Science and Politics in 20th Century Ireland

The RDS Boyle Medal an an Indicator of Esteem

Roy H W Johnston

Conclusions: the Boyle Medal Itself

I conjecture that Joly may have had an aspiration to establish the Boyle Medallists as an autonomous extension in Ireland of a sort of local chapter of the Royal Society for the purpose of recognising who in the Irish scientific community deserved recognition at FRS status. This could plausibly have been the motivation for the initial round of recruitment by Joly of FRS Boyle Medallists. It could also be argued that this was simply a natural coincidence. The analysis of the motivations and actions of the key actors in the process, with access to original source papers, correspondence etc, may be regarded as part of the agenda for the 'professional research unit for the history of science in Ireland' (PRUHSI) as earlier identified.

It is evident from the RDS Science Committee minutes that the sub-committees set up to prepare the citations and identify the next recipient of the Boyle Medal were composed primarily of the FRS group, which as time went on became the existing Boyle Medallists. This principle was embodied in a rule-change in 1936; they had however power to co-opt and to seek external advice.

There are however no records of how the Boyle Medallists go about identifying prospective recipients, and this renders the present analysis somewhat elusive and conjectural, unlike in the case of Crawford (21) who had access to all written material relating to Nobel Prize proposals, whether successful or not.

We are up against the problem of scale and viability, as well as the problem of identification of merit where local publication is increasingly discouraged, as for example in the case of the present writer, who when working with O Ceallaigh in the 1950s in the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, published primarily in the Philosophical Magazine(24) and Il Nuovo Cimento(55) (which had international status in the high-energy particle niche).

I was briefly a member of the RDS, and had begun to contribute to the work of the Science Committee, but was actively discouraged by O Ceallaigh from doing so. Publishing in the Scientific Proceedings of the RDS would have been out of the question. This situation I suspect was increasingly the case throughout the scientific community.

It is thus possible to define the first of several dichotomies: scientists have to seek peer-recognition in their niche by publication in mainstream journals and attending conferences, or to seek recognition within Ireland by publication, or by politicking, locally. The Fitzgerald-Joly programme was to try to counter this dichotomy with the Boyle Medal procedure.

There are however other dichotomies: scientists from the Protestant colonial tradition, traditionally rooted in TCD, and those from the emerging National University tradition, mostly (but not all) of Catholic background; also scientists who looked to the RIA for recognition, and those who looked to the RDS, seeing in the latter a link with the RS via Joly's 'aspirant FRS' legacy.

These three overlapping dichotomies, with their complex cross-currents, make the analysis of the background politics of the Boyle Medal sequence excessively difficult. The lack of records suggests a somewhat secretive tradition, setting a difficult agenda for further analysis.

I interpret the Boyle Medal as being in the tradition of Fitzgerald's earlier attempt to produce an honorific system, of FRS status, via the RDS, continued by Joly by other means. This was, I suspect, intended to upstage the RIA, which had itself failed to produce an RS-compatible honorific system. Many academics with a research record in the end become Members of the RIA, but there was, and is, no honorific Fellowship status. This is the present writer's conjecture, and as such it may be regarded as another item on the agenda for our projected PRUHSI. Some work done on this question by Nick Whyte in Queens University, in the context of his PhD thesis on 'Science and Politics in Ireland 1900-1930', is I understand in course of preparation for publication.

Demography and statistics however were against the success of the Fitzgerald-Joly concept. There were never enough Boyle Medallists alive at one time to constitute a viable award-giving knowledge-base, spanning all the sciences with the necessary insight and experience. The procedure for co-option and taking advice lent itself to academic and inter-institutional politicking, of which records, if they had been kept, would probably have been an embarrassment. During the last 10 years or so of the Boyle committee, the RDS officers found increasing difficulty in getting the Boyle Medallists to meet.

The relationship between the Boyle Medal and the RIA became re-defined during Period 3, when Boyle Medallists like Vincent Barry, Frank Mitchell and Tom Walsh went on subsequently to take up Academy office; in other words, the Boyle Medal could perhaps have been regarded as becoming a staging-post in RIA politics. This may or may not have been conscious; it could have been fortuitous. Awareness of Boyle Medal status could however quite credibly have been a factor in the results of RIA elections. It could also be said to fill in for the lack of an RIA honorific award, and to be recognised as such by the RIA.

The battle for the retention of Irish publication as an international scientific recognition platform, which was consciously initiated by Fitzgerald and Stoney in the 1890s (54), has been lost to the international specialist journals. This needs to be recognised and adjusted to; indeed the RDS came to terms with it in 1966 when they changed the rules about local publication. The recognition procedure problem however was not resolved.

