Brits at their Best.com: British History, Culture & Sports, History of Freedom, Heroes, Inventors

THE INGENIOUS TIMELINE

20TH CENTURY

1950 - 1970

Smiling baby held up in father's arms

Watson, Crick, Wilkins, and Franklin start a scientific revolution when they realise that the genetic code of life is in the form of a 'staircase' made of paired bases of DNA. The 'steps' contain the message.

Photo: Paha_L@istockphoto.com

UNCOVERING DNA,
HIP REPLACEMENTS, RADIO TELESCOPES, HOSPICES,
VERTICAL TAKE-OFF
BETA BLOCKERS,
BIRTH CONTROL PILL

1952 FIRST COMMERCIAL JETLINER IS LAUNCHED

The de Havilland Comet flies into history as the world's first commercial jet airliner. The airplane experiences metal fatigue, is redesigned in 1955, and continues to serve passengers until 1980.

1953 THREE BRITS AND AN AMERICAN UNCOVER THE CODE OF LIFE

As a young scientist Francis Crick contributes to the World War II effort to defeat the Nazis and then, knowing little biology and less crystallography, spends the next five years at Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory learning everything he can about biology. James Watson, with the same surname as Sherlock Holmes' indispensable colleague, grows up in America, and attends the University of Chicago where he studies zoology and decides to focus on genetics. Maurice Wilkins is born in New Zealand, and moves to England when he is six. He becomes a physicist, improves cathode-ray tube screens for radar during the war, and studies the luminescence of solids. Rosalind Franklin had decided to become a scientist when she was fifteen, and despite parental opposition earned a doctorate in physical chemistry from Cambridge. Their paths converge when they join in the hunt for DNA.

Following in the footsteps of the Braggs and Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, the three men use X-ray diffraction to study nucleic acids. When they become lost, and are staring at a dead end, their fellow scientist, Rosalind Franklin, shows them the way forward.

Like Crick and Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin began by studying mathematics and physics before turning to biology. To study DNA she has discovered how to make the world's best X-ray diffraction photographs of deoxyribonucleic acid – DNA. One scientist called them "the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken." Wilkins shows Watson one of her photos, and "The instant I saw the picture my mouth fell open," Watson recalls. This photo tells them that DNA takes the form of a spiral helix – two interwoven spiral staircases.

Their intense research proves that DNA's stairs are formed of paired bases of four fundamental organic molecules – adenine and thymine, guanine and cytosine. Watson, Crick, and Wilkins go on to describe their discovery in scientific journals, as does Franklin.

Based on the methods of physics and chemistry, the work of Watson, Crick, Wilkins, and Franklin will make profound contributions to the treatment of disease and proving guilt or innocence in criminal cases. Rosalind Franklin dies before she can share the Nobel Prize. Wilkins, Crick, and Watson continue their research, which will lead to the Human Genome Project and the mapping of the human genome down to the nucleotide (base pair) level.

More about gene research here and here.

1950S RICHARD DOLL IDENTIFIES CANCER'S SMOKING GUNS

Richard Doll, a man well-known for his kindness. conducts his research into cancer at Oxford. He publishes a seminal study with Austin Bradford Hill that statistically links lung cancer to cigarette smoking. This seems obvious now, but at the time it was believed that the fumes from cars and tarmac were the cause. Doll's subsequent pioneering epidemiological work on the link between smoking and cancer, cardiovascular disease, and eighteen other disorders leads to a dramatic reduction in smoking rates worldwide, especially among men. He continues his research until he is well into his eighties.

1952 - 1959 COCKERELL INVENTS HOVERCRAFT

For decades many different people had tried to design a vehicle that would travel over land or water by hovering on the cushion of air created by its engines. They had not met with success.

Christopher Cockerell had spent World War II working on radar systems. After the war, he dedicated himself to inventing a hovercraft, even selling his personal possessions in order to finance his research. He patented his principle in 1952.

To see a craft travelling on the air above the waves is unusual, and Christopher Cockerell amazes crowds when he demonstrates his hovercraft in person. The hovercraft is demonstrated publicly when it crosses the Channel, travelling with aplomb from France to Britain. Almost as surprising, Cockerell donates his rights to the patent to Great Britain.

