After commenting on my last post that I am only called on three or four times a year to ferret out interesting old documents, here I am again with more tales of history. It seems to be a boom year for history around my way, perhaps because of the MRC Centenary celebrations this year.
My first historical enquirer, in the weeks leading up to Easter, was from a fellow MRC research unit. They asked for help in tracing anyone who had worked with Peter Medawar and who would be prepared to talk to camera, as part of a series of short videos that they are making on the history of transplantation – for the MRC Centenary. This was an easy request to satisfy – two people leapt to mind and a few emails later both had agreed to help out. Peter Medawar is one of the most recognised names from our Institute’s history, and was an extraordinary man. Those who knew and worked with him have great regard for him as a scientist and as a man.
Next I received an email asking about any records of research at the Institute that was relevant to pregnancy testing. This one was not so obvious. The email mentioned Alan Parkes, who worked among other things on reproductive biology but I was not sure whether there was a direct link from his work to pregnancy testing. After a little digging I decided that there probably is something of interest, but I couldn’t guarantee it – the researcher would need to come and look for themselves to decide. It’s not always easy to decide how much digging to do. Partly I feel that it is the enquirer’s job to do the hard digging, but they need to be reassured that it is going to be worth their while before committing time to visit.
A third enquirer emailed from the USA. She was researching into the history of a particular scientific topic for their PhD, and were interested in one of our past scientists and his colleagues in the same Division. I confirmed that we had some material useful for her and she popped over the following week to take a look. I picked out about 15 years’ worth of our (published) annual reports and the same number of years of (unpublished) reports from the Division to the Director. The latter are detailed papers that each member of scientific staff was expected to submit to the Director as a detailed summary of their activity in the previous year. The printed Annual Reports have rather briefer accounts of the research, but give more context with staff lists, photos, and general Institute news. She spent a few hours looking through these, and also spent some time talking to a retired scientist who had known the person in question. At the end of the day I arranged for her to visit another retired scientist living nearby who had worked closely with him. I think she got good value from the visit and will probably be back again to look at more material. I will need to do a bit more work to identify that. I haven’t mentioned the name here because the person is still living, and one needs to be über-discreet in such a case.
My last example is, sadly, of someone who died unexpectedly last month. Michael Sargent was a researcher at the Institute for many years, starting in microbiology but then moving to developmental biology, and devoting much time over the last 20 years to developing our schools outreach programme. Though retired, he continued to help with the schools outreach. He was also an author, and his book Biomedicine and the Human Condition: Challenges, Risks, and Rewards won much praise. Henry Gee commented that it was “a popular science book that deserves to be much better known than it is, partly because it’s the only one I’ve ever read that makes immunology intelligible”.
I worked with him quite a bit over the past dozen years and it came as a real shock to learn of his death. He was uniformly respected for his intellect and enthusiasm and liked for his bonhomie and humour. It was, therefore, a labour of love to assemble an obituary notice for our website. After some digging I found a few basic facts about his career then contacted several of his colleagues who supplied me with their own impressions and experience of Michael. Together they made up a good account.
The history of people is what makes history of science interesting for me, and makes me want to help when enquirers come calling. We have had some great people at the Institute.