SHAC General Meeting: ‘Academics, Consultants, Industrialists and Government Chemists: The History of Chemists’ Careers in England from 1880 to the 1970s’
24 November 2011, University of Oxford
The Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry held its autumn meeting on Thursday 24 November 2011 at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. The meeting, which was attended by around 20 participants, was preceded by the Society’s AGM for 2010 and the presentation of the 2011 University of Oxford Undergraduate History of Chemistry Prize to Caroline Fargher.
The first paper, entitled ‘The Changing Nature of Chemical Careers (1880s–1970s)’, brought together research that Robin Mackie, Gerrylynn Roberts (Open University) and Anna Simmons (University College, London) had previously carried out on chemists’ careers in order to provide a framework for the meeting. The work was based on the Open University’s project ‘Studies of the British Chemical Community, 1881–1971.’ At the heart of this project is the ‘Chemists Database’, which includes details of the lives of around 9,000 chemists, assembled from a wide range of sources such as obituaries, membership records of the three major British chemical institutions, the Chemical Society, the [Royal] Institute of Chemistry and the Society for Chemical Industry, and standard biographical works.
The social and economic historians David Vincent and Andrew Miles have described work histories of people in Britain in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Chemists might be seen to fit most closely with their professional ‘type.’ However, many also share characteristics of the entrepreneurial ‘type’, through the establishment of businesses or small firms, and also the dynastic ‘type’, through the role of inheritance. As we move into the interwar years of the twentieth century, bureaucratic careers with attachment to academic or government institutions or to a large firm and where advancement is a matter of climbing a hierarchical ladder of posts become increasingly important. It is interesting to consider the individuals discussed in depth at this meeting – Henry Armstrong, William Crookes, William Nicol and Alfred Spinks – in these terms.
Data on the distribution of employment sectors from the 1880s to the 1970s shows that industry was consistently the largest sector of employment. The data also highlights the growth of academic employment and the decrease in the importance of consultancy, whilst government employment remained relatively stable. Multi-sector working was also highly characteristic of chemists’ careers. To earn a living as a chemist in the nineteenth century, multi-sector working was almost essential, with around 70% working in more than one sector. For careers beginning from the inter-war years onwards the figure was just under 50%.
A spell working abroad formed part of the careers of roughly 20% of Institute of Chemistry members born in Britain over the whole period investigated. Not surprisingly, the Dominions and Empire were the principal regions for overseas employment. However, apart from those whose careers commenced in the interwar years, the United States was also a major destination. For careers beginning in the final period, 1957–1971, posts in the Empire and Commonwealth countries became less frequent, while there was a marked shift to working in Europe. Mobility also occurred within the United Kingdom as chemists moved about, presumably for career advantage. Analysis of the individuals for whom there is data on at least 20 years of their career was carried out, with both mobility and stability within a single firm analysed. From this, four broad career patterns, two mobile and two stable, were identified. When career patterns were related to success, in government, success was linked to stability and to climbing a hierarchical ladder of posts. Meanwhile in academia, mobile career patterns were more likely to correlate with success. However, the most striking pattern appeared in industry. For those whose careers began in the interwar years, success was found via stable careers as bureaucratic careers were rewarded. However, those whose careers began after the Second World War found success with mobile careers.
For the founders of the Institute of Chemistry, the ideal type of a professional was the independent practitioner. However, such careers declined markedly over the twentieth century. Yet the ideal of knowledge-based professional independence remained central to the new career patterns that became increasingly common and contributed to chemists’ success. Mobility required recognition that knowledge and skills were transferrable. Where choices existed mobility was preferred. Professional expertise, rather than organizational loyalty, was the key to success.
