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Discover Science at the British Library


We are the British Library Science Team; we provide access to world-leading scientific information resources, manage UK DataCite and run science events and exhibitions. This blog highlights a variety of the activities we are involved with. Follow us on Twitter: @ScienceBL. Read more

19 July 2017

William Perkin and mauveine

We’ve been blogging and tweeting a lot about the historical inventions in the GREATforImagination campaign, with links to the key patents involved. Unfortunately, most British patents from before 1895 aren’t available free online and can only be seen if you come to our building at St Pancras. We’ll be making full blog posts about some of these, to give you some more detailed information than can fit into a Tweet or the Instagram post.

Not every invention is made by people who see a problem and set out to find a solution to it. Curiosity-driven science can produce useful inventions that the scientists involved never anticipated. A classic example of this took place in 1856, when William Perkin tried to make an artificial anti-malarial drug, and instead discovered what would become the first totally human-created molecule to become the centre of a profitable business.

The eighteen-year-old Perkin was a student of the chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann at the Royal College of Chemistry in London (eventually merged into what would become Imperial College). Hofmann had speculated to Perkin that on the basis of the atomic formulas then assigned to the chemicals, it would be possible to create the drug quinine by somehow combining two molecules of napthylamine with one of water. Perkin decided to try to synthesise quinine by oxidising allyltoluidine with dichromate. It is now known that the complex structures of organic molecules make such a naïve approach based purely on atomic formulas useless. When Perkin failed, he decided to try oxidising aniline with dichromate (it was subsequently discovered that the aniline he used was contaminated with toluidine, with mauveine being created by the oxidation of both together), and discovered that the product obtained was a useful dye. Mauveine, as it became known, was the first cheap and stable purple dye, and when Perkin commercialised it a colour that had been traditionally associated with the richest in society became accessible to all. It was the first of the so-called azo dyes, which were among the first products of the modern chemical industry.

Perkin patented his dye and persuaded his relatives to fund him in creating a factory, near Greenford in west London. He continued to work in chemistry, discovering the “Perkin reaction” to make cinnamic acid from acetic anhydride and benzaldehyde, and developing a way to commercially synthesise the natural dye alizarin (from the madder plant) from coal tar. Unfortunately, a rival German team simultaneously developed the same process and patented it one day earlier! Perkin’s lasting fame can be gauged by the fact that the Perkin Medal, the most important American prize for organic chemistry, and Perkin Transactions, for many years the British Royal Society of Chemistry’s main scholarly journal on organic chemistry, were both named after him. Mauveine

Perkin’s mauveine is a mixture of up to twelve different compounds containing N-phenylphenazinium ring systems with additional amine and sometimes methyl groups. The structures of the most important two were not clearly discovered until 1994, because an incorrect structure of unclear origin had been repeatedly cited in the literature and assumed to be right. They are seen in the diagram, with the group "R" being a hydrogen atom in one of them, and a methyl (CH3) group in the other.

Further reading at the British Library:

Perkin, W.H. (1901). The origin of the coal-tar colour industry, and the contributions of Hofmann and his pupils. In Memorial lectures delivered before the Chemical Society 1893-1900 (pp. 596-637). London: Gurney & Barrow. Shelfmark W1/9939 – Perkin’s own description of his famous first synthesis of mauveine, the discussions that provoked the experiment, and his later career in the chemical industry.

Perkin, W.H. (1879). On mauveine and allied colouring matters. Journal of the Chemical Society, Transactions, 35, 717-32. Shelfmark (P) JB 00-E(8) – Perkin’s description of the physical properties and chemical reactions of mauveine.

Perkin, W.H. (1858). On the purple dye obtained from coal-tar. In Report of the twenty-eighth meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Paper presented at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Leeds, September 1858 (p.58). London: John Murray. Shelfmark Ac.1181. – Perkin’s first brief scholarly announcement of mauveine.

Perkin, W.H. (1856). Producing a new coloring matter for dyeing with a lilac or purple color stuffs of silk, cotton, wool, or other materials. GB1984/1856. Shelfmark IP Reserve South – Perkin’s patent for the creation of azo dyes and dyeing techniques using them.

