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38 posts categorized "Bioscience"

07 June 2018

The sixtieth birthday of obstetric ultrasound

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Ultrasound image
Ultrasound image by mylissa, CC-BY-SA

Today is the sixtieth anniversary of the publication in The Lancet of the first scholarly article on medical ultrasound by the obstetricians Ian Donald and John MacVicar, and the engineer Tom Brown. While earlier groups had experimented with ultrasound, it was Donald and Brown who achieved real diagnostic success with it, and popularised it in the medical profession. They initially applied it to distinguish uterine cysts from solid tumours such as fibroids, and later developed it for other important tasks, such as diagnosing placenta praevia (a potentially lethal condition during pregnancy in which the placenta attaches too low down in the womb) and directly observing foetuses. It is thanks to their work that ultrasound has become routine in pregnancy and many peoples' first view of their children. 

Donald had become interested in the potential of ultrasound for medicine thanks to his experience with both radar and sonar while serving in the RAF during World War II. Much of his success was because he happened to work for the University of Glasgow, in a city with a large-scale shipbuilding industry which used ultrasonic techniques to test for flaws in metal parts. It was also the home of Kelvin and Hughes, one of the main manufacturers of ultrasonic testing equipment, for which company Brown worked.

There was also a particular perceived need at the time for a safer method of examining foetuses in the womb, as epidemiological studies had discovered that X-ray examinations during pregnancy led to a higher risk of leukaemia and other cancers in the early lives of the children.

Donald subsequently became a celebrity not just for his scientific and medical skills, but as a prominent medical campaigner against abortion. He frequently stated that his observations of foetuses in the womb had confirmed him in his belief that they qualified as human beings from conception, although unlike some religious pro-life campaigners he morally accepted abortion when the foetus was clearly unlikely to survive childbirth or where the child would be very severely disabled. Brown's career effectively ended with the failure of an attempt to start a business producing medical ultrasound equipment, and he felt later in life that much of the media neglected his vital technological contributions to the development of the idea, although Donald always acknowledged them in public.

Further reading:

Brown, T G. Personal recollections. 1999. Available free online at
Craig, M. Craig's Essentials of Sonography and patient care, Baltimore: Saunders, 2018. Available as an ebook in the British Library reading rooms.
Donald, I, MacVicar, J, and Brown, T G. Investigation of abdominal masses by pulsed ultrasound, The Lancet, 1958, 271(7032), pp. 1188-1195. Available at (P) GP 00 - E(14) and also electronically in the British Library reading rooms.
Nicholson, M and Fleming, J E E. Imaging and imagining the foetus. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. Available at YK.2014.a.7586.
Norton, M E. Callen's Ultrasonography in obstetrics and gynecology, Elsevier, 2016. Available as an ebook in the British Library reading rooms.

03 April 2018

Augmented reality - it isn't just for catching mons.

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The most recent GREATforImagination post covered an augmented reality app created by Nexus Studios for the US Presidential administration in 2016. Augmented reality is a halfway point towards the more famous virtual reality, in which CGI elements are added to a real-time image of the user's surroundings, using either a mobile device screen or virtual reality goggles. The most well-known applications at the moment are for entertainment, such as the famous game Pokemon Go, or our own use of it in our Harry Potter exhibition.


However, there are some more practical uses for augmented reality in the worlds of science and engineering.

The construction industry still largely uses 2-D documents to indicate what should be built. However, why not create augmented reality images of objects in situ for people to copy? Or why not help utilities workers "see" underground pipes before they start digging holes?

An obvious application is in the world of chemistry, where physical 3-D models of large molecules have been familiar for decades, but can take a long time to build. Digital models can be created much more quickly, and AR equipment allows scientists to interact with them with increasing realism. There's a freeware program to try it yourself, if you have some chemistry and computing knowledge.

AR can also be used in surgery, either for training purposes or to allow surgeons to "see" what they are doing during minimally invasive surgery.

(All the articles linked are open access, so you don't have to come to the Library to read them)

13 March 2018

Did Man Get Here by Evolution or by Creation?

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In 1967, Jehovah's Witnesses publish a little blue volume asking Did Man Get Here by Evolution or by Creation? Half a century later, a copy shows up in the British Library, in a box of books left as part of the John Maynard Smith Archive.

John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) was a British evolutionary biologist and no supporter of Jehovah's Witnesses in any form. Rather, he had been an atheist ever since discovering the writings of population geneticist J.B.S. Haldane at the age of 15 – and a 'semi-conscious atheist before that'. Going into Eton's school library, he found Haldane's essay collection Possible Worlds and its 'mixture of extreme rational science, blasphemy and imagination, was a way of thinking that I had never encountered before'. It inspired Maynard Smith to read up on evolution and eventually – after a detour into aircraft engineering – to study it with Haldane and turn it into a successful career. So how did he come to own such a curious little book?

