Science and Politics in 20th Century Ireland

The RDS Boyle Medal as an Indicator of Esteem

Roy H W Johnston

Period 1: Mainly the Irish FRS Group

Joly in introducing the Medal on March 22 1899 claimed Boyle for Ireland, and referred to '...a medal dedicated to a great Irishman..'. He went on to hope that '...the greatest Irishmen will ...have their names inscribed upon..' the roll of Boyle Medallists.

Boyle's Irish connections however, apart from his celebrated designation as '...the brother of the Earl of Cork and the father of Chemistry', were referenced by Joly in Boyle's own words, reflecting the times: '...a barbarous country where chemical spirits were so misunderstood and chemical instruments so unprocurable that it was hard to have any hermetic thoughts in it..'; thus Ireland in 1652. Boyle turned to anatomy, verifying Harvey's discovery of the circulation of the blood. Joly does not expand on this, but one suspects that in 1652 in Ireland he should have had no problem finding cadavers to cut up.

Apart from these peripheral references to Ireland, Joly concentrates on Boyle's role as a founder of the Royal Society, and reminds the Royal Society that they have omitted to commemorate him, making the implicit claim for the RDS to have an accepted role in filling the gap. The implication is clear: Joly was not thinking of the RDS so much as the RS of Dublin.

Joly then went on to read the citation of G J Stoney's work: the magnetic survey with Lloyd(8) in the late 1850s, his work on the kinetic theory of gases(22) in the 60s, interacting with Clausius, Loschmidt, Maxwell and Joule(23), which he went on in the 70s to relate to the conditions for the retention of an atmosphere by a planet. Parallel with this work he introduced the concept of a unit-charge of electricity, which he called the 'electron', estimating it quantitatively on the basis of work by Faraday. His later work on the standardisation of the units of measurement was also cited.

Most of this work was published in the Philosophical Magazine (published by the RS) or the Proceedings of the RS(24), but in his later days, after the campaign to focus mainstream science on the RDS got under way, he published locally in the Proceedings of the RDS; not only had he already become an FRS, but also much of his work on radioactivity was done in the RDS laboratory. The initial award to Stoney was perhaps therefore in recognition of the sterling work he had done to put world-class scientific publication in Ireland on a sound footing.

Next in the series, in 1900, was Thomas Preston(25), who was Professor of Physics at the Royal University in Dublin (RU)(26). Working with the big Rowland grating at the RU, Preston pushed forward the boundaries of spectrography, and identified what became known as the 'anomalous Zeeman effect', which relates to the splitting of spectral lines in a magnetic field. This was in the mainstream of current discoveries in physics, involving interaction with Lorentz(27), Larmor(28), Stoney, Fitzgerald and others. It involved working with a magnetic field of 40 Kgauss, for which Preston personally made the equipment. There was emphasis in the citation on the extent to which Preston had made the practice of publishing in the RDS, as well as in Nature.

These two initial Boyle Medals would appear to be not unrelated to the politics of the emerging National University of Ireland (founded in 1908), and the need to promote the status of the Royal University as a focus of knowhow on which to build. Stoney was associated with the RU in a leading administrative role. Fitzgerald had been actively promoting secular technical education in Dublin; today he is counted among the founding fathers of the Dublin Institute of Technology. The RU was relatively liberal, admitting women to degree status, long before Trinity College did; Fitzgerald supported this, and attempted to get TCD to do likewise (29). The 'Catholic University' concept had been successfully contained (imagine a demand for a 'black university' in apartheid South Africa!) and the NUI concept, subsuming the RU, was emerging as a compromise. The early Boyle Medals need to be understood against the background of this period, which has been widely studied elsewhere(30).

There is then a long hiatus until 1911 and 1912; perhaps the need to 'fly the flag' on behalf of colonial science in Ireland declined once the NUI got under way, taking on board the scientific resources of the Royal University, and avoiding the explicit Catholic 'Louvain' model, desired by the Pope. It is not that there was no work going on. I conjecture that the stimulus was the emergence of Home Rule politics on the agenda. We get Joly himself, now maturing, and Grubb.

The medal was awarded to Joly in 1911 by Sir Howard Grubb FRS (31), who was then the Chairman of the Council of the RDS. The 1912 award went to Grubb himself, and was awarded by Joly, who by then had become the Chairman. There is a hint here of mutual back-scratching, but there is more to it than this. Consider first the citations; we are not dealing with nonentities; these were world-class scientists and technologists; they were making a political statement in the proto-Home Rule environment, drawing attention to the potential of Ireland as a source of innovation, within the framework of the Empire. They had also assumed leading positions in a national organisation which represented 'improving landlord' and traditional industrial as well as scientific interests, and which was positioning itself to take advantage of the expected new political environment.