Today hovercraft are used in sport and racing, search and rescue, ice fishing, hunting, surveying, flood control, environmental projects, agriculture, ice breaking, and water transportation. Hovercraft cross the English Channel dozens of times a day. The principle of the air cushion that Cockerell pioneers will be adapted for high-speed trains.

Older couple, hand in hand, walking through autumn leaves

John Charnley's achievements include the relief of trauma, the fusion of joints by compression methods, total hip replacement, and knee and shoulder replacements – life-changing operations for millions of people who otherwise would not be able to walk or take care of themselves.

Photo: sdominick@istockphoto.com

1950s-1960s JOHN CHARNLEY INVENTS HIP REPLACEMENTS

Dr John Charnley dedicates his life to orthopaedic science and surgery in the effort to relieve his patients' pain. His first book, The Closed Treatment of Common Fractures, becomes a classic reference for the trauma surgeon. Crucially Charnley advocates non-operative methods whenever possible, and shows that far from being a crude and uncertain art, the manipulative treatment of fractures can be a science.

In 1953 Charnley publishes a monumental work on the physiology, principles, and practice of bone union under compression. But he is unsatisfied with the results so he makes a radical move. In pursuit of pain relief and complete hip mobility for his crippled patients, Charnley dedicates himself to hip replacement surgery.

A master surgeon, he realizes what the reconstruction of a normal joint (arthroplasty) demands. He develops the implant that would replace a crippled hip bone and socket, surgical techniques to insert the implant, and the sterile clean air enclosure, total body exhaust suits and instrument tray system essential to controlling infection.

After repeated trials, his hip replacement surgery becomes reality in 1962. Surgeons from all over the world travel to his hospital in Wrightington to learn his low-friction hip replacement techniques. This is the beginning of orthopaedic implants for hips, shoulders, and knees that have helped millions.

Always enthusiastic about his work, Charnley continues to improve his techniques until the day he dies. His widow helps to establish the John Charnley Trust which has made over £1 million available for research and fellowships. 

ii_murdoch_buffalo.jpg

Colin Murdoch and a sedated water buffalo

1950s - 1970s MURDOCH INVENTS DISPOSABLE HYPODERMIC SYRINGE, TRANQUILLISER GUN, SILENT BURGLAR ALARM AND CHILDPROOF BOTTLE TOP

Born a British subject in New Zealand in 1929, Colin Murdoch was an active child, chasing after hares, mixing up gunpowder and rescuing a drowning man. Overcoming dyslexia he became a pharmacist and veterinarian, but he was always inventing.

"It is said that he would wake in the middle of night from vivid dreams about three-dimensional drawings, and would then sit at his kitchen table working with a pencil and ruler until he had his idea properly worked out on paper. In all he patented 46 inventions (Telegraph)".

The disposable syringe came about because he was concerned about transferring dangerous bacteria from one of his animal patients to another when reusing glass syringes. Always practical, he knew there was a solution. His first syringe was invented in 1956, and was followed by pre-filled and self-filling syringes, all medical delivery breakthroughs. Oddly the government health service dismissed the invention. Today millions of his syringes are used every day.

You have probably seen how a dose of tranquilliser can be administered by projection from afar to peaceably sedate an animal. Murdoch invented not only the guns and darts but the safe immobilizing drugs.

He discovered that Stress Syndrome and delayed shock effect could be counteracted by administering a balanced electrolyte solution immediately after an animal was immobilized. This practice is now routine in preventing shock during surgery for babies and elderly patients.

In 1966 he combined a silent burglar alarm, new electrical wiring system and heat detection cells in a revolutionary silent burglar and fire alarm. Too advanced to be put into use at the time, it is now one of the most popular security alarms.

He never attempted to protect his patents. First, as he observed, he didn't have enough money to protect inventions from copyright violation, and second he was happy they were being put to beneficial use. He had the satisfaction of knowing he had invented them.

Huge radio telescope in Puerto Rico

Working at Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory with Lawrence Bragg's support and encouragement, Martin Ryle develops revolutionary radio telescope systems based on the principles of radar, and uses them to track the most distant known galaxies.

Photo: oe@istockphoto.com
The Arecibo Radio Telescope, Puerto Rico

1959 - 1970s MARTIN RYLE EXPLORES UNIVERSE WITH RADIO TELESCOPE

Martin Ryle develops radar and radio systems for the RAF during World War II. After the war, he heads to Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory to join a group investigating radio emissions from the Sun. Ryle develops the radio telescopes that will capture distant radio waves from the universe.

