The Royal Society

Bibliotheca, issue 13 October 1998

Sackler news - waiting times slashed!

The first stage of the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Archive Resource, the Society's new database of biographical information on past Fellows 1660-1950, has now been completed. This entailed transferring basic information from the index to Bulloch's Roll (the Society's old paper compendium of biographical information) onto a tailor-made database running on the latest in archival software. The principal details transferred were name, dates of birth, death and election, offices held in the Society, medals and prizes won and a reference to the election certificate. Additional facts from The Dictionary of National Biography and the Dictionary of Scientific Biography are included. Access to the Resource, which has been restricted to Library staff, will soon be extended by incorporating it in the RS web site; it is also intended that researchers will be able to use the database in the Library's Quiet Room.

The new facility offers major benefits in terms of speed and ease of searching - no need to wait for the librarian to fetch a hand-written volume, simply typing in a Fellow's name instantly retrieves the relevant record which can be printed off directly. And an overview facility makes it possible to scan whole batches of records for particular types of information. In terms of complexity, previously impossibly time-consuming searches - Presidents of the Society who died in Cambridge, for example - can now be performed.

While records have been compiled with a careful eye for consistency and due respect for widely-accepted guidelines (such as the National Council on Archives rules on names), the individuality of Royal Society sources has not been sacrificed. One of these unique sources, the election certificates, lies at the heart of the next phase of the project. The text of the citations, which explain a candidate's suitability for election, will be entered and the certificates themselves, including the signatures of Fellows supporting that candidate, will be scanned in and attached to the records.

A past Fellow of the Society who would doubtless have approved of the convenience afforded by the new Resource is the physician John Ayrton Paris, President of the College of Physicians for a number of years in the mid-19th century. A master when it came to effort-saving, his skill in diagnosis was apparently based on his reliance on the patient's general appearance, the asking of only a few questions and a disregard for minute physical examination (The Dictionary of National Biography does not say whether he had terrible handwriting too, but it's a pretty safe bet). Another medical Fellow who achieved note through lack of attention to physical examination (albeit inadvertent) was the surgeon Richard Partridge who, whilst attending Garibaldi in southern Italy in 1862, overlooked the presence of a bullet in the great leader's right ankle.

While it could be argued that no great medical powers would have been necessary to expose the case of Mary Toft - who fraudulently claimed to have given birth to rabbits - as the midwife Sir Richard Manningham did, it was surely a highly astute practitioner who identified the cause of death of the statistician and Fellow, George Richardson Porter, as 'a gnat's sting on the knee'. A similarly unusual, if somewhat less dramatic, manner of death was that of the mathematician Abraham de Moivre, a friend of Newton and a renowned lover of literature. By his eighty-seventh year twenty hours sleep a day had become his norm and death by somnolence was recorded. The speediness of the Sackler Resource will ensure that no such passings will be suffered by weary biographical researchers in the Library!

SOURCE: The Dictionary of National Biography (for additional biographical details)

Lives of Indian Fellows

Two scientists based in India, Dr Raghunath Mashelkar and Professor Ashoke Sen, were recently elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society. They continue a distinguished tradition of links between the Society and India - links reflected in a number of biographical items recently obtained by the Library, which highlight some fascinating aspects of the lives of past Indian Fellows.

The first Indian scientist to be elected to the Fellowship was Ardaseer Cursetjee (1808-1877), whose achievements are described in an article from a 1949 issue of Science and culture, kindly sent to us by Cursetjee's great great great grandson. Cursetjee was responsible for introducing both gas lighting and steam pumps to his native town of Bombay, before travelling to England in 1839 to further his studies of steam power for the benefit of his countrymen. Within a few months of his arrival he had made the acquaintance of the Marquess of Northampton, then President of the Royal Society, and Cursetjee was subsequently elected to the Fellowship on 27 May 1841 after his return to India. He was also presented to Queen Victoria during his stay in London, and appears to have visited many of the sights of the capital, notwithstanding his comment that a 'nuisance of London is the dirty state of the roads compared with those of Bombay'.

Living conditions in England were to have altogether more serious consequences for the second Indian Fellow of the Royal Society, Srinivasa Ramanujan, whose brief life is commemorated in a tribute volume sent to us by the Madurai Kamaraj University in Tamil Nadu. Born in 1887, Ramanujan soon demonstrated a precocious gift for mathematics, but suffered greatly from financial difficulties in his early twenties, and confided to a friend that he was "probably destined to die in poverty like Galileo".

However, in 1913 Ramanujan began a correspondence with the famous mathematician Professor G.H. Hardy, FRS, who recognised Ramanujan's natural genius - a genius which, according to Hardy, "belonged to the class of Euler and Gauss". Hardy's support led to a five-year stay in Cambridge for Ramanujan, who impressed with his "instinctive perfection of manners that made him a delightful guest or companion" as well as with his mathematical prowess. He was made an FRS in May 1918, with a citation noting his "investigations in elliptic functions and the theory of numbers", but was already suffering from tuberculosis by this time. Despite a return to the warmer Indian climate in a bid to beat the disease, he died in April 1920 at the age of only thirty-two.

By contrast, a long and prolific life is celebrated in S. Chandrasekhar: the man behind the legend, recently published in honour of the Indian astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (1910-1995), usually known simply as Chandra. The volume contains reminiscences by relatives, students and associates, including current Fellows such as Roger Penrose, who notes Chandra's fascination with aesthetics in science and "profound appreciation of the beauty of mathematical formulae". R.H. Dalitz, FRS, relates that Chandra attended Dirac's full quantum mechanics lecture course three times while at Cambridge. Dirac was astonished by this when they later met, but Chandra simply replied that, "if I had told you that I had listened to the same Beethoven concerto on three occasions, you would not have found that astonishing".