Joly's work in calorimetry is known at a certain level to everyone who does science at school, but it is not widely realised that this work was aimed at understanding the fundamentals of geology, via the melting-points of rocks. In this context he invented an electric furnace suitable for work on the laboratory scale. This led him to measures of geological time, and he can claim to have been the first to come up with a valid estimate of the age of the earth, based on the sodium content of the oceans.

Among his many other inventions was a process of colour photography, based on a theory of colour vision which he pioneered. He also pioneered the study of radioactivity in rocks, in particular thorium. He was highly entrepreneurial, and was poised to go into production with his colour photography process, but fell foul of patent litigation in the USA. In his RDS role he pioneered the quantitative study of Irish natural resources, being the prime mover behind the RDS surveys of the Atlantic fisheries, which were afterwards taken over by the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction under Horace Plunkett.

Of the 81 papers cited the majority were in the Proceedings of the RDS, but he made sure that key papers appeared in Nature and the RS Philosophical Magazine, so that his path to FRS status was sustained. He did much work subsequently, surviving up to the 1930s. In the 1916 rebellion he was active in the defence of the grounds of Trinity College in the company of the TCD Officers Training Corps. According to Walton(32), he met de Valera towards the end of his days; it is however not on record what views if any they exchanged.

In order for Sir Howard Grubb FRS to receive the medal, it was necessary to rescind the rule which prevented it from being awarded to an honorary officer of the Society. Grubb had been an honorary officer since 1889. It may be conjectured that the original motivation behind the rule was to encourage younger people, and to prevent the appearance of mutual back-scratching. What motivated the change? I conjecture that a need was perceived to publicise the merit and the international standing of the Irish scientific community in the context of Home Rule being on the agenda. This aspect needs to be explored further by the historians. The techno-economic environment in the projected Home Rule context on the eve of the War was one of confident expansionism, as indicated below.

Grubb had some 35 papers published mostly in the Scientific Proceedings of the RDS between 1869 and 1911. He described the work done in the Grubb optical work in Rathmines on various telescopes, sold to observatories in Germany, Austria, Russia, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Turkey, America, India, China as well as in Britain and the Empire. There is now a commemorative plaque in Observatory Lane, Rathmines, on the site of the optical works The key innovations were in the bearings and in the control system for the motion in right ascension, which was electrical. Subsequent to 1900 Grub developed gun-sights which were taken up by the Royal Navy, as well as periscopes for submarines. The Grubb optical works, despite the Quaker connection (this aspect needs further exploration) thus became part of the imperial 'military-industrial complex', and it was moved from Rathmines to St Albans in 1920, for strategic reasons.

The Grubb family optical business had contributed to the great Birr telescope of the Earl of Rosse, which was developed in the 1840s with the aid of his grandfather, who was an optician in Kilkenny. It had benefited by 'spin-off' from the Birr scientific enterprise. Other spin-offs of this major scientific centre included the Parsons steam turbine, which made feasible a reliable and smooth supply of mains electricity. Parsons was a younger brother of the Earl of Rosse. The Birr epic is another story (33).

I am here suggesting as a working hypothesis that the motivation for the 1911-1912 Boyle Medals was to assert in the Home Rule environment that the Irish (mostly Protestant) scientific elite, focused in the RDS, were a factor to be reckoned with, and that while recognising and supporting Irish national identity, there was still business to be done with the Empire.

In support of this hypothesis, it is on record that Home Rule was regarded positively by significant numbers of Irish Protestant industrialists, like Sir William Pirrie of Harland and Wolfe, who was associated with the meeting in the Ulster Hall at which Winston Churchill (then a Liberal) was hounded out by the Orange mob, and Harry Ferguson, later of Ferguson tractor fame, who built the first Irish aircraft in Belfast, on the Bleriot pattern, and exhibited it in the 1910 Sinn Fein 'Aonach na Nodlaig' exhibition in the Rotunda in Dublin (34). This image of 'white-hot technological progress' was taken up by James Connolly and it figured on the headed notepaper of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (35) until as late as the 1940s, by which time it looked quaint and dated. This is another area neglected by historians needing elaboration.

