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Find out about social sciences at the British Library including collections, events and research. This blog includes contributions from curators and guest posts by academics, students and practitioners. Read more

17 November 2021

Bloodletting and leeches, not so ancient.

Hippocrates (c. 460 BC - 377 BC), the ancient Greek physician, was the first to apply humorism to medicine. In ancient medicine, “humor” refers to a fluid or semifluid substance. According to Hippocrates, the body was made up of four humors; blood, phlegm, black bile, yellow bile. Moreover, that health and disease occurred naturally when these humors were imbalanced, either in deficiency or excess. Thus, if someone was unwell, it was a product of imbalance in their body. To cure a patient of an illness, the excess of the relevant humor had to be removed. A common treatment was bloodletting and the instrument used…leeches. Leeches were used for a wide range of ailments including headaches, gout, bruising, and brain disorders among others.



A decorated initial from an illuminated manuscript, showing two people in medieval clothing. One is cutting the arm of the other so that their blood runs down into a bowl.


Although by modern standards, most people would squirm at the thought of leeches sucking their blood and deem this tradition completely archaic, the use of leeches for medical purposes has not become wholly obsolete in the 21st century.

The medical leech is known as hirudo medicinalis. Leeches have remarkable properties that make them useful medical tools. They improve blood flow in areas with poor blood circulation. Their saliva contains anticoagulants preventing clotting, and as they suck they reduce tension and remove blood clots. Leeches release a natural antiseptic as they bite, therefore preventing infection. Due to these properties, the medical leech has had a revival and is now farmed in the UK to aid treatment.

Medical leeches are used for microsurgery, and reconstructive and plastic surgery.  In the case of plastic surgery, when tissue is reattached, blood clots can form as blood can get congested. Leeches are used to remove this tension and reduce clotting. Microsurgery is surgery that requires an operating microscope. One of the main purposes of microsurgery is to transplant tissue from one part of the body to another and to reattach amputated parts in what is known as free flap surgery. A major part of this process is repairing small blood vessels. Leeches have become a valuable tool for microsurgery recovery, salvaging surgically irreparable venous insufficiency occurring after free flap procedures. The leech can help the blood flow in small blood vessels and prevent tissue from dying.

Tracing the history of medicine can be full of surprises, especially when treatments date as far back as ancient Greece. No wonder Hippocrates is known as the father of modern medicine.


References and further reading:

  • NHS, University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire, Plastic Surgery Department, Leech Therapy.
  • Royal College of Surgeons of England, Why you should love a leech: bloodletting to microsurgery, 2018.
  • NHS, Oxford University Hospitals, Leech Therapy.
  • Green, P. A.|Shafritz, A. B. (2010). Medicinal Leech Use in Microsurgery. The Journal of Hand Surgery., 35(6), 1019-1021. Shelfmark: 4996.620000
  • Soucacos, P. N.|Beris, A. E.|Malizos, K. N.|Kabani, C. T. (1994). The use of medicinal leeches, Hirudo medicinalis, to restore venous circulation in trauma and reconstructive microsurgery. International Angiology., 13(3), 251. Shelfmark: 4535.770000
  • Bloodletting zodiac man

16 November 2021

A time for action, not words

Although the dialogues and negotiations of COP26 might be yesterday’s news, the climate crisis is not. The threat remains, and we now face the hard and urgent work of reducing emissions, but also ensuring we can cope with the changes at our doorstep.

Even if there is some good news to be had (subject to the deforestation and methane agreements being implemented, as well as the promised finance materialising and reaching those who most need it), we are still not on the path to limit global temperature increases to 1.5C, which Johan Rockström, the director for the Postsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, described as a planetary boundary, with every fraction of a degree above it being dangerous.

