Archive | May 2013

Three Faces of Derek de Solla Price

I recently read a fascinating article about the early years of the discipline of history of science in Cambridge.  It was helpful to me in lots of ways but one idea the author, Anna-K Mayer, had was to examine various photographs of the key figures in that story – famous historians and scientists such as Herbert Butterfield and Joseph Needham.  These men were public figures, and they took care over how they appeared in photographs.  So we can get an idea of the public image they wanted to create of themselves from the photographs that survive of them.

I thought I’d look at three pictures of Derek de Solla Price, the subject of my research, with a similarly critical eye.  They are from different stages of his career, but all three were published.  There is a question, of course, about how much control he had over them, but even at a young age he had a thirst for publicity – within a couple of months of finding the Equatorie of the Planetis manuscript he had splashed the story in The Times.  So I’m confident that from the start of his career he had a fairly clear idea of how he wanted to be portrayed.  Anyway, here’s the first photo:

Price 1952 Varsity photo

It’s from Varsity, the Cambridge University newspaper, and accompanies the first article that was written about Price’s discovery of the manuscript.  Smartly dressed but youthful, gazing directly into the camera, he is every inch the confident, upstart young academic.  His mouth is slightly open, as if eager to enlighten us about what he has discovered.  And of course he is superimposed onto a picture of the manuscript, linking himself as firmly as possible with his discovery and his newfound career as a historical detective.

The next is this photo, courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University:

deSollaPrice_DJIn 1959 Price moved to Yale, where he became Avalon Professor of the History of Science, setting up a new department there.  This photo (left) was taken while he was at Yale, probably in around 1970.  It shows a more settled, thoughtful Price, who looks sidelong at us with a glance that is not unfriendly, but seems to assess us critically.  This is certainly how one would expect the avuncular expatriate English academic to appear.  The Englishness is emphasised with the pipe, which at that time would have reminded many people of former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (below).



The final photo was taken to accompany an interview with Price in the popular science magazine OMNI.  The photographer was Malcolm Kirk, a noted portraitist, and the date was August 1982, when Price was 60 – just a year before he died.


Price still has his pipe, but this is a wholly different shot.  With the pale-rimmed glasses and dark suit, he is more dignified than before.  He is photographed from above, making him smaller and certainly less scary than in the previous photo, but he is also leaning forward – there is no sense of retirement for this 60-year-old.  He looks directly at the camera, not aggressively, but inquisitively and again somewhat critically.  The strapline on the accompanying article called him “Yale’s iconoclastic historian of science”, and the photograph conveys a vivid impression of this.  With a model of the Antikythera Mechanism in front of him, this is no distant theoretician, but a man who knows about things – really complicated things.

It’s always useful to remind ourselves that a picture, even a  photograph, can never be taken at face value.  It is the result of a huge number of decisions on the part of artist and subject: clothes; hairstyle, lighting, props, background, body language, facial expression, and so on.  We may not always control these consciously, but they can still be revealing.  And by comparing photographs from different times, we can get a good idea of how someone’s image can change.  It may be an image they wish to promote, or an unvarnished self-image, or a combination of the two – but whichever it is, it gives us plenty to think about.


In the midst

As a part-timer on the CwC internship scheme, I’ve now hit the half way point. I’m in the process of figuring out a date for a Wednesday lunchtime talk on 18thC and 19thC  school samplers at the Fitzwilliam Museum in September, so far there are three possible dates. My mentor will be giving a talk […]

Stories from the Archives: How? Technology and the Garden

Technology has been changing work practices and the way we view the world in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden since the 1950s.  Image: CUBG

Technology has been changing work practices in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden since the 1950s.          Image: CUBG

Since the 1950s the unprecedented expansion in technology has affected all aspects of our lives;  machines and technologies have profoundly changed the way we work and view the world.  Cambridge University Botanic Garden’s annual reports offer interesting insights into how machinery and technology was employed in the daily life and scientific processes of the Garden.  For example, the Annual Report of the Botanic Garden Syndicate 1975-1976 notes the use of several different forms of machines or technology – from grass-cutters to scanning electron microscopes.

Annual Report 1975 – 1976 provides an interesting snap-shot of the mid-1970s as it reflects a period of economic belt-tightening.  In the case of grass-cutting, machines were helping to keep up standards, despite a lack of manpower. The Annual Report begins:  ‘In spite of enforced economies, which are affecting the Botanic Garden like all University institutions, the reduced staff have succeeded in keeping up a high standard throughout the Garden and have even been able to initiate certain agreed developments in and around the Research Area…’  The report states that grass-cutting equipment had been ‘brought into use effectively to offset the inevitable and continuing decline in man-power’.

During this time the Garden initiated one of the first projects for the classification of the genus Geranium using computer-clustering.  In the Annual Report of 1975-1976, the Garden’s taxonomist, Dr Peter Yeo, writes that ‘computer-printed descriptions were obtained’ and stated that it was hoped that Mr R J Pankhurst will soon to produce a ‘computer-generated key’; once ‘minor factual amendments’ are overcome.  Computers were introducing new possibilities of analyzing scientific data.  At the same time they were producing new challenges as to how data was managed and programs prepared.


Peter Yeo, taxonomist (left) in conversation with Peter Orriss, superintendent of the Botanic Garden

In the administration offices, typewriters and ‘Xeroxes’ were being used to prepare and circulate reports and scientific articles.  We learn that draft copies of ‘A taxonomic revision of Euphrasia in Europe’, eventually to be published in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society (Volume 77, Issue 4, pages 223-334, December 1978), was being prepared ‘in typescript and is to be made available in ‘Xerox’ form to those interested’.  The articles was published on the Wiley Online Library on 28th June 2008, some thirty years after it first appeared in print.  ‘Xerox’ refers to an early form of photocopying (first introduced in 1959) rather than to laser printing (first introduced in 1969).  In the mid-1970s, desk-top computers were at least a decade away as a common form of office equipment.

At the same time, in the laboratories, plant scientists and taxonomists were using a range of cutting-edge equipment, including scanning electron microscopes (SEM).   Cambridge Instrument Company was a pioneer in the marketing of commercial SEMs in the mid-1960s. Garden research projects also included ‘tracer experiments using 14c and titrium’ and ‘newly discovered clones’ as well as cytological and taxonomic studies.

In 1976, Professor Battersby – Professor Sir Alan Rushton Battersby, Emeritus Professor of Organic Chemistry, Cambridge (1969 – 1992) – concluded a long-term experimental project in the Garden into biosynthesis of natural products.  The Annual Report says:

‘Under this project begun in 1969, the Garden has employed one extra gardener and an experimental glasshouse has been erected. The glasshouse now reverts, as agreed, to the Research Area use as a whole, as the property of the Garden.  Professor Battersby thanked the Syndicate and staff of the Garden warmly for their cooperation, and was assured of the availability of limited facilities in the Research Area for any continuing or future work.’  

Professor Battersby went on the receive a wide-range of honours including a Royal Medal in 1984, the Wolf Prize in Chemistry in 1989, the Robert Alonzo Welch Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award – the Welch Award in Chemistry – and the Royal Society Copley Medal in 2000 for his work in plant genetics and biosynthetic pathways.  He was knighted for his lifetime contributions to science in 1992.

Pippa Lacey

University of Cambridge Museums

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