Science and Politics in 20th Century Ireland

The RDS Boyle Medal an an Indicator of Esteem

Roy H W Johnston

Period 3: The Review Publication

We now begin the period when the Scientific Proceedings of the RDS was still struggling on, and the Boyle Medal review papers were part of its life support system. The 1968 award went to Vincent Barry, who had worked with Professor Dillon in Galway on alginates in the 1930s. Some of this work was published in the Scientific Proceedings of the RDS, so that he would have qualified under the old rules. (Indeed, I remember him in conversation at the time expressing regret about the rule-change). His main work was on the chemotherapy of tuberculosis, which in the 1940s was still epidemic.

There was a special grant from the Oireachtas in 1943 to establish a Fellowship for him. In 1950 he got laboratory space in the old Officers Training Corps hut in the Parade Ground at the back of Trinity College, where he built up a team under the Medical Research Council (MRC, previously established in 1937) which worked constructively with him up to his death in 1975; his team continued in his tradition, but with declining State support, and the laboratory closed finally in 1990.

As is often the case with scientific work, the objective of the research is not achieved, but other things are. He set out to find a cure for TB and found one for another mycobacterial disease, leprosy. (It is worth noting in passing that the Galway work on alginates was consciously aimed at enabling value to be added to the seaweed collected in the West and then, as now, exported raw, for the extraction abroad of high-value food-additives. The failure of the seaweed industry in the West to profit from this locally available knowhow he regarded as 'unfinished business'.) The Boyle Medal review-paper/lecture is an outline of his research strategy pursued over the decades 1938 to 1968, and constitutes an important historical document for anyone pursuing a study of the history of research in chemotherapy, and the positive role of serendipity in science.

There are questions implicitly raised about the role of the independent research laboratory and its relationship with the firm which would develop its results for the market. I don't think Vincent Barry had thought this through. It was evident that the main output of his group was the published paper rather than the product; he had the philosophy of the basic scientist working for the good of humanity. He patented his leprosy results and gave the rights of the first drug, still a principal treatment, to the Swiss firm Geigy which had been a major supporter of the research. Later drugs, never exploited further (despite their current relevance in the AIDS context), he made available to the Government of India.

(In passing I feel I should point out that there are many questions here which perhaps seek the attention of the projected PRUHSI. This was a prototype State-funded applied-research laboratory outside the university teaching system. Why was it set up in that mode, and why did it not long survive its founder as an ongoing viable system? Is there perhaps a parallel with the Soviet-style model(45)? How did the MRC experience relate to the foundation of the Agricultural Institute in 1958? De Valera's idea to embody medical research in the remit of the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies did not materialise.)

Next in 1969 comes Thomas Walsh, who by then had been for over a decade in command of the Agricultural Institute, set up with Marshall Plan money in 1958. Tom Walsh would also technically have qualified under the old rules, in that in 1943 he had published in the Scientific Proceedings of the RDS a paper with P H Gallagher on the Clare phosphate as fertiliser. His main work was on soil science, and he had been associated with the Department of Agriculture research centre at Johnstown Castle Co Wexford since 1945, which was subsequently absorbed into the new Institute. He had also been associated with peat work at Glenamoy Co Mayo and cutaway bog work at Lullymore Co Kildare. His work covered trace elements, toxicity, soil physics and drainage, soil classification and the general ecology of agricultural systems. He had been honoured abroad, in the USA and in France, and had assumed what Crawford(21) would call 'international luminary' status.

His lecture/review paper refers fleetingly to soil science as beginning in Russia at the end of the last century, but then he plunges into a discursive account of specific Irish soils, without however giving a good background account of the basics of soil science and its classification criteria, which he presumed known. This illustrates a key contemporary problem: how to distinguish between talking within a discipline and talking across disciplines. It is however a mine of specialist information relating to specific Irish soil problems, as they were perceived in the 1960s.

It would however not be a good paper to give to someone who wanted to know what soil science was about, what the key problems were in Ireland, and what the overall research strategy of the Agricultural Institute was. It gets bogged in detail too quickly.

It is difficult not to conclude that the first flush of the Period 3 awards were in celebration of the State's involvement, at last, in significant funding of applied-scientific research outside the Universities, and in the interests of the use of Irish knowhow in the solution of Irish problems.

The State was in the end coming round, perhaps grudgingly, and without much conscious understanding, to accepting its role in the Baconian scheme of things, and doing so creatively, outside the traditional European model, which had hitherto been dominated by the military-industrial complex. Indeed, it can be argued that the Irish Government, in giving some priority to funding science in the interest of national development (rather than in support of predatory State military power, as had been the European norm), was pioneering what we may define as the 'post-Baconian' approach to science and government.

There is also evident a drawing together of the Irish Baconian twins. The RDS had by now given up on the RS as its target, as set by Joly, and had in the end accepted the RIA as the locally available Irish Baconian pinnacle. Vincent Barry and Frank Mitchell (see below) both went on subsequently to the Presidency of the RIA; Walsh became RIA Secretary. This drawing together of the scientific ranks was however not effectively matched by recognition on the part of the State, which under the pressure of the 1964 OECD Report went on to set up in 1969 the National Science Council (NSC), an appointed body, which ignored the peer-recognition process on which scientific credibility depends.