Emma's photo blog 2
Climate change protests in Glasgow during COP26, photo taken by Dr. Emma Jenkins

It was alarming to hear the voices of the communities already deeply affected by climate change, with the abiding image of Tuvalu’s foreign minister giving his speech knee-deep in water, and the powerful words of the Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Amor Mottley, amongst many others. Yet, despite the clearly existential threats already affecting millions of people, the key changes such as phasing out of fossil fuels have still not been achieved.

So, where do we go from here?

Greta's tweet
One of Greta Thunberg's tweets after COP26

Climate activists Greta Thunberg and George Monbiot think that what happens next depends on mobilising enough people to make change happen. Nigel Topping, the UN High-Level Climate Champion, emphasises that keeping 1.5 alive requires ‘the dynamism of the non-state actor agenda in driving the ambition loop for accelerated government action’.

We cannot leave our future in the hands of high-level negotiations happening behind closed doors - it is down to all of us to work together to come up with solutions and drive change. And this needs to happen now.

Whether we manage to limit warming to 1.5C or not, climate change is happening, and as well as mitigation, we also need to look at adaptation. So, what will this look like in different places nearest to us?

Are you a Londoner suffering due to increased air pollution? Does this means that you see the new Ultra Emission Zone (ULEZ) as a part of the solution? Or do you live in a UK coastal community affected by flooding and coastal erosion? Perhaps you work in a rural community, and are worried about the increased risks of drought and flooding, and the changes that climate change will bring to rural economy?

What role do all the different stakeholders in your community play as we negotiate the issues ahead of us - from government to business, from landowners to citizens? And, who is responsible for driving adaptation and building resilience?

At the British Library, we have brought together representatives from these stakeholder groups in three special events to help us explore these issues affecting British landscapes and communities.

Our first panel, to be held on 22 November, will discuss the issues arising in the coastal communities. Chaired by Sally Brown, a coastal geomorphologist from Bournemouth University, the panel will bring together –

  • Alan Frampton - Strategy & Policy Manger for Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management from the Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council
  • Lance Martin - a former member of the Grenadier Guards who is constantly battling coastal erosion endangering his house in Hemsby, on the Norfolk Coast
  • Gustav Milne - an archaeologist who worked for the Museum of London on Thames-side sites since 1973 and has looked at significant coastal change in Essex over the last century
  • Chris Skinner - a visiting researcher at the Energy and Environment Institute, University of Hull, working on models to predict how landscapes and flood risk might change due to climate change
  • Claire Tancell - a marine ecologist, who was a member of British Antarctic Survey marine expedition and of the prize-winning Natural England team specifying Marine Protected Areas around the UK coast.

Our second panel, on 24 November, will consider countryside issues and will be chaired by Rick Stafford, a conservationist from Bournemouth University, and the lead author of the recent British Ecological Society report into Nature-Based Solutions. The panel will include –

  • Matthew Doggett - a partner and tenant on a 950 acre, mainly arable, family farm at Barley in North Hertfordshire
  • Jane Findlay - a Landscape Architect, the founding director of Fira and President of the Landscape Institute
  • Emma Hankinson - an ecologist and conservationist, with over 20 years’ experience in nature conservation, currently working as a Project Manager at Rewilding Coombeshead
  • Nicki Whitehouse - a Senior Lecturer in Archaeological Science at the University of Glasgow and Professor of Human-Environment Systems at the University of Plymouth, working on understanding complex relationships between humans, climate, landscapes and ecosystems.

Our third panel, on 26 November, will be focusing on climate change in urban environments. The panel will be chaired by Hannah Fluck, Head of Environmental Research at Historic England, and the panelists will be –

  • Neil Macdonald - a geographer from the University of Liverpool, working on understanding how floods, droughts and storms impact local communities and how they respond and adapt. Neil is the lead researcher on the current UKRI funded Building Climate Resilience Programme
  • Nadja Yang - a DPhil researcher in Systems Engineering at the University of Oxford, where she conducts research on the urban bioeconomy, a concept to help cities become more sustainable and productive in terms of their biological resources
  • Wei Yang - President of the Royal Town Planning Institute for 2021 and Global Planners Network’s representative at UN Habitat Professional Forum, as well as a founder of Wei Yang & Partners, an award-winning master planning firm in London. She is a lead figure in researching, promoting, and implementing green and low-carbon development and 21st Century Garden City approaches worldwide.