Finally, an entry in a secondhand book catalogue led to the purchase of Satyendra Nath Bose (New Delhi: National Book Trust, 1976), a small but intriguing biography by S. and E. Chatterjee. Bose, born in Calcutta in 1894, is most famous for his work in the area which came to be known as Bose-Einstein statistics. The picture that emerges from the book is of a modest, trusting and sociable figure, whose absence of vanity and pride led to the false perception of "an idle genius who wasted his powers in intellectual small talk". While the papers which made him famous were published as early as 1924, and were followed by excursions into a variety of fields including philosophy and archaeology, the biography points out his "important papers in unified field theory" published at the age of sixty and his subsequent election to the Fellowship in 1958.

Descriptions of Bose's scientific works are set alongside other idiosyncratic details, such as his extensive collection of walking sticks and his habit of calling sitar players into his laboratory for musical entertainment. Indeed, all four biographies noted in this article succeed in highlighting the human sides of their subjects, as well as discussing the professional achievements of some of the many notable Indian scientists to have been honoured by the Royal Society.

Alan Turing, FRS, on the Internet

In previous issues we have looked at Internet sites of use for science policy and for history of science enquiries. In this issue we take a look at how the Internet can help with another sort of enquiry we so frequently receive - how do I find more information on X? As a founder of modern computer science, it seems fitting that Alan Turing, a Royal Society Fellow from 1951 to 1954, is our example.

Conducting a search for "Alan Turing" on any internet search engine, will inevitably lead you to The Alan Turing Home Page. This site is created and maintained by Andrew Hodges and is essentially a summary version of his biography of Turing with additional up-dates and links to relevant Internet sources. The free- for-all nature of the Internet means that assessing the validity of information on the web can be a problem, but Hodges is a well known biographer and part of the Oxford University Mathematical Physics Group. Hodges also lectures at Wadham College, Oxford.

Combining Turing's personal and professional worlds, Hodges presents a useful companion to his biography. However, there are two real benefits of the electronic version. The first is that Hodges up-dates the site regularly. It is worth noting that when we accessed the site on 25th August 1998, it had been up-dated on 24th. Secondly, The Alan Turing Home Page contains links to interactive web-based computer programmes. This is particularly effective in illustrating Turing's thoughts on whether or not computers can think. A link to the full text of Turing's 1951 Mind paper 'Computing Machinery and Intelligence' sets out the theoretical issues, whilst links to on-line dialogue generators provide practical illustration. These programmes, however basic, provide the user with a practical understanding of Turing's ideas. They are also a great deal of fun.

This site has value both to those seeking an academic source and to those simply interested in the man himself. Selected highlights include a chronological summary of his life, a bibliography of his complete works and a short biography adapted from his Dictionary of National Biography entry (also written by Hodges). One interesting historical note arising from the short biography is that the first practical demonstration of Turing's computer principle was developed at Manchester University in 1948 by M Newman from the funding of a 1945 Royal Society grant.

The Alan Turing Home Page also contains an Internet Scrapbook, which offers a wide range of snapshots and snippets of personal information, including, for example, a photo of Turing and his brother as children in front of the home in which they grew up. Hodges also muses on the writing of 'Breaking the Code', a dramatisation of the events leading to Turing's death. Written by Hugh Whitmore, it opened at London's Haymarket Theatre in November 1986 with Derek Jacobi in the lead role, the actor Hodges had once remarked to an acquaintance would suit the role.

For those of you interested in finding out more, either visit The Alan Turing Home Page at or see Alan Turing: the Enigma, available in the Library.

Current Activities

Postcards for Sale

We have not quite reached the mugs and T-shirt stage (not yet ....) but we do now have our first batch of postcards for sale. They have been produced partly in response to requests from visitors and partly through a desire to see some of the wealth of illustrations from within our collections given wider exposure. Although the cards represent only a tiny fraction of the collection, we hope that through their use by staff, Fellows and visitors, the illustrations will both give pleasure and become more widely known.

The first three cards carry illustrations drawn from both the book and the portrait collections. From the portraits comes the figure of Joseph Banks whose powerful image will be familiar to all who have attended meetings in the Council Room. The book collection is represented by the fine black and white engraving of Robert Boyle's airpump and by one of the colour illustrations from Mark Catesby's The natural history of North Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, 1739.

The Catesby engraving, showing a blue grosbeak and a sweet flowering bay, is also the background image on the new front cover of Philosophical Transactions B. This seems particularly fitting as it was in Philosophical Transactions, Vol. 45, 1758 that Cromwell Mortimer, at the time one of the Secretaries of the Royal Society, wrote that Catesby's work was "the most magnificent Work I know of since the Art of Printing has been discovered".

The cards are on sale in the Library at 30p each

Portraits for the Millennium

Over 160 portraits hang on the walls of the Royal Society. They date from the 16th century to 1995 and many are still in their original frames, which are in themselves works of art. The collection as a whole forms an interesting source of information about the Fellowship of the Society and the history of British science.

For the Millennium, we are proposing to exploit this resource more fully, by speeding up our ongoing conservation programme for portraits and frames, so that they are all clean and in good repair, improving the hanging and lighting of the portraits, and labelling them all. The first area to benefit from the full programme will be the new Kohn Centre, followed by the City of London Rooms, but the portraits of Newton, Banks and Boyle in the Council Room are already enhanced by new lighting.

In the meantime, there is a quiz on page 31 about the portraits and busts and their sitters. A copy of the Royal Society Catalogue of Portraits to the first correct entry opened.

The two portraits shown currently hang in the City of London Rooms. John Locke (above) is by Kneller and Sir John Pringle (right) is by Reynolds.

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This page last updated 19 January 1999

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