Tag Archives: Richard Doll

Royal Society Delegation to China

During the course of working on the Bodmer archive it has become clear that the collection documents not only the scientific work undertaken by Sir Walter and Lady Julia Bodmer in research laboratories across the world, but also how science and scientists dealt with the great geopolitical issues of the latter half of the twentieth century.

This is well illustrated by the collaborative initiatives and visits conducted by scientists from both the East and the West during the Cold War. Walter Bodmer and fellow scientists undertook many such visits: an example of this being a Royal Society delegation led by Dr Michael Stoker, then Director of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund and Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society, to China between 17 July and 2 August 1978 (the first formal Agreement on scientific exchanges between the Royal Society and the Chinese Academy of Sciences being signed in November of that year).

Along with Michael Stoker, the delegation comprised of Professor Walter Bodmer, Professor Sir Cyril Clarke, Professor Sir Richard Doll, and Professor Avrion Mitchison. Elizabeth Wright, Director of the Great Britain-China Centre, acted as advisor and interpreter as she was fluent in Mandarin Chinese (her language skills were particularly important to the team when they visited the south of China where Cantonese is spoken).

Royal Society China 1
Group photo including Vice-Premier Fang Yi, Elizabeth Wright, Walter Bodmer, Cyril Clarke, Richard Doll and Michael Stoker, 23 Jul 1978

As the report produced on the visit states, ‘though labelled as oncology we covered a fairly wide range of subjects from cell biology and genetics, to general clinical medicine, and back to butterflies, (the last two Sir Cyril Clarke’s interests)’.

Bodmer’s own contribution to the report gives a ‘General Impression of Science in China’ in which he summarised, ‘it is clear that in most areas with which we had contact the Chinese are very far behind the western world in their biomedical research, but keen to catch up and have all the contacts needed for this…the Chinese appear to have had an effective hiatus for almost ten years in basic research and also in university training.’

China at the time was just opening up to the outside world following the end of the Cultural Revolution and the downfall, orchestrated by Premier and Chairman Hua Guofeng, of the Gang of Four in October 1976. By 1978, with the emergence of Deng Xiaoping as the real power in China, reforms were well under way. In March of that year the National Science Policy Conference was held in Beijing. In a speech to the assembled 6,000 scientists and science administrators the by now Vice-Premier Deng declared science to be a productive force in society (contrary to the thinking of Chairman Mao Zedong and the Gang of Four) and that the Four Modernisations of agriculture, industry, national defence, and science and technology were central to China’s economic rejuvenation.

On Sunday, 23 July the Royal Society delegation met Vice-Premier Fang Yi, Minister in charge of the State Scientific and Technological Commission, who also spoke at the National Science Policy Conference and in the following year was to become President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. In Bodmer’s own personal journal of the visit he records, ‘First shake hands, pictures taken individually, then a group…pleasantries and then a sort of seminar on the role of immunology in cancer, a point raised by FY. We emphasised the importance of basic research and not to hope for too much…discussion about the exchange programme with Michael [Stoker] emphasising the need for high quality science and English’.

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Walter Bodmer shaking hands with Vice-Premier Fang Yi, 23 Jul. 1978

Whilst in China, Bodmer himself visited the Academy Institute of Genetics, Beijing; the Medical Academy Institute of Oncology; the Fudan University Institute of Genetics, and HLA Workers, Shanghai; the Institute of Oncology, Canton; and undertook a rural visit to a pharmaceutical factory in Zhongshan [Chungshan] County. Of the Institute of Genetics, Bodmer records, ‘It was established in 1951. Before the liberation there were no institutes of genetics, only some professors in universities. Initially the institute was just a department mainly of plant genetics, was more formally established in 1959 to include animal genetics and after 1960 microbial genetics, at which time there were 100 people. Now the research personnel is 250…There are 5 departments which had been “adjusted” after the Gang of Four was smashed. This is the first of so many references to the difficulties that basic research faced under the Gang of Four  when, it seems, many workers were simply not allowed to do any basic research and either simply studied political theory or went out to do practical work in the fields’.

