In addition to the Inspiring Scientists project we asked the British Library to pull out material on diversity in British science, captured from their project ‘An Oral History of British Science’. The additional package of clips and images focuses on four themes: Gender, Ethnicity (Jewish migrant scientists), Disability and Socio-economic background/varied routes into science.
A small number of scientists interviewed for An Oral History of British Science talk in some detail about physical disabilities that have affected their lives, and in some cases influenced the direction of their scientific work. Materials scientist Professor Sir Colin Humphreys FRS recalls and reflects on the significance of extreme short sightedness and a birth defect requiring surgery and the wearing of leg irons until the age of 12. Soil scientist Professor David Jenkinson FRS considers the extent to which significant spinal curvature (caused by spinal TB and asthma) ‘marked’ his life. Oceanographer Professor John Woods FRS explains how his interest in diving (which led to later work on the upper layers of the ocean including its role in climate change) was partly the outcome of significant physical disability caused by childhood polio.
Listen to audio clips on disability
Many scientists who led developments in British science in the second half of the twentieth century were born outside of Britain. An Oral History of British Science includes interviews with scientists who emigrated from parts of Europe to Britain, from the 1930s onwards, including those escaping anti-Semitic persecution and violence in Nazi Germany. In the clips here Max Perutz FRS, Nobel prize winner for the determination of the structure of haemoglobin, tells the story of his move from Vienna to Cambridge in the mid-1930s. Software entrepreneur and philanthropist Dame Stephanie Shirley recalls escaping to Britain from Nazi Germany aboard a Kindertransport, and how the trauma of this and other early experiences have shaped her attitude to life and innovation. Frank Land and Stephen Moorbath FRS recall similarly turbulent experiences as German Jewish refugee children in Britain. Frank Land recounts steps from arrival with his twin brother, both with no English, to his involvement in programming the first computer used for commercial applications: J Lyons’ ‘ LEO’. Geologist Stephen Moorbath remembers (among other things) the unpleasant reaction of school children to his own 'German-ness' (rather than 'Jewish-ness') in the school playgrounds of Britain during World War Two.
Listen to audio clips on ethnicity
The majority of scientists and technicians interviewed for An Oral History of British Science are men, and this collection of interviews is a window on particular kinds of masculinity that prevailed in the workplaces of British science in the second half of the twentieth century. However, 15 of the 100 or so interviewees are female. These include public figures such as materials scientist Professor Dame Julia Higgins FRS, software entrepreneur and philanthropist Dame Stephanie Shirley and current Meteorological Office Chief Scientist Professor Dame Julia Slingo. Less well known but pioneering female scientists such as the first woman allowed to work in Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey, Dr Janet Thomson, and a number of individuals whose technical skill and unseen labour were central to particular projects (such as the first programmable computer) and discoveries (such as plate tectonics) also feature. These interviews record ways in which women in British science have variously been accommodated by, resisted, and attempted to change the male-dominated environment of British science.
Listen to audio clips on gender
A small number of An Oral History of British Science interviewees describe childhoods involving significant material poverty and a family and social environment in which very few people expected to go to university. In these clips Cyril Hilsum FRS CBE, whose research led to Liquid Crystal Display technology now used in smartphones, tablets, computers and TVs, remembers replying, ‘What’s university?’ to a geography teacher who asked, ‘Why don’t you go to university?’ Dennis Higton recalls an unconventional route into scientific work at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, developing Britain’s first jet aircraft. Nigel Bell, Professor of Environmental Pollution at Imperial College, whose career has involved key discoveries in debates on acid rain, ozone pollution and pollutant effects of radioactivity, comments on the differences between Oxbridge and his own alma mater, the University of Manchester. And Professor Stephen Moorbath FRS remembers his own impression that the development of the Earth Sciences in Britain in the 1960s mirrored the loosening of class distinctions.
Listen to audio clips on socioeconomic background