Sign up to join us for one or more of the above discussions.

Organised in collaboration with the Institute for the Modelling of Socio-Environmental Transitions (IMSET) at the Bournemouth University

02 November 2021

Changing Climate, Changing Landscapes

“The people most affected by climate change are no longer some imagined future generation.”

Sir David Attenborough, speaking to world leaders at the opening ceremony of COP26

Lucy's COP picture
An installation of planet Earth at the COP26 venue in Glasgow,
photo by Dr Lucy Wallace


The British Library and the Institute for the Modelling of Socio-Environmental Transitions (IMSET) at the Bournemouth University are collaborating on a series of workshops, to be held after the COP26, to help us reflect on how communities have coped with environmental change in the past and the lessons we can learn as we respond to the effects of climate change happening right now. We will be drawing on discussions from the annual climate change conference COP26 and the latest knowledge about climate change adaptation, to explore how we can manage environmental change in three different landscapes across Britain, and how we can make those who live in these landscapes more resilient.

In preparation for these discussions, Dr Lucy Wallace writes from the COP 26 in Glasgow:

Climate change has always seemed far away, something that will affect someone else. However, in the last decade, narratives have shifted away from polar bears on melting ice caps, to breaking news about forest fires in southern Europe and flooding across Britain. This movement from far away, to closer to home, and from habitat destruction to something that can directly affect our livelihoods, is significant. However, if we just think about climate change as happening to someone else, somewhere else, where does that leave us?

The situation we find ourselves in today was not inevitable but rather is a result of actions we have both knowingly and unknowingly taken throughout the history of humankind. Since early humans started to settle in one place and make the first attempts to farm, we have been modifying the environments we inhabit for our own gain. This has had huge consequences for biodiversity and for our landscapes. By studying the past, we can increase our understanding of how we got to where we are now, identify the tipping points which led us here and work out what we can do differently in the future.

The past offers an alternative lens from which to view our current crisis. It enables us to widen our horizons by learning from examples of past societal resilience and to identify the underlying social cultural and ecological processes that make up that resilience.

For instance, we can explore data from past land management practices, and the impact these have had on the landscape. Asking questions about the sustainability of these practices during periods of environmental change, and what they meant for the communities of people who employed them, will be key in our fight to survive as we head into the coming decades.

Building resilient communities

Emma's COP picture
Detail from the Together for Our Planet installation, photo by Dr Emma Jenkins

To preserve a liveable climate, greenhouse-gas emissions must be reduced to net 0 by 2050. We need to accelerate action this decade to ensure we have a chance to meet this target. This need to reduce emissions is the key point currently being discussed by nation states at the COP26 and is always a highly politicised and contentious issue.

Whatever is agreed at COP26 though, we know our climate is changing now. We need to consider how we can protect our British landscapes, and how do we encourage resilience in the communities of people who inhabit them.

Climate change is not just increasing temperatures. The IPCC reports show us that climate change will result in more extreme weather events, such as storms, flooding, fires, and heatwaves.

Building resilience in our communities means we will be better placed to cope with these extreme weather events, or shocks, but how we build resilience will differ depending on the landscape we are looking at.

Complicating the issue is the fact that we have become less resilient to transitions - heavy management of our landscapes has decreased their capacity to cope with environmental change.

Turn tragedy into triumph

We need to work together to find new solutions which offer us a way forward. Building resilience to climate change cannot just come from politicians and cannot simply use a one-size-fits all approach. Involving all parts of society in the discussion is key. This will enable the co-creation of solutions for different landscapes, which will be vital for us to find a way through this crisis. These ways forward will leave no-one behind and will help us to find opportunities in the challenges we face as we move forward.

