Winston Churchill's scientists

26 January 2015

Interview with

Rachel Boon, Science Museum

Churchill2015 marks the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill's death. To commemorate the occasion, and to recognise the former UK Prime Minister's contributions, activities are being planned across the UK. Among them is an exhibition at the Science Museum in London called Churchill's Scientists. Rachel Boon showed Kat Arney around...

Rachel - So Churchill's Scientists is exploring Winston Churchill's relationship with science during the second World War and post war period when he was in power. We look at his relationship with Frederick Lindemann, the first science adviser to government and we explore the work of the scientists who were taken out of their research, put into a very unusual environment during the second World War to develop drugs, to develop radar systems, to analyse attacks and to try and save ships from attacks. And then afterwards, we look at what they did in the post war period, what skills did they learn in that heightened experience of war time research.

Kat - I tend to think of Churchill as the war hero with a big cigar rather than hanging around with guys in lab coats?

Rachel - Absolutely. as a young child, he had quite a boyish fascination with science but never achieved academic glory in the subjects. But he was very interested in the work of H.G. Wells and read Origin of Species. But interestingly, he was the first prime minister to have a scientific adviser constantly at his side. One of the legacy is that we look at in the show is how that appointment of a scientific adviser became common in every government after Winston Churchill's first term as prime minister. Churchill was very visual and Lindemann and a group of his scientists called the S-Branch brought together science in a very visual way, looking at graphs. If we just walk around the corner, I can actually point one out to you so I can describe it. So, he had his own statisticians who brought together information looking at cargos lost at sea, the stocks of food types looking at bacon and ham, and cheese, things that Britain really depended on as imports. The way that they depicted this information is using this very colourful graphs as we could see here.

Kat - These look like the kind of infographics we see in the papers today except they look hand drawn and coloured in with felt tip pens.

Rachel - That's absolutely correct. So, this is actually the first time that these graphics have been in an exhibition and they come from the Churchill archives in Churchill College in Cambridge.

Kat - So, let's go and have a look at some other things. we're now in a section called health and nutrition. So, let's have a look at these two people here, Robert McCance, Elsie Widdowson. Tell me what they were up to to prove whether you could or couldn't live successfully on rationing.

Rachel - The two nutritionists, just before the outbreak of second World War, they were working at Cambridge. They were interested in the nutritional value of food. When it looked like war was on the verge of outbreak, they led a team of willing volunteers and actually tested the effects of reduced diet and they did this by heavily reducing their intake of food and then subjecting themselves to rigorous exercise in the lake district. Their important finding is that they were concerned that there might be calcium deficiency if the British public didn't have enough milk and cheese which is what they depended on, on imports. So, they suggested putting in calcium carbonate or chalk into bread and that's something that continued long after the second World War.

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