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6 posts categorized "Manuscripts"

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.

12 August 2016

“Like light shining in a dark place”: Florence Nightingale and William Farr

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On the anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s death, Katie Howe explores her scientific legacy.

Perhaps best known as ‘the lady with the lamp’ Florence Nightingale was also an accomplished scientist and social reformer.

In 1854, with Britain in the midst of the Crimean conflict, Nightingale was appointed to lead a party of nurses to a military hospital in Scutari (in modern day Istanbul). When she arrived she discovered a lack of coordination between hospitals and no standardised or consistent reporting of mortality rates and causes of death. Nightingale set to work gathering extensive information on all aspects of hospital care.

After returning from the Crimea, Nightingale used her new found celebrity status and personal connections to enlist the help of the eminent Victorian epidemiologist and statistician William Farr in analysing the vast quantities of data she had collected.

Their correspondence, which is held at the British Library, reveals a respectful professional relationship, with Farr often signing off,

“I have the honour to be your very faithful servant.”

In May 1857, when Nightingale sent Farr the death rates calculated from her Crimean war data, he replied,

“Dear Miss Nightingale. I have read with much profit your admirable observations. It is like light shining in a dark place. You must when you have completed your task - give some preliminary explanation - for the sake of the ignorant reader.” (Add MS 43398 f.10)

Add MS 43398 f.10
Add MS 43398 f.10

So Florence Nightingale was not only the literal ‘lady with the lamp’, but her statistical work also illuminated worrying trends in army mortality rates.

After receiving further data from Nightingale in November the same year, Farr wrote:

“This speech is the best that was ever written on diagrams or on the Army.”  (Add MS 43398 f.37)


Add MS 43398 f.37
Add MS 43398 f.37

As a result of this productive collaboration with Farr, Nightingale learned that the majority of deaths in the Crimean War were not due to battle wounds but to preventable diseases like typhus and cholera.

To get this important message across to high-ranking government officials who had no statistical training, Nightingale knew she needed a powerful visual message. She represented the cause of death in a revolutionary new way. Rather than using a table or list as was common at the time she created this striking rose diagram. 

Each of the 12 wedges represents a month of the year and changes in the wedges’ colour reveal changes over time. At a glance it was easy to see the deaths from epidemic diseases (blue) far outweighed deaths from battlefield wounds (red) and deaths from other causes such as accidents or frostbite (black).  After sanitary reforms such as the introduction of basic sanitation, hand washing and ventilation, deaths dropped dramatically. Compare the right rose (April 1854-March 1855) with left rose (April 1855-March 1856).

Rose diagram
Florence Nightingale’s Rose diagram “Notes on matters, affecting the health, efficiency and hospital administration of the British Army. London, 1858”. C.194.b.297


Her rose diagram was so easy to understand it was widely republished. Ultimately this striking visualisation and the accompanying report convinced the government that deaths were preventable if sanitation reforms were implemented in military hospitals. Nightingale’s work provided a catalyst for change, driving better and cleaner hospitals and the establishment of a new army statistics department to improve healthcare.

20 April 2016

The Thinking Machine: W Ross Ashby and the Homeostat

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The British Library holds the personal archive of W. Ross Ashby - psychiatrist and expert in cybernetics (the study of the control of systems using technology). In this guest post Hallvard Haug, postdoctoral fellow at Birkbeck, University of London, examines the figure of W. Ross Ashby and his key invention the homeostat - a machine capable of adapting itself to the environment. A shorter article on W. Ross Ashby is featured on the British Library Untold Lives blog.

Ross Ashby (1903-1972) was a central figure of the post-war cybernetics movement in the UK, especially due to the popularity of his books Design for a Brain (1952) and  An Introduction to Cybernetics (1956). Ashby kept a thorough record of his thoughts throughout his adult life, and a collection of his papers has been donated to the British Library by his family.

Photograph of W Ross Ashby taken in his office 1963, Biological Computing Laboratory, University of Illinois. Copyright the Estate of W. Ross Ashby.

The centrepiece of the collection is Ashby’s notebooks which he kept from 1928 up until the year of his death. Among students of cybernetics these are legendary, and for good reason. Over the course of nearly 50 years, Ashby took meticulous stock of his thoughts on the material nature of the brain, and the notebooks show the workings of a highly systematic and deeply creative mind. Written in a precise hand, the journals brim with insights, speculations, calculations, graphs, drawings, newspaper clippings and circuit diagrams. Ashby also kept a meticulous topical record complete with content pages, cross referencing, summaries of entries, as well as two different sets of indexes — also included in the collection (Add MS 89153/27-30). Eventually, the notebooks ran to 7189 pages and spanned a total of 25 volumes.

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Journals 18-25 with handwritten labels including page numbers (Add MS 89153/18-25). Copyright the Estate of W. Ross Ashby.

At first, the notebooks were a pastime; eventually, however, the ideas Ashby explored became original enough to be publishable and in time these notes became the focus of his working life as his cybernetics work. The most famous of his innovations was the homeostat, a machine which demonstrated and embodied his theory of learning and adaptation in a mechanical apparatus which, entirely on its own, regains stability when perturbed. The development of the homeostat is documented thoroughly in the notebooks, from its first entry on 19 November 1946:

"I have been trying to develope [sic] further principles for my machine to illustrate stability, + to develope ultrastability" (Add MS 89153/9).