Meth-Cohn, O. and Smith, M. (1994). What did W. H. Perkin actually make when he oxidised aniline to obtain mauveine? Journal of the Chemical Society, Perkin Transactions 1, pp. 5-7. Shelfmark (P) JU 00 –E(9), also available in online subscription – the first investigation of Perkin’s preserved original samples of mauveine under modern spectroscopic techniques to determine the exact structures.

Written by Philip Eagle

A Treasure Ship in the Patent Office Library

The Patent Office Library was one of the British Library’s founding collections and we are currently incorporating its books into the Library’s main collection. Recently I came across a forgotten treasure, a large coloured lithograph (24” x 52”) showing in great detail the interior of a Victorian battleship. The ship was HMS Royal Albert , the largest first rate sail battleship ever built for the Royal Navy. At 5000 tons displacement and with 131 guns it greatly outclassed HMS Victory’s 3500 tons and 104 guns. The Royal Albert was laid down in 1844 in Woolwich Dockyard at the very end of the Navy’s tradition of wooden construction. This also marked the final years of the Thames as the centre of the ship building industry. The invention of screw propulsion had just made one of the great leaps forward in marine technology and so the Royal Albert was adapted in 1852 while still on the stocks to take a 500hp auxiliary steam engine and a propeller. She sailed on to be the flagship of the Mediterranean fleet and saw action in the Crimean War. However the dockyard modifications proved faulty, the propeller shaft leaked, and the ship was broken up in 1884.

P1010544edit (2)

Section of a first class, first rate line of battle ship of 131 guns with screw propeller and auxiliary steam power. To Captain….Sir Baldwin Walker, Surveyor of the Navy. This print is with permission respectfully dedicated by his obliged and obedient servant Charles Lewis Pickering. Paris and New York. Goupil & Vibert. 1852

The library’s fold out collection item, a cutaway view, was a novelty for its time and is a forerunner of those much loved illustrations in the Eagle comic of the 1950s and 60s. The cutaway shows the layout of masts, engines, guns, store rooms and all the equipment of a warship. The particular charm of this piece is the lively human detail that is so often missing from ship paintings, a gun crew at their mess table, sailors in their hammocks, the marine band practicing, blacksmiths at work and the Captain’s wife in full crinoline standing in their cabin.  

Why this unusually large print by the artist Charles Lewis Pickering was published is not known but its quality suggests that it was made to commemorate a significant event for the Royal Navy, perhaps the ceremonial launching of the Royal Albert by the Queen. Further research on the artist drew a blank until I checked the British Newspaper Archive which holds millions of digitised newspaper pages from the British Library's collection. There I found an account from the Bury Post of July 1853 which shows how desperate Charles Pickering was to market his production:

“Impudent imposter – Last week a person waited upon Earl Jermyn, at his town residence, and presenting a card with the name “ Mr Charles Lewis Pickering” represented himself as brother-in-law to the Editor of this paper, and solicited his Lordship’s patronage for an engraving of a screw steamer, dedicated to the Surveyor of the Navy. The Noble Lord, deceived by this representation and by the signatures of Members of both Houses of Parliament and other gentlemen with whom he was acquainted was induced to add his subscription and his guinea but afterwards discovered that the trick had been practised upon another Member by precisely the same tale of connection with the Editor of a Paper in the town represented by that Member. We hope it will not be inferred from the occurrence that newspaper Editors are especially addicted to solicitations of the patronage of their representatives.”

The middle of the nineteenth century saw an arms race in ship design. In 1859 HMS Warrior was laid down as the Navy’s first all metal hull and two years later HMS Prince Albert was the first ship to mount rotating gun turrets and lack mainsails. In a decade, warships had progressed from the wooden walls that Nelson would have recognised to something close to a modern warship’s silhouette. And for a contemporary contrast, the Queen Elizabeth, the largest capital ship ever built for the Royal Navy, sailed on its sea trials recently, powered by 100,000 hp electric motors and displacing 70,000 tonnes.

Richard Wakeford is an information specialist in the Science Reference team.


05 July 2017

A tribute to Anne McLaren

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.

30 June 2017

GREATforInspiration kicks off

GREATforImagination logoThis week saw the launch of the GREATforImagination campaign, part of the GREAT Britain campaign to promote the UK as a place to buy from, invest in, and study in. GREATforImagination celebrates the 400th anniversary year of the publication of the first British patent to be retrospectively identified in the 19th century, after the foundation of the Patent Office (now the Intellectual Property Office), as a patent for an invention in the modern sense.