Under his leadership the Cambridge radio astronomy group compiles Catalogues of radio sources, which leads to the discovery of the first quasi-stellar source, the quasar. Using two radio telescopes and changing the distance between them, then analysing the combined reception by computer, Ryle is able to make detailed and original observations of stars. He receives the Nobel Prize for his work, and is appointed Astronomer Royal.

1957 – 1980s JAMES LOVELOCK INVENTS ELECTRON CAPTURE DETECTOR (ECD) AND GAIA HYPOTHESIS

James Lovelock is fascinated by the environment. He invents an electron capture detector that can identify tiny amounts of chemical compounds in the atmosphere and on Earth. The detector is particularly sensitive to the halogens – five nonmetallic chemical elements: fluorine, chlorine, bromine, astatine and iodine. Chlorine is used as a bleach and disinfectant. Bromine is used in dyes and for flame-proofing. The fluorocarbon form of fluorine is used as a lubricant, refrigerant and in fire extinguishers. They are all pollutants, and may damage Earth’s atmosphere so it is vital to be able to measure them.

Lovelock also proposes the Gaia hypothesis. This remains unproven, but inspires thinking about and caring for the health of the whole Earth, which, like a human body, depends on the health of "her" parts.

1959-1980s LOUIS AND MARY LEAKEY AND THEIR SONS UNEARTH FOSSILS OF EARLY HOMINIDS IN AFRICA; SON RICHARD LEAKEY DEFENDS WILDLIFE

The son of British settlers in Africa, Louis Leakey grows up with the Kikuyu people of Kenya, studies in Britain, and returns to East Africa to conduct archaeological research . He focuses on the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. In the 1930s he discovers animal fossils and ancient stone tools. In 1959 his wife Mary, who is working with him, uncovers a fossil hominid that is believed to be almost 2 million years old. Some scholars believe these hominids are the direct ancestors of modern men. By then the Leakey's direct descendants, their sons, are also involved in the great search back into the past, and in protecting Africa's heritage.

In the 1980s, no one had explored in the Lake Turkana valley of Kenya. One day Richard Leakey is on a flight diverted over the remote valley, and decides to explore it. He works with Kamoya Kimeu, a fossil hunter, who discovers a bone from the forehead of a hominid on a knoll at some distance from the lake. Though it does not look promising they decide to dig.

They find a Homo erectus skeleton of a boy who had lived 1.5 million years ago. Homo erectus is the first humanlike creature – the first to hunt and use fire, to make tools, to look after the ill, and perhaps to speak. They were tall, more powerful than we are, and they spread across the Earth. They had been known from scattered fragments, but their importance as a possible precursor species is not seen until Leakey's discovery.

Richard Leakey goes on to become an ardent defender of elephants, who are being slaughtered for their ivory tusks. He manages to stop the ivory trade in the 1990s, though losing his legs in an airplane crash that was probably meant to kill him.

1960 BRITS INVENT VERTICAL TAKE-OFF AIRCRAFT

Sidney Camm, Ralph Hooper, and Stanley Hooker invent a vertical take-off aircraft that can soar straight up into the sky. Rather than using rotors or a direct jet thrust, they build an innovative vectored thrust turbofan engine. Their invention allows aircraft to take off from sites without runways. Harriers are used effectively in the Falklands War, and can be used for rescues in dangerous emergencies.

Panda bear eating bamboo

WWF's mission is to save nature. Its logo, designed by Peter Scott, is the giant panda, an endangered animal that lives in tropical mountains eating bamboo and, when it can find them, eggs.

1960s PETER SCOTT PUTS CONSERVATION ON MAP, FOUNDS WWF, WORLD WILDLIFE FUND (NOW KNOWN AS WORLDWIDE FUND FOR NATURE)

Peter Scott, Julian Huxley, Max Nicholson, and several others found WWF to help save wildlife and habitats. "We shan't save all we should like to, but we shall save a great deal more than if we had never tried," says Sir Peter, a painter, sailing champion, war hero, and conservationist. His father, Robert Falcon Scott, would have been pleased. As he lay dying in Antarctica, he hoped his young son would be interested in natural history.