In the next section I propose to deal with this issue, along the lines of the need for a 'national abstract' knowledge-base, supported by a systematic system of review-papers, contributed by people associated with the many current centres where there is world-class work being done. The concept of the Boyle Medallist review-paper, characteristic of Period 3, constitutes a constructive step in this direction, which I here attempt to develop further.

A Future Role for the Boyle Medal

I first began to draft this monograph in or about 1994, and by 1996 a draft had been circulated among the members of the Science Committee. There was visibly an emerging consciousness that with the coming centenary it would be desirable to re-examine the basis of the award, and to adapt it to the changing times. The fortunes of the RDS, which had been at a low ebb, had begun to improve. The Boyle Medal, thanks to the Irish Times - RDS Agreement, has been given a fresh start in its second century, along lines indicated in the final section of Appendix 1.

The purpose of this final section is to relate the foregoing overview of the history of the RDS and the Boyle Medal Award to the problem of future recognition of scientific talent within Ireland, in a context where most people publish in specialist journals abroad. It may perhaps also be regarded as part of the current trend into attempting to increase the public awareness of the role of science in Ireland, as advocated by the recent Science, Technology and Innovation Advisory Council (STIAC) Report.

As an example of the need for public awareness, it is appropriate to mention the death of ETS Walton(32), our one scientific Nobel Prize winner, in 1995; this took place in the same week as that of Senator Gordon Wilson, whose role in the Enniskillen War Memorial bombing earned him fame. There was substantial, and deserved, press comment on the latter, but Walton's death passed unnoticed. Nor did he get any mention in the publicity surrounding the 1995 literature Nobel Prize of Seamus Heaney.

There will be needed, in the context of the new Irish Times / RDS Boyle Medal candidate identification process, a readily accessible knowledge-base which will make available to enquirers a window into what is going on currently in science in Ireland. The current expanded interest in the possibilities of the Internet and the World Wide Web constitutes an opportunity to set this up.

What we need is:

1. A means of knowing who in Ireland is doing what in science, where they are, who they work with: in other words, an indexed search-able knowledge-base;

2. A means of motivating people to supply knowledge to, and use the knowledge-base;

3. A means of recognising within the knowledge-base if there is a focus of outstanding and significant knowledge worthy of public recognition and development as a resource.

This can be made available with the aid of some conscious design applied to the proliferating mesh of Web sites, supported perhaps by related database material. A possible approach is outlined in Appendix 2.


It is impossible to avoid, from the analysis of the history of the Boyle Medal as a measure of esteem within the Irish science community, the conclusion that the demise of the Proceedings of the RDS as a locally available mainstream scientific publication source has made it more difficult to measure scientific achievement within Ireland.

It is also necessary to remark that there is no research unit anywhere in Ireland specifically devoted to the study of the history of science, and its significance in the Irish nation-building context, on a comparative basis with other European countries. In the course of the foregoing I have put on record several conjectures, hypotheses and unanswered questions which should be on the agenda of such a research unit, were it to exist. I make no apology for doing this. It is an important first step in any scientific enquiry to ask questions and formulate hypotheses.

A procedure has been outlined above, and further developed in Appendix 2, for enabling again the systematic recognition of scientific achievement, using a system of relational databases and websites, dedicated to identifying Irish people who publish in the international scientific mainstream literature. This, when coupled with the current enhanced Boyle Medal, with a significant financial award, will help to ensure for the achievers of the scientific community the public recognition that they deserve.

It would make sense to link the presentation of the enhanced award with a periodic exhibition, at which the key centres of Irish scientific research would be enabled to present some indication of the significance of their findings to the public. This would attract public attention to the activities of scientists in Ireland, in the same way as the 'Young Scientists' exhibition and award, pioneered by Aer Lingus and now supported by ESAT, has done.

Science, however, is not simply a stage that second-level students pass through. It is at the core of modern civilisation, and needs to be recognised by the public as such.

It follows that science is implicitly at the core of modern Irish culture, and is part of the socio-economic infrastructure, with ramifications into the national politics. It therefore deserves to be studied in historical context as part of the national cultural development process. It is my hope that this somewhat inadequate and amateur analysis of the Boyle Medal in its first century will lead to the realisation of the need for the professionalising of the study of the history of science in Ireland, so that in the second century of the Boyle Medal its significance, will begin to be appreciated as part of Irish culture in the broad sense.

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

[Appendix 1] [Table of Contents] [Techne Home Page]

Some navigational notes:

In any of the modules, if a highlighted word is accompanied by a number, it brings up a footnote or a reference. If a highlighted word is not accompanied by a number, it will bring you to a related module. If you click on the 'Back' button it will bring to to the point of departure in the module from which you came.