Why Einstein fled to Norfolk, and how oxygen was discovered in Suffolk. 22 East Anglian science stories.
PUBLISHED: 16:05 27 September 2018
From Einstein to one of the world’s biggest computers, and from the discovery of oxygen to the birth of radio, radar and ready-meals - meet the people and marvel at the discoveries that have put our region at the forefront of science
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917)
As the first woman to qualify as a doctor in Britain, Garrett Anderson was a real trail-blazer. Her bold example showed that medicine was not beyond the female brain, and inspired many others to follow in her footsteps.
She was a member of the famous Garrett family, the second daughter of Newson Garrett from Leiston, and grew up in Aldeburgh. As a child, she was determined to learn science as well as the more traditionally feminine subjects.
The young Elizabeth was initially barred from Middlesex Hospital’s medical school, but battled all the way and finally gained her licence in 1865, going on to establish a medical institute for women in London. As well as being the first woman doctor, she was also England’s first woman mayor, of her home town, Aldeburgh.
Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
In one of the most unlikely episodes of his life, the world-famous scientist sought refuge in Norfolk in 1933. He had left Germany after the Nazis came to power, with Hitler attacking his “Jewish physics” and his books being burned by Joseph Goebbels.
Einstein was known as a genius and had won worldwide acclaim for his theories of relativity, taking the 1921 Nobel Prize for Physics, but now he was homeless. After renting a home in Belgium, he spent about six weeks in a hut on the heath at Roughton near Cromer, as the guest of MP Commander Oliver Locker-Lampson. He later took up a post in America, never coming back to Europe, but he said he would always remember the kindness of people in Norfolk.
While in Norfolk, Einstein was closely guarded by Locker-Lampson and two female secretaries armed with rifles, in case the Germans came after him. He continued working on his scientific theories during his stay.
Paul Nurse (born 1949)
Nobel winning geneticist Paul Nurse was born in Norfolk – but did not learn his own remarkable genetic story until he was 57. The man whose work involved studying cell division discovered that he had been brought up by his grandparents, and the woman he always thought was his older sister was actually his mother.
“I have always been really curious about the world and how it works so being a scientist is the perfect job for me. I really believe that as a scientist you can make a difference to a lot of people’s lives. I love to understand the world around us and to use that understanding to improve lives. I also find that the closer I look at nature the more beautiful it becomes,” said Sir Paul, who won the Nobel prize for Medicine in 2001.
Norman Heatley (1911-2004)
Sir Alexander Fleming might be the best-known name associated with the development of penicillin, but Suffolk scientist Norman Heatley also played a vital role.
Heatley was born in Woodbridge, and in 2009 a plaque was placed on his former home in Orchard House. The Thoroughfare. He was one of the team of Oxford scientists working under Howard Florey who carried out trials of penicillin after Fleming discovered it by accident when a culture plate grew a mould. Heatley worked out how to purify penicillin in bulk – without his contribution there would not have been enough to test on humans. He was awarded the OBE in 1990.
Sir Roger Penrose (born 1931)
One of the most celebrated living scientists is mathematician and physicist Sir Roger Penrose, born in Colchester. He studied black holes together with world-famous physicist Stephen Hawking, who died earlier this year, and they were jointly awarded the Wolf Prize for Physics in 1988.
Penrose is the author of books including The Emperor’s New Mind and Cycles of Time. At 87, the Oxford professor is still hitting the headlines with his theories about black holes, the Big Bang and the nature of the universe.
Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-1994)
The third woman to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was one of just two girls allowed to study chemistry at the Sir John Leman Grammar School in Beccles in the 1920s. She went on to study at both Oxford and Cambridge universities and developed techniques which allowed her to decipher the structure of penicillin, insulin and vitamin B12.
John Stevens Henslow (1796-1861)
Pioneering botanist and geologist Stevens Henslow was the rector of Hitcham in Suffolk from 1837 until his death. While on holiday in Felixstowe, he realised that coprolites in the cliffs were a rich source of phosphates, which could be used to create fertilisers. This discovery was used by manufacturer Fisons.
Henslow was a close friend and mentor of Charles Darwin. While a professor at Cambridge, he was asked to recommend a naturalist to travel on the Beagle to South America, and suggested Darwin for the famous voyage. He also took part in some of the first archaeological digs in the county and was one of the founders of Ipswich Museum.
Sir Charles Scott Sherrington (1857-1952)
Neurologist Sir Charles Scott Sherrington is believed to have been born in Islington, but he grew up in Ipswich and was a pupil at Ipswich School. He also lived in the town in retirement.
He carried out 50 years of research into neurophysiology, and made important discoveries about the nervous system. He received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1932 together with Edgar Adrian, for their work on the functions of neurones.
Sherrington loved sport as well as science and in his youth was a player for Ipswich Town FC, then amateur – his brother, George Stuart Sherrington, was the first ever club captain.
Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937)
Road signs at Chelmsford proclaim it as the “birthplace of radio”, because Guglielmo Marconi was based in the city. The half-Irish, half-Italian inventor, born in Bologna, is credited as the inventor of radio. He transmitted signals over around 1.5 miles in 1895, before deciding to move to England and opening up his first factory in 1899.
In 1920, the first official sound broadcast in the UK was made from the Chelmsford factory, featuring singer Dame Nellie Melba. Marconi received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1909, and he achieved many broadcasting firsts, including founding the first international short-wave broadcasting station, in Vatican City.
Lady Eve Balfour (1898-1990)
Organic farming pioneer Lady Evelyn “Eve” Balfour lived at Haughley Green, near Stowmarket in Suffolk. She launched the Haughley Experiment, which was the first scientific comparison of organic and chemical-based farming, in 1939, together with Alice Debenham.
