The UK’s leading medical research charity, the Wellcome Trust, have donated a treasure trove to the world; 100,000 images covering the history of all aspects of medicine, science and technology are now freely available to any and all.
The database contains pictures of weird and wonderful medical instruments, copies of historical documents and stunning examples of science related works of art from Van Goghs to cartoons. It’s a joy just to peruse the library jumping from one fascinating image to the next. But, being a chemist, I was of course, particularly drawn to the documents and apparatus depicting the history of my chosen field.
Take the paraphernalia of the great and the good which gives a wonderful insight into their lives, working habits and personalities.
Of course Watson and Crick are well represented. There’s the draft of their famous paper describing the double helix of DNA, complete with hand written notes and annotations. But a better testament to Crick’s temperament and modesty is a photo of some graffiti allegedly scrawled by him. It seems to be part of a exchange with Enoch [Powell?] whilst also suggesting Crick may have had ambitions beyond a mere Nobel Prize.
Francis Crick’s graffiti, date unknown
There’s plenty of material on double Nobel Laurette, Marie Curie. Images of her laboratory are fascinating insight into her practices.
However, it’s her scruffy laboratory notebook that I find most interesting. Madam Curie was certainly a genius but her notes probably won’t pass muster with most PhD supervisors today.
Pages from Marie Curie’s notebook 27 May 1899 – 4 December 1902
Then there’s the equipment that highlights how science has progressed.
Take the X-ray spectrometer lovingly developed by the Leeds physicist William Henry Bragg. The 100 year old device is the direct ancestor of equipment housed at synchrotron like the massive Diamond light source.
Bragg’s X-ray Spectrometer 1910-1926
Or the penicillin fermentation vessel, one of thousands originally used by Glaxo (now GlaxoSmithKline) to grow the penicillium mould from which the antibiotic was extracted. Later the mould was grown in fermentors. Now of course the antibiotics are made synthetically.
Penicillin fermentation vessel, 1940-45
And there’s a wealth of early infographics, like this table of chemical characteristics from 1799, which predates the modern periodic table and chemical notation. Instead the elements (along with light and combustion) have been given symbols which are then combined to represent the compounds formed when these element are reacted together. The result is a beautiful if confusing representation of the state of chemistry in the 18th century.
Chemistry: symbols of elements and substances. Coloured engraving by H. Ashby, 1799, after W. Jackson.
Finally the mundane but no less fascinating. How about a cunning 3D representation of the periodic table lovingly mounted in a jam jar!
This post originally appeared in the Guardian.