Bedales Eckersley Lecture – from 1966 to present

By Dr Harry Pearson (staff, 1977-2006), former Head of Science and Houseparent

In my own personal history 1966 is a key year that I always remember and use as a reference point: it is the year, age 18, I left school in the July and started university at UCL in September. Also, all football aficionados remember 1966, as the only year England won the World Cup. I can remember the day as if it were yesterday. (One hundred years before, 1866, was one of those annus mirabilis years in science where so much was happening that would change the world, we live in. Darwin was advancing his work on natural selection while unbeknown to him, an Austrian monk, Gregor Mendel, was carefully collecting data on peas which would lay the foundation of what we now call genetics.) Eleven years on, I left the university world of chemistry and arrived at Bedales in September 1977.  It was then I discovered that 1966 is also an important year in the history of Bedales, as it was the year of the inaugural Eckersley Lecture.

Thomas and Peter Eckersley were students at Bedales shortly after the school’s foundation. Thomas, 1886-1959, was a student here between 1897 and 1904. Peter, 1892-1963, was at Bedales between 1902 and 1911. They enjoyed science tremendously and the teaching they received engendered a sense of discovery and investigation in both of them. While here they became interested in the emerging field of radio transmission and carried out some amazing experiments. The photographs below show them at ‘Wavy Lodge’ (a hut near the present-day Music School) where they carried out some of their experiments on radio transmission. Their great friend in this enterprise was Bob Best whom I was pleased to meet at the lectures of the late seventies, still as enthusiastic as ever.

Both Eckersley brothers went on to have distinguished careers: Peter became Chief Engineer when the BBC started in 1922. Thomas, who went to University College London, where he studied engineering, then went on to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied mathematics. He then joined the Marconi Company where he stayed most of his career where he carried out important research in the field of Radio waves becoming FRS. His work was concerned with how atmospheric effects affected the transmission of the waves. He went on to win the prestigious Faraday medal in 1951. To give an idea of the importance of this award it can be noted that the winners in 1950 and 1952 were Sir James Chadwick, discoverer of the neutron and Nobel Laureate, and Berkeley physicist Ernest. O Lawrence, inventor of the cyclotron and Nobel Laureate, respectively, two of the better-known Nobel Prize winners. The contribution by the brothers in the field of Radio transmission is extraordinarily significant, and something that Bedales can feel very proud about.

The lectures were set up by a group of Old Bedalians as a memorial and tribute to the outstanding contribution to scientific progress and thinking made by the Eckersley brothers. They are meant to have a broad appeal and stimulate interest in, and appreciation of science, rather than just record scientific research. It was always hoped that non-scientists would find them of interest. It seems appropriate that several directors of the Royal Institution have delivered the lecture as one of the aims of the ‘discourses’ at the institution seem very similar to the aims of the Eckersley Lecture.

The first lecture was given in 1966 by Professor Sir Lawrence Bragg who won a Nobel Prize for his pioneering work using X Rays in the elucidation of chemical structure. Indeed Bragg’s father also demonstrated the use of X rays in medicine. It is hard to overstate the significance of this first lecture.

In 1966 it would have been difficult to find a more senior, or more famous, scientist in this country, or indeed the world, than Lawrence Bragg, the first person to deliver the Eckersley lecture. Not only was Bragg a Nobel laureate but at the time he was the only person to have won the prize with his father, William Henry Bragg. What is more, since their discovery, the use of X rays, in structure determination, is one of those things that has changed all our lives. He won the prize as far back as 1923 as a member of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, a location that was virtually rewriting science for the twentieth century. Like his father, the younger Bragg went on to head the Cavendish, and become director of the Royal Institution.

To further emphasise Bragg’s pre-eminence, it is important to realize what point his use of X rays in structure determination had reached at that time. Several people in the Cavendish were working on the elucidation of enzyme structure, most notably Max Perutz and John Kendrew. Both went on to win the Nobel Prize for their work on the structure and function of Haemoglobin, the vital oxygen carrying protein in blood. At this time their work represented the cutting edge of science. Another duo in Bragg’s sphere were the pair Watson and Crick who were working on the structure of DNA. Their eventual publication of the structure, which marked the advent of Molecular Biology, is seen as the greatest discovery of the century. It was Bragg who proposed them for the Nobel Prize.

Watson and Crick were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work in Bragg’s laboratory in 1962. Their work would throw dramatic new light on the fields set up by Darwin and Mendel in 1866. The work in Bragg’s team was reaching towards the very heart of life itself.

When Bragg came to give the first lecture in 1966 it would be hard to think of a more eminent person in British intellectual life.

The subsequent list of speakers is very much a who’s who of British science with names like Colin Blakemore, Herman Bondi, Ken Pounds, OB Sebastian Pease, Nobel Laureate Max Perutz, Dame Jocelyn Bell-Burnell and Sir Roger Penrose among others.

I must say something here about Bas Pease. Bas gave the Eckersley lecture in 1982 entitled Nuclear Energy and the Future. Bas had a glittering scientific career becoming head of the project doing research on nuclear fusion. He may be the leading scientist that Bedales has ever produced. Bas was a powerful supporter of the Bedales Science Department and we were all pleased when he came to the opening of the new science buildings in 2001.

The 2006 lecture was given by one of my previous mentors Professor Brian Johnson FRS, formerly Head of Inorganic Chemistry at Cambridge and Master of Fitzwilliam, and also a governor of Bedales. When I wrote to him thanking him for coming, he said that for him it was an honour to join such a distinguished list of speakers. I think the founders of the lecture can be proud of what they have set up. The Eckersley brothers would also be proud of what goes on in their name and that science thrives at Bedales. 1966 was indeed an important year in the life of the school.

The Chemical History of Nicotine – Science Lunchtime Lecture Series

By Mary Shotter, Biology Technician

As part of the Science Lunchtime Lecture Series, A Level science students and members of 3i were joined by Dr Harry Pearson, former Bedales Housemaster and Head of Science/Chemistry, in the Simon Lecture Theatre to explore ‘The Chemical History of Nicotine’.

The intellectually stimulating talk began with the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1492, where European explorers were offered a ‘fuming material’ called zikari, made from the leaves of the plant Nicotiana tabacum by indigenous people. Harry’s talk then led us to 1560s Paris, when diplomat and scholar Jean Nicot de Villemain brought in seeds from the Americas and introduced the plant to France. Paris Society was polarised by this new ‘magic’ substance, now named ‘nicotine’ after Jean Nicot.

From France, Harry took us to 1800s Germany, where nicotine was first isolated in Heidelberg University – its chemical structure being determined in 1891. After an in depth look at nicotine’s chemical properties and the use of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) to determine the molecular structure, the talk concluded with a look at nicotine’s effects on the body, the work of Sir Richard Doll – the first scientist to discover the link between smoking and lung diseases in 1954 – and brought us to the present day with the introduction of nicotine patches and vaping.

Harry’s talk focused not only on the science of nicotine, but also encompassed many other topics, including stories of Bedales past, the difficulty of learning German and the witty quotes of Mark Twain.

The next Lunchtime Lecture take place on 12 November, when Dr Tim Mason of Portsmouth University will speak on ‘Edward Jenner and the Story of Vaccines’.