In 1943, Lady Balfour published the organic agriculture classic, The Living Soil, looking at the results of the side-by-side farm trial. The women’s work led to the founding of the Soil Association in 1946, working together with other farmers, nutritionists and scientists.
Joseph Priestley (1733-1804)
One of the great pioneers of chemistry, Dr Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), usually credited with discovering oxygen, spent a time working in Suffolk early in his career. He was a dissenting clergyman as well as a scientist, and Needham Market was his first parish from 1755-58.
Priestley presented a series of scientific lectures about use of globes during his time in Suffolk, although his major discoveries came later. In the 1770s, he isolated oxygen in a series of experiments, and also identified a number of other gases including ammonia and suphur dioxide.
Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911)
The leading botanist and explorer was born in Halesworth, the son of another famous botanist, Sir William Jackson Hooker. He succeeded his father as director of Kew Gardens. Hooker was a close friend of Charles Darwin.
At the age of only 21, he took part in the Ross expedition to the Antarctic in 1939-43, collecting zoological and geological specimens. He also carried out a number of other voyages, including a journey to India and the Himalayas in 1847-51.
Hubert Lamb (1913-1997)
The Norwich scientist who founded the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in 1972 originally thought the world was gradually cooling. But his research began to reveal that it is rapidly warming instead. Professor Hubert Lamb (father of Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb) is credited with doing more than any scientist of his generation to make the academic community aware of climate change. As well as discovering climate change, scientists working here have helped save the ozone layer by identifying greenhouse gases and safer substitutes.
James Smith (1759-1828)
Norwich-born botanist James Smith founded the oldest surviving natural history society in the world, the Linnean Society. Charles Darwin was a member and in 1858 he and Alfred Wallace presented papers to the society which first outlined the theory of evolution by natural selection.
Thomas Browne (1605-1682)
The man with the brains spilled sculpturally across Norwich’s Haymarket, was a scientist and doctor responsible, four centuries ago, for words which still light up our lives. Approximate, coma, disruption, electricity, exhaustion, ferocious, gymnastic, hallucination, jocularity, mucous, precocious, pubescent, ultimate - all his.
Christopher Cockerell (1910-1999)
Hovercraft inventor Christopher Cockerell began with a prototyple using a vacuum cleaner, a cat food tin and a coffee jar. He tested his invention on Oulton Broad in the 1950s before the first commercial hovercraft crossed the Channel in 1959.
George Manby (1765-1854)
A man whose invention saved thousands of people from shipwrecks and fires grew up in Downham Market. George Manby, born in 1765, became a captain in the Cambridge Militia. After writing a pamphlet about Napoleon’s potential plans to invade England he was made barrack-master at Great Yarmouth. Here he had to watch, helpless, as more than 200 people drowned when a Royal Navy ship ran aground. He began experimenting with ways to stop such a tragedy happening again and developed a way to fire ropes from shore to ship to help rescue people. He also invented the first portable pressurised fire extinguisher and came close to building a potentially unsinkable ship.
Today’s worldwide research into antibiotic resistance and food poisoning can be traced back to the discoveries of Norwich scientist Dr Ella Barnes. She was awarded an OBE in 1978 after showing that using antibiotics in poultry feed led to the emergence of resistance in bacteria, highlighting that medically important antibiotics should only be used to treat disease. Her work also helped prevent salmonella in poultry. Norwich is still a global centre of research into ways of combating food poisoning and antibiotic resistance.
Ants and antibiotics
A colony of leafcutter ants in Norwich are at the forefront of the global search to develop new antibiotics. By 2050, drug resistant infections are predicted to become the biggest cause of human death. But a team of scientists from the University of East Anglia and the John Innes Centre are hoping to harness the ants’ ability to fight bacteria.
The ants carve sections of leaves from plants and take them underground to decay and form a fungus which they eat. To protect their food from microbes and parasites the ants cultivate antibiotic-producing bacteria on their bodies, and use it to attack invading bugs.
Prof Matt Hutchings of the University of East Anglia and Prof Barry Wilkinson and Dr Ian Bedford of the John Innes Centre are exploring whether these natural antibiotics could make new medicines for humans.
East Anglian scientists have changed the way we eat, with convenience foods such as pre-packed salads and ready meals only possible because of scientific research spearheaded by the Institute of Food Research in Norwich. By understanding how bacteria responsible for food poisoning grows in food, scientists have been able to minimise risk. And with sugar and salt, which can prevent bacterial growth, being removed from recipes, Norwich scientists are again leading research into food safety.
Under the radar
Today the wild and beautiful shingle spit of Orford Ness in Suffolk is a nature sanctuary and outdoor museum. But discoveries made here by by Robert Watson-Watt and his team helped win the Second World War. Radar was first developed and demonstrated on Orford Ness in the 1930s, with research and development continuing at nearby Bawdsey Manor, throughout the war.
Feed the world
The key to ending famine could be found in Norwich. Scientists at the Norwich Research Park are some of the world’s leading experts on wheat, which provides a fifth of the calories consumed worldwide.
A team at the John Innes Centre is helping improve wheat types, finding ways of increasing yield, grain size and resistance to disease and pests.
Wheat is also a specialism of the neighbouring Genome Analysis Centre. The wheat genome is five times larger than that of a human being. Its code of almost 30 billion letters is stored on the biggest computer in Europe, especially built at the Norwich centre to process and manipulate vast amounts of data. Understanding that code is helping scientists develop varieties of wheat which can withstand drought, heat or cold, use less pesticide and fertiliser, and produce more food for a hungry world. Scientists at the centre are also helping to develop potatoes, tomatoes, cabbage, broccoli and swede which are disease and pest resistant and need less fertiliser and irrigation.