We have to go back to 1967 again. In October of that year, a Mrs Daphne Taylor of Sheffield packs up the book and posts it to Sussex University. 'Dear Professor,' she writes, 'Please find enclosed a small gift which I hope you will accept and enjoy reading.' Why send it to Maynard Smith? Has she sent it to any other evolutionary biologists? We don't know, but her motivation becomes quite clear as she goes on to say that she knows several people 'including teachers interested in evolution' who 'have found it most enlightening.' She wonders if Maynard Smith would let her know his views 'on any of the points brought out in the book'? There is, unfortunately, no record of any reply.

But is it telling that he kept both the book and, folded inside it, the accompanying letter? We do know that Maynard Smith had a continued interest in religion and creation(ism). The archives contain a short manuscript from his later years on "The Evolution of Religion" (co-authored with David Harper); in the 1960s he discussed science and religion on the radio and in 1986, following an invitation by the Oxford Union, debated the motion "That the Doctrine of Creation is more valid than the Theory of Evolution" (198 noes, 115 [or 150; the recording is unclear] ayes).

Proof for an intelligent designer? From "Did Man Get Here By Evolution Or By Creation?", p.71. Copyright © Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society of Pennsylvania.


What do the Jehovah's Witnesses ask and affirm in their volume? Evolutionary teaching saturates everything, even religion. But 'what do you personally know of the evidence for or against the belief in evolution? Does it really harmonize with the facts of science? We invite your careful examination of this matter, as it has a direct bearing on your life and your future.' The running argument is one that had been first used by William Paley in his 1802 book Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity – nature is too complex for there not to have been an intelligent designer or creator. Paley famously used the analogy of a watchmaker: suppose you were to find a watch on the heath, and upon examining it and its complexity, would you not suppose there has to have been a watchmaker? Similarly, the Jehovah's Witnesses argue that 'what is made requires a maker'. Liking DNA to 'complex blueprints for future development', they wonder: 'And when we see blueprints responsible for the building of beautiful bridges, buildings and machines, do we ever contend they came into being without an intelligent designer?' What is more, there is not enough evidence for evolution (while all the existing evidence is compatible with the Bible), it's all just a theory based on conjecture and wishful thinking, unsupported by fact, and, really, not proper science at all.

The conclusion? The truly 'honest seekers after truth must acknowledge that the evidence is overwhelming that man got here, not as a result of evolution, but by means of creation by God.'

The question of evolution or creation is of course not new – Paley's watchmaker analogy may be familiar, but more will have heard (of) the story of the 1860 debate between Thomas Huxley ("Darwin's bulldog") and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce: are you descended from monkeys on your grandmother's or your grandfather's side? (The story itself has been highly sensationalised: contemporary accounts suggest that it was much less dramatic.) But organised creationism, in the sense in which it is most commonly understood today, is very much shaped by American Evangelical Christians and emerged in the 20th century. Stephen Jay Gould referred to it as a 'local, indigenous, American bizarrity' – but it has in fact not been confined to America. In Britain, especially recently, creationism has been discussed mostly in the context of education (free schools). Maynard Smith, while obviously not involved in those recent debates, discussed whether there is a conflict between science and religion in a serious of radio broadcasts aimed at school audiences in 1964. He concluded that there are cases and ways in which they do contradict each other but agreed with Christians in so far as to say that there seems to be something remarkable – but not necessarily unique! – about human intelligence in comparison to animals. He debated creationists, once together with Richard Dawkins – famously or infamously, one of the most outspoken critics of creationism and religion. Dawkins remembers that in the 1986 debate, Maynard Smith 'was, of course, easily able to destroy the creationist's case, and in his good-natured way he soon had the audience roaring with appreciative laughter at its expense.' Interviewed by the British Humanist Association – who are actively lobbying against creationist influences – in 2001, Maynard Smith finally summarised his views on religion as follows:

'I think there are two views you can have about religion. You can be tolerant of it and say, I don't believe in this but I don’t mind if other people do, or you can say, I not only don't believe in it but I think it is dangerous and damaging for other people to believe in it and they should be persuaded that they are mistaken. I fluctuate between the two. I am tolerant because religious institutions facilitate some very important work that would not get done otherwise, but then I look around and see what an incredible amount of damage religion is doing.'

So how did man get here? Obviously, Maynard Smith's answer would have been very resounding, "by evolution"!

John Maynard Smith c. 1965. Copyright © University of Sussex.


Posted by Helen Piel. Helen Piel is a PhD student at the University of Leeds and the British Library. She is part of the AHRC's Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme and working on the John Maynard Smith Archive, exploring the working life of a British evolutionary biologist in the post-war period.

This post forms part of a series on our Science and Untold Lives blogs highlighting some of the British Library’s science collections as part of British Science Week 2018.

Further reading:

The book and letter are now catalogued and can be found in the John Maynard Smith Archive (Add MS 86839 C)

Krasnodebski, M. (2014). Constructing creationists: French and British narratives and policies in the wake of the resurgence of anti-evolution movements. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 47, 35-44.

Numbers, R. (2013). Creationism. In M. Ruse (ed.). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Darwin and Evolutionary Thought. Cambridge [etc.]: Cambridge University Press.

