Science and Politics in 20th Century Ireland

The RDS Boyle Medal an an Indicator of Esteem

Roy H W Johnston

Period 2: Primarily Recognition of Irish-Oriented Work

In 1936 the rules were changed to bring the award under the control of the existing Boyle Medallists, who were required to meet at least every third year for the purpose of identifying and assessing suitable candidates. The living medallists at that time would have been Poole, Murphy, McClelland and Dixon.

Publication in the Scientific Proceedings of the RDS remained as a primary requirement. The practice was however dropped of publishing, in the context of the award ceremony, consistently in all cases a complete list of publications. Where a list is published, as was the case for Clinch and McKay, the flavour is predominantly RDS and Irish-based. It would in practice not have been feasible for the panel to scan systematically outside the RDS Proceedings.

This brings up the key problem of knowing who is doing what in a place like Ireland. There were increasing numbers publishing in the specialist journals abroad, a procedure which was increasingly essential for peer-esteem.

The Boyle Medal awarding procedure in practice restricted the field to those whose horizons as regards peer-esteem were limited to the Irish scientific community. Parochialism was thus encouraged. In some cases, however, people whose mainstream work was published abroad chose to publish from time to time, on a token basis, in the RDS, ensuring that they would be locally noticed. This situation persisted up to 1967.

The first award under the revised rules was in 1939 to Joseph Reilly, who was Professor of Chemistry in University College Cork. There is a one-page citation, and no publication list. Reilly had worked with Gilbert Morgan before the 1914-18 war on diazotisation and nitro derivatives. This would have been in the context of the arms race. By 1915 he was in charge of naval cordite manufacture, and ended up as a recognised explosives expert in Woolwich Arsenal. In 1925 he took up the Cork chair, and built up a postgraduate school, turning his attention to polysaccharides, and essential oils from Irish plants. It is noted that his work is reported in 11 international journals, and that the Irish-oriented work, which also included work on the thermal decomposition of peat and coal, was usually published in the Scientific Proceedings of the RDS. He was an active member of the RDS Committee for many years.

Then in 1942 came Joseph Doyle, who was Professor of Forestry in UCD, and had done basic work on conifer reproductive processes, and on cold resistance. There is again no publication list given, but most of his work seems to have been published either in the Scientific Proceedings of the RDS or in the Proceedings of the RIA.

He was followed in 1945 by T J Nolan, who was given a posthumous citation, the award being given to his widow. Nolan was also caught up in pre-1914 arms-race chemistry (1914-1918 has been called the 'chemist's war') and joined the research staff of Nobel Explosives, ending up in the fine chemicals department. Amalgamations brought him into the new Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI); he stayed there until 1925, when he took up the job of Assistant State Chemist in the Free State, where he managed to keep alive his research interest, publishing in the Journal of the Chemical Society. Finally he became Professor of Chemistry in UCD in 1932, and turned his attention to the chemistry of lichens, publishing consistently in the Scientific Proceedings of the RDS.

The first award after the Second World War was in 1947 to J H J Poole of TCD, who was the brother of HH Poole (1936). The citation is short, and places him squarely as a Joly follower, like his brother, mentioning his work on thorium in rocks which had been initiated with Joly, as well as a review article he had published in the Sci Proc RDS on the evolution of the atmosphere.

Then follows Professor E J Sheehy of UCD in 1950; also with quite a short citation, referring to his work on animal nutrition, and mineral deficiencies in soils.

There seems to be a suggestion here that the scientific community was attempting to influence the Government on how to allocate the money which by then was beginning to be expected under the Marshall Plan for investment into agricultural research. The College-based research people, with long and significant track-records, were staking their claim.

In the event, the Agricultural Institute (An Foras Taluntais) was set up as a semi-State research institute, without links with the 3rd-level system, and with Thomas Walsh at the head, having emerged via the Johnstown Castle Dept of Agriculture channel. The politics of this process need to be teased out, another item on the agenda of the projected PRUHSI. There were manoeuvrings involving TCD, UCD and the Veterinary College, and even ecclesiastical comment, of which the present writer was dimly aware at the time (41).

Thus in 1957, the year before the Agricultural Institute was founded, we get Robert McKay, who was a Murphy follower, working on plant pathology in the Albert College, Glasnevin (the core-building of the present DCU, but without continuity of institutional experience; it was then a producer of agriculture graduates, having been part of UCD Faculty of Agriculture since the 1920s).

McKay established the basis for the Donegal virus-free seed-potato industry, and established a global reputation for certified Irish seed-potatoes. He also worked on flax diseases, flax then being an important industrial crop for industry in the North. His book on flax diseases was sponsored by the Flax Development Board, which was a Northern Ireland Government body. In addition he was the author of standard books on cereal diseases, with Guinness support, and sugar beet diseases with support from the Irish Sugar Co.

(The above is an indication here that Department of Agriculture thinking reflected its pre-Partition origins, as indeed did the structures of the RDS and the RIA, both of which remained resolutely all-Ireland bodies. The imposed partitioned State-statelet structure was out of kilter with the structures of the principal Baconian nation-building scientific institutions, a key weakening factor for State, statelet and institutions; the analysis of this is another item on the PRUHSI agenda.)

Nearly all of his work was published in Ireland, some of it with Phyllis Clinch who received the next award in 1961, for work in the Murphy / McKay tradition on plant diseases. She had graduated in 1923 in UCD and had studied plant physiology in Imperial College. She had also worked with Doyle on conifers. She had also studied cytology in the Sorbonne in Paris. She then proceeded to make her career in the then new field of plant viruses, elucidating the complexities of the many virus diseases of the potato, tomato and sugar beet. She published primarily in the Scientific Proceedings of the RDS, also occasionally in the Proceedings of the RIA and many of her key papers were published in Nature(42).

She was the first and only woman to receive the award, and she and McKay were the last of the old school of Irish scientists who regarded RDS publication as being part of the European mainstream, in a field where science in Ireland had remained internationally respectable with what now would be called 'niche' status.

By this time most other scientists were publishing abroad, with the unfortunate result that while some, like O Ceallaigh(43), had achieved international luminary status in their niches, attracting foreign postgraduate students, few people in Ireland knew about them.

After this the RDS publication requirement was dropped, and a new policy was developed, under which it was hoped to fortify RDS publication with review papers from internationally recognised luminaries and award them internal Irish recognition with the Medal.

There was one award which was transitional between these two policy steps: E J Conway FRS in 1967, for whom there is a citation, but no review paper. It is probable that they dropped the publication requirement, and then subsequently the idea emerged that a review by a medallist, in the form of a Boyle Lecture, would help bolster the declining image of the event.

Professor Conway held the Physiology chair in UCD and was a world authority on electrolyte physiology, and in general on the physiology of the inorganic constituents of living tissue. He had achieved international luminary status, receiving research funding from abroad and serving on many international committees. Most of his 120 or so papers had been published abroad, although two papers on the chemical evolution of the oceans had been published in the Proceedings of the RIA in the 40s.

This concludes what we may call the 'historical' section of the Boyle Medal sequence. In the following sections, which edge their way into contemporary politics, as well as outlining the citations of the more recent Boyle Medallists, I indicate where I think there are political links, highlighting the issues relevant in science policy development.

This break-point happens to coincide with the 1964 OECD Report(44), which was influential in shaping Government science policy for the next decades.

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

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