GREAT Britain asked us, as the holder's of Britain's historic patent collection, to come up with some key historical British patents for the different industries that they cover each week, which they'll be promoting one invention from per weekday as the campaign continues. We're tweeting each day with a link to the GREATforImagination release on each invention, and a link to the patent if it's available free online on Espacenet. The inventions are a mix of the historical ones and new ones from the cutting edge of British industrial innovation. The first week deals with clothing and cinema, and next week will cover technological developments from curiosity-driven science.

When GREAT Britain first asked us to start coming up with patents, we searched history books while they consulted industrial sources, to find inventions that were either a success at the time, or anticipated technologies that became important in the future once the world had caught up with them. There won't be any "weird patents" or "stupid patents" here, but ideas that stood the test of time.

So keep watching our Twitter and the GREATforImagination Instagram for GREAT British inventions historical and modern.

20 June 2017

British Library Digital Resources Discovery Sessions: Web of Science (WOS)

When: 10.00 – 12.00 or 13.00 – 15.00, Friday 23 June

Where: Social Science Seminar Room, Floor 1

Readers and staff are invited to attend one of two training sessions

being run by Thomson Reuters on their Web of Science e-resource.

These sessions will cover the following areas:

  • WOS Core for accelerating research discovery using the Citation Network and identifying impactful research
  • WOS All Databases for discovering the most relevant research and discovery beyond journal literature (patents for example)
  • Incites JCR+ ESI to identify top journals and identify the producers of the most impactful research and follow key trends in science.

Booking your place

To book your place please email Alternatively you are very welcome turn up on the day if there are spaces available and can register as a reader.

Applying for a readers pass:

Web of Science


08 June 2017

Untangling academic publishing

Untangling Academic Publishing logo. Creator uncredited, published under CC-BY

On the 25th of May we attended the launch of the report Untangling Academic Publishing by Aileen Fyfe and others ( The report describes the history of scholarly publishing from the nineteenth century to the modern era of open access, “crises” in affordability of journals and books, and controversy over commercial publishers’ profits and competing business models.

The report discusses the post-WWII evolution of scholarly publishing from an original model where learned societies saw dissemination of research results as simply a part of their essential activity, with no expectations of profit and many copies of journals distributed free to public, academic and scholarly subscription libraries. After WWII an alliance became formed with profit-seeking scholarly publishers, under the pressure of the increasing quantity of publically-funded academic research and increasingly large numbers of universities and professional researchers in the developed world, and a growing proliferation of subdisciplines. Commercial publishers turned scholarly publication into a profitable business by setting up journals for subdisciplines without their own journals or learned societies, selling to institutions, and internationalising the market.

It was during this time that the current system of peer review was developed, and publication metrics became increasingly used to assess the prestige of individual academics and reward them with career progression and funding.

However, since the 1980s this period of close association between the interests of scholars and commercial publishers has ended, due to further expansion of the research base, reduced library budgets due to inflation and cuts in funding, and in the UK specifically issues related to exchange rates. University libraries have struggled to afford journal subscriptions and monograph purchases, leading to a vicious circle of declining sales and increasing costs. Increasingly scholars at all but the wealthiest institutions have found themselves unable to legally obtain material that they need to read, and resentment of the profit margins made by the “big four” commercial scholarly publishers in particular has developed.

Hopes that digital publication would allow cost-cutting have failed to materialise, with publishers arguing that the actual costs of distributing and printing hard copy publications are relatively small compared to editorial costs, and that providing online access mechanisms with the robustness and additional features that users want is not as cheap as some initial enthusiasts assumed. Open access, which covers a variety of business models not based on charging for access at the point of use, has been promoted for almost twenty years, but has failed to replace subscription publishing or, to a great extent, to challenge the market dominance of major commercial publishers, with much open access publishing based on the “gold” business model funded by article processing charges paid by authors or research funders, often offered by commercial publishers as an alternative. Hence universities often find themselves faced with paying both subscriptions and article processing charges instead of just subscriptions, and mechanisms offered by publishers to offset one against the other have been criticised as lacking transparency.