Pallen, M. (2009). The Rough Guide to Evolution. London: Rough Guides Ltd.

Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society of Pennsylvania (1967). Did Man Get Here by Evolution or by Creation? Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society of New York, Inc. & International Bible Students Association Brooklyn: New York.


30 November 2017

Digital preservation and the Anne McLaren Papers

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Today on International Digital Preservation Day we present a guest-post by Claire Mosier, Museum Librarian and Historian at American Museum of Western Art: The Anschutz Collection, concerning the digital files in the Anne McLaren Supplementary Papers (Add MS 89202) which have just been made available to researchers. As an MA student Claire worked as an intern at the British Library in 2015 helping to process digital material.


AM30NovImage 1
Dame Anne McLaren. Copyright James Brabazon

The developmental biologist Dame Anne McLaren was a great proponent of scientists sharing their work with the general public, and gave many presentations to scientists as well as the general public. Some of the notes, drafts, and finished products of these presentations are on paper, and others are in digital formats. The digital files of the Anne McLaren Supplementary Papers are comprised mostly of PowerPoint presentations and images. Digital records are more of a challenge to access, and give readers access to, as they are not always readily readable in their native format. This leads to unique challenges in determining and making available the content. 

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‘HongKong2003Ethics.ppt’ Page from the presentation ‘Ethical, Legal and Social Considerations of Stem Cell Research’, 2003, (Add MS 89202/12/16). Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.

 Throughout her career, McLaren gave presentations not only for educating others about her own work, but also on the social and ethical issues of scientific research. Many of her PowerPoint files are from presentations between 2002 and 2006 and cover the ethical, legal, moral, and social implications around stem cell therapy. These topics are addressed in the 2003 presentation ‘Ethical, Legal, and Social Considerations of Stem Cell Research’ (Add MS 89202/12/16), which briefly covers the historic and current stem cell research and legislation affecting it in different countries. A presentation from 2006 ‘Ethics and Science
of Stem Cell Research’ (Add MS 89202/12/160) goes into more detail, breaking ethical concerns into categories of personal, research, and social ethics. As seen in these presentations and others, Anne McLaren tried to present material in a way that would make sense to her audience, some of the presentations being introductions to a concept for the more general public, and others being very detailed on a narrower subject for those in scientific professions. 

AM30NovImage 3
‘Pugwash 2006’ Page from the presentation ‘When is an Embryo not an Embryo’, 2006, (Add MS 89202/12/163). Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.

 From looking at her PowerPoint documents it seems McLaren’s goals were to educate her audience on scientific ideas and encourage them to think critically, whether they were scientists themselves or not. However, this is hard to confirm, as the PowerPoints are only partial artefacts of her presentations, and what she said during those presentations is not captured in the collection. While she did sometimes present her own views in the slides, she presented other viewpoints as well. This is seen in the presentation for the 2006 Pugwash Conference (Add MS 89202/12/163) titled ‘When is an Embryo not an Embryo’ which presents semantic, legislative, and scientific definitions of the term embryo before a slide reveals McLaren’s own views, then goes back to legislative definitions before the slideshow ends. The Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs were created to ensure the peaceful application of scientific advances, and McLaren was a council member for many years.


Both the newly released Anne McLaren Supplementary Papers (Add MS 89202), along with the first tranche of McLaren’s papers (Add MS 83830-83981) are available to researchers via the British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue. Additionally one of Anne McLaren’s notebooks containing material from 1965 to 1968 (Add MS 83845) is on long-term display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery.

05 July 2017

A tribute to Anne McLaren

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Dame Anne McLaren. Copyright © James Brabazon


To publicise the upcoming event: Anne McLaren: Science, Ethics and the Archive, to be held at the British Library on 20 July, 6.30-8.00 pm, we present a guest-post by Professor Marilyn Monk, UCL Emeritus Professor of Molecular Embryology, with her personal recollections of Anne McLaren.

It is a great honour to have this opportunity to give my own personal tribute to Anne McLaren. Anne was my role model and my mentor over so many years. Not only in my scientific life - although her influence here was huge - but she was such a tower of strength and support for me over many difficult times. ‘Water under the bridge Marilyn. Water under the bridge’, she would say, encouraging me to move on.

I worked closely with Anne in her Medical Research Council Mammalian Development Unit for 18 years from 1974 to 1992 and I remained in contact with her thereafter. I would often email or phone Anne – ‘what do you think of this Anne?’ – questions about science, about life, about new ideas. And she would always respond with words of wisdom and support.

Right from the beginning Anne accepted me unconditionally. My first encounter with Anne was my phone call to her in Edinburgh in 1974. At that time, Anne was in Animal Genetics at Kings Buildings in Edinburgh and I was in the Molecular Biology Department working on DNA replication and repair in bacteria and on slime mould aggregation. But, in 1974, our MRC unit in Molecular Biology in Edinburgh closed with the retirement of our director, Bill Hayes. The MRC told me that I could relocate to another MRC unit that interested me and that would have me. I visited many MRC units and talked to various people who were encouraging but nothing seemed to be right for the interests and expertise in research I had at the time. Then Harry Harris at the Galton Laboratory suggested I contact Anne McLaren as she was just about to move from Edinburgh to London to start up a new MRC Mammalian Development Unit at the Galton. I knew nothing at all about development - let alone mammalian development. A move to mice and their embryos would be a huge leap both intellectually and technically.

