Apart from their extraordinary skills in attracting and nurturing outstanding co-workers and technical staff, W. H. Bragg and W. L. Bragg were extremely successful, as were some of their predecessors (notably Faraday, Dewar and Rideal) in attracting Friday Evening Discourse and other speakers to the Royal Institution. An examination of the names and subjects of the talks given in the Bragg eras shows how well their programme of events reflected the intellectual life of the nation.
It is widely known that the research laboratories of the Royal Institution (RI) in Albemarle Street, central London, are the world's oldest continuously used ones. It is also well known that from 1800 onwards—the RI was founded in 1799 by the picaresque American Count Rumford of the Holy Roman Empire1—a dazzling array of eminent scientists has been involved in presenting their subjects to non-specialist audiences at the theatre of the RI, itself the oldest theatre in London. It is, however, less widely known that ever since Michael Faraday initiated the still-continuing Friday Evening Discourses in 1826, audiences at the RI have witnessed numerous events organized specifically with the intention of bridging different cultures, especially the arts and the sciences. An outstanding example was the course of four lectures that Faraday himself invited John Constable to give in 1836 on the history of landscape painting.2 On that occasion, Constable said: ‘Painting is a science and should be pursued as an enquiry into the laws of Nature.’ He then made the plea: ‘Why, then, may not landscape painting be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but the experiments?’
As exemplified in table 1, Faraday took pains to make room in his lecture programme of Friday Evening Discourses for men of letters to expatiate on their expertise in fields far removed from pure and applied science. Most of the talks and courses given at the RI in Faraday's days were, however, biased towards science, technology and practical considerations including the construction of tunnels and bridges as well as recent excavations by archaeologists and advances in astronomy.
All subsequent Directors of the RI have maintained that tradition, Sir James Dewar being exceptionally successful in so doing. Dewar was particularly good at inviting eminent scientists to lecture at the RI many years before they were awarded the Nobel Prize. As table 2 shows (see also table 3), Dewar had the uncanny skill of identifying work of Nobel Prize-winning quality several years (sometimes as much as a quarter of a century) ahead of the decisions reached in Stockholm.
After Dewar's death in 1923, W. H. Bragg (henceforth WHB), who had himself shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1915 with his son, W. L. Bragg, was appointed Head of the RI. Until his death in 1942, WHB was effective not only in maintaining and enhancing Dewar's skill in picking future Nobel laureates as Discourse speakers and in bridging the arts and the sciences, but also in establishing an astonishingly successful band of researchers that helped him create a centre of indisputable excellence in X-ray crystallography.
This article deals partly with WHB's skills in transforming the Davy Faraday Research Laboratory (DFRL)3 at the RI into a powerhouse of X-ray-based structural analysis and with his approach to the choice of appropriate Discourse and other speakers; it also traces the extraordinary achievements of his son W. L. Bragg who, in 1953, resigned from the Cavendish Chair of Physics in Cambridge to resuscitate and reinvigorate the RI and the DFRL after a period of turbulence associated with the Directorship of E. N. da C. Andrade (1887–1971), whose sojourn in Albemarle Street—notwithstanding his outstanding skills as a poet and communicator, especially in the written word4—was not a happy one.
WHB at the RI (1923–42)
During his tenure of the Fullerian Professorship of Chemistry and Directorship of the DFRL at the RI, WHB was not only adept in his choice of Discourse speakers in maintaining the balance between expert scientists and men and women5 of letters (see table 4), he also initiated a series of extremely impressive public lectures, held usually on Thursdays or Saturdays at more convenient times for the general public. For example, in the month of February 1933, three Nobel laureates gave scientifically oriented talks, and there were excursions into the use of the English language, the plot of Shakespeare's Hamlet, and oriental painting (table 5).
He also demonstrated remarkable perspicacity (in comparison with the reluctance of many of his classical physicist contemporaries) in realizing the significance of Erwin Schrödinger's work on wave mechanics. In 1928—five years before Schrödinger was awarded the Nobel Prize and while he was still based in Berlin—WHB persuaded him to give a series of lectures at the RI, published as Four lectures on wave mechanics (Blackie & Son, London, 1928). Although WHB regarded himself primarily as an experimental physicist (notwithstanding his outstanding skill as an undergraduate in mathematics at Cambridge) he was sensitive to the growing need for theoretically oriented workers to interact with his experimentalists, some of whom (notably Lonsdale and Astbury) were themselves highly competent mathematicians. WHB invited Hermann Arthur Jahn, an Englishman of German extraction, who took his PhD under Werner Heisenberg at the University of Leipzig in 1935, to join the DFRL, where he worked from 1935 to 1941. Jahn is immortalized in the Jahn–Teller theorem, which describes the geometrical distortion of nonlinear molecules under certain situations.