In the second paper, ‘Contingent Careers: Armstrong, Crookes and Nicol’, Professor William Brock of the University of Leicester examined the different career paths taken by three nineteenth-century British chemists. The organic chemist Henry Edward Armstrong (1848–1937) had what might be taken as a conventional academic career, namely initial training in England (under Hofmann at the Royal College of Chemistry) followed by postgraduate studies in Leipzig with Kolbe. Following part-time jobs at St Bartholomew’s Hospital and the London Institution, and abortive attempts to obtain posts in Leeds, Cambridge and the Royal Institution, from 1879 until 1912 he taught at Finsbury Technical College and the Central Technical College in South Kensington (part of today’s Imperial College). His research was in the field of organic chemistry, but he also made considerable efforts in encouraging chemistry teaching in schools. Outside academia he held many consultancies with dyestuffs companies, breweries and agricultural field stations. He spent his long retirement (1912–1937) engaged in popular journalism that was frequently highly critical (often amusingly so) of developments in twentieth-century chemistry. Curiously, it is for this work in retirement that he is best known today.
The chemical physicist Sir William Crookes (1832–1919) also studied chemistry at the Royal College of Chemistry, but did not go to Germany for further training. Despite his discovery of a new element (thallium) in 1861 and his FRS in 1863, he was never successful in gaining an academic appointment. He was forced instead to earn his livelihood by other means, turning to photographic and chemical journalism and chemical consultancy. He was the founder, owner and editor of the weekly Chemical News from 1859 and this became the basis of his financial success. All of his research (mainly in spectroscopy, cathode rays, radioactivity, etc) was done in a home laboratory and financed largely by him. The fact that he worked in trade and commerce rather than academia initially counted against him; but such was the significance of his experimental research that he was able to conquer this stigma by the 1880s. He ended up (in 1912) as President of the Royal Society.
Like Armstrong, the Scottish chemist William Walker James Nicol (1855–1929) initially had a conventional academic career path. He trained at Edinburgh with Alexander Crum Brown and with Hofmann in Berlin before becoming a chemistry lecturer at the University College in Bristol. In 1881 he joined William Tilden at Mason’s College, Birmingham, and switched his research from organic to physical chemistry. He worked on the controversial nature of solutions, but was also renowned for his lecturing, mechanical and photographic skills. When the Birmingham chair of chemistry fell vacant in 1894, Nicol was the internal candidate. So great was his disappointment at not being appointed (the post went to Percy Frankland) that he abandoned chemistry completely at the age of 39. A lover of the countryside, he spent his long retirement unconventionally caravanning around the Highlands of Scotland. He and his wife lived like gypsies in caravans that Nicol built with his own hands, initially horse-drawn, and later motor-driven. Nicol is one of several nineteenth-century chemists who became “lost to chemistry”, though his is an extreme example because his pockets were sufficiently deep from inheritances and photographic patents to allow him “the life of Riley.” In generalizing from these three case histories, Prof. Brock drew attention to the ways in which parents, marriages and wives, inheritances, knowing the right people and networks, choice of research field, and the psychological factor of humiliation (or the fear of it), must all be considered in discussing career patterns.
The third paper was given by Sally Horrocks of Leicester University and was entitled ‘Chemistry as a Career for Girls from World War II to the Sex Discrimination Act.’ Dr Horrocks’s paper explored why it was difficult for women to have the same type of careers in chemistry as men and the attitudes towards appropriate gender roles in science. During the Second World War a widespread perception of a shortage of ‘scientific manpower’ existed. However, women scientists were not generally seen as a solution to this problem and Dr Horrocks related women’s stories of frustration about how they were not employed in the war effort. Some women circumnavigated this problem by working as volunteers. Women were encouraged in certain roles, and the war brought some improvements as illustrated by the appearance of job advertisements for women chemists in Chemistry and Industry. Nevertheless, many women employees were hidden from view. At Tube Alloys at Oxford, almost all the laboratory assistants were women, but as they were not qualified chemists and were paid a weekly wage, rather than a salary, they did not appear in the list of staff published in the official history.