In any case, I plucked up courage to phone Anne in Edinburgh in 1974. I remember everything about that moment when I phoned Anne because I was holding onto my last hopes of continuing as a scientist. I introduced myself, told her my problems, and asked her if she would consider taking me on in her new MRC Unit in London. I told her I knew nothing about mice – I had only worked with bacteria, viruses and amoebae. She said, ‘Yes of course you can join me. You must!’ I was flabbergasted. So overjoyed I could not speak. She did not even know me. She didn’t ask to meet me. But she had no reservations. She’d give me a chance. But this says it all about Anne - a tower of strength and support, particularly for women scientists (in my experience, it can still be difficult, even today to be a woman in science).

But as well as being a tower of strength, Anne was patient, tolerant, allowing, and very wise. And of course - very intelligent. I would prefer to talk about science and life and new ideas with Anne than anyone else I know. And Anne was a great listener. She always liked my ‘What if’ ideas and 'Why' questions. She thought that some of them were 'whacky' (her word) but always interesting.

Another great quality of Anne’s was her wicked sense of humour and sense of fun. Over the years, she would only have to raise one eyebrow in my direction over some happening, or strange remark from an unsuspecting visitor, and it would be difficult for me not to collapse in giggles. I always knew what she meant by the raised eyebrow. I felt privileged to be a secret accomplice to the raised eyebrow.

I know there are so many others who will have had the same wonderful experiences of Anne and will be feeling the way that I do. In the days and weeks after Anne died, so many people shared that they had just been in touch with her about this or that – about meeting soon for a meal and a talk about science and about life, or asking her advice on various issues, or arranging some new initiative. I have realised that Anne was looking after all of us pretty much all of the time. She made each one of us feel special.

Her energy and engagement with life and people was phenomenal. In addition she had extra-ordinary self-discipline and I had a lot to learn from her here. I never once saw Anne nod off in a seminar. She listened carefully to everything everyone said and her responses were always measured, incisive and invariably ‘spot on’. She never said a bad word about anybody that I can remember. She never complained.

When I joined Anne’s Unit, I was already a molecular biologist of some 15 years. But as such, I was used to working with millions of cells, bacteria or amoeba. We used to call it bucket biochemistry. The huge challenge was to bring molecular biology to the few cells of the embryo and even to the single cell. And we did it. I guess the hallmark of my research with Anne was to make the molecular techniques a million times more sensitive so we could look at specific enzyme activity, specific gene expression, and specific gene mutation or modification in just a few cells, and even a single cell, of the embryo. Once these single-cell molecular technologies were established, we could apply them to different developmental and biological questions and many insights into mammalian development followed during the years I was at the Galton. We began with establishing the cycle of X chromosome activation and inactivation as a model for gene expression and its regulation in early development. From there, we made many new discoveries such as the late origin of the germ line (anti Weissman doctrine). differential methylation of the active and inactive X chromosomes (beginning of mechanisms of epigenetics), imprinting and transgenerational inheritance of acquired characteristics (Lamarkian inheritance) and the discovery of methylation erasure in early development and again in the germ line thus bringing development back to tabula rasa - totipotency. Clinically we applied our single cell molecular biology to pioneering experiments for preimplantation diagnosis of genetic disease. My colleagues and co-workers during these years in Anne's Mammalian Development Unit were Mary Harper, Asangla Ao, Andrew McMahon, Mandy Fosten, Susan Lindsay, Maurizio Zuccotti, Mark Grant, Michael Boubelik.and Cathy Holding. Anne always gave me a completely free rein and encouraged me in whatever I wanted to do. I still miss her.

Marilyn Monk
UCL Emeritus Professor of Molecular Embryology

Both the Anne McLaren and Marilyn Monk papers are available to readers through the British Library Explore Archive and Manuscripts catalogue. The Mclaren papers can be found at Add MS 83830-83981 and Add MS 89202 and the Monk papers are available at Add MS 89158.

17 March 2017

Old issues in new guises: Dame Anne McLaren and the embryo research debate

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Following the birth of the world’s first baby by In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF), Louise Brown, in 1978, the research on human embryos that had made this possible became the subject of scrutiny and unease from both the public and politicians. This led the government to task Dame Mary Warnock with the chairing of a committee consisting of medics, social workers, lawyers and clerics in 1982, to set out a guideline for the legislation on IVF and embryo research in the UK. The report was enacted in the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. One of the report’s most lasting and controversial recommendations was a limit on research on human embryos in vitro beyond fourteen-days – the so-called ’fourteen-day rule’.

Detail of the letter to Anne McLaren inviting her to take part in the Warnock Committee. (1982). (Add MS 89202/8/1). Crown Copyright/estate of Anne McLaren.