WHB was also instrumental in prodding the captains of British industry to undertake more fundamental research. As part of this aspect of his work, in 1931 he played a leading role in mounting a centenary exhibition to celebrate the discovery of electromagnetic induction (by Michael Faraday on 29 August 1831). For a whole week in August that year, in the Royal Albert Hall, the electric, electromagnetic and other industries derived from Faraday's pioneering electrical work exhibited their latest developments, radiating from the small, simple pieces of apparatus in the centre of the hall that Faraday had made and used himself.6
Much has already been written about the personality and qualities of WHB,7 but the comments that I make below derive from two aspects of my own vicarious ‘contact’ with him. First, it was my good fortune to get to know, for the last two years of her life, Dame Kathleen Lonsdale, and for the last 20 years of his, E. G. (later Sir Gordon) Cox, each of whom was recruited by WHB when he set up his research school at the DFRL in 1923. I was also acquainted with A. R. Ubbelohde, who likewise worked at the DFRL in his early years.8
Second, on taking up my post as Director of the RI and of the DFRL in October 1986, I spent numerous hours with Bill Coates, the lecture-demonstrator there, looking at films of WHB giving several lectures, some of which covered material in his famous RI Christmas Lectures.9 I was captivated by his powers of simple exposition, his personal and persuasive style and his obvious affection for young people. While viewing these films, which alas no longer exist, I was struck by one particularly effective lecture-demonstration. He wished to convey to his young audience how different were the waves of sound from those of light. By setting up two separate sources of waves on a large pool of water, their interference (on intersection) was seen to be so great that the identity of each of the two separate waves was destroyed. When, however, he shone two separate, intersecting, beams of light through a dust-free cardboard box with transparent sides, no interference was visible. (How he would have rejoiced to use laser beams for this demonstration!) When electromagnetic waves intersect, they each retain their intrinsic identity.
An insight into WHB's charming style as a lecturer to a Juvenile Auditory—the name originally given by Faraday to the RI Christmas Lectures in 1826—is seen in the opening sentences of a book, The world of sound, that WHB published:
All around us are material objects of many kinds, and it is quite difficult to move without shaking some of these more or less. If we walk about on the floor, it quivers under the fall of our feet; if we put down a cup on the table, we cannot avoid giving a small vibration to the table and the cup. If an animal walks in the forest, it must often shake the leaves or the twigs or the grass, and unless it walks softly with padded feet, it shakes the ground. The motions may be minute, far too small to see, but they are there nonetheless.
The simple, striking beauty of this passage tells us we are in the presence of fine expositor, who is also a sensitive lover of nature.
WHB and the Davy Faraday Research Laboratory
The views expressed in this section have been determined in part by what members of the DFRL, working with WHB from 1923 onwards, have written,10–12 and by personal reminiscences that I heard from Dame Kathleen during and after her visit to my department in Aberystwyth in 1970,13 from Sir Gordon Cox14 (in the period 1986–92) and also from A. R. Ubbelohde at various times from 1969 to 1980.
Among the 12 research workers15 whom WHB gathered around him by the autumn of 1923, those who subsequently achieved long-lasting fame were W. T. Astbury, J. D. Bernal and Kathleen Lonsdale. Shortly thereafter, other high achievers were recruited, notably E. G. Cox (from Bristol), J. M. Robertson (from Glasgow), W. G. Burgers (The Netherlands), A. L. Patterson (from Canada) and Boris Orelkin (from the Soviet Union).
Within less than three years, the research activity of the DFRL was burgeoning, as may be gauged from the summary of its work given by WHB at a Friday Evening Discourse on 22 January 1926. Such is the magnitude of the contributions of many of these individuals both during and after their sojourn at the DFRL that their names will remain forever prominent in any work related to the utilization of X-rays for the elucidation of the structures of inorganic and biological material.
Before proceeding to outline some of the salient contributions of the individual researchers that WHB had assembled at the DFRL, it is pertinent to recall the words of Kathleen Lonsdale (whose outstanding work for her initial degree at Bedford College WHB had examined) when she joined his team first at University College and then moving with him to the DFRL: ‘He inspired me with his own love of pure science and with his enthusiastic spirit of enquiry and at the same time left me entirely free to follow my own lines of research.’11
Brief summaries of the work conducted by some of WHB's scientific progeny at the DFRL and after their departure
W. T. Astbury (1889–1961)
His early work at the DFRL was concerned with the structural determination of metal acetylacetonates, tartaric acid and the salts of beryllium. Arguably, he could be designated the first molecular biologist, because he made pioneering discoveries on the nature of proteins. At WHB's suggestion he took some X-ray photographs of fibres (such as wool, hair and silk) required for one of WHB's Discourses. This stimulated Astbury's interest in biological macromolecules, an interest that he retained for the rest of his life. In 1928 Astbury became a lecturer in textile physics at the University of Leeds, where he later (from 1945) occupied the first chair of biomolecular structure in the UK. The textile industry supported him in his studies of keratin and collagen: wool is made of keratin. It showed that there were marked changes in the X-ray diffraction patterns between dry and moist wool. He interpreted the data to mean that unstretched fibres had a coiled molecular structure. In 1930 he produced an explanation of the extensibility of wool in terms of two keratin structures: α-keratin, in which the polypeptides were hexagonally folded, and β-keratin, in which the chain is drawn out in a zig-zag pattern. In 1937 well-prepared samples of DNA from calf thymus were sent to him from Sweden, and Astbury then and later (with a colleague, M. Daniels16) pointed out that the 3.4 Å spacing between the stacked bases of DNA was the same as the spacing between amino acids in polypeptide chains. In 1946 he commented that the spacing between nucleotides and the spacing of amino acid in proteins ‘was not an arithmetical accident’—a prophetic remark in view of what is now known about the interactions between nucleic acids and proteins.