This new future has the potential to be a different type of Anthropocene to what has come before. Where before there was a lack of awareness of the true impact that we have had on the environment, we now have the knowledge that we need to do things differently, and we need to pull together to make it happen.

Join us for further discussion on 22/24/26 November. You can book your space here

18 October 2021

From Turning the Pages to Virtual Books

A hand-painted illustration of a cut cucumber and a portion of a cucumber plant.
"Garden cucumber" from Blackwell's Herbal, British Library 34.I.12 -13

Some of our earliest high-quality digitised manuscripts and printed books are now available again through our website for anybody to read. They were digitised from the mid-1990s on, using the "Turning the Pages" software created by the Library in collaboration with Armadillo Systems. You might remember seeing them on stand-alone electronic consoles in various parts of the Library. The digitisations include realistic animations of the pages being physically turned and laid down.

Some of the items involved are important in the history of science:

  • The complete Codex Arundel, a collection of pages from the private sketchbooks and notebooks of the Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci, predominantly dealing with physics.
  • Highlights of Andreas Vesalius's "De Humani Corporis Fabrica", the first modern anatomical textbook, with artwork thought to be by the studio of Titian.
  • Highlights of Elizabeth Blackwell's "A Curious Herbal", the first British herbal by a woman, created in the 1730s to buy her ne'er-do-well husband out of debtors' prison.
  • Highlights of John James Audubon's famed "Birds of America".

Feel free to browse them on your computer.


06 August 2021

Keeping in touch with this blog


A collection of historic telephone equipment on a table
"Museum of Communications" by Cargo Cult is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit

We are sorry to announce that we will soon be ending email notifications of new posts to this blog. To make sure you are alerted to new posts, follow us on Twitter at You can also sign up to British Library newsletters as another means of keeping up with us.

05 June 2021

“Strange Swarms of Insects”



A picture of a large winged cicada clinging to a tree trunk
Magicicada septendecim, 17-year-periodical cicada, Danville, Illinois, USA. Wikipedia Commons.


The periodic emergence of swarms of cicadas in the eastern United States which is currently underway was one of the first natural history observations to appear in the scientific literature. In 1667 Henry Oldenburg wrote in Volume 1 of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society

Strange swarms of insects - A great observer, who hath lived long in New England, did upon occasion, relate to a friend of his in London, where he lately was, That some few years since there was such a swarm of a certain sort of Insects in that English colony, that for the space of of 200 miles they poyson'd and destroyed all the trees of that country; there being found innumerable little holes in the ground, out of which those Insects broke forth in the form of maggots, which turned into flyes that had a kind of taile or sting, which they struck into the tree, and thereby envenomed and killed it.”

The biology of this event is extraordinary. A few closely related species of cicadas (Magicicada septendecim, M. cassini, and M. septendecula) form enormous broods of billions of insects. They emerge from the soil as nymphs that moult into sexually mature adults. This happens in the north eastern US states every 17 years while another cohort of species emerges every 13 years in southern states. Cicadas are true bugs in the same group as the froghoppers that produce the cuckoo spit we see in gardens in the summer.

A map of the Eastern USA showing the various regions covered by the major periodical cicada broods.
Active periodical Cicada broods of the United States. US Forest Service.

Males gather in chorus groups and their calls attract females for mating. The calls are distinct for each species, preventing hybridisation and lower fertility. Eggs are laid on plant stems and once they hatch the young nymphs enter the soil and begin to feed on the rootlets of trees, moving deeper to larger roots as they grow. The 13 or 17 years that nymphs stay underground makes for the longest development period of any insect although they are not the longest lived insects, termite queens holding that record at 60 years. Individual cicadas grow to be large over this extended period and populations can reach densities as high as 1 tonne per hectare.