This law has been in force for more than twenty-five years. For scientists, there had been no need to contest it, since scientists had not come close to culturing an embryo anywhere near to the fourteen-day limit. The equilibrium was only disrupted at the end of last year, when a research group at Cambridge University led by Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz claimed to have developed a method of culturing live human embryos for thirteen days, only stopping their experiment at this point to comply with the fourteen-day rule. This possibility has recharged the debates over the desirability of embryo research and the extent to which it should be regulated.

In the face of these reopened debates on the ethics of embryo research, it is important to understand the premises and arguments that shaped the current legislation. These arguments, at first glance, appear to be predominantly scientific.

Developmental biologist Dame Anne McLaren (1927-2007) was the only research scientist serving on the Warnock Committee, and played an important role in providing the lay-committee with a scientific understanding of the processes of embryo development that proved definitive in the committee’s efforts to convince ministers of the validity of the fourteen-day rule. McLaren made the case for the rule by arguing that the fourteenth day was a clearly distinguishable step towards individuation in the development of the embryo. Fourteen days, for example, sees the onset of gastrulation, a point at which the embryo can no longer divide into identical twins. Fourteen days also falls well before the beginnings of what will become the central nervous system, and so there is no chance that the embryo could experience pain. 

Title page of Anne McLaren’s draft for ‘Comments on the use of donated eggs fertlilized specifically for research purposes’. (c. 1982). (Add MS 89202/8/1) Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.

Yet, as Lady Warnock has stressed, fourteen days is by no means a landmark set in stone. McLaren could have made a well-substantiated scientific argument for a different cut-off point- the embryo, for example, is just as incapable of experiencing pain at twenty-eight days. As Lady Warnock stated at a 2016 Progress Educational Trust conference on the topic, it was merely important to set a time limit, to provide clarity through law, so that the public would feel reassured that research would not progress untethered. The fourteen-day rule did therefore not express a moral distinction for the human embryo based on biological facts, but emphasised a specific part of the biological process in order to make a practical compromise – as Warnock writes in the committee’s report: ‘What is legally permissible may be thought of as the minimum requirement for a tolerable society’ (1985, p.3). 

Understanding the arguments McLaren made in the 1980s will shed light on what is required of legislation today—that it should take into account the current political climate and public sentiment, perhaps before making arguments about the ethics of research based on biological facts. 

The Anne McLaren papers at the British Library consist of letters, notes, notebooks and offprints. There is currently one tranche (Add MS 83830-83981) available to readers through the British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue with a second tranche (Add MS 89202) planned for release at the end of April 2017. Additionally one of Anne McLaren’s notebooks containing material from 1953 to 1956 (Add MS 83843) is on long-term display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery. 

Anne McLaren’s scientific publications and books, along with an oral history interview conducted in February 2007, are available to readers via the British Library Explore catalogue.

 This post forms part of a series on our Science blog highlighting some of the British Library’s science collections as part of British Science Week 2017.

Posted by Marieke Bigg. Marieke is an MPhil student in sociology at the University of Cambridge and works under the supervision of Prof. Sarah Franklin. Marieke’s MPhil dissertation and PhD will both explore the contributions made by Dr Anne McLaren to the debate over human fertilisation and embryology in the 1980s.

15 March 2017

Local Heroes: John Maynard Smith: (1920-2004): A good "puzzle-solver" with an "accidental career"

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John Maynard Smith c:1965. Copyright University of Sussex

Maynard Smith was born in London, though after his father’s death in 1928, the family moved to the countryside. There, Maynard Smith deepened his love for natural history – already manifest in his insistence to repeatedly visit the Zoo and Natural History Museum in London – while bird-watching and beetle-collecting during the holidays in Exmoor. His family was generally not scientifically inclined, and there were expectations for him to join his grandfather’s stockbroking firm. However, during one Sunday lunch he declared that he would not do so. What was he going to do then? Remembering a lecture on the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, he decided, rather spontaneously, to become an engineer. And so, after graduating from Eton in 1938, he went on to read engineering at Cambridge.

Maynard Smith is known for not having liked his time at boarding school very much – the atmosphere, he felt, was ‘really anti-intellectual’, ‘snobbish’ and ‘arrogant’ – but he credited Eton with teaching him mathematics and giving him the freedom to explore the natural sciences on his own, mostly by reading popular science books. Cambridge, in a way, did less for him academically than Eton. ‘This time, however, the fault was partly mine and partly Hitler’s. It was hard, in 1938, to take either academic work, or one’s own future, seriously.’ He joined the Communist Party, influenced by a visit of Nazi Germany in the summer of 1938 from which he returned ‘in a state of complete confusion, convinced that my pacifism was wrong’. Communists were those ‘saying we have got to unite and oppose Fascism’, and he spent more time being politically active than studying. Soon after joining, Maynard Smith met Sheila Matthew, his future wife, at a Communist Camp. They were to marry in 1941, making Maynard Smith one of the first married undergraduate students at Trinity College. Their first son, Anthony, would be born in 1944, their daughter Carol in 1946, and their youngest, Julian, in 1949.