J. D. Bernal (1901–71)
At the DFRL, shortly after arriving from Cambridge, Bernal quickly demonstrated his scientific excellence by determining the structure of graphite, and, of even greater long-term value, he showed how to interpret X-ray single-crystal rotation photographs.19 Early in his career, he concluded that X-ray crystallography would turn out to be the most likely tool to reveal details of the structure of matter. After he moved to the Cavendish Laboratory, he worked on the structure of vitamin B, the enzyme pepsin, vitamin D2, the sterols and the tobacco mosaic virus, which he studied in 1937. He was an extraordinarily gifted scientist with an exceptionally broad knowledge of well-nigh any topic that his contemporaries raised. This is testified both in the writings of his former co-workers Dorothy Hodgkin and Max Perutz. They, along with others, called him ‘Sage’. He was the principal individual who influenced Max Perutz to leave his native Vienna and come to Cambridge in 1936, because ‘Sage’ had convinced him that the only experimental technique likely to reveal the secret of life was X-ray crystallography.
Bernal also profoundly influenced the scientific career of John Kendrew. When they were together, during World War II, in the jungles of Sri Lanka, Bernal convinced Kendrew that, on his return journey to the UK, he should call into the California Institute of Technology and speak to Linus Pauling, who was then elucidating the structures of amino acids and small peptides. On his return to Cambridge, Kendrew joined Max Perutz's small group that was investigating large biological molecules by X-ray crystallography.
Bernal, a dedicated communist for most of his life, joined the Ministry of Home Security in 1939, and in that capacity (while also serving as Head of the Department of Physics in Birkbeck College) he conducted an important analysis of the effects of bombing. Bernal was also concerned with the planned Normandy landing, working in Lord Mountbatten's team devoted to Combined Wartime Operations. An omnivorous individual, he was a source of seemingly never-ending ideas pertaining to such subjects as the origin of life, the structure of liquids and a host of other disparate topics and phenomena.
W. G. Burgers (1890–1969)
A contemporary of Astbury, Lonsdale and Robertson (see below) at the DFRL, this distinguished Dutch physicist made important contributions to the understanding of dislocations in solids and their role in the phenomenon of crystal growth. He postulated the existence of so-called screw dislocations in crystalline solids, and with others, including his brother J. M. Burgers of Delft and F. C. (later Sir Charles) Frank at the University of Bristol, he was able to construct quantitative theories to explain the rapidity of crystal growth.20 (Crystals that are devoid of this particular dislocation grow extremely slowly.) Dislocations in solids exert a profound influence on their behaviour.21
E. G. Cox (1906–96)
A graduate of A. M. Tyndall's outstanding Department of Physics in the University of Bristol, Gordon Cox's first task, assigned to him by WHB at the DFRL, was to try to locate the carbon atoms in molecules of benzene (a material that Faraday had first isolated and characterized at the RI in 1825). Cox established that the carbon atoms were indeed at the corners of a regular hexagon, a conclusion of importance for theoretical chemistry. So adept was Cox as an X-ray crystallographer that WHB proposed him as a colleague of Sir Norman Haworth at the University of Birmingham, where Haworth and co-workers had isolated vitamin C from orange juice. Cox demonstrated, using the kind of X-ray methods pioneered at the DFRL, that the structure deduced by Haworth on the basis of chemical arguments was indeed correct.
After World War II Cox became the Professor of Inorganic and Structural Chemistry at the University of Leeds, where for the next 15 years he built up a thriving school of crystallographers and where he realized how important it was to use electronic digital computers to speed up the solution of crystal structures. Cox also performed significant work on the square-planar complexes of platinum ions. When, in the mid 1970s, the American biophysicist Barnet Rosenberg discovered the anti-cancer drug now known as cisplatin, Cox's earlier work took on a fresh significance. This cisplatin molecule (discovered by accident, but still one of the best agents for curing testicular and ovarian cancer) is a square-planar arrangement of two amino and two chloro groups around a platinum ion, as in the compounds first explored by Cox and co-workers.
Cox left Leeds in 1960 to become secretary of the Agricultural Research Council, a post that he held until his retirement in 1971. He gave me good advice in my days as Director of the RI.
Kathleen Lonsdale (1903–71)
Of all the workers in the innovative team that WHB assembled at the DFRL in 1923, it is Kathleen Lonsdale who has left the largest legacy of reminiscences (both written and verbal) and articles. She herself, as Dorothy Hodgkin explains elsewhere,11 was a ‘force of nature’, a phenomenally able and well-organized scientist—and something of a workaholic—but endowed also with a great sense of humour. Her descriptions in writing10 and to me orally of how she and Astbury would devise special rules for the table tennis competitions that Bragg's students participated in at the DFRL in the mid 1920s were replete with juvenile joy. Being mathematically gifted, as was Astbury, they set about publishing an important paper on crystallographic space groups early in the 1920s. In due course these two workers were responsible for the birth of International tables for X-ray crystallography, compilations that are an essential aid even now, for all X-ray crystallographers. (There has been a recent—2010—edition in eight volumes, published by Wiley, of International tables for crystallography. They are a definitive resource and reference work for all crystallographers. Their genesis goes back largely to Kathleen Lonsdale.)
Lonsdale pursued further the work on benzene started by Cox. In 1929, with a large crystal of hexamethylbenzene (given to her by Professor C. K. Ingold), she established the high degree of planarity of the benzene ring (to within ±0.1 Å) and that the C–C bond length in the ring is 1.42 Å. In 1931 she followed up this work with the determination of the structure of hexachlorobenzene. It was the first investigation of the structure of an organic compound in which Fourier analysis was used, a fact that pleased WHB, because he had suggested in his Bakerian Lecture of the Royal Society in 1915 that such an approach should prove feasible.