At the event, there were presentations by Dr. Fyfe, her co-author Stephen Curry (whose views can be found here), and David Sweeney, Executive Chair Designate of Research England. Mr. Sweeney welcomed the report for describing the situation without demonising any parties, and pointed out that publishers are adding value and innovating. He suggested that a major current issue is that academics who choose how to publish their work have no real connection to the way that it is paid for – either by their institutional libraries paying subscriptions or by funders paying APC’s – and hence are often not aware of this as an issue. It was pointed out in discussion after the event that the conversation about publishing models is still almost completely among librarians and publishers, with few authors involved unless they are very interested in the subject – the report is aimed partly at raising awareness of the issues among authors.

The general argument of the report is that it is time to look again at whether learned societies should be taking more of a role in research dissemination and maybe financially supporting it, with particular criticism of those learned societies who contract out production of their publications to commercial publishers and do not pay attention to those publishers’ policies and behaviour. Although there is no direct allusion, it is interesting that soon after the report’s launch, this post was published on Scholarly Kitchen, discussing the concept of society-funded publication and putting forward the name of “diamond open access” for it.

18 May 2017

Local heroes: Sir Henry Bessemer - Islington and St Pancras inventor

Bessemer spy
Sir Henry Bessemer, caricature by "Spy" (Leslie Ward)

On Tuesday evening Philip attended an event at City, University of London, for the unveiling of a blue plaque to the inventor and entrepreneur Sir Henry Bessemer. Bessemer lived for some time in a house at Northampton Square in Islington, in a block that was demolished after World War II for the construction of the university’s current main entrance building. When the main entrance was reconstructed recently, archaeological investigation confirmed that Bessemer’s home had been directly on its site. After the plaque unveiling, Dr. Susan Mossman from the Science Museum delivered a lecture on Bessemer’s life, from which much of the information in this post comes.

Bessemer is best known for his revolutionary process for steel manufacture, by blowing air through molten pig iron in an egg-shaped converter, to oxidise away most of the carbon in the pig iron. This left steel with the correct proportion of carbon to make it a useful metal. The process was covered by several British patents in 1855-6, but especially GB2321/1855 and GB2768/1855. These patents are not online, but you can see digital copies of them if you come to our reading rooms.

Bessemer preferred to licence his patent rather than build an ironworks himself, but many early licensees failed, and the process was considered a flop until he constructed an ironworks in Baxter Road in Saint Pancras, close to where the British Library is now, and began selling steel at far lower prices than anyone else could manage. It turned out that the process as Bessemer first conceived it was not suitable for iron containing high levels of phosphorus impurities, which was true for metal from ore mined in Northern England. One answer was to oxidise away the contaminants, which also destroyed the carbon already in the pig iron, and then add new carbon and manganese. This process was developed by Robert Forester Mushet, whose business failed but whose process Bessemer took over once Mushet’s patent expired. Bessemer was finally, reportedly shamed by Mushet’s daughter, persuaded to give Mushet a pension. The second answer was the Gilchrist-Thomas process, which lined the converter with alkaline stone, causing the acidic phosphorus compounds in the iron to form compounds that precipitated out of the steel and into the slag. With these further refinements Bessemer’s process became licenced worldwide, making Bessemer hugely rich, and did not become completely obsolete until the late twentieth century.

Bessemer Kelham
Bessemer Converter at Kelham Island Museum, Sheffield

Bessemer had already come up with many other inventions before his steel process, and would continue to do so afterwards. The most lucrative was his first real success, before steel, a method for making bronze powder for metallic paints on an industrial scale, hugely reducing the cost of a product which had previously been made by hand-grinding by craftworkers in Germany. Bessemer kept the process secret for decades, by ensuring that the machines were kept in four sealed rooms with strictly limited access, and that few people other than himself knew more than one of the four stages of the process. This helped him keep a monopoly much longer than the fourteen years he would have had if he’d patented the process. Bessemer was a shrewd businessman who would only continue working in a field as long as it made money. Once competitors had caught up with him he would move on to something else.

Another of Bessemer’s claims to fame was his early investment in “Parkesine”, the first commercialised artificial plastic, a form of celluloid. The business was a failure due to initial low quality, but remains historically important. At the time of his death, Bessemer was having what would have been the world’s second largest telescope constructed at his estate in Denmark Hill, but it was abandoned when he passed away.