In the coming years, it was the centrepiece for his cybernetic activities.

The homeostat — a bulky and somewhat baroque machine built from military surplus parts — had a single purpose: to regain stability in response to perturbations in its environment. It is hard to convey precisely how the homeostat worked: set up as four identical units connected to each other via electrical inputs and outputs, each unit was topped with electrically conducing vanes dipped in water troughs. Like oscillographs, the vanes moved back and forth in the trough, reacting to the electrical input from their environment — the output from other blocks in the setup — and each block had an electrical output determined by the position of the vane in the trough. If the vane was directly in the middle of the trough, the electrical output was zero; if, however, it was positioned any other place in the trough, it provided electrical output to the other blocks, affecting the positions of the vanes it was connected to. Thus, when the machine was set in action by pushing a vane out of position, the vanes on all four units would react by moving back and forth, in reaction to their respective environments.

Add 89154 4-crop
Image of Ashby’s hand drawn diagram for the final version of the Homeostat from page 2432, Journal 11. (Add MS 89153/11). Copyright the Estate of W. Ross Ashby.

What made the homeostat so interesting, however, was its ability to return to equilibrium once a vane had been upset. Each of the units was constructed to also produce electric feedback to their respective vanes, depending on the conductivity of the vane. This feedback was determined according to a random table, and the machine would cycle through the table as long as the electrical output was not zero. Eventually, however, the vanes, cycling through random states, would come to a halt as each block found the appropriate feedback configuration. For Ashby, the return to equilibrium that the homeostat demonstrated was equivalent to the brain’s — whether human or animal — capacity for learning. The return to equilibrium demonstrated by the homeostat also showed how what only seems purposeful can come about by randomness, and Ashby believed this principle of feedback mechanisms spontaneously restoring equilibrium was a governing principle in nature. Indeed, in 1945 he noted that he had decided to follow in Darwin’s footsteps: like with the homeostat’s return to equilibrium, he viewed a species’ evolutionary adaptation to its environment as a return to equilibrium, and is only apparently purposeful. This tendency towards what Ashby called ‘ultrastability’ was referred to by Norbert Wiener as no less than ‘one of the great philosophical contributions of the present day.’ Eventually, Ashby was invited to present it at the ninth Macy conference for cybernetics in 1952.

Image of the Homeostat taken from Ashby’s lecture slides. (Add MS 89152/40). Copyright the Estate of W. Ross Ashby.

The influence cybernetics exerted on both the sciences and humanities in the 1950s and ’60s was considerable: its central insights touched upon, transformed and occasionally dominated disciplines ranging from computer science, artificial intelligence and genetics through psychology and sociology, and also influenced intellectual movements such as structuralism. Its universal character gained it great popular appeal, but also meant cybernetics never had a comfortable institutional or disciplinary home, with only a few university departments dedicated to it. Despite its popular appeal, Ashby has remained something of an obscure figure. The autobiographical notebook ‘Passing through nature…’ gives a rare insight into his private thoughts, and suggests that it was at least partly due to Ashby’s reticence towards being in the public eye:

"My fear is now that that [sic] I may become conspicuous for a book of mine is in the press. For this sort of success I have no liking. My ambitions are vaguer.

   I am something of an artist, not with pencil or paint, for I have no skill there, but with a deep appreciation of the perfect. […] I have an ambition some day to produce something faultless." (Add MS 89153/33)

Against his inclinations, Ashby set out to spark public interest in his ideas in the 1940s, and for a brief period the homeostat was the topic both of popular magazines and radio shows, promoted as an ‘artificial brain.’ Ashby kept a record of his success, pasting newspaper clippings in the notebooks. The journals are a treasure trove for insight into the trajectory of ideas: from the premature attempts at precisely stating a problem, to the mature implementation, years later, of a successful theory and its subsequent dissemination.

Hallvard Haug is a Wellcome ISSF postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Medical Humanities at Birkbeck, University of London. His interest in W. Ross Ashby stems from his PhD research on the history of human enhancement technologies, which included a section on cybernetics.

Further reading:

The British Library acquired the W. Ross Ashby archive in 2003. It consists of notebooks, correspondence, notes, index cards, slides and offprints and is available to researchers through the British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue at Add MS 89153. The estate of W. Ross Ashby also maintains a website The W. Ross Ashby Digital Archive which contains digitised copies of much of this material as well as a biography and photographs. It can be found at

Andrew Pickering, The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches for Another Future (Chicago: 2010).

Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings, 2nd ed. (London: 1989).

01 February 2016

Alice's Adventures in Numberland - answers

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Here we reveal the answers of our Lewis Carroll-inspired brainteasers. (The questions feature in a previous blog post)


MAZE Knight

Can you find a route from the outside of the maze to the centre?


DOUBLETS KnightKnight

For each pair of words, can you find a series of words which link them, changing just one letter each time? All links must be real words.