Kathleen Lonsdale spent the best part of 20 years as a key researcher in the DFRL. With a visitor from India, K. S. Krishnan, she did outstanding work on magnetic anisotropy of crystals; in particular these two workers classified the formal relations between molecular and crystal anisotropy, an issue of great importance in later work on organic molecular crystals. Other noteworthy scientific advances made by Kathleen Lonsdale have been described in Ewald's book10 and also in Hodgkin's obituary of her.11 It should be mentioned here, however, that her interests in solid-state chemistry were wide-ranging, encompassing the use of neutrons to study solids, the detailed physics of diamonds, the nature of bladder stones and urinary calculi, and solid-state (photostimulated) reactions of organic solids. (It was this subject that prompted her to communicate one of my papers to the Proceedings of the Royal Society.22)
As a Quaker and a militant pacifist, she refused to register in 1939 for government service for Word War II. Shortly thereafter she spent a month in Holloway Prison. But, with the aid of Sir Henry Dale, who arranged for her to receive scientific papers, she was able to work some seven hours per day on her science. She was the first woman to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, in 1945. A naturally occurring polymorph of diamond, lonsdaleite, was named in her honour in 1967.
After one of her television appearances, her secretary, Angela Rosbud, teased her: ‘You look such a sweet, gentle, elderly grandmother, but you are a fraud, you are really a very tough character.’ Kathleen Lonsdale replied, ‘Yes, I know it is a gimmick, but it is one I like.’
A. L. Patterson (1902–66)
To this day, and for well over 60 years since Arthur Lindo Patterson introduced it in 1934, the Patterson Function has been and remains invaluable. It is used extensively to solve the phase problem in X-ray crystallography. It is, in effect, a Fourier transform of the intensities of the X-ray spots in a diffractogram. His key paper was written at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was an unpaid guest in B. E. Warren's laboratory, after he returned to North America from the DFRL. He was educated at McGill University, Montreal, but WHB took him on as a researcher because of his mathematical potential. (He had achieved only a lower-second-class honours degree in McGill.) At the DFRL, in 1924–26, he determined the unit cells and space groups of various phenylaliphatic acids: the state of the art had not yet advanced to the degree that deriving the atomic arrangements in such complex molecules was a practical possibility. He was at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute with Hermann Mark in Berlin for a year (after leaving the DFRL). There he was much influenced by Max von Laue and he rubbed shoulders with other luminaries such as Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Walther Nernst, Hans Bethe and Lise Meitner.
In addition to introducing the highly important Patterson function, he demonstrated that under some conditions, several different atomic arrangements—‘homometric structures’—may exist that would yield the same Patterson function, and therefore the same intensities in the diffractogram.
J. M. Robertson (1900–89)
A graduate of Glasgow University, Robertson next studied at the University of Michigan before joining the DFRL for essentially the whole of the 1930s. Concentrating, as WHB wanted him to, on organic materials, he successfully determined the structure of the aromatic hydrocarbons naphthalene, anthracene, durene and related substances. This he did with hitherto unequalled precision and accuracy, so much so that when Linus Pauling was developing his valence-bond theory of chemical bonding, he used the published results (read off by a ruler!) of Robertson to support his theory.
An important contribution by Robertson was the introduction of the so-called heavy-atom substitution method to solve the structures of materials containing heavy atoms (compared with carbon, hydrogen and oxygen) as in platinum phthalocyanines, which are important pigments. This involves substituting a heavy atom into the molecule under investigation. The change in intensity of the diffracted radiation yields essential information on the phases of scattered waves of X-rays. It was this technique, in a very refined form, that enabled Perutz and Kendrew to solve the structures of haemoglobin and myoglobin—see below.
A. R. J. P. Ubbelohde (1907–88)
Educated at St Paul's School, London and Christ Church, Oxford, Ubbelohde spent a year in Göttingen in the early 1930s, where he was impressed by a phalanx of eminent German physical scientists including Nernst, Eucken and Clusius. He always claimed, however, that the most formative period of his life was spent in the DFRL from 1935 to 1940, where WHB gave him freedom to roam intellectually into whichever field took his fancy—a far cry from present-day practices of target-oriented research.
His publications at that time reveal his unusual range of interests, most of which he pursued later: hydrogen uptake by metals, melting and crystal structure (the subject of one of his many books), the ferroelectric behaviour of Rochelle salt, the influence of isotopic substitution on the properties of crystals, and the occurrence of induction periods in the combustion of hydrocarbons. Ubbelohde, although a junior among his associates—he referred to himself as ‘the Benjamin of the family’—was capable of mobilizing the interest, skills and energies of all around him.
His books contained evocative passages, for example: ‘Traditionally, the interests of the early Directors of the Royal Institution in the effect of pressure on melting stems from Humphry Davy's prowess as a skater’ and ‘It is notable that Leonardo was so concerned about possible abuses of his invention of a submarine by tyrants that he took pains not to publish it.’
At a comparatively early age he was appointed Professor of Chemistry at Queen's University, Belfast. In 1954 he became Professor of Thermodynamics, and from 1961 until his retirement in 1975 he was Head of Chemical Engineering at Imperial College London.
Why was WHB good at picking winners?
This is not an easy question to answer, so far as selecting co-workers is concerned, for it is well known that great men and women of science naturally attract bright people who want to work with them. There is no doubt that Bernal, Cox, Patterson, Robertson and Burgers found WHB's powers of attraction—a Nobel laureate renowned also for his humility, human decency and unquenchable enthusiasm, as well as a charming lecturer—irresistible. They also liked his style of leadership: ‘give your co-workers a free hand’ was one of his mottoes. WHB also took great pains to staff the workshop at the DFRL with outstanding, able and friendly technicians. The reminiscences of Lonsdale, Burgers and others in Ewald's book12 highlight this fact. In the case of Lonsdale, WHB went out of his way to persuade her to join him after seeing her examination papers. In her case he had spotted outstanding talent. He was also shrewd in picking some individuals whose initial degrees were modest but who had displayed potential in other respects. Patterson falls into this category. In his ‘Personal Reminiscences’12 Patterson wrote, ‘I had taken a Second Class Honours BSc degree in 1923 (in McGill University) and only one who has attended a British or Colonial University can realise the depth of ignominy attached to such a thing.’
