Glittering reprises

Why, wonders Kevin Fong, do we so quickly forget our illustrious forebears?

March 27, 2008

A couple of weeks ago, at the start of a lecture at King’s College London, I asked a class full of medical students and physiologists if they knew the names of the people who won the Nobel prize for the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. (It’s the sort of thing I like to do to buy some time while I try to figure out which lecture I’m supposed to be giving that day and how to work the laser pointer.)

Out of about 25 students, I got not a single correct answer. “Crick and Watson” a few ventured; some remembered Rosalind Franklin and that she died before she was able to receive the same accolade. None remembered the name of Maurice Wilkins, without whom arguably neither Francis Crick nor James Watson would have ever got an invitation to Oslo. Not surprising, since pretty much everybody I’ve ever asked thinks that Crick and Watson alone were the Nobel recipients, but a little disappointing given that Wilkins’s laboratory was at King’s College and that the campus itself has a building named in his honour. Still, look on the bright side: at least no one said Ant and Dec.

A couple of months earlier I sat in on another lecture, this time at University College London, on the subject of muscle physiology. “Who’s that bloke in the photograph at the back?” the visiting speaker asked of the class, pointing at a black-and-white print hanging on the rear wall of the seminar room. The students shrank in their chairs - even though they had sat in the room all term, it had apparently crossed nobody’s mind to ask who the man in the picture might be. I shrank too because the question hadn’t crossed my mind either. The portrait was of one Archibald Vivian Hill, another forgotten Nobel laureate, who won his prize for his work in the field of muscle function and after whom one of the biggest lecture theatres in the university is named.

I am guessing that this pattern is repeated across the country, with students and staff alike wandering the halls of their campuses rarely knowing the history of the names on the masonry; preoccupied instead with more immediate concerns like whether or not they have enough time to quaff a cappuccino before the next lecture. As an undergrad I was no better, more interested in getting to the union bar before the happy hour drinks promotion was over than I was in reading the inscriptions on the plaques outside the auditoriums. I have got a little better over time, mainly because otherwise, every now and again, a visiting lecturer from abroad with an unhealthy sense of curiosity can make you feel like a nincompoop for not knowing.

The students at UCL do know the name of Jeremy Bentham, the English philosopher whose conviction that education should be more widely available, independent of wealth and religious persuasion, inspired the institution’s foundation. But it is not this story that fixes him in their minds. Rather it is the fact that Bentham’s body was preserved, at his request, at the time of his death and is on display in a glass case in the South Cloisters. Only his body resides there, crowned with a head of wax. The real head was stolen a few times by students of other universities and apparently, on one occasion, was used as a football in a grisly game of drunken five-a-side. And so now the head of Jeremy Bentham resides permanently in a safe. Occasionally at centennial events it sees the light of day and is rejoined with its parent body to sit in on college council meetings, his sporting days being now well behind him.

Unravelling the molecular secrets of life was but one string to Maurice Wilkins’s mighty bow. I interviewed him for a student newspaper article some 15 years ago when he was professor emeritus at King’s College. Wilkins started out life as a lecturer in physics at the University of St Andrews. He spent the years of the Second World War improving radar display screens and later worked under Robert Oppenheimer in Berkeley, California as part of the Manhattan Project atomic weapons development programme.

Affected deeply by these experiences, he became a vociferous opponent of nuclear arms proliferation and established the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science. His shift from the discipline of physics to that of biophysics and biology was, he told me, an effort to “move from the science of death to the science of life”.

Alas, Professor Maurice Wilkins, for all his wisdom, didn’t have the foresight to arrange to get himself embalmed and mounted in a display case. For him, as for many, there is no Bentham-esque reminder of his greatness, no anecdote sufficiently grotesque to merit carriage from one generation of fresher to the next; just a building bearing his surname and a simple plaque to tell you what he did. Whether it’s a failing of our undergraduates’ curiosity or of our style of teaching I’m not sure; but it should be somebody’s job to remember properly the deeds of the titans that once roamed the corridors.


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