Royal Colleges in Edinburgh. For years, she also sat on the Board of Management of the school, before retiring to Oxford in the mid-1930s.

Read more about FitzGerald’s extraordinary life, and her contributions to medical science, in our blog series.
Some of FitzGerald’s papers – relating to her work in Colorado – will be on display in the next Bodleian Treasures exhibition, which will open later this month.

In addition to Mabel FitzGerald’s personal and professional papers depicting the life and work of a female pioneer in science the archive contains family papers, diaries and correspondence dating back to the 18th century, revealing the history of a well-placed Hampshire/Buckinghamshire of notable standing in the community and many connections to renowned contemporaries.

Meet the FitzGeralds: Mabel (2nd left) with her siblings, her father Richard Purefoy FitzGerald (left) and grandmother Eliza (middle) at the family home North Hall, Preston Candover, c. 1890.

FitzGerald’s paternal grandmother, Sarah Anna Elizabeth ‘Eliza’ FitzGerald née Purefoy Jervoise was a ‘learned lady’ who corresponded with the poet Robert Browning and other literary and intellectual figures of the time, whilst the male members of the Purefoy-FitzGerald family pursued professional, academic or military (…and occasionally: cricket!) careers, adding their letters, notes and diaries to the family archive.

A treasure trove full of big adventures and little stories, scientific papers and family memorabilia, with much potential not only for research in the history of science and medicine, but also for military history, local history and genealogy.

The Wellcome Trust Research Bursaries scheme funds individuals working on small and medium-scale research projects that focus on library or archive collections supported by a Wellcome Trust Research Resources Grant – such as the FitzGerald Archive.

Please visit the Wellcome Trust website for further information.

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.

Headington Hill, bellows and giddiness: Alveolar CO2 pressure, and (self-) experiments in respiratory physiology

In 1905, John Scott Haldane and Mabel FitzGerald set out to ‘ascertain the limits within which the alveolar CO2 pressure varies in different individuals’  – i.e. they set out to discover a baseline figure for the carbon dioxide (CO2) pressure in the lungs of healthy human beings – ‘as a knowledge of these limits is essential to a correct appreciation of pathological changes in the alveolar CO2 pressure’. Or to put it another way, the team needed to determine the normal range of alveolar pressure in healthy people before anybody could judge how diseases affected people’s lungs.

To obtain the data, Haldane and FitzGerald used a method and apparatus  which Haldane had introduced in 1898 for measuring the percentage of carbon dioxide in the air people breathed out, widely known as the Haldane Apparatus. These measurements allowed the team to calculate the CO2 concentration or ‘pressure’ in the actual alveoli, and to draw conclusions on the exchange of CO2 and O2 between the lung and the blood – the very foundation of respiratory physiology.

Colleagues, friends and family were amongst the volunteers examined in the first set of experiments conducted at the laboratory at  Haldane’s home in North Oxford, in March and April 1905. These results of these experiments were recorded by Mabel FitzGerald in one of the many notebooks which survive in her archive.

FitzGerald Notebook

A small black notebook (pictured here with some of FitzGerald’s general notes on air analysis) – looking rather inconspicuous, but giving remarkable insights into early experiments in respiratory physiology.

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Women in Science in the Archives: A seminar in pictures

Women in science and, indeed, scientists in general, are still underrepresented in the Bodleian’s archives, at least compared to our vast collections of political and literary papers. At the same time, scientists are often not aware of the ‘historical’ dimension of their work, the potential archival value of their lab notes, research proposals, publication drafts, professional and personal correspondence, CVs, funding applications, articles, photos, committee minutes, diaries … and the many other records they produce during their careers.

The Women in Science in the Archives Seminar, which took place at the Bodleian’s Weston Library on Thursday 8 September, was an attempt to bridge this archives / science divide — but first and foremost, it was a day of celebrating the achievements of historical female scientists in what used to be almost exclusively male-dominated disciplines, and exploring how archives can give a voice to those who are no longer able to speak for themselves. It was also an opportunity to invite today’s women of science into the archives, to discuss the lives and careers of female scientists in the early 21st century,  which kind of challenges they (still!) face, and not least, how these experiences can be preserved in the archives of the future.

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Mouldbusters! A new FitzGerald acquisition gets the preventive conservation treatment

Back in June, Geoffrey Purefoy, Mabel FitzGerald’s great-nephew who still lives at the family home in Shalstone, kindly donated to the Bodleian Library three boxes of books, journals, offprints, photographs and memorabilia which once belonged to FitzGerald.
These items were, long ago, sent from Edinburgh, where the phyisologist and pathologist had worked and lived from 1915 to the late 1930s, to her relatives in Buckinghamshire, and had been half-forgotten for years, stored away in a barn, alongside wool and farm supplies.

The material, including some of FitzGerald’s science books, offprints of many of her own publications, and notebooks and photos from travels in the United States (very likely, the famous Pikes Peak expedition!), is a most valuable addition to the FitzGerald archive at the Bodleian Library, and we were very lucky to receive it in time to include it in the current FitzGerald cataloguing project.

However, decades of storage had left their traces, and after a very short initial assessment by a very concerned archivist it became clear: this is a case for the Bodleian’s very own…

…Mouldbusters!

a.k.a. our colleagues from the Preventive Conservation Team, who are part of  Bodleian Conservation and Collection Care, and very conveniently for any suspected mould and pests emergencies, have their office at the Weston Library only a stone’s throw (…or walk across a 3rd floor corridor…) away from the area where archive material is sorted and catalogued.

Not only are Alexandra  Walker and her team extremely knowledgeable and always willing to help whenever an archivists turns up with a suspicious looking item or big question marks relating to packaging and storage of more exotic finds in the collection (locks of hair, dried flowers, microscope slides, teeth… we get it all!), they even agreed to give us a glimpse into the their work, and into the new Weston Library Quarantine Room:


Guest blog by Alexandra Walker, Acting Head of Preventive Conservation Continue reading