Science and Politics in 20th Century Ireland

The RDS Boyle Medal as an Indicator of Esteem

Roy H W Johnston

Overview of the Century

The Boyle Medal system was originally intended to encourage local publication, and was developed from Prof D J Cunningham's 1896 suggestion by Joly and Stoney in 1897, under the influence of Fitzgerald(54), in order to link local publication with recognition internationally, via the achievement of FRS status for outstanding individuals.

There have been 32 Boyle Medals awarded to date. The awards have been irregular; sometime two in one year, sometimes there were gaps of a decade or more. It seems appropriate to group them into 4 periods:

Period 1 1899 to 1936: G J Stoney to H H Poole(20), when the citation was accompanied by a detailed publication list, such as to establish the recipient definitively in the European scientific mainstream, in the spirit of Joly's and Fitzgerald's original aspirations to set up the RDS as a stepping-stone to the RS. There is, however, a hint of the Period 2 philosophy in the award to Purser Griffith, in the context of the RDS Bicentenary celebrations.

Period 2 1939 to 1961: J Reilly to Phyllis Clinch, when there were citations but no publication lists, except for the last two. The availability of publication lists for Clinch and McKay is a result of their having continued to publish locally, while the overall lack of publication lists is an indication of the trend into publication abroad in mainstream specialist journals, which by this time was the majority position. There appears to have been an attempt made to relate the award to the need for national recognition of scientists within Ireland for good work done in the Irish context. Those who published abroad however had to have submitted from time to time token or review publications to the Scientific Proceedings of the RDS, in order to fulfil the eligibility requirements (see Appendix 1).

Period 3 1969 to 1978: Vincent Barry to G F Mitchell, where there were citations, no publication lists, but recipients were invited to review their field, for publication by the RDS. This period reflects the changing role of the Medal; it now constitutes a usually belated national recognition for people already well known internationally, and an attempt to provide a life-support system for the moribund process of Irish scientific publication. In the 1965 rules revision the requirement for RDS publication as a pre-requisite for consideration for the medal was dropped.

Period 4 1979 to 1992: C O Ceallaigh to B K P Scaife, where there were usually citations, and papers were given, some of which were published ad hoc, and others exist in m/s with the intention to publish; the event was accompanied by a press release. The Medal by this time had lost its earlier momentum, and arguably was beginning to require its role to be re-defined, in the light of contemporary needs, with the acceptance that primary mainstream scientific publication in Ireland is effectively dead.

From 1936 onwards the adjudication process was the responsibility of the existing Boyle Medallists, who were entitled to co-opt members of the Society to help them, and to seek external advice. The records of the adjudication process however have not been retained.

The 1996 Cunningham Boyle Medal paper has however been published as a full-colour illustrated monograph, and should perhaps be considered as the precursor of the sequence for the Medal's second century, with the process of re-definition already having commenced.

During this whole century-long epoch the status of the RDS as a scientific paper publisher declined. People seeking recognition within their discipline increasingly had to publish in the mainstream specialist journals abroad. A consequence of this was that it was increasingly difficult for the existing local Irish scientific elite to know who among the younger generation was up and coming, and worthy of encouragement by an award system, or even who among their peers was internationally significant in the scientific community, and worthy of national acclaim.

Indeed, it can be argued that there was an emerging dichotomy between those who sought local elite status and those who sought international recognition via work published in their discipline. This dichotomy emerges to dominate the Boyle Medal process in Periods 3 and 4, reaching its most acute form with O Ceallaigh (43).

In what follows, I go into all of these periods, looking at the individual contributions and assessing them. I am indebted to the work of Crawford(21), who has analysed the international scientific elite using the Nobel Prize process as a measure. We are, in fact, dealing with a Nobel Prize type of procedure in microcosm: a means of attempting to define a scientific elite, worthy of recognition and emulation, at the national rather than the international level.

Copyright (c) Roy Johnston. Web version re-edited June 1999; further editing for printed publication is not precluded.

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