Yet he was selected by WHB, and cared for and nurtured at the DFRL, where the technicians Jenkinson and Smith were exceptionally helpful to him. There could well be instances where WHB may have turned down an able individual, just as Rutherford turned down an application from a Harvard graduate named J. Robert Oppenheimer, but I am not aware of one.
When WHB died in 1942, Sir Henry Dale, who had succeeded WHB as President of the Royal Society in 1940, took over at the RI as a ‘caretaker’ job for the rest of the war. When war ended, Sir Henry, a distinguished (Nobel Prize-winning) pharmacologist and physiologist, retired from the RI and the Managers appointed E. K. (later Sir Eric) Rideal as Dale's successor. Immediately, new life was injected into both the RI and the DFRL—a battery of able young researchers accompanied Rideal when he moved to London from his Cambridge chair of colloid science. Rideal possessed admirable human as well as scientific qualities. He took an active interest in his students, members of the RI, and the technical and office staff: he was the avatar of Christian Socialism and possessed a sparkling sense of humour.
Apart from pursuing scientific research of the highest quality in surface science at the DFRL, Rideal also inaugurated and edited a series of books entitled Advances in catalysis that have continued to this day.23 These yearly publications are up-to-date synoptic reviews of the numerous facets of this ever-expanding field that, inter alia, encompasses heterogeneous, homogeneous and enzymatic catalysis and cognate topics.
Rideal was as skilful as Dewar and WHB before him in his choice of Friday Evening Discourse speakers. Table 6 reflects his catholicity of interests in this regard. Note the relatively high proportion of Nobel laureates and also the admirable blend of topics from the humanities and the sciences.
One of the Discourses that Rideal arranged—that given by the 47-year-old polymathic and charismatic American chemist Linus Pauling—in February 1948 while he occupied the Kodak Visiting Professorship at Oxford, turned out to be providential. Pauling's subject, ‘The nature of forces between large molecules of biological interest’, prompted him to highlight the fact that, at that time, no one knew the molecular structure of any enzyme. ‘How could one’, he asked, ‘understand the nature of biological catalysis without such vital information?’ Little did he, or anyone else, know that D. C. Phillips and colleagues (see later) would solve the structure of lysozyme at the DFRL—the first enzyme ever to have this determined—in less than 20 years from Pauling's Discourse.
Sir Eric and Lady Rideal, after some four years, began to feel unhappy at the RI. Lady Rideal had enormous problems (in the age of postwar rationing) in arranging elegant pre-Discourse dinners. There were other factors, too, as described in Gwendy Caroe's book.6 Sir Eric felt very happy about being the Director of the DFRL, but ‘running’ the RI, he felt, was rather burdensome. He proposed that leadership be divided, that he should remain Director of the DFRL and that a new Professor be appointed of the Institution's affairs. However, the Managers were unhappy about this, and the President at the time, Lord Brabazon, declared: ‘there cannot be two kings in Babylon.’ So Sir Eric resigned. E. N. da C. Andrade, then at University College and Vice-President of the RI, let it be known that he would like to succeed Rideal, and he was duly appointed. In the words of Caroe, ‘Andrade had the RI under his hand at last as he had long wanted to have it. It was not to be a gentle hand.’6
I do not wish to rehearse here such facts as I have learnt about Andrade's days as Director. W. L. Bragg had confided to many that ‘Andrade was a stormy petrel’. And so it turned out that the RI experienced much turbulence during his reign. He was a rather aggressive individual, who, inter alia, treated the technical and other staff in dismissive ways. It seems that his volatility made it difficult for others to work with him. He ran afoul of the Managers also. WHB used to say6 that the Constitution of the RI ran only on goodwill; there was a great deal of that when he and his successors, Dale and Rideal, were around. To quote Caroe again:
Under Andrade's aggressive zeal the RI groaned in pain and ground almost to a halt. In March 1952, Andrade lost a vote of confidence from the Members and resigned. Arbitration over his claim for compensation for being turned out was not settled until a year later, when the RI had to pay him a large sum.6
In April 1953 the Managers of the RI offered Sir Lawrence Bragg, WHB's son (who is here designated WLB henceforth) the vacant Fullerian Professorship and Directorship of the DFRL. Shortly thereafter a new, sunlit, era dawned.
WLB's era at the RI
Viewers of the BBC television programme broadcast in 1965, entitled ‘Fifty years a winner’, which was arranged to coincide with his 75th birthday and the 50th anniversary of the award of the Nobel Prize to Lawrence Bragg, were enthralled to come ‘face to face’, as it were, with the great man, WLB. His charm, modesty and mesmeric skill as a lecture-demonstrator came across strongly in that programme. It won Bragg many admirers (including me) and highlighted the uniqueness of the RI.
By that time, WLB had been at the helm of the RI for more than a decade and it was running beautifully, both as a theatre of science (and the intellectual life of the UK) and as a centre of excellence in research. There was also a strong family spirit with which it was imbued, and this may be sensed in figure 1, where, significantly, there were as many females involved at the RI as there were men under his directorship.