In 1941, Maynard Smith graduated with a second-class honours degree in mechanical engineering. After graduation, he worked as an aircraft stressman which, importantly, ‘taught him to trust models, a lesson that would become fundamental in his work as a scientist.’ Moreover, ‘and for obvious reasons, Maynard Smith formed the valuable habit of not making mistakes in computations.’ However, when the war was over, he began to reconsider his career choices. He decided to return to his first love and started a second degree in zoology at University College London. Maynard Smith knew JBS Haldane was teaching there, whose work he had sought out already at Eton because several teachers seemed to particularly hate this man – so he couldn’t be ‘all bad’.

During his years as an undergraduate at UCL Maynard Smith became less and less active politically. He was much more involved in his studies than he ever was at Cambridge. In addition, Lysenkoism reached its peak in 1948. Trofim Lysenko was a Soviet biologist and Lamarckist supported by the Soviet government. Maynard Smith was not so much averse to Lysenkoism as ‘disgusted’ by the comrades who were ignorant of genetics but who were nonetheless telling him what to believe. He lost faith in the Communist Party, became disillusioned with communist politics and – though to a lesser extent – with Marxist philosophy. In 1956, after the Soviet Invasion of Hungary, he finally left the Party yet retained his leftist political outlook.

John Maynard Smith c:1984. Copyright University of Sussex

In the year before his death, Animal Signals, his last book, co-written with David Harper, was published. The book was one of several; Maynard Smith published both textbooks and popular science – his ‘little Penguin’, The Theory of Evolution, was published as early as 1958. Indeed, he was convinced that science is a social activity: he had a ‘desire to embed discoveries in the discourse of a community as broad as possible.’ So next to writing books, reviews, and essays he also appeared on both radio and television.

The John Maynard Smith Archive at the British Library documents over half a century of John Maynard Smith's work as an evolutionary biologist, covering the years 1948 to 2004 (with an emphasis on the 1970s to 1990s). It contains letters, notes, computer printouts, draft manuscripts, lecture notes and offprints as well as artefacts and digital files. The archive is available to readers through the British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue (Add MS 86569-86840), excepting the digital material which is in the process of being catalogued.

Maynard Smith's books and scientific papers, along with two interviews (one on camera), can be found via the British Library Explore catalogue.

This post forms part of a series on our Science and Untold Lives blogs highlighting some of the British Library’s science collections as part of British Science Week 2017.


Sources and Further Reading:

Charlesworth, B. and Harvey, P. (2005). John Maynard Smith. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 51, 254-265.

Kohn, M. (2004). A Reason for Everything: Natural Selection and the English Imagination. London: Faber and Faber, esp. pp.197-255.

‘Making it formal.’ (1988). In: Wolpert, L. and Richards, A. (eds.). A Passion for Science (pp.122-137). Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press.

Maynard Smith, J. (1985). In Haldane's Footsteps. In: Dewsbury, D.A. (ed.). Leaders in the Study of Animal Behavior: Autobiographical Perspectives (pp.347-354). Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press.

Posted by Helen Piel. Helen Piel is a PhD student at the University of Leeds and the British Library. She is part of the AHRC's Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme and working on the John Maynard Smith Archive, exploring the working life of a British evolutionary biologist in the post-war period.

03 February 2017

HPC & Big Data

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Matt and Philip attended the HPC & Big Data conference on Wednesday 1st February. This is an annual one-day conference on the uses of high-performance computing and especially on big data. “Big data” is used widely to mean very large collections of data in science, social science, and business.

There were some very interesting presentations over the day. Anthony Lee from our friends the Turing Institute discussed the Institute’s plans for the future and the potential of big data in general. The increasing amounts of data being created in “big science” scientific experiments and the world at large mean that the problems of research have shifted from data collection being the hard part to processing capabilities being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data.

A presentation from the Earlham Institute and Verne Global revealed that Iceland could become a centre for high-performance computing in the future, thanks to its combination of cheap, green electricity from hydroelectric and geothermal power, high-bandwidth data links to other continents, and a cool climate which reduces the need for active cooling of equipment. HPC worldwide now consumes more energy than the entire airline industry and whole countries of the size and development level of Italy and Spain. Seljalandsfoss-1207956_1280

Dave Underwood of the Met Office described the Met Office’s acquisition of the largest HPC computer in Europe. He also pointed out the extreme male-biased demographic of the event, something that both Matt and Philip had noticed (although we admit, one of our female team members could have gone instead of Philip).

Luciano Floridi of Oxford University discussed the ethical issues of Big Data and pointed out that as intangibles become a greater portion of companies’ value, so scandal becomes more damaging to them. Current controversies involving behaviour on the internet suggest that moral principles of security, privacy, and freedom of speech may be increasingly conflicting with one another, leading to difficult questions of how to balance them.