Next in line for the Boyle Medal award was H H Dixon FRS (36), who received it in Jan 23 1917 from Lord Rathdonnell who was then President of the RDS. Dixon had published in 1893 with Joly a theoretical approach to the problem of explaining transpiration and the ascent of sap in high trees. In the course of subsequent work based on the theory he developed physical instrumentation, and procedures for sampling sap from within cells. He pioneered experimental scientific methods in the TCD Botany School. His publication list includes 61 papers and books; his earlier work tended to be distributed between Nature, specialist botanical journals and the Proceedings of the RIA; from 1903 onwards he switched from the RIA to the RDS. Could this have been the influence of Joly, in the context of his mobilisation of the FRS group?

Also in 1917 came J A McClelland FRS (37), who had worked along with Preston in the Royal University laboratories, and made the transition to UCD at the foundation of the NUI, where he founded a tradition of research into atmospheric condensation nuclei which rapidly became world-class, remaining so to this day, as indeed has the spectroscopic tradition initiated by Preston. Beginning with the analysis of the conductivity of flame in 1899-1901, he went on to the study of atmospheric ionic mobility, and electrical charges on raindrops. In 1897 he showed that 'Lenard rays' (now 'beta-particles'), like 'cathode rays' were electrically charged particles; the pioneering work on radioactivity and conduction in gases was in its phenomenological phase, with basic understanding only beginning to emerge. By 1904 he was demonstrating that 'radium-emanation' (now familiar as the noble gas radon) was uncharged. By 1905 he was identifying secondary radiation due to beta-particles and gamma-rays, and relating its spectrum to atomic weight.

McClelland's publications up to 1902 were mostly in the Proceedings of the RS, the Philosophical Magazine and the Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society. Then up to 1908 he published in the Proceedings of the RDS, switching, after a hiatus, to the RIA from 1912 on, where he remained, along with the Nolan brothers, establishing the RIA Proceedings as the key source of classical work on atmospheric ionisation and condensation nuclei.

Was the switch to the RIA a 'conscious political act', an assertion of independence from the imperial orientation of the Joly-Grubb coterie in the RDS, once McClelland had gained international recognition and the coveted FRS status? He would perhaps have been motivated to evoke again the national role of the RIA, picking up the mantle of Kane. Conjectures such as this, and others suggested in this paper, need to be teased out in the context of a professionalised research unit devoted to the history of science in the specifically Irish context. Let me introduce a shorthand PRUHSI to denote this requirement, because I will need to invoke the need for it on several occasions later.

McClelland, whose roots were in the RU, and subsequently the Nolan(38) brothers (see below), may perhaps be identified as the 'first flush' of world-class scientists to emerge via and from the new NUI. The recognition of McClelland in 1917 by the RDS elite suggests that the objective was to round up all the Irish FRSs and set them up as Boyle Medallists, with a view to implementing Fitzgerald's earlier 'FRSD' concept by the back door.

There is a reference in the citation to McClelland serving, during the 1914-18 war, on a State advisory committee on research. This presumably was in the Irish context. There was a significant munitions industry in Ireland in support of the British war effort.

The next Boyle Medal, in 1921, indicates a turn of attention in the direction of applied science of national economic significance. The RDS Science Committee was living in the real world and could not fail to have been influenced by the course of events. G H Pethybridge was a botanist with an interest in plant diseases. Most of his work was published in the Journal of the Dept of Agriculture and Technical Instruction, which under Horace Plunkett was a scientific publisher of standing. He also published basic work on fungi in the Proceedings of the RIA and applied-scientific work in the Scientific Proceedings of the RDS (this included industrial work relevant to the creameries). Some key papers he published in the specialist journals in Britain. His main contribution to science was the elucidation of the reproductive process of the fungus causing potato blight, a plant disease of major national importance. He was the organiser of research in plant pathology, and pioneered the system of 'field laboratories' in close contact with disease foci (eg a centre devoted to potato blight in Clifden).

There is now a long gap, until 1928, when we get two, Atkins and Adeny, the awards being given to both on February 15 1928 by Joly, who was then Senior Vice-President of the RDS. The award procedure at this time (since 1919) was by decision of the Council and the Science Committee of the RDS, on the advice of the existing Boyle Medallists (see Appendix 1), and was for work which had been first published in the Scientific Proceedings of the RDS.

W R G Atkins FRS OBE had contributed to the war effort with the application of chemistry to the control of aircraft fuel and lubricant quality, and to solvents used in aircraft fabric varnishes. He had, however, originated his chemical researches in the context of his father's surgical work, with analysis of blood and urine. After the war he worked for a time in India, developing an interest in soil chemistry in the context of industrial crops.

