British Science Week
Augusta Ada, Countess Lovelace (Photo by Donaldson Collections/Getty Images)

British Science Week

11/03/2021Written by Alex Thompson

In British Science Week we thought we would highlight some amazing scientists to come from our shores.

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Britain has a long history of producing some of the most important and influential scientists in history – the likes of Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking are names known throughout the world. But scratch beneath the surface and we find countless other Brits, without whom the world we live in today simply couldn’t exist. Here are just some of those people we are celebrating in British Science Week!

Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852)

Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852)
Portrait of Ada Lovelace by Alfred Chalon, 1838

The only marital child of renowned poet Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace chose a very different career path to her famous father. Wanting her daughter to be nothing like her estranged husband, Ada’s mother Annabelle had her daughter privately schooled in science and mathematics at Kirkby Hall in Leicestershire. It was here Ada’s gift with numbers came to light.

In 1833 Lovelace was introduced to British mathematician Charles Babbage and the two became lifelong friends and working partners. Babbage is credited with having invented the first mechanical computer, and his continued work in the field with Lovelace led them to proposing its successor (the Analytical Machine) and Babbage describing Lovelace as “The Enchantress of Numbers.” It was upon translating a short article on their machine by Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea in 1842 that Lovelace decided to look further into how to programme it to perform tasks. Adding her own notes to the translated article, Lovelace created the most elaborate and complete programme plans created to that point, leading to her being credited as “the world’s first computer programmer.”

A century later, fellow Brit Alan Turing (1912-1954) continued the work of Lovelace by providing the formalisation of algorithm and computation in a model of a modern-day computer. An early example of Turing’s work helped create a machine at Bletchley Park that could decipher the secret messages of Nazi Führer Adolf Hitler, helping to swing World War Two away from Germany and towards the eventual victory of the Allied powers. Sadly both Lovelace’s and Turing’s lives were cut tragically short but their pioneering contribution to computer technology means their legacies will live on forever.

Joseph Lister (1827 – 1912)

Joseph Lister (1827 – 1912)
Joseph Lister c. 1855

For someone known as “the father of modern surgery”, Joseph Lister was a surprisingly ordinary surgeon. Instead what set him apart was a revolutionary idea in surgical practice, an idea that has saved millions of lives in the past 150 years.

Having studied in London before becoming a surgeon in Edinburgh and then Glasgow, it was in 1865 that Lister first put his plan into practice. At the time around half of patients who had surgery died of infections after the operation. Perhaps not so coincidentally, surgical tools were usually not cleaned between procedures and the surgeons themselves didn’t wash their hands before or after. In fact, some surgeons took pride in their operating gowns’ ‘surgical stink’ and believed the infections were caused by ‘bad air’ coming out of the wound. Whilst studying the theories of French chemist Louis Pasteur, Lister began to wonder if Pasteur’s idea on micro-organisms were relevant to surgery and if it was germs causing the infections.

Lister began experimenting with cleansing techniques in his hospital to stave off the infections, including sterilising tools in carbolic acid and insisting on staff washing hands. Not long after a 12 year old boy was taken to his ward with a nasty leg wound, and instead of amputating the limb Lister had the wound cleaned and wrapped in dressing soaked in carbolic acid. The boy survived and his peers began to take notice of Lister’s techniques. This led to post-operative deaths from infection falling to 15%, a drastic improvement at the time and paving the way in the years since for scientists to continue Lister’s work and make hospitals safer for all.

Dorothy Hodgkin (1910 – 1994)

Dorothy Hodgkin (1910 – 1994)
Image: Daily Herald Archive/National Science & Media Museum/SSPL

The understanding of infections improved further after Lister’s discovery.  The fight against them was aided further by the 1928 invention of the first antibiotic, penicillin, by British chemist Alexander Fleming, who found the ‘mould juice’ he had created by leaving a Petri dish next to an open window was effective against many diseases. However the molecular structure of this creation was unknown for many years until the work of Dorothy Hodgkin.