JISC gave a presentation on their actual and planned shared HPC data centres, and invited representatives from our friends and neighbours at the Crick Institute, and the Wellcome Trust’s Sanger Institute on their IT plans. Alison Davis from Crick pointed out that an under-rated problem for academic IT departments is individual researchers’ desire to carry huge quantities of digital data with them when they move institutions, causing extra demand on storage and raising difficult issues of ownership.

Finally, Richard Self of the University of Derby gave an illuminating presentation on the potential pitfalls of “big data” in social science and business, such as the fact that the size of a sample does not guarantee that it is representative of the whole population, the probability of finding apparent correlations in a large sample that are created by chance and not causation, and the lack of guaranteed veracity. (For example, in one investigation 14% of geographical locations from mobile phone data were 65km or more out of place.)

Philip Eagle, Content Expert - STM

22 November 2016

Stephen Hales: Reverend, Researcher, Reformer

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In the final episode of “Treasures of the British Library” series (tonight at 9pm on Sky Arts) we explored the ancestry of trumpeter Alison Balsom. Alison is descended from the 18th century clergyman and polymath Stephen Hales (1677-1761) and she was keen to find out more about this remarkable man.

The first item I showed Alison was Hales’ seminal work “Vegetable Staticks” or to give it its full title “Vegetable Staticks: or an account of some statical experiments on the sap in vegetables: being an essay towards a natural history of vegetation”. Alas, it was not an age of punchy titles. Hales was interested in understanding how plants give off and take up water and in this book he outlines the many meticulous experiments that seek to understand these processes. Hales even invented the ‘pneumatic trough’ (see below) and used this to collect gases given off by plants. He didn’t however analyse the composition of this gas, since at that time air was understood to be a pure element. It was not until many years later that Joseph Priestley and Antoine Lavoisier discovered oxygen was a component of air, making use of Hales’ pneumatic trough to collect, analyse and separate gases.

Vegetable Staticks Stephen Hales p262
Stephen Hales' pneumatic trough. From Vegetable Staticks p260

Some of Hales’ conclusions were remarkably prescient outlining the process of photosynthesis many years before its chemical basis was elucidated. One key quote draws parallels between the function of the leaves of plants with animals' lungs.

Vegetable Staticks Stephen Hales p326
From Vegetable Staticks. p326


Two pages later Hales also postulates that light might be a form of energy which is needed by the plant to survive.

Vegetable Staticks Stephen Hales p327
From Vegetable Staticks. p327


Alison and I then went on to look at Hales’ “A Description of Ventilators”. One of Hale’s social projects was the invention of ventilating systems for ships and prisons where overcrowding meant that stale air and unhygienic conditions were rife. Hales’ invention was essentially a giant set of bellows which removed the noxious air. The ventilator was initially used to dry grain for preservation but was eventually rolled out to ships, hospitals and prisons where it saved many lives.

Last but not least we came to Reverend Hales’ “A Friendly Admonition to Drinkers of Gin, Brandy and Other Spirituous liquors” which was published anonymously in 1751. Hales was a strong supporter of the Gin Acts of the early 18th century where gin sales were subject to high taxes in an effort to reduce consumption. In the tract he outlines the many physiological consequences of consuming as he called them, “most intoxicating and baneful spirits”. Readers are warned that liquors ‘frequently cause those Obstructions and Stoppages in the Liver, which occasion the Jaundice, Dropsy and many other fatal diseases” and “impair the mind as much as the body”.  However the message was as much moral as it was medical with Hales condemning drunkards and the great sin of drinking throughout.

A friendly admonition Stephen Hales
Stephen Hales' A Friendly Admonition... Title page and p25


Although Hales trained as a clergyman and did not have any formal scientific training his achievements rival many of the well-known scientists of the day. Despite this Hales does not tend to feature alongside famous scientists in the history books so we were pleased to be able to shed some light on this interesting character as part of the Treasures of the British Library series.

Katie Howe

With thanks to Tanya Kirk and Duncan Heyes for help sourcing Stephen Hales material from the British Library collections.

27 October 2016

Replace, Reduce, Refine: Animals in Research.

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PhD placement student Mandy Kleinsorge looks back on our most recent TalkScience@BL event.

TalkScience@BL - Replace, Reduce, Refine: Animals in Research

The use of animals in research is as controversial as ever. It is well-known that animal research has brought about some great discoveries in the past1, such as the development of Herceptin and Tamoxifen for the treatment of breast cancer or the discovery of bronchodilators to treat the symptoms of asthma. Today, the UK regulations for research involving animals are among the tightest in the world. In consequence, it is illegal in the UK (and in Europe) to use an animal in research if there is a viable non-animal alternative2. Despite this, the number of experimental procedures on animals in the UK has been steadily increasing over the last years3 and funding of non-animal research accounted for only 0.036 % of the UK national R&D science expenditure4 (2011). Apparently, three quarters of Britons agreed that there needs to be more research carried out into alternatives to animal experimentation5 (2012).

