Untold lives blog

3 posts categorized "Contemporary Britain"

05 May 2016

Calculating Kindness Revisited

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To publicise our event Calculating Kindness: Chasing George Price, to be held Tuesday, 10th May, 6.30 – 8.00 pm at the British Library, we are republishing an edited version of Laura Farnworth’s post on the development of  Undercurrent’s production, Calculating Kindness, using archives held at the British Library.

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Adam Burton as George Price. Copyright Richard Davenport/Undercurrent.

I first stumbled across George Price in a Readers Digest article in 2011. Struck by his extraordinary story, which illuminates important questions about who we are, I was compelled to find out more. This led me to the British Library where his manuscripts are held, together with those of his colleague, evolutionary biologist William Hamilton.

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Neal Craig as William Hamilton, Adam Burton as George Price. Copyright Richard Davenport/Undercurrent.

Price was an eccentric American who arrived in London in 1968. He spent weeks going to libraries, until he discovered a paper by Hamilton.  One of the key ideas in Hamilton’s paper was that people are genetically predisposed to be kindest to kin. George found the idea bleak. Did real selfless kindness exist?

In an attempt to prove the idea wrong, George formulated an equation widely acknowledged as the mathematical explanation for the evolution of altruism. The Price Equation proved Hamilton right and was so extraordinary that University College London gave George an honorary position within eighty minutes of him walking in off the street.

George had been a militant atheist, but writing the equation had a strange effect on him. He began to calculate the probabilities of coincidences in his life, including the probability of him being the man to write the equation. The outcome was so remote, George decided the equation was a gift from God and converted to fundamental Christianity overnight.

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Adam Burton as George Price. Copyright Richard Davenport/Undercurrent.

George then embarked on a radical phase of altruism - helping complete strangers. He gave away everything he had and ended up homeless. In America, George had undergone an operation for thyroid cancer. Now, testing God, he had stopped his thyroid medicine, which can contribute to depression. George was pushing the extremes of survival, living on a pint of milk a day and celebrating his last 15 pence.

A few years later, Price was discovered in a squat having slit his throat. Seven men attended his funeral - five homeless and two evolutionary biologists, William Hamilton and John Maynard Smith.

‘Calculating Kindness’ weighs up the question: was Price mentally ill, or consumed by a spiritual desire to disprove his own theory: that man is kindest to his kin?

Whilst reading through his papers George began to come to life for me - with each document I got to know him a little more. I started to understand what preoccupied George and how he thought about things. This invaluable research has formed the bedrock for developing the show. It is material I keep coming back to, and as my understanding of George’s science improves, so I see new things in his writings.

Laura Farnworth
Artistic Director of Undercurrent


16 March 2016

Dame Anne McLaren: a noted career

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Dame Anne McLaren (1927–2007) was a developmental biologist who pioneered techniques that led to human in vitro fertilisation (IVF).

McLaren studied Zoology at Oxford and received a DPhil in 1952. In the same year she moved to UCL and began research with her husband Donald Michie into the skeletal development of mice. In 1955 she and Michie moved to the Royal Veterinary College and it was in 1958, while working with John Biggers, that McLaren produced the first litter of mice grown from embryos that had been developed outside the uterus and then transferred to a surrogate mother. This work paved the way for the development of IVF technologies and the birth of the first IVF baby Louise Brown some 20 years later.


Detail from McLaren’s laboratory notebook dated 1955-1959 recording her experiments concerning embryo transplants in mice. (Add MS 83844). Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.


Detail from Mclaren’s laboratory notebook dated 1968-1976. (Add MS 83854). Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.

In later years Anne’s career took her from Edinburgh to Cambridge via UCL where she continued her work into fertility and reproduction. As well as undertaking research she was a keen advocate of scientists explaining their work to the population at large and being involved in the formation of public policy. McLaren was a member of the Warnock committee whose advice led to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990 as well as the establishment of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which regulated in vitro fertilization and the use of human embryos, on which she served for over 10 years.


Selection of lectures dating from 1977-78 including a ‘Lecture to girl’s school near York’ (Add MS 83835). Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.

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 planned for release later in 2016. 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 and Untold Lives blogs highlighting some of the British Library’s science collections as part of British Science Week 2016.

Jonathan Pledge, Curator of Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts, Public and Political Life. 

21 April 2015

Memories of Reading needs you!

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Memories of Reading is the name of a new research project conducted by the School of Education, University of Sheffield. The project seeks narratives, stories and anecdotes from all sections of the community, focusing on reading experiences and adventures spanning the past 100 years. The project evolved from a Booktrust-funded evidence review, entitled "Attitudes to Reading and Writing and their Links with Social Mobility 1914–2014" (Levy et al, 2014). This evidence review was mainly based around literature searches and data drawn from the Mass Observation Archive, as well as a small number of intergenerational family interviews.

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During the interviews, we found that people came to life when they shared their stories about reading - whether they talked about visiting the library as a child, learning to read in school, or about their favourite books and stories, people's memories of reading are vivid and descriptive, linked to their identities and personal histories. In order to focus on these stories, "Memories of Reading", led by Dr Sabine Little, was launched at an event as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science at the University of Sheffield last November. In a "Story Hut", members of the public were invited to share their memories. The event led not only to a number of wonderful narratives, but also to intergenerational communication - grandparents took their grandchildren in and explained to them how they learnt to read as children, children spoke about their favourite books and explained to their parents what they liked about them. Together, the Memories of Reading form a social commentary on reading in school, in families and at home, using technology, visiting libraries, arriving in the UK, or establishing an identity as a reader. Spanning 100 years, some decades are obviously better represented than others, and the search is on to make sure that each decade is fully explored!


Your input is needed!  It is intended for the Memories of Reading to be published in book format, alongside a narrative analysis and referenced commentary linking the memories to historical events. In order for the project to be successful, many, many more memories are needed! Anybody willing to be a part of the project can add their memory here   - Please share the link with any organisation, school or initiative you feel would be interested! Memories will be gathered throughout 2015, to maximise opportunities for the project to become known across all sections of the community. We will keep you posted on the results, or follow #memoriesofreading on Twitter!

Sabine Little
Lecturer in Educational Studies, University of Sheffield

Further reading:
Memories of Reading website
Levy, R., Little, S., Clough, P., Nutbrown, Bishop, J.,  Lamb, T., and Yamada-Rice, D. (2014a) Attitudes to Reading and Writing and their Links with Social Mobility 1914-2014 – An Evidence Review.  London: Booktrust.