Mass emergence is thought to have evolved in the recent geological past of N America. The cooler temperatures during the Pleistocene, when glaciers reached far below the Arctic, favoured a switch from size dependent to temperature dependent development. Other cicada species living nearer the equator emerge at variable times when each nymph reaches a mature size. But in cooler climates with slower and even more variable emergence the population density in any year would be reduced and mating would become less successful. Synchronised emergence increases the population density and with it the opportunities to find mates. Emerging in huge numbers also surfeits predators and the birds and mammals that feed on the cicadas are spoilt for choice, leaving plenty of adults to reproduce.

So, 354 years after their first scientific description periodic cicadas are still the focus of research how do these insects count the years and why do they count in prime (13 and 17) numbers? These questions are still very far from being answered.

Further reading

Francisca Fuentes Rettig and Lucy Rowland. “Reading Brood X” American Collections Blog. The British Library. 18 May 2021.

Stephen Jay Gould. “Of bamboos, cicadas and the economy of Adam Smith”, in Ever since Darwin (London, Burnett Books, 1978)      pp.97-102. British Library shelfmarkX.329/11640

Kathy S. Williams Chris Simon. The ecology, behavior and evolution of periodical cicadas. Annual Review of Entomology. 1995. 40:269-95. British Library shelfmark 1522.500000. Also available online


Richard Wakeford

Science Reference Team




07 May 2021

Wiley Digital Archive on history of science now available at the British Library

The words Wiley Digital Archive, with a logo of three books standing as if on a shelf
We are happy to announce that this week we have acquired the Wiley Digital Archives of several major learned societies. The collections currently available are those from the New York Academy of Sciences, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Geographical Society, the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, and the Royal College of Physicians. The database also includes scientific material from major British universities, digitised as part of the BAAS project.

Information in the archives includes field notes on Hausa Islamic law, beginners' lessons in the Mole language spoken in parts of Ghana, research for a government investigation into early-Victorian mine ventilation, reports on an earthquake in Erzerum, Turkey in 1859, a recipe for a "very rare and excellent" seventeenth-century "wound drink", and a huge range of maps. The Royal College of Physicians collections include a number of digitised incunabula and medieval printed books. For those items which might be harder to read, automated transcriptions are available.

Unfortunately the database cannot currently be used from outside the Library, but we are open again and any reader with an interest in the history of science is highly recommended to come in and try it out.

18 March 2021

Donald Michie: Interviewing Trofim Lysenko

A combined photograph shows the faces of two white men.
Left: Trofim Lysenko in 1938. Picture in public domain. Right: Donald Michie c. 1980s. (Add MS 88958/5/4). Reproduced with permission of the estate of Donald Michie.

In August 1957, a 33-year-old Donald Michie travelled across Europe to visit Moscow. The journey was a remarkable one. Driving through Germany and Poland in a 1948 Standard drop head coupé with his friend from Oxford, John Matheson, the pair had lively encounters with enthusiastic locals, a Polish hitchhiker, and even an offer for their car from a film director in Russia.i

Whilst visiting the Institute of Genetics in Moscow, Michie had a chance encounter with Trofim Lysenko, the infamous Soviet geneticist. Seizing the opportunity, a five-hour interview between the two and Lysenko’s colleagues ensued, with a transcript and reports following in British publications over the following 12 months. What had started out as the tour of a young socialist had turned into a golden chance to meet and interrogate the man at the centre of one of the greatest scientific controversies of the twentieth century.

The British scientific community was rocked in the 1940s and ‘50s by the rise of Lysenko to Director of the Institute of Genetics in Moscow. His theories and methods (both scientific and as a political figure) prompted resignations from scientific societies, radio broadcasts and journal articles denigrating him, and no small degree of infighting as people attempted to separate the emerging Cold War political divide from the scientific merits (or demerits) of his work. Michie, as a young geneticist forging his career in this time, found himself at the heart of this.

