Tag Archives: crystallography

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


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.


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.


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


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.

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

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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Women In Science – London Metropolitan Archives Conference

The Saving Oxford Medicine project team have been acquiring, preserving and cataloguing the archives of Oxford-based scientists such as Lady Julia Bodmer, Edith Bülbring, Dorothy Hodgkin, Ida Mann and Mary Somerville. Naturally we were excited to attend the Women in Science event hosted by London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) on 8 March 2013. This event explored the lives and varied contributions of women to scientific progress. And what better day to celebrate pioneering women in science than on International Women’s Day! The event also proved a great complement to the recent global Wikipedia Editathon we attended during Open Access Week in Oxford. This was held to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day and the many, often overlooked contributions made by female scientists.

Dorothy Hodgkin

Howard Benge and Jan Pimblett from the LMA kicked off the day and introduced us to some of the work they have been carrying out to identify science-related material within the millions of documents held in the Archive.

We then started to think about the kinds of scientific work women have been involved in historically, and how we can uncover their work. Importantly, as Howard suggested, there is still a prevailing attitude that women shun the study of science, which makes determining the impact of female scientists problematic (we should also remember that institutions like the Royal Society closed their doors to women as Fellows until 1945, and as such makes female scientists harder to unearth). A thread running through the day with other speakers was that to discover the contributions of female scientists, we must broaden our conceptual net. For example, rather than focusing on ‘pure science’ as such, we should embrace the application of science in society. For instance, the LMA holds collections that relate to food science (not generally regarded as a science per se until modern times), such as freezing and crystallisation, and the Lyons collection illsutrates the development of techniques relating to ice cream.

With this wider framework of applied science in mind, Rebekah Higgitt, Curator and historian of science at Royal Observatory Greenwich and National Maritime Museum then continued the theme, and discussed the definition of ‘someone who does science’ (you can read Rebeka’s Guardian blog here). Rebekah emphasised the different kinds of scientific research and work undertaken by women, and some examples of influential female scientists were highlighted. We heard about Maria Merian, the German artist-naturalist; instrument maker Janet Taylor; publisher, teacher and astronomer Margaret Bryan; Mary Edwards, the ‘human computer’ and Mary Annings, the palaeontologist who ran a fossil shop. All of the above women contributed to science on a daily basis, working close to their homes. It was also noted that from the early twentieth century, ‘new’ science gave women more opportunities to make their name, which had previously been difficult in the traditional fields of physics, astronomy and botany. Crystallographers such as Dorothy Hodgkin and Rosalind Franklin are notable examples here, as is the geneticist Julia Bodmer.

Bridget Howlett then gave an engaging presentation on the LMA collections relating to Florence Nightingale. This includes correspondence from the Crimean War, and training records of the nursing school Nightingale established at St. Thomas’ Hospital. Bridget suggested that although Nightingale is often thought of as ‘anti-science’ for her rejection of the germ theory, she nevertheless supported women’s education and women’s participation in medicine and science. Moreover, not only are her contributions to professional nursing notable, she was a talented statistician and devised a system of accounts for the army during the war. Nightingale also promoted the education of sanitary science and campaigned strongly for the 1867 Metropolitan Poor Act to ensure the provision of infirmaries for sick paupers. As such, Florence Nightingale should without doubt be celebrated as a pioneering woman in science. Here at the Bodleian we hold correspondence from Nightingale in some of our collections.

Jan Pimblett then explained how the LMA uses the archives in public engagement, after which we were given the opportunity to view some original documents from collections that represent influential women in science. A personal favourite was the letter illustrated below from the physician and feminist Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. As the founder of The New Hospital for Women (the first hospital staffed by women), Anderson was the first woman to train and qualify as a doctor in Britain; although as a woman, she battled to be accepted to train for her license to practice as a doctor. She gained much of her training through private tuition.

Letter from Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, 1863

In the letter, Anderson asks a Dr. Hastings to accept her for private instruction in anatomy, and the difficulties she faced are evident. She eventually qualified through the Society of Apothecaries; two years later the Society changed its rules and barred women from taking the exam.

In keeping with the theme of the day and women’s varied and perhaps unlikely or underestimated contributions to science, Tom Richards then discussed his fascinating research on Daphne Oram. Oram invented the early digital workstation known as the Oramics Machine, which enabled her to draw sounds. Her scientific technique and invention was a key musical development, helping to pave the way for modern electronic music. Oram’s work also included co-founding the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1958. Daphne Oram’s archive is currently held at Goldsmiths University of London Special Collections.

Anne Locker was the last speaker of the day, and she gave a presentation on early women engineers and scientists whose records are held at the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) Archives. The IET collection represents women from the early twentieth century. During the First World War, women began to participate in engineering jobs and the IET Archive holds the records of electrical engineer Dame Caroline Haslett and reflect her involvement with the Electrical Association for Women (EAW). Haslett was the first Secretary of the Engineering Society and founder and editor of the journal The Woman Engineer. We also heard about the feminist Hertha Ayrton, the first woman to grace the IET. Ayrton worked on electric arcs and ripples in sand and water. The Archive also holds the records of IET Fellow Dr. Elizabeth Laverick, who was the first female Deputy Secretary of the Institute of Electrical Engineers. Like many of the scientists we heard about throughout the day, Laverick was particularly interested in education, and she worked hard to promote engineering as a profession.

Like others had commented on during the day, Anne also emphasised that even though there were a large number of women working in engineering and technology in the earlier period, they are under-represented, and even though they are documented in records, we still don’t know about many of them.

These are just a sample of the many women in science we heard about during the day, and the LMA staff and other speakers provided some thought-provoking and lively discussions about how women have contributed their ideas and work to science, some well-known, others more obscure. Further work in archives is likely to reveal that women played a more prominent role in scientific enterprises than has previously been recognised. It was great to make links with our Saving Oxford Medicine initiative at the Bodleian, and also hear about the work others are doing in a similar field. We are grateful to LMA for the effort they put into the day, and look forward to similar future events.