Born in Cairo, Egypt, Hodgkin would spend most of her childhood with relatives in Norfolk whilst her parents travelled for her father’s job as a full time archaeologist. She would study and work at both Oxford and Cambridge universities and would specialise in crystallography, a branch of science that sets out to discover how atoms are arranged in crystals. Hodgkin worked with a team to work out how penicillin was formed during the Second World War, although the discovery wouldn’t be made public until 1949. In 1956 Hodgkin followed this up by revealing her team had also worked out the structure of the vitamin B12, important for the health of the body’s nerve and blood cells. For these accomplishments Hodgkin was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Not that she was done. In 1935 Hodgkin took her first x-ray photograph of an insulin crystal, and 34 years later would finally discover its molecular structure. She would also determine the structures of cholesterol, pepsin, ferritin and many more. These discoveries led her to be credited as the founder of protein crystallography, an accomplishment made all the greater having suffered from rheumatoid arthritis since her twenties, a condition she never allowed to impair her incredible body of work.

Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958)

Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958)
Rosalind Franklin. © Ann Ronan Picture Library—World History Archive/age fotostock

Around the same time Hodgkin was making ground-breaking discoveries using crystallography, so was Rosalind Franklin, who helped determine the molecular structure of many viruses and most famously DNA.

Having being educated at private schools in London and Sussex, Franklin earned a research fellowship at the University of Cambridge and her Ph.D. in 1945 for her study on the fine structure of coal. After the end of the war Franklin moved to Paris where she met French scientist Jacques Méring, who would help her become an expert in x-ray diffraction. Upon accepting a position at King’s College in London, Franklin would use what she learnt in France to study the structure of DNA. Her use of x-ray diffraction led to her concluding that DNA’s structure was a double helix, contrary to what many of her peers believed at the time.

Despite her excellent work, Franklin’s time at King’s College was also an unhappy one due to uneasy relationships with several colleagues, including working partner Maurice Wilkins. This culminated in Wilkins showing a vital part of Franklin’s research, named ‘Photo 51’, to American biologist James Watson and British scientist James Crick, helping them to be seen as the key researchers in the answer to DNA’s molecular structure. Whilst the manner in which they attained this information could be seen as dubious, there is no evidence the duo acted dishonestly and Franklin would continue to have a strong friendship with Crick and his wife Odile.

After leaving King’s College, Franklin would head to Birkbeck, University of London where she would lead pioneering research into the molecular structure of viruses until her death at the age of 37. Her tragic passing meant she did not join Watson, Crick and Wilkins in being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962 as the award was rarely given posthumously at the time. However, by making Birkbeck colleague Aaron Klug principal beneficent in her will, she allowed him to continue her research into viruses, leading to Klug himself being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1982.

Franklin’s legacy lives on not just on this planet, but soon on another too. ESA plans to launch the Rosalind Franklin rover to Mars in 2022, as scientists take inspiration from her research on this planet to hopefully discover answers to life on others.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee 1955 – present

Sir Tim Berners-Lee 1955 – present
Sir Tim Berners Lee Credit: Paul Clarke

And of course we can’t finish a blog about British scientists without mentioning the man who invented the thing you’re reading it on.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee grew up around computing, with his parents working on Ferranti Mark I, the first commercial computer. After graduating from Oxford University he took several jobs designing and working with computer software before moving to Geneva to work at CERN, a European particle physics laboratory. It was here that Berners-Lee created the software to make the World Wide Web.

He had already created hypertext and a way for computers to communicate with other machines when in 1989 Berners-Lee proposed making use of his  ‘internet’ for his primary goal, so his colleagues at CERN could share results and practices in one place without the need for endless emails. Over the next two years he created the software for the World Wide Web, with the first ‘app’ as it were a directory of the laboratory’s telephone numbers.

Over the next three decades Berners-Lee’s invention has taken off and modernised the world in a way he could never have dreamt of thirty years ago. Without him our very way of everyday life would not exist, from how we bank and communicate to being able to stream a film and, most importantly, read this blog!