China and the Royal Society: Pirie and Hinshelwood

Cyril HinshelwoodSir Cyril Hinshelwood PRS

Norman Pirie FRS

After the war more Royal Society Fellows visited China. Norman Pirie FRS, a biochemist working on plant proteins, reported on a tour made in 1952.

The tone of his report makes it clear he was interested in the cultural aspects of science in China, and not only the research programme. For example, he noted that research at Peking University into plant fibres was prompted by the great expansion of literacy in China and the consequent fear of paper shortages.

He was impressed by a herbarium with 200,000 specimens, and interested to hear that traditional herbal remedies were being systematically investigated. Finally, he remarked on the great enthusiasm of Chinese research scientists, 'even in people of an age . . . that in most other countries goes with a cynically obstructive approach'.

Sir Cyril Hinshelwood PRS

In 1959 the President of the Royal Society, Sir Cyril Hinshelwood, made an official visit to China. It was a measure of the wide interest in Chinese science that a report of his visit was published in New Scientist.

The report concentrated on research conditions rather than scientific progress, and although Hinshelwood was positive about what he had seen, his report demonstrates general Western assumptions about post-war China. He had found the 'vast and well-equipped workshops' at the Chinese universities 'rather a revelation', but did not believe the research was 'influenced by ideology'. Most importantly, he wrote:

"I sensed on several occasions (though the matter was not explicitly discussed) that a renewal of exchanges with the Western world would be welcome."