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Internal politics at The Royal Society


Social life at The Royal Society
Aaron Klug Scientist
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I'm not a good speaker, but I had to make speeches and I had to go to dinners, because the President gets invited to almost all the Livery Companies, the goldsmiths, the ironmongers, and so on. Some of them have given money to the Royal Society, but I... it was made a bit easier because George Porter arranged that I become a member of a Livery Company called The Salters. The Salters go back a long while. They are one of the twelve great Livery Companies, the Guilds. And they deal in chemistry, because salt was the original chemical in which you preserved food. And it turns out they have a Chemistry Institute, which is a branch. They are mostly composed of bankers, lawyers, rich people in the city, and there's lots of dinners of that sort, but they actually do something useful. The same for the Chemistry Institute. They actually finance chemistry camps, and this is one of the things I was called upon to do, to try to emphasise science education in schools and particularly chemistry, although I broadened it to all science education, because I said, you know, you can't discuss chemistry without all these things. And I was involved on the Association for the Scientific Education, ASE it was called, as President in my own capacity as well, because I was called a chemist, you see, that's my degree. The Nobel Prize was in chemistry. I had a degree in chemistry. So... that was quite interesting. But it made it easier if I went to the grocers for dinner, I could say I was a Salter, you see. I was a stranger, you see, a foreigner and all that to this kind of club land but returning to the Royal Society itself.

The Royal Society was regarded by many people as a stuffy place, and indeed it was. Some people wouldn't go, would never go, they found it stuffy. For example, Alec Broers, who is now Lord Broers, hardly ever went because he found it rather... not forbidding, he was a Fellow, and I know that people from this Lab hardly ever went to any of the functions because they're too busy advancing science, but I don't think they thought much about the stuffiness. But we began to change things, largely because of my wife, my Liebe, my wife. So for example, at soirees and the receptions and things of that sort, they used to serve canapés and little itsy-bitsy things and Liebe changed it and said, well, we'll have a plated meal, you see, and vegetarian and so on. And we changed it. We had a House Committee and we got Olga Kennard on to it, who is a very practical lady. And we changed the caterers and things of that sort, the kitchens, although they did provide lunch and so on, they did all of that. So little things like that changed.

But the main... so on the social side things got a bit freer and easier and by this time... soirees were always... when I'd been on the Council ten years before, for a soiree you had to come in white tie... white tie and tails, with decorations, and this was a great bore. A lot of people didn't have, well, the old generation always had white tie... you couldn't go to a big function, without a white tie and tails. I had one, because for the Nobel Prize you have to wear that, so I had one that still fitted me I was glad to say, and so when I was on Council, already things had begun to change. Most Fellows came... either they didn't come or they came in black tie which was a solecism. That's not the right word. Yes, solecism is where you say the wrong word, but in terms of dress it was a solecism. But it was all put right, because one dinner, at the Royal Society dinner, Prince Philip was a guest, he's a Royal Fellow, and he appeared in a black tie and medals. Now that was contrary to all social practice, because you only wore decorations with a white tie and full regalia. So he was the equivalent to Beau Brummel in his day, he set the fashion. You know, Beau Brummel changed and Brighton changed the fashions. That was a great relief, and so after that... so we did little things like changing the invitations. Instead of white tie, we started gingerly... white tie or black tie. Little things like that. In the end white tie disappeared, we only had black tie, you see. And now, nobody... but it had begun to change when I was on Council, so the Officers all appeared in their white ties, and most of the Fellows came in black ties. So gradually the social thing changed and it was, you know, very much frowned upon to wear decorations with a black tie.

Born in Lithuania, Aaron Klug (1926-2018) was a British chemist and biophysicist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1982 for developments in electron microscopy and his work on complexes of nucleic acids and proteins. He studied crystallography at the University of Cape Town before moving to England, completing his doctorate in 1953 at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1981, he was awarded the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University. His long and influential career led to a knighthood in 1988. He was also elected President of the Royal Society, and served there from 1995-2000.

Listeners: Ken Holmes John Finch

Kenneth Holmes was born in London in 1934 and attended schools in Chiswick. He obtained his BA at St Johns College, Cambridge. He obtained his PhD at Birkbeck College, London working on the structure of tobacco mosaic virus with Rosalind Franklin and Aaron Klug. After a post-doc at Childrens' Hospital, Boston, where he started to work on muscle structure, he joined to the newly opened Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge where he stayed for six years. He worked with Aaron Klug on virus structure and with Hugh Huxley on muscle. He then moved to Heidelberg to open the Department of Biophysics at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research where he remained as director until his retirement. During this time he completed the structure of tobacco mosaic virus and solved the structures of a number of protein molecules including the structure of the muscle protein actin and the actin filament. Recently he has worked on the molecular mechanism of muscle contraction. He also initiated the use of synchrotron radiation as a source for X-ray diffraction and founded the EMBL outstation at DESY Hamburg. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1981 and is a member of a number of scientific academies.

John Finch is a retired member of staff of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK. He began research as a PhD student of Rosalind Franklin's at Birkbeck College, London in 1955 studying the structure of small viruses by x-ray diffraction. He came to Cambridge as part of Aaron Klug's team in 1962 and has continued with the structural study of viruses and other nucleoproteins such as chromatin, using both x-rays and electron microscopy.

Tags: The Royal Society, Association for the Scientific Education, ASE, George Porter, Alec Broers, Olga Kennard, Prince Philip, Beau Brummel

Duration: 5 minutes, 31 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008