On hero worship

It’s difficult for me to say who is (or was) my greatest scientific hero. Partly, I think, because growing up I never really thought of science as a potential career (in fact, the only thing I can remember about careers advice in school was mastic asphalt spreading. Whether that was a do or don’t do escapes me, in much the same way that I can remember Hans and Lieselotte and Ich habe mir das Bein gebrochen but have forgotten what came next). I didn’t really think of anything as a career until as late as possible–I did three science ‘A’ levels and combined my two favourites to read Biochemistry, and just did stuff because I liked it.

But I did have heroes, after a fashion and at different stages of my life. David Attenborough, obviously. Harry Secombe was another one, but nothing to do with science. Oddly enough, Fred Hoyle was an early influence, and all because of a book my mother gave me when (at about age 13) it became apparent–to her at least–that I was fated to be a scientist. She thought that seeing as I also like science fiction it might combine the two interests.

The book was Diseases from Space, authored by the great man with Chandra Wickramasinghe, which developed the panspermia hypothesis into a plausible (to me, back then at least) account of how common diseases (‘flu, the common cold, etc.) might be caused by microbes being carried around the solar system in comets and the like. Hoyle is of course more famous for his theory of nucleosynthesis in stars, and for coining the mocking phrase ‘big bang’ in describing (a current theory of) the formation of the known universe. Despite being roundly mocked, he and Wickramasinghe pushed the panspermia theory pretty hard, and I had the honour of inviting Wickramasinghe to guest edit an issue of The Biochemist several years ago, in which the two of them brought us up to date with their thinking.

I will lay claim to one more scientific hero. My undergraduate degree took four years: the first three were fairly standard, with lab practicals and lectures and tutorials, with exams at the end. But the fourth year was research based–I had to write an extended essay, sit a couple of exams that had only two questions apiece (which tells you something about the depth of knowledge required), and complete a lab-based research project. I did my lab project in The Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, famed for being the place where, in of the darkest days of the Second World War, Howard Florey and his team gave us penicillin.

There I managed to bump into some real heroes. Ed Abraham for example, who developed the cephalosporins (which probably helped save my life a few years back). But most of all, Norman Heatley–the technical wizard who made the growth, extraction and quantification of penicillin possible. Henry Harris probably said it best:

Without Fleming, no Chain; without Chain, no Florey; without Florey, no Heatley; without Heatley, no penicillin.

Norman would never, it seems, have sought fame. He wasn’t even recognized by the Nobel committee. He is however, a true scientific hero.

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
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15 Responses to On hero worship

  1. Maxine Clarke says:

    Are you planning a post on scientific heroine worship? (If you have any scientific heroines, that is.)
    PS Did not watch the video, thanks for the warning.

  2. Ian Brooks says:

    Have you the seen pics of him watching that vid in his nursing home? Truly LOLz

  3. Richard P. Grant says:

    There were no female scientists worthy of being heroines in my formative years. To be honest, I’m hard pushed to think of any now. Dorothy Hodgkin was fairly cool, but I didn’t know much about her till I started my DPhil.
    Actually, Lady Margaret Florey (née Jennings) was pretty awesome. She was Howard Florey’s technician and lover; he wouldn’t divorce his first wife, but when she died he and Margaret married and were truly happy. For a few months only: tragically, Howard died shortly after. I met Lady Margaret just the once, and her great-niece was one of my best friends at college.
    Ian, no I haven’t.

  4. Jennifer Rohn says:

    There is unfortunately a far smaller sample size to choose from amongst 20th century scientists.

  5. Richard P. Grant says:

    Yeah. It would probably be different if I were ten years younger.
    (My tutor essentially invented the modern biochemistry course at Oxford; she was literally awesome but I wouldn’t exactly call her a hero. For that reason.)

  6. Frank Norman says:

    You are not alone Richard. The BBC reports that

    Two-thirds of the British public are unable to name a single famous female scientist, according to an ICM poll.

  7. Tom Webb says:

    Rachel Carson? (If David Attenborough counts, so should she!)

  8. Richard P. Grant says:

    I can name famous female scientists; but I can’t say that any of them inspired me. That’s a reflection on the time rather than me, I think (by the way, I can name a current female anti-hero!).
    I see your Rachel Carson and raise you Judith Hann.

  9. Tom Webb says:

    Rachel Carson’s writing is inspirational, I think – although I’d already embarked on this career before I read any. Likewise, three other heroes I discovered late: 18th Century English naturalist Gilbert White, 19th Century American polymath George Perkins Marsh, and, entirely for his cavalier attitude towards personal safety when experimenting on the effects of depth and pressure on human divers, 20th Century biologist JBS Haldane (Haldane on the positive side of the perforated eardrums regularly suffered by himself and fellow experimenters: “the drum generally heals up; and if a hole remains in it, although one is somewhat deaf, one can blow tobacco smoke out of the ear in question, which is a social accomplishment.”)

  10. Richard P. Grant says:

    We nee more JBS Haldanes, assuredly.

  11. Austin Elliott says:

    Of course, JBS Haldane was carrying on a family tradition, Tom, as his dad JS Haldane was earlier famous for his work on diving. The father and son are often mixed up. JBS (who was mostly a mathematician to start with) first got involved with the diving work by doing mathematical calculations for his dad to derive the diving tables for how long to stay at each depth when re-surfacing.
    Love the Haldane quote, BTW. It would have done just as well for Haldane senior, and actually sums up the attitude of a lot of the early 20th century physiologists. Doing experiments on oneself was the norm, and by modern standards they did some pretty hair-raising stuff – like making themselves so hypoxic that they nearly passed out, or sitting in a sealed chamber where cyanide gas was being produced (both things JS Haldane did).
    I wrote an article about some of JS’ work for my Physiology magazine a year or two back, so perhaps I’ll dust it down for the blog.

  12. Tom Webb says:

    I confess I got that Haldane quote straight from Wikipedia, but I’d read about him / them (father and/or son) in Trevor Norton’s really entertaining history of diving, ‘Stars Beneath The Sea’. At least one of the Huxleys was involved too. I seem to remember that one of them was experimenting on the effects of nitrogen narcosis, taking notes on symptoms while at depth – only to find out on surfacing that all he’d written was something like ‘I’m having a lovely time’ over and over again!

  13. Richard P. Grant says:

    bq. I wrote an article about some of JS’ work for my Physiology magazine a year or two back, so perhaps I’ll dust it down for the blog.
    Please do!

  14. Cath Ennis says:

    Barbara McClintock is one of my science heroes, along with David Attenborough and James Herriot, if I’m allowed to count vets as scientists.

  15. Åsa Karlström says:

    Nice post Richard! I’m SO lucky I didn’t try that video at work 😉 .
    The hero thing, reminds me of the discussion earlier about the distinction between heros and people you admire/aspire to be.
    I had Marie Curie as a heroine as an teenager (together with some writers, although they weren’t scientists). Not that I wanted all of her life necessarily but it was something special that she tried to work out science, love and family. I do still admire that she was head strong and kept doing lab work despite a lot of trouble. She didn’t (to be honest) strike me as the “nicest” person whe I read up on her life and collaborators, but the older I get and the more people I encounter in science the more I think determination and maybe lack of social skills are counter-parts 😉

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