Soapbox Science

Nature’s man – remembering Sir John Maddox in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Dr Lawrence Goldman is Editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography—based at Oxford University, UK—and fellow and tutor in history at St Peter’s College, Oxford, where he teaches modern British and American history.

The latest edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, published on 3 January 2013, includes the lives of 225 notable figures from British national life who died in 2009. Of these more than 30 are men and women principally remembered for their contribution to modern scientific and medical enquiry. They include Sir John Maddox who was twice editor of Nature between 1966 and 1975 and then again from 1980 to 1995. The outstanding science journalist of his generation, Maddox reversed the fortunes of the journal which, on his arrival, was in some disarray. Under his editorship Nature regained its reputation as one of the world’s most important scientific journals, as it had been when founded in 1869. Maddox’s biography for the Oxford DNB has been written by John Gribbin, one of his early employees and colleagues at Nature.

Sir John Maddox and Nature

Maddox was born in 1925 at Penllergaer, near Swansea, the son of a furnaceman in a tinplate mill. Attending Gowerton Boys’ County (Grammar) School, he won a scholarship to read chemistry at Christ Church, Oxford. He then studied physics at King’s College, London, and lectured in the subject at Manchester University before taking up a post as science correspondent for the Manchester Guardian in 1955.

Sir John Maddox. Source: Nature Specials

During his first spell as editor, Maddox transformed Nature into an international journal, opening offices in Washington DC and Japan, and forging links with other media including the BBC and The Times. In doing so Maddox helped to develop an interest in science, notably among a non-specialist readership, and also extended the journal’s influence. In his second spell he doubled its circulation and started specialised spin-offs, including Nature Genetics and Nature Medicine. Creative, energetic and hard-driving, Maddox could also be combative when faced with what he took to be bad science or charlatanry. His faith in the positive applications of science led him to oppose environmental pessimists and doomsayers in his book The Doomsday Syndrome (1972).

Maddox’s opposition to cranks led to trenchant reviews of their false ideas and to his refusal to publish papers on subjects like homeopathy, whose claims to respectability he contested after conducting his own investigations. His last and most optimistic book was entitled What Remains to be Discovered (1998) in which he argued that we had only reached the end of the beginning of scientific discovery. An honorary fellow of the Royal Society and the recipient of five honorary degrees, Maddox was knighted in 1995 and stands in a great line of British scientific popularisers from T.H. Huxley onwards.

Lives in science, in the Oxford DNB

As the national record of people who’ve shaped British history, the Oxford DNB currently includes biographies of more than 58,500 men and women (all deceased) who left their mark on national life. Of these, nearly 3,500 individuals—active between the 8th and 21st century—are known principally as scientists or promoters of science, with a further 3,200 most closely associated with branches of medical practice and science.

Each January, the Oxford DNB extends its coverage of modern Britons—politicians, writers, business leaders, entertainers, as well as scientists—by adding biographies of men and women who died in the very recent past. In deciding which scientists to include we’re advised by panels of eminent practitioners in fields from astrophysics to zoology who guide us on the most noteworthy figures from the hundreds who each year receive obituaries in newspapers or specialist publications. Where possible we try to commission former colleagues or eminent fellow practitioners to write a person’s life, ensuring that the biographical information on each entrant to the Oxford DNB is not only historically correct but scientifically accurate.

Shapers of modern British science

Our latest selection—from among those who died in 2009—highlights notable scientific discoveries and some of the new interests and specialisms to emerge in the late-twentieth century. In physics, for example, it was Albert Crewe’s invention of the modern scanning transmission electron microscope that enabled him, in the late 1960s, to capture the first image of a single atom. John Holt  (1918-2009)—a key figure in post-war British nuclear physics—helped design synchrotrons and undertook key research on the structure of protons. The public health campaignerMichael Russell (1932-2009) pioneered the study of nicotine dependence, and so established smoking as primarily nicotine-seeking behaviour—hence explaining why nicotine replacement therapies (patches and pills) proved more effective than lower-yield cigarettes or changes to pricing. In addition to his ground-breaking research on trachoma, the ophthalmologist Barrie Russell Jones (1921-2009) founded the International Centre for Eye Health to forge new studies into, and treatment of, preventable blindness in developing countries. Remaining with medical research, the haematologist Humphrey Kay (1923-2009) was a leader in the pathology and treatment of childhood leukaemia whose work dramatically increased survival rates. Geoffrey Beale’s move from plant genetics to protozoan genetics elucidated the basis of drug resistance in malaria parasites, and enabled the development of new methods of treatment. Mary English (1919-2009) likewise transferred her knowledge of fungal diseases in plants to medical mycology, and was instrumental both in establishing a highly-regarded diagnostic service and analysing infections such as MRSA.

A significant number of environmentalists have now been added to the Oxford DNB, many of whom, like Sir John Maddox, combined advocacy with rigorous scientific research. John Harper (1925-2009) revolutionised the study of plant ecology by abandoning purely descriptive methods in favour of studying interactions between demography and natural selection, reasserting a ‘Darwinian approach’ thereby. Jack Dainty (1919-2009) helped establish the new specialism of plant biophysics, and published seminal papers on ion and water transport in plants. As perhaps the leading academic ornithologist of his generation, David Snow published studies of various individual species—starting with the humble blackbird (which he studied in Oxford University’s Botanic Garden), as well as of larger bird populations. Helen Brotherton (1914-2009) was a key figure in West Country conservation and played a crucial role in saving Brownsea Island from development.

Teddy Goldsmith (1928-2009), brother of the entrepreneur James Goldsmith, was the kind of radical and campaigning ecologist whom Maddox might have criticised at the time that Goldsmith founded the Ecologist magazine in the 1970s and co-authored the widely-read Blueprint for Survival in 1972. But as a master of the craft of scientific journalism we feel confident that Maddox would have understood the reasons for Goldsmith’s inclusion in the Oxford DNB as a representative of an influential current of opinion, which—whether right or wrong—set the terms of public debate. As longstanding readers of Nature will recall, Sir John was always keen on well-conducted and rigorous public debate on science and its impact.

A selection of scientific and other lives from Oxford DNB’s January 2013 update is available, as is an introduction to the full list of 225 new biographies. The Oxford DNB online is available from university and college libraries, worldwide, and free via nearly all UK public libraries which offer remote access to library members.

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    Christopher Edwards said:

    I was lucky enough to be mentored by John Maddox when I was selected to be the founding Editor of what is now called Nature Biotechnology (originally called Bio/Technology). I was 27, had no magazine experience, and had to work with 5 incompetent publishers (talk about turnover!) over the first 13 months of publication. He provided outstanding moral support, offered his quirky sense of humor and provided great advice in the gentlest possible way. More importantly, he was a symbol of what a great journal editor should be: deeply skeptical, iconoclastic, and a promoter of great science rather being simply a judge of manuscripts. He instituted a highly effective peer review system, but he was not reluctant to ignore bad reviews from great scientists. I miss him deeply. I don’t think there’s a place for such a giant in contemporary science publishing.

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