Each couplet in this poem clues an 8-letter word. If you find all 8 words, their first letters will spell out a word, and their last letters will spell out another word.


They’ll jump off a cliff from a great height, for fun

In a computer game from 1991



Just the right tipple for a long run

To match your own chemical composition


Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) © National Portrait Gallery, London


Kids won’t touch it - they prefer jam

Sounds like it’s near Lewisham



Practise makes perfect, that’s what they say

Regarding the vehicle that takes you away



Brenda with three Es is feeling pretty

Confused about this northern city



Caesar’s troubled by its bite

Maybe a candlelit dinner tonight?



It’s almost like there’ll be bows and knots

At the time of year you give presents lots



First letters spell out: LIBRARY

Last letters spell out: SCIENCE



Can you devise a rotation ambigram for the word FISH? Or a reflection ambigram for BIRD?

  Fish and bird ambigrams answers

Rotation ambigram for the word FISH (from Reflection ambigram or the word BIRD  (from



Can you draw this shape made from three interlaced squares, using one continuous line, without going over any parts of the line twice, without intersecting the line you’ve already drawn, and without taking your pen off the paper?

Overlapping squares


A DINNER PARTY KnightKnightKnight

At a dinner party, the host invites his father’s brother-in-law, his brother’s father-in-law, his father-in-law’s brother, and his brother-in-law’s father. What’s the smallest number of guests there could be?

A dinner party solution

Males are denoted by upper case and females are denoted by lower case letters. The host is C and his guest is E. His father's brother-in-law is B or C. His brother's father-in-law is C. His father-in-law's brother is C. His brother-in-law's father is C. Therefore the smallest number of guests is 1, C.


ANAGRAMS KnightKnight

Can you unscramble these sentences to form relevant phrases?







With thanks to Katie Steckles (@stecks) for compiling these puzzles. Katie Steckles is a mathematician based in Manchester, who gives talks and workshops on maths. She finished her PhD in 2011, and since then has talked about maths in schools, at science festivals, on BBC radio, at music festivals, as part of theatre shows and on the internet. She enjoys doing and writing puzzles, solving the Rubik's cube and baking things shaped like maths.These puzzles furst featured in the Alices Advemtures in Numberland event featuring geek comedy trio Festval of the Spoken Nerd

05 October 2015

New opportunities for collaborative PhD research exploring the British Library’s science collections

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Applications for collaborative PhD research around the British Library’s science collections are now open to UK universities and other HEIs

AHRC logoThe British Library is looking for university partners to co-supervise collaborative PhD research projects that will open up unexplored aspects of its science collections.  Funding is available from the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships programme, through which the Library works with UK universities or other eligible Higher Education Institutes around strategic research themes.

Our current CDP opportunities include a project to examine the culture and evolution of scientific research, drawing on scientists’ personal archives, and another project to develop digital tools for the investigation of scientific knowledge in the 17th and 18th centuries:

The Working Life of Scientists: Exploring the Culture of Scientific Research through Personal Archives

This project will involve a detailed mapping of the key personal relationships of 20th century British scientists to shed light on the nature, communication and reception of scientific research. It will draw on the Library’s Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts collections, which include personal archives and correspondence from the fields of computer science and programming, cybernetics and artificial intelligence, as well as evolutionary, developmental and molecular biology. As well as being situated within social and cultural history, particularly the history of science and the history of ideas, this cross-disciplinary project is applicable to research in areas such as social anthropology, sociology and social network analysis. It will open up a nuanced understanding of the BL’s collection of the personal archives of twentieth century British scientists. It will enable us to better exploit these valuable collections to research audiences across a number of disciplines.

Hans Sloane’s Books: Evaluating an Enlightenment Library

SloaneEngravedPortraitCroppedThis Digital Humanities projectwill evaluate the library of Hans Sloane (1660-1753): physician, collector and posthumous ‘founding father’ of the British Museum. For over sixty years, Hans Sloane was a dominant figure on London’s intellectual and social landscape. At the heart of his vast collections stood a library of 45,000 books, which – alongside his voluminous correspondence and thousands of prints, drawings, specimens and artefacts – bears witness to his central position in a globalised network of scientific discovery. The CDP project will apply digital techniques to exploit the raw data on over 32,000 items in the Sloane Printed Books Catalogue, and will break new ground by developing digital tools to cross reference, contextualise and analyse the data. This will forge fresh insights into how medical and scientific knowledge was gathered and disseminated in the pre-Linnaean period, with relevance to the history of science, medicine and collecting.


Moving beyond our science collections, there is also a third CDP opportunity for a project on ‘Digital Publishing and the Reader’. This will investigate the changing nature of publishing in digital environments to consider how new communication technologies should be recorded or collected as part of a national collection of British written culture.

Applications are invited from academics to develop any of these research themes with a view to co-supervising a PhD project with the British Library from October 2016. Our HEI partners receive and administer the funds for a full PhD studentship from the AHRC and, in collaboration with the Library, oversee the research and training of the student. We provide the student with staff-level access to our collections, expertise and facilities, as well as financial support for research-related costs of up to £1,000 a year.

View further details and application guidelines.

To apply, send the application form to by 27 November 2015.