Lysenko was a neo-Lamarckist, arguing that characteristics acquired in response to the environment an organism lives in could then be passed on to future generations. The traditional view of the 1950s, based on the work of Gregor Mendel, was that the environment’s role was limited to accelerating or slowing down random mutations of genes. Lysenko’s belief in this view was not the only factor in driving controversy. The international scientific community was also concerned by the state endorsement of his science within the Soviet Union, prompting the disappearance, side-lining, or death of prominent critics, such as N. I. Vavilov. Lysenko’s precise liability remains an issue of contention to this day.

A photograph showing a group of white men and women in casual suits.
Michie’s visit to the Institute of Genetics. Left to right: Kosikov, Ružica Glavinic, John Matheson, Trofim Lysenko, Nuzhdin, Anne McLaren and Donald Michie. Reproduced with permission of the estate of Donald Michie.

Michie was carving out his career in genetics in the 1950s. By 1953, he had finished his DPhil in mammalian genetics under the supervision of E. B. Ford at Oxford. He then moved to work as a researcher at UCL alongside notable figures such as J. B. S. Haldane, Michie’s second wife and celebrated biologist Anne McLaren, and future Nobel Prize winner Peter Medawar. Michie had already dipped his toe in the waters of the Lysenko debate in a remarkable exchange of letters to an obscure rabbit breeders’ magazine, Fur and Feather, showing himself unafraid to side with controversy as he argued in favour of testing Lysenko’s theories.ii

The cover of a journal with masthead, the first page of text of the first article, and contents of the rest of the magazine.
First page of Donald Michie, ‘Interview with Lysenko’, Soviet Science Bulletin, V (1 & 2, 1958), 1-10. Add MS 89202/11/6

The interview with Lysenko revolved around a major theme from Michie: would Lysenko be prepared to share his methods, publish work in English and permit exchanges of personnel with Western institutions? Michie’s belief was that differences between the West and Soviet Union could be overcome through collaboration and openness, fostering a spirit of sharing knowledge. Lysenko agreed with the sentiment, responding:

I do not agree with this division into Western genetics and Soviet genetics. Science is unitary. I believe, and my colleagues believe, that science knows no frontiers.iii

Both Michie and Lysenko argued for letting scientific results win the debate, however they understood the obstacles in the way of that outcome rather differently. Lysenko saw bad faith and entrenched attitudes from Western scientists, believing them unwilling to entertain the possibility of Soviet scientists producing good research. Michie saw barriers to accessibility, such as the poor understanding of the Russian language in the West. He criticised the stubbornness of Lysenko and his colleagues to share their techniques and offer work for publication in English journals, whilst also castigating Western scientists for not engaging with the science and testing it rigorously and with an open mind.

Ultimately, Michie concluded from his meeting with Lysenko:

The only certain remedy that I can see is to reunite the genetical profession in a single scientific brotherhood irrespective of politics, nationality or genetical creed. … In more definite terms, Soviet and East European biologists must be willing to publish in Western journals and vice versa.iv

The question which follows is: Did Michie’s interview impact Lysenko’s reputation in Britain?

The short answer is probably not. For instance, Michie drew upon Lysenkoist scientists in a remarkable 1958 essay reflecting on 100 years since Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.v The references to Lysenkoists were not well-received by reviewers, with them finding Michie’s piece out of step with the tone of the other essays in the collection. Lysenko’s reputation was, at least in the late 1950s, still entrenched negatively in the Western scientific world.

Shortly after these interventions, Michie drifted away from the world of genetics to pursue his long-standing interest in computers and artificial intelligence following his move to the University of Edinburgh in 1958. As such, his contributions on Lysenko petered out. He would go on to become one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence research in the United Kingdom. Never one to shy away from controversial topics, he found himself at the centre of the heated Lighthill debate in the 1970s concerning the funding of AI projects.