It is supererogatory to recall here the supreme qualities of WLB. Quite apart from John Jenkins's recent book7 and that of WLB's sister,6 there is also a monograph24 edited by and contributed to by Sir David Phillips and me, The legacy of Lawrence Bragg, which we produced to celebrate the centenary of his birth. Ten Nobel laureates (Linus Pauling, Lord Todd, Dorothy Hodgkin, Max Perutz, Francis Crick, Sir Nevill Mott, Sir Aaron Klug, J. D. Watson, Lord Porter and Sir John Kendrew) contributed to this monograph, as did many other distinguished scientists, members of his family and two technicians at the RI.25 It also contains the official Royal Society Biographical Memoir of WLB, written by Sir David Phillips.
Discourses organized by WLB
The high standards established by his predecessors, highlighted in tables 1–6 above, were maintained by WLB. Two particularly interesting Discourse speakers invited early on by him were the astronomer Edwin Hubble (of expanding-Universe fame) and the pianist Gerald Moore on ‘The art of accompaniment’. His choice of other speakers—from Yehudi Menuhin to C. P. Snow, Konrad Lorenz, John Betjeman, Lord Adrian, Edwin Land and Murray Gill-Mann—was also inspired (see table 7).
With able assistance from his colleague, Professor Ronald King, WLB also inaugurated the schools lecture programme, which, in the ensuing years and by the time I took over from Sir George (later Lord) Porter in 1986, inspired thousands of young children and students every year from early teens to pre-University age.26
A favourite mantra recalled by WLB when talking about lecturing was also regularly used by the Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi: ‘Never underestimate the pleasure that people derive in hearing the things they already know.’
This is but one reason why his lectures were so memorable. One of the gems in his (and Faraday's) advice to lecturers27 starts with the following words: ‘A lecture is made or marred in the first ten minutes. This is the time to establish the foundations to remind the audience of things they half knew already and to define terms that will be used.’
WLB had a few special tricks up his sleeve in maintaining the tradition that Friday Evening Discourses should finish after precisely one hour—on the dot as the clock in the theatre struck 10! Bill Coates told me that in his discourses WLB frequently finished his lectures with an experiment that, in reality, had no sharp end. The electrodeposition of one metal on another by electrolysis, for example, falls into this category. Only a few members of his audience would realize this fact, so the majority would gasp in admiration as he withdrew an electroplated electrode from an electrolytic bath with a triumphant gesture just as the clock struck 10. Another ‘secret’ of WLB's conveyed to me by Bill Coates was that whenever he (WLB) addressed a young audience, he would have a small card as a crib to remind him of the precise words with which he would end his talk. He wrote that out carefully beforehand so as to ensure maximum (and memorable) impact in concluding his lectures.
Picking winners at the DFRL
Once WLB had (reluctantly at first) agreed to head up the RI after Andrade's departure, he set about assembling a new research team at the DFRL devoted to protein crystallography. He wanted both Max Perutz and John Kendrew to move with him from Cambridge to Albemarle Street. They refused to do so28 but agreed to come to the DFRL on an approximately one day per week basis as Honorary Readers, posts that they each held for some 13 years, until WLB was succeeded by George Porter. This was an admirable compromise, as it harmonized with WLB's other action, namely the appointment of Dr David C. Phillips, whom he attracted to the DFRL.
David Phillips had graduated in Physics, Mathematics and Electrical Communications at the University College of South Wales, Cardiff, and had completed his PhD there under the guidance of the Canadian-born crystallographer A. J. C. Wilson. After postdoctoral work at the National Research Council, Ottawa, he was attracted by WLB to the DFRL. Uli Arndt, German-born but educated in Cambridge, joined the DFRL at the same time29 and they formed a wonderful partnership. Others appointed by WLB were Jack Dunitz, Colin Blake, Tony North and Roberto Poljak. With an excellent team of technical staff in the workshop of the DFRL, Phillips and Arndt built a linear automatic X-ray diffractometer, the first in the world. This instrument, adapted to make multiple simultaneous measurements of diffraction intensity, was to have profound consequences.29 With the linear diffractometer Phillips and his team were able to achieve data of high accuracy that in turn led to precise structures. The instrument was first used30 to extend the data of the myoglobin crystals to 1.4 Å resolution, a remarkable achievement. Myoglobin, solved first by John Kendrew, became the first protein to have its structure determined in atomic detail. It was work of Nobel Prize-winning significance.
Phillips's work on lysozyme31 started at the DFRL in 1961 (thanks to the high-quality crystals provided by Poljak), a time that was described later by Phillips as ‘the spring of hope’.
The solution of the X-ray structure of lysozyme was achieved in 1965, in time for the dual celebration with Bragg's 75th birthday (and the 50th anniversary of his Nobel Prize). The structure showed the complete path of the polypeptide chain (of 129 amino acid residues) folded into both α-helices, which had previously been recognized in myoglobin, and β-sheets, a feature that had been predicted by Linus Pauling but had not hitherto been observed in three dimensions. His work was of enormous significance biologically and it alone vindicated WLB's astuteness in setting up a protein crystallography centre at the DFRL on moving to the RI from Cambridge.
As Louise (now Dame Louise) Johnson (figure 2) described it in the British Crystallographic Association newsletter of June 1999, shortly after David Phillips's death, Phillips's work (in which she participated as a research student from 1962) made it possible to formulate a catalytic mechanism for the enzyme. This was the first time that structure had provided an explanation of how an enzyme speeded up a chemical reaction.