The perceived shortage of scientific manpower following the Second World War did not necessarily mean that the employment of women was seen as a solution. Dr Horrocks quoted from the Girl Annual of 1959 which did discuss a career in nuclear fusion for girls but concluded that “the career of the confidential secretary can be just as exciting as tearing atoms apart.” This quote reflected a tendency in popular culture to suggest science was not a suitable career for women. The 1951 film The Young Wives’ Tale echoed this sentiment, with the character of the young working mother employed in a chemical laboratory portrayed as efficient, controlled, constrained and unfeminine. There were, however, some positive portrayals of women working in industrial laboratories. Dr Horrocks showed a film from the Media Archive for Central England of the opening of a research laboratory for Birds’ custard with its female chemist employees. Although there were efforts to promote opportunities for women in science and technology, both employers and women scientists shared assumptions of what women’s roles in industry should be. Instead, what seemed a suitable solution to the perceived shortage of scientific manpower was for women to become science teachers and in turn educate more male scientists.
However, by the mid to late 1960s attitudes began to change. With the arrival of the contraceptive pill, the assumption that women would leave employment when married changed. The growth of comprehensive schools meant that more girls studied science at school than had previously occurred when they were educated in secondary moderns. Such changes contributed to an increase in the number of women studying science at university. A shift in popular culture was also evident. In the Girl’s World Annual of 1970, welding and research in chemistry were considered as possible career options. The change in attitudes towards women was enshrined in the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975, but the change in the wider cultural climate had started before this date. Although some feminists argued that because the male/female employment split was not 50/50 such policy changes were a failure, it is vital to recognise that major changes had taken place. In 1979 there were ten times as many female engineering students as in 1969. Dr Horrocks concluded that rather than bemoaning the treatment of women chemists, it was important to look at the wider world of careers for women and to analyse the changes that occurred over a longer period.
In the final paper, Viviane Quirke of Oxford Brookes University spoke about ‘From Chemistry, to Pharmacology, to Biotechnology: Alfred Spinks’s career from wartime chemist to government advisor.’ Alfred Spinks (1817–1982) occupies an important place in the history of British chemistry in the second half of the twentieth century. Not only did he help to shape the R&D strategy of Britain’s largest chemical group, Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), but he also advised the British government on research policy in the 1970s to early 1980s. In her paper, Dr Quirke examined the successive phases in Spinks’s career, as he moved from ICI’s Dyestuffs Division, where he was research chemist from 1942, to ICI’s Pharmaceutical Division, where he became head of the Division’s new Pharmacology Section in 1953, and then to ICI’s Main Board, where he was responsible for the R&D of the entire group from 1970 until his retirement in 1979. During this last phase of his career his advice went far beyond the group, as a member of the Advisory Board of Research Councils (ABRC) and founding member of the Advisory Council for Applied Research and Development (ACARD), culminating in his role as Chair of a Joint Working Party on Biotechnology (which produced the influential 1980 ‘Spinks Report’). These successive phases were linked not only to Spinks’s changes in function, from bench chemist, to research manager, to Main Board member and government advisor, but also to changes in focus, from synthetic organic chemistry, to pharmacology, and later biotechnology and research policy. Spinks’s career was therefore a multi-disciplinary as well as multi-phase career. In her concluding comments Dr Quirke argued that it illustrated a number of constants in successful twentieth-century chemical careers:
• The role of ‘boundary’ research areas where chemical knowledge and expertise have a significant part to play (in this instance pharmacology in the 1940s–50s).
• The enduring legacy of research networks (in this case Nottingham, ICI, Imperial College, Oxford).
• The importance of a reward system allowing a certain fluidity between academic and industrial careers.
Nevertheless, some distinguishing factors that set Spinks’s career apart were also identified: his was an extraordinary career, tied to an extraordinary company – ICI – and to a particular time and place – Britain in the 1950s–1960s, where the legacy of wartime projects endured, whilst recognising the value of ‘Blue Sky’ research.
The meeting concluded with a lively discussion based around the question ‘How did chemists’ careers change over a century?’
(University College London)