Lysenko’s reputation has largely remained contentious in the UK. Whilst there have been attempts to rehabilitate his science and separate it from his political reputation, such as by Chinese scientist Yongsheng Liu in the early 2000s, there is still a great deal of baggage associated with Lysenko.

Reflecting on the Lysenko controversy nearly 50 years later, Michie remarked:

Perhaps history is not after all a documented story of what probably happened. Rather, perhaps history is whatever tale of mystery and imagination becomes in the end too embedded to set

Whilst this may have been one tale which Michie could not set straight, his open-mindedness and commitment to scientific exchange as an early-career researcher are admirable and fascinating to see in the face of such a controversial and fraught debate.

Matt Wright

Sources and Further Reading
Michie, D., ‘The Moscow Institute of Genetics’, Discovery, October 1957, pp. 432-434, p. 434. Available in Add MS 89202/11/6.
Michie, D., ‘Interview with Lysenko’, Soviet Science Bulletin, V (1 & 2, 1958), 1-10, p. 4. Available in Add MS 89202/11/6.
Michie, D., ‘The Third Stage in Genetics’, in A Century of Darwin, ed. By S. A. Barnett, (London: Heinemann, 1958), pp. 56-84.
Donald Michie to Judith Field, 14 July 2005, in London, British Library, uncatalogued digital collection.

Matt Wright is a PhD student at the University of Leeds and the British Library. He is on an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership researching the Donald Michie Archive, exploring his work as a geneticist and artificial intelligence researcher in post-war Britain.

Donald Michie at the British Library
The Donald Michie Papers at the British Library comprises of three separate tranches of material gifted to the library in 2004 and 2008. They consist of correspondence, notes, notebooks, offprints and photographs and are available to researchers through the British Library’s Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue at Add MS 88958, Add MS 88975 and Add MS 89072.

i Details of Michie’s trip driving across Europe in a 1948 Standard drop head coupé are available in Add MS 88958/3/21.
ii These letters are available in the Donald Michie archive: Add MS 88958/3/20.
iii Donald Michie, ‘Interview with Lysenko’, Soviet Science Bulletin, V (1 & 2, 1958), 1-10, p. 4. Available in Add MS 89202/11/6.
iv Donald Michie, ‘The Moscow Institute of Genetics’, Discovery, October 1957, pp. 432-434, p. 434.
v For more details, see Donald Michie, ‘The Third Stage in Genetics’, in A Century of Darwin, ed. By S. A. Barnett, (London: Heinemann, 1958), pp. 56-84.
vi Donald Michie to Judith Field, 14 July 2005, in London, British Library, uncatalogued digital collection.

16 March 2021

Three men, a tobacco plant disease, and a virus.

The past year has seen many a new word popping up in our languages: Furlough (from the Dutch ‘verlof’ or paid leave), social distancing, lockdown, you name it. Most of these have ‘gone viral’, just like the virus itself. And just like the virus itself the word ‘virus’ mutated over time.

The word ‘virus’ was long known in science, but it was not used to describe the pathogen we know it to be. That was the work of Dutch biologist Martinus Willem Beijerinck.

An elderly, balding man with spectacles sits at a lab bench with a microscope mounted on it.
Portrait of Martin Willem Beijerinck, Wikipedia Commons


Beijerinck was the third of three scientists who had worked on the tobacco mosaic disease, an infection that could devastate whole crops. He continued the work done on the disease by Adolf Mayer, former Director of the Agricultural Experiment Station at the Agricultural School in Wageningen where he himself was based. Meyer found that if a bacterium was the cause, there was something strange going on but he could not figure out what it was.

A photograph signed "Dr. Adolf Mayer" shows a youngish man with a moustache in nineteenth-century business attire.
Portrait of Adolf Meyer in 1875. Wikipedia Commons

The next step in the right direction was made by Russian botanist Dmitrii Ivanovsky He concluded that the tobacco mosaic disease is caused by something much smaller than a bacterium, because it had slipped through the finest filters of the time, that no bacterium could cross.