Despite these limitations Bodmer’s conclusions where on the whole positive, in his ‘General Impression’ Bodmer notes that, ‘Admittedly, it might seem all too easy to blame everything on the Gang of Four, but my impression certainly is of a really major setback during the ten years from 1966 to 1976. The able scientists and leaders now are a handful of those who were active before 1966 and who generally have had some training outside China’. In a paper co-authored with Sir Cyril Clarke entitled ‘Medical genetics in China’, published in the Journal of Medical Genetics in 1979, Bodmer concludes, ‘Our overall impression was that though there was some good work being done, the Chinese often wanted to run before they could walk, a phenomenon also not unknown in the UK’.

The material in the archive relating to this visit is only one example of a large number of papers relating to collaborations and visits between scientists at periods of great cultural and political change. Similar material documents future visits of Chinese scientists to the United Kingdom and the fostering of further links between the Royal Society and the Chinese scientific community. Included in the archive are also papers relating to the impact of the end of the Cold War in Europe and the breakup of the Soviet Union, along with a significant series relating to HLA workshops and conferences.

Royal Society Medal

The Saving Oxford Medicine project team would like to congratulate Sir Walter Bodmer on his recent award of a Royal Society ‘Royal Medal’ for his contributions to science and genetics. This award, from the oldest and most prestigious scientific academy in the world is given annually in recognition of the recipients achievements and contributions in the physical, biological and applied sciences. Previous winners of the Medal have included the biochemist Frederick Sanger, molecular biologists Francis Crick and Max Perutz, and the epidemiologist Sir Richard Doll.

Sir Walter is also a previous winner of the Royal Society Michael Faraday Prize, which is awarded for communicating science to UK audiences. The letter below (from the Archive) is from Richard Doll, congratuling Walter Bodmer on this prize.

Richard Doll letter
Letter to Sir Walter Bodmer from Sir Richard Doll, 27 Nov 1994

The Michael Faraday Prize was made in recognition of Bodmer’s role in the Public Understanding of Science enterprise, which, under the auspices of the Royal Society, sought to uncover the public’s awareness of science. This culminated in the influential 1985 publication The Public Understanding of Science, (or Bodmer Report), which made signinficant impact on the Government and the scientific community. Sir Walter became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1974.

Dorothy Hodgkin and Richard Doll: New Elizabethans

Oxford scientists Dorothy Hodgkin and Richard Doll are in Radio 4’s Diamond Jubilee list of 60 ‘New Elizabethans’, individuals who have had a major influence on life in the UK since the Queen’s accession in 1952.
Structure of Vitamin B12
Structure of Vitamin B12

Dorothy Hodgkin was a pioneer of X-ray crystallography, discovering the structure of penicillin, Vitamin B12 and insulin. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work on Vitamin B12. Her papers and correspondence were donated to the Bodleian Library by Professor Hodgkin and are available for research. The Hodgkin family later added to this substantial biographical and personal material. Epidemiologist and Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford from 1969 to 1979, Richard Doll, along with Austin Bradford Hill, established the link between smoking and lung cancer.

James Naughtie will present a series of programmes, each devoted to one of the ‘New Elizabethans’, which runs from 11 June to 7 September. Dorothy Hodgkin will be featured on Tuesday 26 June at 12.45pm, and Richard Doll on Thursday 28 June, also at 12.45pm.


Smoking: Fifty years on

Sir Richard Doll

Fifty years ago today the launch of the Royal College of Physicians’ report, ‘Smoking and Health’, brought the dangers of smoking to the attention of the public at large. So began a major shift in attitude to smoking: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-17264442

The scientific basis of the report had been laid over ten years earlier by the epidemiologist, Richard Doll (1912-2005), who, along with Austin Bradford Hill, established the link between smoking and lung cancer. Doll was Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford from 1969 to 1979 and was instrumental in the founding of Green College (now Green Templeton College) as a graduate college specialising in medicine. His papers are held by the Wellcome Library, London.

See also Conrad Keating’s Smoking Kills: The Revolutionary Life of Richard Doll (Oxford, 2009).