In the publication list his many papers are divided into five groups: physical and organic chemistry (1911-1926, mostly in specialist journals abroad), technical chemistry (1916-1928, also published abroad; these included, as well as the war-based work, papers on the preservation of fishing-nets); chemistry and physiology of plants (1909-1928, mostly with Dixon and published in the Proceedings of the RDS, apart from the Indian period); chemistry of sea water and algae (1922-1928, specialist journals abroad); animal physiology etc (mostly early papers, some in the Irish medical publications).

W E Adeney's work was concentrated on the effects of the discharge of sewage into rivers, and on the evaluation of the factors which enabled rivers to recover, identifying dissolved oxygen as being the key factor. He was a Fellow of the Royal College of Science of Ireland, which used to occupy the buildings now occupied by the Government beside Leinster House, and which was in the process of absorbtion into UCD about this time.

Adeney concentrated on the development of methods of measurement of dissolved oxygen, and the rate of its uptake in aeration processes. In the publication list, his papers are arranged by where they were published; the bulk of them were in the Scientific Proceedings of the RDS, and cover the period 1890 to 1926. He also published in the Civil Engineering journals, in the Proceedings of the RIA, and in the Philosophical Transactions of the RS (an early paper in 1884 on spectroscopy). His magnum opus would appear to have been the Fifth Report of the Royal Commission on Sewage Disposal in 1908.

It seems that Joly was still valiantly attempting to keep up the role of the RDS, with its publication programme and award system, as a launching-pad for Irish scientists to achieve FRS status in the national context. To establish this it would be necessary to analyse the FRS awarding process along the lines done by Crawford(21) for the Nobel Prizes, which involved knowing not only who were the winners, but who were proposed and when, and on the basis of what work, and something about the motivations and standings of the proposers. This is quite a difficult agenda, in view of the lack of ready access to records of failed proposals. Insights may emerge from letters and papers of key people, insofar as these are available. It can be placed on the agenda of the projected PRUHSI.

We now come to an anomalous award, in that the publications were not in the RDS Proceedings but in those of the Civil Engineers: Sir John Purser Griffith. This was in 1931, which was the bicentenary year of the RDS; there were major national celebrations, including a ball attended by every member of the then Government; there was a scientific exhibition, and on the siding at Ballsbridge was the prototype Drumm Train(39), with its pioneering nickel-iron accumulator power-source.

The recipient was then 83 years old, and it was appropriate that he should gain some national recognition. His work had been primarily on the development of the port of Dublin and the Irish ports in general. He also advised on the power potential of the Severn tides, a topic which is again of interest currently. He did pioneering work on peat technology at his Ferbane bog, and developed a process for extracting tar. He chaired an Irish Peat Committee in 1918, and served on a Commission on the Water Power Resources of the UK in the same year. In the latter context, or perhaps with momentum derived from it, he promoted the concept of the Liffey Scheme in the early 20s. While this subsequently was developed in the 1940s at Poulaphouca, it was not his scheme; his early concept had been leapfrogged by McLaughlin(40), with his Shannon Scheme, which reflected more exactly the visionary aspirations of the new State. Most of Purser Griffith's later papers I understand were critical of the latter. It is not clear from the listing where they were published, and this episode remains on the PRUHSI agenda..

It is probable that the award of the Boyle Medal on this auspicious national occasion was of the nature of a consolation prize, for someone who was undoubtedly the 'grand old man' of the engineering profession. The presentation was made by Joly; this must have been just about his last public event.

After the death of Joly the Boyle Medal continued for a few years with the momentum which he had initiated: good mainstream science, with national priorities highlighted in the citations where these occurred.

Next in 1932 came Dr Paul A Murphy of UCD, who had followed in the footsteps of Pethybridge and addressed the problem of plant diseases. After his initial work with Pethybridge on potato blight, he turned his attention to virus diseases, identifying the mosaic virus, and influencing the practice in the world trade in seed-potatoes. He also worked on diseases of onions and turnips. Some 33 publications are listed in international journals including Nature as well as in the RDS Proceedings.

The final Boyle Medallist in this initial group was Dr H H Poole in 1936, who can be regarded as a Joly follower: beginning in 1910 with work on electrical properties of molten rocks, where non-ohmic conductance effects were identified, he then went on to what would now be called environmental work, and quantified the physical inputs to the photosynthesis process, in complex biological systems on land, and under the sea. Much of his later work was done with Atkins.

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

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