He published his findings in several publications, amongst which was an article entitled ‘Die Pockenkrankheit der Tabakspflantze’, published in Mémoires de l'Académie Impériale des Sciences de Saint-Pétersbourg in 1890.

A stamp with cyrillic lettering shows a man with a beard and a widow's peak, wearing a bow tie and overcoat.
Dmity Ivanovski, from a USSR postage stamp celebrating the centenary of his birth


Apparently this was not picked up by our third man, Beijerinck. He conducted similar research on the tobacco mosaic disease as Ivanovsky had done, but concluded there had to be a new form of infectious agent. Because it was soluble in water Beijerinck called it Contagium vivum fluidum and he called the pathogen ‘virus’ to distinguish it from bacteria.

He also suggested the new idea that viruses were only capable of reproducing in cells of other organisms. His hypothesis was confirmed a few years later, when electron microscopes became available. I am not sure whether Beijerinck lived to see this new type of kit, because he died in 1931, the year it was invented.

Text-only title page of a book, stamped for Groeningen University Library..
Title page of 'Verzamelde geschriften van M. W. Beijerinck ter gelegenheid van zijn 70sten verjaardag…' The Hague, 1940. 10761.i.33


Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections.

References and further reading:

Beijerinck, Martinus Willem, Verzamelde geschriften van M. W. Beijerinck ter gelegenheid van zijn 70sten verjaardag ... uitgegeven door zijne vrienden en vereerders. (Delft, 1921-1940.) 6 vols. Shelfmark 12260.l.13.

Iterson Jr. , G. van, Dooren de Jong, L.E. den, Kluyver, A.J., Maritinus Willem Beijerinck. His life and his work. The Hague, 1940. Shelfmark 10761.i.33 Separate publication in English translation of part 2 of vol. 6 of 'Verzamelde geschriften'. Another edition was published in 1983 by Science Tech in Madison, Wisconsin. Shelfmark 85/11941

Iwanowski, D. (1892). "Über die Mosaikkrankheit der Tabakspflanze". Bulletin Scientifique Publié Par l'Académie Impériale des Sciences de Saint-Pétersbourg / Nouvelle Serie III (in German and Russian). 35: pp. 67–70. Translated into English in Johnson, J., Ed. (1942) Phytopathological classics No. 7, pp. 27–-30 Neither item held by the BL.

Zaitlin, Milton. The Discovery of the Causal Agent of the Tobacco Mosaic Disease. In: Discoveries in plant biology / S.D. Kung and S.F. Yang (Eds.). Hong Kong, 1998, Chapter 7, pp 105-110. Available at

15 January 2021

zbMATH Open - mathematical database now free online

zbMATH Open - the first resource for mathematics. The logo is a white square containing a small grey square in the upper left corner and a larger red square in the lower right corner

We are very happy to hear that zbMATH, one of the most important bibliographic databases in the field of mathematics, is now freely available to all online. The database is run by FIZ Karlsruhe, the European Mathematical Society and the Heidelberg Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the funding to make it free to all was provided by the Joint Science Conference, the German national government organisation for science research funding and policy.

The database covers mathematics books and scholarly articles comprehensively since 1868, with some items from considerably earlier. It includes material from the paper abstracts journals Jahrbuch über die Fortschritte der Mathematik (1868-1945) and Zentralblatt für Mathematik (1931-2013). It can be searched by author and subject as normal, but also includes searching by mathematical formula and the subject-specific Mathematics Subject Classification. It includes not just abstracts, but independent reviews of the significance of important articles, although some of these are in German rather than English. It also has both forward and backward citation data. Where possible links to the online full-text item are provided.

The administrators are currently working on developing an API to allow content from zbMATH to be used in other digital information systems on an open access basis.

Anybody with an interest in mathematics is heartily recommended to try it out.