Category Archives: Sciences

New catalogue: Archive of Dame Louise Johnson

The online catalogue of the Archive of Dame Louise Johnson is now available.

‘[T]he moment comes when you actually solve a problem—it may be quite a small problem—but for a few moments you stand there and think “Nobody else knows this but me”.’ – Dame Louise Johnson

RESEARCH

Never one to shy away from a challenge Dame Louise Napier Johnson (1940–2012), biophysicist and structural biologist, spent her long career solving many problems; mostly in the field of structural enzymology that she helped create.

One of the first she solved was when she, David Phillips, and Charles Vernon described the enzyme lysozyme and how it bound its substrates at a special meeting of the Royal Institution in 1965. This was at a time when structural biology was in its infancy and lysozyme was the second protein and first enzyme to have its structure elucidated. It was also the first time that the mechanism through which enzymes worked on a structural level was described.

Notes on the structure of lysozyme.

Notes on the structure of lysozyme.

This was more than just an interesting theoretical exercise; it had far reaching implications and showed that understanding structure could help in understanding biological processes. Its practical application to drug discovery changed the face of pharmaceutical research. By the 1970s pharmacological researchers were using rational drug design and looking at protein receptors and their properties and binding potential. Knowing the structure of molecules, they could look for potential binding sites and postulate possible interactions. They could then look for analogues or ‘build’ new molecules specific to targeted binding sites.

She went on to tackle larger and more complex proteins like ribonuclease S and glycogen phosphorylase, but the tools of the time meant that it was a long hard slog. In order to examine these proteins they had to be crystallised to achieve high resolution images. These crystals did not last long and in the early days of structural biology protein structures were studied using diffractometers that took days to record data sets, often going through several crystals at a time.

DIAMOND LIGHT SOURCE

Needing faster and higher resolution data acquisition she turned to synchrotron radiation, which at the time was used primarily for studying purely physical phenomena. She championed the use of synchrotron radiation in the life sciences and was heavily involved in plans for the construction of a third generation synchrotron, Diamond Light Source, in the UK.

Breaking ground for the 250m long x-ray imaging and coherence beamline.

Breaking ground for the 250m long x-ray imaging and coherence beamline.

She came on board Diamond as the Director of Life Sciences because she believed that good research needed good infrastructure and support. She was heavily involved in planning and testing the beamlines, spearheaded a collaboration with Imperial College London to build the Membrane Protein Laboratory and secured funding for the Harwell Campus for visiting researchers.

Robotic sample changers on the MX beamlines.

Robotic sample changers on the MX beamlines.

Her tireless work saw the number of researchers working in structural biology at Diamond rise to its current 40%.

But she didn’t just support researchers with funding and facilities. While Director she continued as head of the Laboratory of Molecular Biophysics where her sympathetic management and light hand brought the best out of her research group.

LABORATORY OF MOLECULAR BIOPHYSICS

In 1967 Johnson joined David Phillips at the newly founded Laboratory of Molecular Biophysics at Oxford University; succeeding him as department head in 1990. Johnson was a constant in a department which endured considerable turnover of staff. The nature of Johnson’s field was very dynamic and it was common for researchers to move to and from other institutions regularly throughout their careers. One of twenty senior staff in 1975; by 2000 she was the only one remaining.

As head, she supervised around 80 people with an outside grant income in 2000 of almost £7 Million; overseeing a successful graduate programme while maintaining a nurturing environment for students and staff alike.

She routinely organised over 50 in-house and general research seminars annually. Many of them focused on the laboratory’s very productive output. Between 1995-6 alone, more than 30 protein and virus structures were solved. She trained a generation of Oxford crystallographers; as evidenced by the plethora of Protein Data Bank entries (including many forms of glycogen phosphorylase and cell cycle CDK/cyclin complexes) deposited by her lab; and kept the department running smoothly when they inevitably departed.

Johnson endeavoured to be a role model for other women. It was source of pride for Louise Johnson that of the six senior faculty members in her laboratory, three were women. She was also a trustee of the Daphne Jackson fund for scientists returning to research after career breaks. In September 2007 a symposium was held in her honour to recognise her continuing achievements and contribution the University.

– Emily Chen and Sean Macmillan

CREDITS

The archive of Louise Johnson came to us through the Saving Oxford Medicine project which sought to discover and catalogue collections relating to Oxford that have had an impact on the medical sciences. These papers were kindly donated by Professor Elspeth Garman and Johnson’s son Umar Salam.

The UK Web Archive Ebola Outbreak collection

By CDC Global (Ebola virus) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By CDC Global (Ebola virus) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Next month marks the four year anniversary of the WHO’s public announcement of “a rapidly evolving outbreak of Ebola virus disease (EVD)” that went on to become the deadliest outbreak of EVD in history.

With more than 28,000 cases and 11,000 deaths, it moved with such speed and virulence that–though concentrated in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone–it was feared at the time that the Ebola virus disease outbreak of 2014-2016 would soon spread to become a global pandemic.

No cure or vaccine has yet been discovered and cases continue to flare up in West Africa. The most recent was declared over on 2 July 2017. Yet today most people in the UK unless directly affected don’t give it a second thought.

Searching online now, you can find fact sheets detailing everything you might want to know about patient zero and the subsequent rapid spread of infection. You can find discussions detailing the international response (or failure to do so) and lessons learned. You might even find the reminiscences of aid workers and survivors. But these sites all examine the outbreak in retrospect and their pages and stories have been updated so often that posts from then can no longer be found.

Posts that reflected the fear and uncertainty that permeated the UK during the epidemic. The urgent status updates and travel warnings.  The misinformation that people were telling each other. The speculation that ran riot. The groundswell of giving. The mobilisation of aid.

Understandably when we talk about epidemics the focus is on the scale of physical suffering: numbers stricken and dead; money spent and supplies sent; the speed and extent of its spread.

Whilst UKWA regularly collects the websites of major news channels and governmental agencies, what we wanted to capture was the public dialogue on, and interpretation of, events as they unfolded. To see how local interests and communities saw the crisis through the lenses of their own experience.

To this end, the special collection Ebola Outbreak, West Africa 2014 features a broad selection of websites concerning the UK response to the Ebola virus crisis. Here you can find:

  • The Anglican community’s view on the role of faith during the crisis;
  • Alternative medicine touting the virtues of liposomal vitamin C as a cure for Ebola;
  • Local football clubs fundraising to send aid;
  • Parents in the UK withdrawing children from school because of fear of the virus’ spread;
  • Think tanks’ and academics’ views on the national and international response;
  • Universities issuing guidance and reports on dealing with international students; and more.

Active collection for Ebola began in November 2014 at the height of the outbreak whilst related websites dating back to the infection of patient zero in December 2013 have been retrospectively added to the collection. Collection continued through to January 2016, a few months before the outbreak began tailing off in April 2016.

The Ebola collection is available via the UK Web Archive’s new beta interface.

Oxford College Archives

A new website for Oxford College Archives has been launched at https://oac.web.ox.ac.uk/.

Painting of Oxford students entitled 'Conversation Piece, Worcester College' by Edward HallidayThe site includes a general introduction to the archives held by the Oxford colleges, individual pages on most of the colleges (with further links to catalogues etc.) and links to associated archives in the City and University.  There is also an FAQ page, a glossary of all those odd Oxford terms, and a bibliography.  The site will be enhanced and updated regularly.

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. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

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

Launch of a British Skylark sounding rocket from Woomera in South Australia. Image credit: NASA

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.