Tag Archives: science archives

Scientists of the Future: Tim Berners-Lee

As mentioned in a previous post, Sir Walter Bodmer’s correspondence and research papers feature some of the most notable names from the world of science, and previous posts have drawn attention to just a few of those, including James Watson and Francis Crick. Yet, a particular strength of the archive is that not only does it contain papers relating to prolific scientists who were Bodmer’s contemporaries – and those active in an earlier age who inspired him – but also those starting out in their careers, the scientists of the future.

Both Walter and Julia Bodmer kept comprehensive administrative and research records relating to all researchers who passed through their laboratories at the Department of Genetics in Oxford (1970-1979), Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) in London (1979-1996) and more recently the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine in Oxford. As such, the papers provide a paper trail of ‘future’ scientists.

A particular highlight has been uncovering a file of correspondence with none other than the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee. From 1970-1979 when Walter Bodmer was first Professor of Genetics at Oxford University, and it was in 1975 that he received a letter from Berners-Lee, who was interested in gaining some computing experience in the Department of Genetics. The young Berners-Lee had joined Oxford University in 1973 as a physics student at Queens College (graduating in 1976). Accordingly, he joined Walter Bodmer’s Genetics Laboratory for a brief spell of ‘vacation work’ carrying out some computer programming for Bodmer. Berners-Lee indeed built his first computer while he was at student at Oxford.

Letter from Bodmer to Berners Lee

Letter from Bodmer to Berners-Lee

The correspondence file of Berners-Lee in Sir Walter’s archive contains several items of correspondence and annotated notes, mostly relating to Bodmer acting as referee. He later wrote to Bodmer in 1976, thanking him for the time spent working in the Genetics Laboratory, of which he said, ‘apart from being interesting at the time, it’s been a useful experience in choosing what I want to do (and probably getting the job eventually)’. Tim Berners-Lee went on to receive a knighthood in 2004 ‘for services to the global development of the internet’.

Preserving Science in the Archives (Part 2)

The Bodmer archive is a valuable modern science collection, not only for its importance in documenting the history of human genetics and scientific initiatives, but also for revealing changes in laboratory methodologies and practices.

One of my favourite finds relates to chromosome analysis carried out for work on human gene mapping using mouse somatic hybrids of human-mouse cells and human leukocytes, undertaken by Walter Bodmer and the his then PhD student immunologist Marcus Nabholz. Nabholz worked and collaborated as a graduate student in Walter’s lab at Stanford University, and also later at the Genetics Laboratory in Oxford. The images below illustrate chromosome analysis, which involved taking a print of chromosomes in dividing cells, cutting them all out individually and arranging them crudely by size and shape. This work contributed to a joint publication that  appeared in 1969 edition of the jounal Nature entitled ‘Genetic Analysis with Human-Mouse Somatic Cell Hybrids’.
 1_chromosome-3 3_chromosome-2 2_chromosome-1
This chromosome technique may appear as quite primitive laboratory practice, and such relatively crude miscroscopic images of chromosomes would not end up on paper now. The Bodmer collection perfectly illustrates how technological changes over the last 50 years have fed into scientific research, from the techniques illustrated above, to the latest cutting-edge computer analysis, which is now integral to scientific research.

The archive contains a considerable amount of material that will enable researchers to trace the development and application of information systems and software technologies in science laboratories.

From the earlier period of the Bodmers research when laboratories entered the electronic world, computers became especially important for geneticists. Julia Bodmer in particular -with her abilities in handling and analysing large datasets- embraced the application of computers to population genetics at an early stage at Stanford University, where computing facilities were better than most. Although a novelty in science and medical research at this time, they were mostly used for data crunching in the earlier period, yet computers would play a vital function in the interpretation of serological data. Julia in fact created a computer program that facilitated the identification of the first two genes of the HLA genetic system.

As traditional laboratory notebooks are increasingly eliminated in favour of electronic notebooks, which are often erased or deleted after publication output, the preservation of paper-based research notebooks and scientific data found in the Bodmer collection (a hybrid paper and digital collection) will be an important resource for documenting the history of genetics.



Preserving Science in the Archives (Part 1)

Sir Walter and Lady Julia Bodmer’s archive covers nearly all aspects of their research careers as geneticists. While it is often the case that scientists discard research papers (or delete digital files) such as laboratory notes and datasets once the scientific conclusion results in published output, Sir Walter has been careful to retain every step of the research process leading up to publication. The archive includes sequencing and other experimental data sets, punch cards, lab notes and log books, multiple drafts of scientific papers and grant applications. Importantly, the more informal aspects of the research process have also been kept, adding a real human dimension to the archive. The correspondence, casual memos, jottings and annotations on reprints and lab notes encapsulate the ideas and observations, not to mention the frustrations endured throughout the research process, and ultimately, the thrill of scientific discovery.

Sir Walter Bodmer c.1977

For this post I thought it would be useful to share some examples of the experimental materials enclosed in many of the lab notebooks. The archive comprises an impressive amount of lab work making up around a third of the full archive, which totals over 2000 boxes. This also includes the notebooks of collaborators and junior research staff working in various labs headed by the Bodmer’s in Oxford, Stanford and the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (now Cancer Research UK) in London.

The collection’s research sequences include Sir Walter’s early genetics work on Aspergillus and Neurospora, which he carried out as a postgraduate student at Cambridge University during the 1950s and until he went to Stanford in the 1960s. This covers molecular genetics experiments on DNA transformation in Bacillus subtilis, and work on human lymphocyte antigens. From the Genetics Laboratory at Oxford University research notebooks cover a variety of experiments throughout the 1970s, including those relating to HLA determinants on somatic cell hybrids. There are nearly 200 boxes alone containing lab notes from Julia Bodmer’s ICRF Tissue Antigen Laboratory including work on the production of monoclonal antibodies, in particular, DR antigens. There are also a similar number of boxes relating to colorectal cancer research carried out in Sir Walter’s Director’s Laboratory at the ICRF. Many of these papers offer a window into the development of techniques and methodologies used for work on extracting proteins and DNA.