The politics of the setting up of the NSC and of its relationship with the scientists' own organisations is another area needing to be teased out in the context of the PRUHSI agenda. The present writer had a hand in the preparation of submissions from several professional bodies on the structure of the proposed State science interface; these were largely ignored. We were clearly in the presence of a top-down State-centralist model, with the Baconian pinnacle of the science establishment a long way from achieving the influence of its counterparts in other countries.

The Boyle Medal process was again perhaps being activated by the political ambiance, and the process continued of attempting to draw the public attention to the international scientific luminaries we had living among us, largely uncelebrated. Next came P J Nolan and J L Synge, both of whom were associated with the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, founded by de Valera in 1939. The importance of State-funded research institutions was not publicly appreciated, nor was the significance of the work done in them.

PJ Nolan, along with his brother JJ, had continued in the UCD Physics Department the work initiated by McClelland in the 1900s (see above). This had turned out to be an important niche in modern environmental physics, and it was reinforced by the work done in the DIAS by LW Pollak(46).

Pollak and Nolan could be said to have taken a 'de Bono lateral leap' with the Wilson cloud chamber(47), and made a totally new instrument out of it. The original Wilson chamber was used to detect charged particles in motion, by condensing droplets from a supersaturated vapour on their ion trails. To get this window into esoteric effects, you have first to get rid of all the extraneous condensation nuclei, by expanding the chamber several times to get supersaturation of the vapour. For as long as there are condensation nuclei present, a fog is generated, which is allowed to settle.

The Nolan-Pollak instrument takes the Wilson chamber at this initial cleansing stage, and uses it to measure, by an optical method, how much fog there is, this being in direct proportion to the number of small solid particles in the air acting as nuclei for vapour to condense forming drops.

This instrument has become a world standard in atmospheric physics. The Boyle Medal review paper/lecture is a detailed technical specification of the instrument and its calibration procedures, and as such is probably redundant, as this was already widely available to the user-community. A consistent philosophy for the Boyle Lecture had not yet begun to emerge. What was needed was to place the instrument in context and to show its global importance. Philosophy of science is totally under-rated in Ireland. This is a further area to be teased out analytically and historically by the projected PRUHSI. No-one had thought to give Nolan a briefing as to the objectives of the occasion, or on the target audience.

This defect was to some extent remedied on the J L Synge occasion in the following year 1972. Synge, who died in April 1995 in his 90s, was always a master-populariser of difficult concepts, and in his lecture, which selectively reviewed his life's work, he achieved an unusual combination of erudition and entertainment.

I was there, and I wrote it up (inadequately) for the Irish Times Science and Technology column which I was then doing. He took note of my presence in the audience, and was aware of my interest in cross-linking and integration of outputs from different disciplines into an integrated problem-solving process. So, tongue in cheek, he left me with the problem of how to integrate into modern dentistry some work he had done 40 years previously on the mechanics of the human tooth in its bony socket.

Synge at that time headed the Theoretical Physics School of the DIAS, and could be counted among the relatively few inheritors of the mantle of Einstein(48). He regaled us with a series of problems at the interface of geometry and physics, which was his niche. He made the link between Hamilton(7) and Schroedinger(49), and produced a letter from Schroedinger about de Broglie(50) and the particle-wave duality, acknowledging by implication the debt to Hamilton.

Synge wished he had been steeped in Hamilton's optics before he had been shown de Broglie's paper in 1924. He might have scooped Schroedinger; instead he had dismissed de Broglie as nonsense. This paper is a philosophical and historical quarry of ideas.

The last of the medallists of the third period is G F Mitchell FRS, who gave his Boyle Medal review lecture in April 1978. He covered the history and archaeology of tillage tools in Ireland for the past 5000 years. This represented one relatively minor aspect of Mitchell's contributions to science; it is as if he had a paper on this topic ready for publication, and he decided to take the opportunity of giving it as the Boyle Lecture.

The citation however is extensive, and concentrates on the most original aspects of his work, which was in palaeo-botany, and the use of pollen for dating bogs, and archaeological finds in them. He was awarded his FRS for this work in 1973. His international contact network is noted, and his role in placing Irish Quaternary geology on the international record, particularly the record of the raised beaches and the mesolithic sites.

His work on pollen goes back to the 30s, and he got some early financial support from the RDS for it. It can be argued that led him on the path to his FRS, with the RDS fulfilling the role mapped out for it by Joly. We need an additional window into this via the FRS awarding procedure. For some reason the anonymous writer of the citation did not pick the early RDS role in the support of Mitchell's work, suggesting a failure of institutional memory, under the pressure of the modern rising tide of scientific publication.

This completes the third period; the Scientific Proceedings of the RDS was coming to an end, and this was the second-last occasion on which the Boyle Medal record could be consigned to a valid institutional memory accessible to the scientific community.

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

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