On 13th October, we invited experts in the field to the British Library to publicly discuss the current state of alternatives to animals, as well as the efforts that are made to improve the welfare of animals that are still needed in scientific research. The concept of reducing or even substituting animals in scientific experiments (or at least improving the conditions under which these experiments are conducted) is not new. In 1959, Russell and Burch established the principles of the Three Rs (Replacement, Reduction and Refinement)6 which came to be EU-wide guidelines for the more ethical use – or non-use – of animals in research. Today, a number of organisations campaign for openness and education as to why animals are needed in some areas of research, but also as to where we might not actually need them anymore. One of those is the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement & Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) who we collaborated with on our TalkScience event ‘Replace, Reduce, Refine: Animals in Research’. The event was chaired by Stephen Holgate, Professor of Medicine at the University of Southampton and Board Chair of the NC3Rs.

Taking a closer look at Robin's amoeba.
Taking a closer look at Robin's amoeba.

The first speaker of the evening was Robin Williams (Head of the Biomedical Sciences Centre at Royal Holloway, University of London). Robin uses Dictyostelium, a social amoeba and therefore non-animal model, to conduct research into neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s. He even brought some amoeba for the audience to look at! Besides bringing awareness to the fact that this organism can actually represent a viable alternative to animal experimentation, he also drew attention to two big problems that researchers using animal alternatives are facing. Acquiring funding and publishing scientific papers are the most important tasks of senior researchers and both of these are complicated by a limited acceptance of non-animal models. Although 3Rs practice is increasingly advocated in the UK, the peer review process regulating funding and publication of research projects is a global endeavour. Robin therefore called for a shift in attitude towards alternatives to animals on a world-wide level.

Our second speaker, Sally Robinson (Head of Laboratory Animal Science UK at AstraZeneca), shed some light into the use of animals in pharmaceutical research. Sally stressed the importance of using the most appropriate model – animal or non-animal – to answer the scientific question. This is not as trivial as it sounds, and is key to obtaining meaningful results and minimising use of animals where possible. The welfare of the animals used in drug development is equally important, as Sally illustrated with the refinement of dog housing. By optimising pen design7, the welfare of laboratory dogs can be drastically improved, and so can the quality of scientific research they’re involved in. Furthermore, Sally herself had a leading role in the challenging of the regulatory requirement for acute toxicity tests in drug development8, which ultimately changed international legislative guidance and reduced the number of animals needed in pharmaceutical research.

Our panel: Stephen Holgate, Robin Williams, Sally Robinson and Robin Lovell-Badge.
Our panel: Stephen Holgate, Robin Williams, Sally Robinson and Robin Lovell-Badge.

Our last speaker was Robin Lovell-Badge (Head of the Division of Stem Cell Biology and Developmental Genetics at the Francis Crick Institute). He opened his talk by endorsing openness in animal research. This is a welcome and necessary trend of the past few years – after animal research had been conducted behind closed doors in the UK for decades for fear of violent actions. The ‘Concordat on Openness on Animal Research’9 was initiated in 2012 and has been signed by 107 UK organisations to date. Robin explained which animals the newly built Francis Crick Institute will work with and why, and how Home Office guidelines on animal research have helped inform the design of their state-of-the-art facilities. He also mentioned some of their work that doesn’t involve animals, like research using induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. These iPS cells resemble embryonic stem cells and can be generated from any living cell of a human donor. They are able to differentiate into virtually every cell type of the body, presenting an alternative source of human tissue for drug screenings and the modelling of diseases10. This fairly new technology might even be useful as an alternative to animal experiments in the future.

In discussion with the audience it became clear that the UK is leading the world in the realisation of the 3Rs. However, there is still room for much improvement in furthering the 3Rs. While better experimental design using robust biostatistics and in-depth training of scientists handling animals is vital, increased acceptance of negative data would avoid unnecessary duplication of experiments using animals.

The discussion continued after the event.
The discussion continued after the event.

When asked whether an animal-free research in the immediate future was possible, the panel agreed that it wasn’t. A lot more research into alternatives as well as a change in people’s mindsets is needed beforehand. But how do we exert pressure for this change? Do we need animal activists to do this, one audience member asked. Good question. It is definitely necessary to bring different types of people together to have more balanced and open discussions about this emotive topic. So, thanks to the speakers and the audience of this TalkScience event for joining us to disuss this important issue.

Further reading:

1 Understanding Animal Research. Forty reasons why we need animals in research.
2 Animals in Science Committee. Consolidated version of the Animals Scientific Procedures Act 1986.
3 Home Office. Statistics of scientific procedures on living animals, Great Britain 2015.
4 Taylor, K. EU member state government contribution to alternative methods.
5 Ipsos MORI. Views on the use of animals in scientific research.
6 Russell, WMS and Burch, RL. The principles of humane experimental technique.
7 Refining Dog Care. Dog unit and home pen design.
8 Robinson, S et al. A European pharmaceutical company initiative challenging the regulatory requirement for acute toxicity studies in pharmaceutical drug development.
9 Understanding Animal Research. Concordat on Openness on Animal Research.
10 Takahashi, K and Yamanaka, S. A decade of transcription factor-mediated reprogramming to pluripotency.