When the date of WLB's retirement32 from the RI approached, David Phillips was persuaded by Dorothy Hodgkin and others, including Rex (later Sir Rex) Richards, Sir Hans Krebs and WLB himself, to take up the post of Professor of Molecular Biophysics in the University of Oxford. This he did in 1966 and there did further outstanding work. His 1966 article in Scientific American33 on lysozyme contains seminal ideas on the question of protein folding, now a topic of major interest in macromolecular and biological chemistry. Louise Johnson retired in 2009 after a distinguished career as David Phillips Professor of Molecular Biophysics at Oxford.
David Phillips was not only an outstanding research scientist and an exceptionally good scientific advisor—he shouldered the role of the key post in British science known as Director General of the Research Councils—he was also a superb lecturer. Always proceeding without notes, he moved smoothly from the familiar to the unfamiliar, from the old to the new, from the known to the unknown. His practice of not writing out a script for his talks caused some distress to the BBC directors when he gave the 1980 RI televised Christmas Lectures. How can directors place their cameramen correctly if they do not know precisely what to expect next? Those lectures were, however, a great success. David loved telling the tale involving Max Perutz, who gave one of the six lectures in David's series. Max had always suffered acute back problems, and his way of coping with it involved his lying down on the floor for substantial periods. David said that when the BBC team entered the lecturer's room before Max's contribution, they nearly had apoplectic fits when they saw him flat on the floor. They thought he had fainted just before going on air. But Max was simply relieving his back pain before his performance in the lecture theatre!
I am grateful to Dame Louise Johnson for providing the photographs used here, and for her useful general comments.
Of his mentor, Francis Crick once related the following story:
Sir Lawrence Bragg was also a keen gardener. When he moved in 1954 from his large house and garden in West Road, Cambridge, to London, to head the Royal Institution in Albemarle Street, he lived in the official apartment at the top of the building. Missing his garden, he arranged that, for one afternoon each week he would hire himself out as a gardener to an unknown lady living in The Boltons, a select inner-London suburb. He respectfully tipped his hat to her and told her his name was Willie. For several months all went well, until a visitor, glancing out of the window, said to her hostess ‘My dear, what is Sir Lawrence Bragg doing in your garden?’ I can think of few other scientists of his distinction who would do something like this.24
This tale has been often repeated and was a favourite of the late Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie. Like many good stories it constitutes an embellishment of the truth.
Mrs Patience Thomson, Sir Lawrence's daughter, was present at the Athenaeum when I recently talked there, and told Crick's version of the story. The correct details, which reflect well on Sir Lawrence, are as follows. Celia (Patience's friend of the mid 1950s) hired WLB regularly at that time to assist her in her garden not far from WLB's flat in The Boltons. A visitor looked out through the window and asked Celia who the gardener was and whether she would recommend him. ‘He's a wonderful gardener, but that's not all. He's just as good a locksmith and he's fixed all my locks for me. Oh, and he's a physicist too and actually he's won the Nobel Prize.’
↵1 J. M. Thomas, ‘Rumford's remarkable creation’, Proc. Am. Phil. Soc. 142, 597–613 (1998).
↵2 John Meurig Thomas, Michael Faraday and the Royal Institution: the genius of man and place (Taylor & Francis, New York, 1991), p. 135.
↵3 The DFRL was inaugurated in 1898 after a generous bequest by Ludwig Mond. Not only did Mond support the DFRL directly, he also bequeathed property in Albemarle Street to the RI on a lease lasting more than 2000 years.
↵4 E. N. da C. Andrade's entry on Michael Faraday in Encyclopaedia Britannica is among the most charming, concise and accurate summaries of Faraday's personality and achievements.
↵5 W. H. Bragg gradually introduced ladies to speak at Friday Evening Discourses. One of the most famous of his contemporaries, Mary Somerville (1780–1872), the Scottish science writer, mathematician and geographer, was one such example. Dorothy Garrod (1892–1968), the archaeologist-anthropologist, and the first female Professor at the University of Cambridge (Disney Professor of Archaeology, 1939) was another.
↵6 G. Caroe, The Royal Institution: an informal history (John Murray, London, 1985), p. 111.
↵7 J. Jenkin, William and Lawrence Bragg, father and son (Oxford University Press, 2008).
↵8 J. M. Thomas, ‘A. R. J. P. Ubbelohde’, Nature 332, 310 (1988).
↵9 The first of his famous RI Christmas Lectures given in 1919, before his appointment as Director, was entitled ‘The world of sound’. His first series of Christmas Lectures delivered as Director was entitled ‘Concerning the nature of things’. On two occasions, namely Christmas 1925 and Christmas 1931, he gave the lectures on ‘Old trades and new knowledge’ and on ‘The universe of light’. Dorothy Hodgkin once told me that it was while she attended (as a child) one of W. H. Bragg's Christmas Lectures at the RI that she decided to become a scientist.
↵10 K. Lonsdale, ‘Crystallography at the Royal Institution’, in Fifty years of X-ray diffraction (ed. P. P. Ewald), pp. 410–419 (published for the International Union of Crystallography by A. Oosthoek's Uitgeversmaatschappij N.V., Utrecht, 1962); ibid., ‘Reminiscences’, loc. cit., pp. 595–602. (See http://www.iucr.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0014/734/chap17.pdf and http://www.iucr.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0018/774/lonsdale.pdf, respectively.) On Lonsdale, see also Melinda Baldwin, ‘“Where are your intelligent mothers to come from?”: marriage and family in the scientific career of Dame Kathleen Lonsdale FRS (1903–71)’, Notes Rec. R. Soc. 63, 81–94 (2009) (doi:10.1098/rsnr.2008.0026).