Bessemer tomb
Bessemer's tombstone in West Norwood Cemetery (photograph by Robert Mason, CC0 licence)

Bessemer remains an inspiring figure for modern British inventors, but the story of his steel process also demonstrates some important lessons that dispel some of the romantic ideas of the inventor. Firstly, always be open to taking on the ideas of others instead of believing your own ideas to be perfect and unimprovable. Second, you may well have to start your own business instead of assuming that other people will be falling over themselves to licence your idea. Third, always think about whether an invention will make money, as well as its abstract beauty. And fourth, it helps to have plenty of money to invest before you start!

Further reading:

Patents by Henry Bessemer, in the Business & IP Reading Room at St Pancras.

An earlier blog post by Dr. Mossman on Bessemer’s life.

Bessemer, H and Bessemer, H Jr. Sir Henry Bessemer, FRS: an autobiography. London: Engineering, 1905. Available for order to our Reading Rooms at 10825.k.7 or Wq3/9544.

Bodsworth, C (Ed.). Sir Henry Bessemer: father of the steel industry. London: Institute of Materials, 1998. Available for order to our Reading Rooms at YK.1998.b.6654 or 2247.795000 690.

05 May 2017

The first British-made satellite was launched fifty years ago today

Scout rocket
A NASA Scout rocket of the type used to launch Ariel 3. Used under the NASA copyright policy.

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the launch of Ariel 3, the first satellite to be designed and constructed in the UK. The two previous Ariel satellites had been designed in Britain but constructed by NASA. It was launched by NASA in the USA on 5th May 1967, carrying five scientific experiments in the fields of astronomy and atmospheric studies. It was shut down in September 1969 and re-entered Earth’s atmosphere on 14th December 1970.


The international collaboration took place under COSPAR, the Committee on Space Research. Its experiments were:

An investigation of the electron density and temperature in the ionosphere (the portion of the upper atmosphere where air molecules are ionised by solar radiation) using a Langmuir probe, and a second experiment using a parallel-plate capacitor, both led by Professor James Sayers of the University of Birmingham.

A mapping of large-scape radio noise sources in the Milky Way, led by Professor F Graham Smith of the University of Cambridge.

Measuring the concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere at heights of 150-300 km, led by Dr. Kenneth H Stewart of the Meteorological Office.

Measuring radio emissions from thunderstorms and other natural terrestrial sources at six key frequencies, led by John A Murphy of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

A worldwide survey of VLF radio signals, and an investigation of the effects of the propagation path on a 16kHz ground-based radio transmitter, led by Professor Thomas R Kaiser of the University of Sheffield.

For more information on the satellite, see the NASA catalog entry on it. Contemporary descriptions of the satellite and the results of the experiments were contained in two special journal issues:

Radio and Electronic Engineer, 1968, 35 (1). British Library shelfmark STM (P) RT 40-E(7) and DSC 7229.400000, also available online in our Reading Rooms through our subscription to IEEE Xplore.

Proceedings of the Royal Society, 1969, 311 (1507). British Library shelfmark (P) JA 00-E(12), also available online in our Reading Rooms through JSTOR.

20 April 2017

Wolters Kluwer Digital Resources Discovery Day at the British Library


When: Wednesday 26th April 2017, 10.00-16.00

Audience: registered readers and staff 

Location: British Library, Science Seminar Room, Social Science Reading Room

Search and Discover with Ovid: 10.00 – 13.00

  • Session 1: Overview of Ovid digital resources (10:00-10:30)
  • Session 2: Searching via Ovid:  Practical tips (10:30-11:00)
  • Session 3: Research tools: case studies 1 (11:15-12:30)

Afternoon: Digital scholarship

  • Session 4: Research tools: case studies 2 (13:45-14:45)
  • Session 5: The Discovery Service, Insights & Training(15:00-15:30)
  • Session 6: British Library/Ovid: encouraging digital engagement(15:30-16:00)

 The British Library offers a range of the OVID databases and digital resources for readers and their research in the areas of science, medicine, technology and social sciences. Specialist product trainers will be at hand to help us make the most of these digital tools and content.  

Booking your place: Please email to book your free place or just come along on the day.


17 March 2017

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

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.