Lab work relating to polyclonal screening of colorectal cancer cell lines
These images represent a small selection of lab techniques such as Western and Southern blotting, and gel electrophoresis. The technique of Southern blotting was developed by Sir Edwin Southern in 1973, and uses gel electrophoresis for the detection of a specific DNA sequence in a sample of DNA. Western blotting is similar but is used to detect and separate proteins, thereby allowing for the identification of specific antibodies (while Northern blotting detects RNA). Blotting by gel electrophoresis enables the transfer of membranes and involves hybridisation to a probe.
gel 2
gel 3
Western blot gel
Gel electrophoresis
dot blot 1
 There are also a number of dot blots, which is a method of applying proteins directly onto a membrane. Unlike Western blotting, it does not use electrophoresis to separate proteins. Sample proteins are applied directly on a membrane as a dot and hybridized with an antibody that acts as a probe.
From an archivist’s perspective, the laboratory materials are both fascinating and unusual, and have also posed many preservation challenges concerning long-term protection of the archive. The generous support from the Wellcome Trust has enabled us to safeguard these important materials in order to ensure their long-term physical survival and make them accessible to future researchers. As such, we have worked with the Libraries’ preventative conservator and health and safety representatives to find the most suitable enclosures for these materials.Thankfully the majority of lab material is in an excellent and stable condition with no degradation, and we have been taking protective steps to ensure future degradation is minimal and avoids crosslink and damage with other materials. Preservation measures have included the use of acid absorbers and archival quality non-acidic repackaging material.
Western wet transfer
Immunodetection using Amersham ECL Western blotting kit (immunodetection uses antibodies to detect the presence of specific antigens)

Importantly, the majority of the collection has been retained (by the Bodmers and now archivist) within its original order and context. For a non-scientist archivist, the abundance of explanatory documentation that exists with the laboratory papers has proved invaluable for contextualisation, and will also add to the collection’s historical value.

Public Image of Scientists

Cataloguing of the Bodmer archive has been underway for around six months now, and it has been fascinating to learn about the sheer scope of Sir Walter’s career. There have been many dimensions to his work, and importantly, national science policy and science education has clearly been a real concern for the geneticist. In 1985, Bodmer chaired a Royal Society committee that sought to uncover public attitudes towards science. Included in the archive are papers relating to the Public Understanding of Science (PUS) and the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS), groups set up by the Royal Society. It has been argued that the PUS movement (more recently Public Engagement with Science and Technology) developed as a consequence of the Royal Society’s influential 1985 publication The Public Understanding of Science. Written by Walter Bodmer, it is also commonly known as the Bodmer Report. The purpose of the Report was to recommend initiatives for government, schools, universities and media amongst others (including scientists themselves) to work together in order to promote a scientifically literate population. The Report can be read here.

The Report also aimed to encourage a better relationship between scientists and the public, and in particular, that scientists communicate more effectively to their audiences. One of many issues addressed was the public image of scientists. A decade earlier, the New Scientist conducted a nationwide survey in an effort to monitor the public’s attitude to and awareness of science and scientists. According to the Bodmer Report, the outcome of the New Scientist survey “was a mixed bag, with scientists seeing scientists as typically approachable, sociable, open, unconventional, socially responsible, and popular with broad interests, while non-scientists saw scientists as typically the opposite”. Similar attitudes prevailed in later surveys carried out by various groups that submitted their findings to the Royal Society, as illustrated below.

Royal Society Letter
Example of written submission to the Royal Society from various societies including the BritishAcademy and British Association for the Advancement of Science (1984).

The papers of Sir Walter and Lady Julia Bodmer reveal this apparently common public perception of scientists could not be further from the case, and the personalities that come across in the archive are a far cry from the stereotypical scientist ‘who cannot be identified with the man on the street’. The papers (including many photographs) reveal a couple that were not just hard-working and committed to their careers and family, but also relaxed, sociable and popular.

After Lady Bodmer passed away in 2001, an obituary recalled ‘her strength, her humour, her infectious enthusiasm [and] her dedication to science’. A former colleague remarked, ‘I like to recollect Julia in her apartment at the top of the ICRF when Walter was playing piano and we were just having a friendly talk’. Music and the performing arts appear to have played an important part in the Bodmer’s lives. For instance, the collection includes papers concerning Sir Walter’s time as a Trustee and Chairman of the Board of Directors at the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance (now Trinity Laban). In fact, Sir Walter’s connection with Laban originated with his mother Sylvia Bodmer (1902-1989), who gained a reputation as one of the most distinguished exponents of modern dance and movement. Having danced as one of Rudolf von Laban’s pupils in Germany during the 1920s, she continued with her career in dance, choreography and teaching after moving to England.

kidney stakes
The Kidney Stakes

One of the quirkier parts of the collection I have come across recently perfectly captures the Bodmer’s sense of fun and love of music. The images highlighted here are an example of several songs and sonnets that were buried in a box of material relating to an International Histocompatibility Workshop. Written in Julia’s hand, the songs were intended for post-conference entertainment, possibly the event hosted by the Bodmers in Oxford, 1977.

The DR Region

I never fully appreciated quite what to expect with a scientific archive, apart from the more predictable research and teaching related papers, and it has been fun uncovering some real gems in the collection. The archive stretches well beyond the laboratory and the world of science and genetics, offering a window into the lives of two prolific geneticists who enjoyed a broad range of interests and pastimes.