↵11 D. M. C. Hodgkin, ‘Kathleen Lonsdale’, Biogr. Mems Fell. R. Soc. 21, 447–484 (1975).
↵12 E. N. de C. Andrade, ‘William Henry Bragg’, in ‘Fifty years of X-ray diffraction’ (ed P. P. Ewald), pp. 308–327 (published for the International Union of Crystallography by A. Oosthoek's Uitgeversmaatschappij N.V., Utrecht, 1962). (See http://www.iucr.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0017/746/bragg_wh.pdf)
↵13 While at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth (from 1969 to 1978), I frequently invited eminent, chemically oriented scientists to give semi-public lectures on a subject of their own choice. The first person to respond was Dame Kathleen Lonsdale (others were Dorothy Hodgkin, C. A. Coulson and J. W. Linnett). After reciting the numerous outstanding achievements and awards (upon introducing her to the students and other members of the Cardiganshire community), she began by saying, ‘I may as well add, I have three children and seven grandchildren.’
↵14 See the obituary notice of Sir Gordon Cox (1906–1996) by F. S. Dainton, The Independent (1 July 1996). It was Sir Gordon and Lady Cox (formerly Professor Mary Truter) who first took me to the RI to listen to a Friday Evening Discourse in the early 1970s. Sir Gordon was an invaluable advisor to me as Director of the RI, and he and Lady Cox were stalwart supporters of all it stood for.
↵15 Three of these were women: K. Yardley (later K. Lonsdale), I. E. Knapp and G. Mocatta.
↵16 M. Davies, ‘W. T. Astbury, Rosie Franklin and DNA: a memoir’, Ann. Sci. 47, 607–618 (1990).
↵17 M. F. Perutz, J. T. Finch, J. Berriman and A. Lesk, ‘Amyloid fibers are water-filled nanotubes’, Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 99, 5591–5595 (2002).
↵18 W. T. Astbury, S. Dickinson, K. Bailey, ‘The X-ray interpretation of denaturation and the structure of the seed globulins’, Biochem. J. 19, 2351–2360 (1935), at p. 2354.
↵19 J. D. Bernal, ‘On the interpretation of x-ray, single crystal, rotation photographs’, Proc. R. Soc. Lond. A 113, 117–160 (1926).
↵20 W. G. Burgers, ‘How my brother and I became interested in dislocations’, Proc. R. Soc. Lond. A 371, 125–130 (1980).
↵21 J. M. Thomas, ‘Design and chance in my scientific research’, in Turning points in solid-state, materials and surface science: a book in celebration of the life and work of Sir John Meurig Thomas (ed. K. D. M. Harris and P. P. Edwards), pp. 795–859 (RSC Press, London, 2007).
↵22 M. D. Cohen, L. Ludmer, J. M. Thomas and J. O. Williams, ‘The role of structural imperfections in the photodimerization of 9-cyanoanthracene’, Proc. R. Soc. Lond. A 324, 459–468 (1971).
↵23 Advances in catalysis, which was the brainchild of Sir Eric Rideal and started when he was Director of the RI, continues to be published approximately annually. The most recent issue, volume 53, appeared in 2010.
↵24 J. M. Thomas and D. C. Phillips (eds), The legacy of Lawrence Bragg: reflections and recollections (Science Review Ltd, London, 1990).
↵25 The distinguished scientists included Sir Brian Pippard, Professor H. S. Lipson, Professor W. Cochran, Professor A. Guinier, Professor J. D. Dunitz, Professor Sivaramakrishna Chandrasekhar, Professor H. E. Huxley, Professor R. King, Professor T. E. Allibone, Professor R. L. Wain, Professor C. A. Taylor and Dr W. M. Lomer. W. L. Bragg's son, Mr S. L. Bragg, and his daughter Patience also contributed to the volume.
↵26 I must have been told more than a hundred times in the past decade by scientists and others—when they learn that W. L. Bragg was my predecessor-but-one at the RI—that they remember being greatly inspired by the lecture-demonstrations of Sir Lawrence Bragg in the schools programme run by him and Ronald King.
↵27 See Michael Faraday and Lawrence Bragg, Advice to lecturers (Royal Institution of Great Britain, London, 1974).
↵28 Max Perutz told me that one of the reasons why he loved Cambridge so much was because it was always teeming with students and young people.
↵29 L. N. Johnson, ‘Obituary of David Chilton Phillips, Lord Phillips of Ellesmere’, Protein Sci. 8, 1371–1373 (1999).
↵30 J. C. Kendrew, G. Bodo, H. M. Dintzis, R. G. Parrish, H. Wyckoff and D. C. Phillips, ‘A three-dimensional model of the myoglobin molecule obtained by X-ray analysis’, Nature 181, 662–666 (1958).
↵31 In 1922, seven years before he discovered penicillin, Alexander Fleming also discovered lysozyme. Fleming was excited by lysozyme because the enzyme showed antibacterial activity. Unfortunately, lysozyme is active only against certain bacteria and it was not pursued as an antibacterial agent, but it is widely used nowadays as a tool in molecular biology.
↵32 W. L. Bragg remained as a researcher in the DFRL during George Porter's term as Director until the time of his death in 1981.
↵33 D. C. Phillips, ‘The three-dimensional structure of an enzyme molecule’, Sci. Am. 215 (5), 78–90 (1966).
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