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Bedsheets, boats and biology: James Lovelock and the MRC

Think James Lovelock, and most people think about Gaia theory, his idea that the Earth is a self-regulating system that keeps the conditions for life in a delicate equilibrium. But for 20 years Lovelock was a scientist at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research, studying a wide range of areas from preventing burns to freezing tissues. Katherine Nightingale went to a Science Museum exhibition about his life and work to find out more from its curator Alex Johnson.

Lovelock (left) with two of his NIMR colleagues, Owen Lidwell (centre) and Robert Bourdillon (Image copyright: Science Museum, courtesy of James Lovelock*)

Lovelock (left) with two of his NIMR colleagues, Owen Lidwell (centre) and Robert Bourdillon (Image copyright: Science Museum, courtesy of James Lovelock)

Much is made of James Lovelock’s decades as an independent scientist and inventor in a shed at the bottom of his garden. His thirst for scientific freedom and invention is well known ― even his adolescent short stories feature protagonists who just want to be left alone to pursue their own ideas.

Funny then, that Lovelock himself says that some of his most creative work was done while part of a large institution, the MRC National Institute for Medical Research, between 1941 and 1961.

He has been known to refer to his time at the NIMR as an extended apprenticeship, working in various research divisions across the institute, and being encouraged to solve his own problems and create his own equipment.

As he explains in this video and an interview with the Science Museum’s Roger Highfield, he relished the problem solving demanded by war, and the intellectual freedom and tinkering time that being in a government lab provided.

Let’s take a look at his diverse time at the NIMR.

“Advanced mathematics are not essential”

Invitation to apply for a job at the National Institute for Medical Research, 1941 (Image copyright: Science Museum*)

Invitation to apply for a job at the National Institute for Medical Research, 1941 (Image copyright: Science Museum)

This letter invites Lovelock to an interview at NIMR. “Fortunately the letter points out that advanced mathematics are not required for this post, which was convenient because Lovelock’s school reports, which we have in another section of the exhibition, suggest that maths wasn’t his strongest point!” says Johnson. Lovelock was unusual at the NIMR at the time — he had a 2.2 degree from the University of Manchester that set him apart from the lab’s usual Oxbridge graduates.

WWII: from hankies to Hawking

Lovelock was set to work on a wide range of projects during World War II. During the war, the government was concerned about infectious disease, both for people at home, and soldiers and sailors abroad. This lab book contains notes on his experiments with handkerchiefs and bedsheets and their role in the spread of infection.

Lovelock’s infectious disease research sent him to interesting locations, including analysing air quality, hygiene and ventilation in the London Underground used as air raid shelters and to the Arctic on the aircraft carrier HMS Vengeance..

NIMR notebook, lab notes, 1948 (Image copyright: Science Museum*)

NIMR notebook, lab notes, 1948 (Image copyright: Science Museum)

As well as looking at ways to prevent infection, Lovelock’s research also led to him developing one of the sensitive analytical devices that became the signature of his career, including the ion anemometer which measured tiny changes in airflow.

Another project involved investigating how to prevent burns. Part of this was working out the amount of heat needed to produce different degrees of burns. Reluctant to do this on anaesthetised rabbits, he and a colleague instead burned themselves, once requiring treatment from Frank Hawking, father of Stephen, who served as the institute’s doctor as well as being a researcher in his own right.

The birth of cryobiology

“This wooden box doesn’t look particularly enthralling but it’s actually the result of some of the earliest cryobiology research in the world,” says Johnson.

Freezing device, c. 1960, developed by Lovelock and Dr Chris Polge (Image credit: Science Museum)

Freezing device, c. 1960, developed by Lovelock and Dr Chris Polge (Image credit: Science Museum)

In the 1950s Lovelock worked with a colleague called Chris Polge on the role of glycerol in preventing damage to frozen living cells. This device was used in the freezing and thawing of sperm, which helped to inform the techniques that underpin modern agricultural artificial insemination.

Other experiments involved freezing hamsters in a bath of ice water until they had stopped breathing, and later reanimating them by warming their chest with a hot spoon until their heart started beating again. Lovelock claims that he later invented the microwave oven as a way to reanimate hamsters without burning them.

Sensitive little devices

“This tiny underwhelming little device is arguable Lovelock’s most significant invention,” says Johnson of the Electron Capture Detector (ECD). The detector has its roots in Lovelock’s cryobiology research.

In the 1950s researchers at NIMR were pioneering the use of gas chromatography, a way of analysing compounds. Lovelock wanted to use the technique to analyse the lipids in cell membranes as part of his cryobiology experiments, but the chromatography detectors weren’t sensitive enough to get results from the tiny samples he was producing.

To get around this Lovelock invented the argon detector, which shocked even him with its ability to detect tiny traces of compounds.

Later, when Lovelock was a visiting professor at Yale, he built on the argon detector to develop the ECD. He then used it to detect CFCs in the countryside around where he lived, eventually establishing that man-made pollution was more widespread than originally thought, and setting him on the road to the most well-known aspect of his career as an environmentalist and independent scientist.

Katherine Nightingale

Unlocking Lovelock: Scientist, Inventor, Maverick is a free exhibition at the Science Museum until April 2015.

Find out more about the history of 100 years of research at the MRC NIMR in a new book

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