Peter Scott is particularly interested in wildfowl. He paints them, writes about them, and establishes trusts to preserve their habitat. The first man knighted for his contributions to protecting nature, he originates the Red Data Books, which identify endangered species, and are an essential tool for conservationists.

Today WWF is an international organisation with hundreds of thousands of members. It sponsors projects around the world to conserve beach, forest, and wetlands and to create living relationships for the people and the animals who share these lands. WWF was led for years by Sir Peter and later by HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

To read about Extreme Journeys in the Antarctic

1964 PETER HIGGS THEORIZES HOW ELEMENTARY PARTICLES ARE CREATED WITH BOSUM

Science has come a long way, but physicists are understandably frustrated because after all this time they still cannot explain matter. Photons (particles of light) have zero mass. Why do other particles – luckily for us – have mass?

Physicist Peter Ware Higgs was walking in the Cairngorms in the 1960s when he suddenly thought he understood how the particle-mass business worked. He suggested that the source of mass was a ghostly field that pervades every nook and cranny of the universe. Particles moving through this field (called the Higgs field) gather mass by way of the Higgs boson.

Backed up by a mathematics so intricate it's impossible to do justice to it here, the Higgs mechanism is generally accepted as an important theoretical construct in the Standard Model of particle physics. However, the Higgs boson, also called the "God particle", has not turned up. Higgs hopes that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland will discover his boson in 2008. He has retired from the University of Edinburgh, but he may see his theory proved at last.

1960s JIM MARSHALL INVENTS THE MARSHALL AMPLIFIER AND SPEAKER STACK

Jim Marshall is diagnosed with tubercular bones at the age of five, and spends the next eight years in an Orthopaedic Hospital, covered in plaster from his feet to his armpits. His parents, who own a fish and chip shop, cycle over to visit him every Sunday.

Finally cured at fourteen, Jim works several jobs at a time, acting as an engineer, singer, and drummer for a band and as a drum teacher. In 1960, he opens a drum shop that is patronized by his rock 'n' roll drum pupils. At their request he begins to import guitars and amps. The rock 'n roll musicians want a much bigger sound, and Marshall works with whiz-kid Dudley Craven on a circuit board, valves, and cabinet to come up with an alternative.

Their JCM45 50-watt amp, based on the EL34 valves generally used in aircraft, gives a rich tone and unrivalled reliability. Still, the musicians crave even more volume, so Marshall stacks the amplifiers, and invents the Marshall stack. The Who, Jimi Hendrix, and a host of other rock stars make Marshall amps famous, and Marshall becomes a millionaire.

Chart showing heart spiking with red line

James Black invents beta-blockers to save the lives of people dying of heart attacks.

Image: blackie@istockphoto.com

1960s JAMES BLACK SAVES MILLIONS OF LIVES WITH BETA-BLOCKERS

James Black, a man who believes that "science is a discipline pursued with passion," and that it occurs by building on the hard work of others, sets to work in the 1950s in his Glasgow laboratory to try to discover something that will save patients from dying of heart disease.

Scientists had discovered that heart disease was characterized by clogged arteries that restrict blood flow. Stress produces adrenaline, which narrows the arteries even more, and may result in angina or a heart attack. Black decides to develop a drug that will block the effect of adrenaline on the heart and blood vessels.

It takes him a decade, but Black manages to create propranolol (Indral), a drug that successfully blocks the heart's adrenaline-responsive beta-receptors. Black's beta-blockers, as they are now called, have saved the lives of countless heart disease patients around the world.

At University Hospital London, Black synthesizes cimetidine (Tagamet) a drug that blocks the production of acid by the stomach, largely making operations for stomach ulcers a thing of the past.

1960s HERCHEL SMITH SYNTHESISES HORMONES FOR BIRTH CONTROL PILL, MAKES MILLIONS, AND GIVES IT AWAY

Herchel Smith pursues natural science at Cambridge, researches organic chemistry at Oxford, and focuses on steroids at the University of Manchester. In the early 1960s he is invited to work in the United States. There he develops new methods for synthesizing steroids and hormones, which allow for the development of the birth control pill. All inventions have consequences, and the birth control pill certainly includes some negative consequences.

Having managed to retain patent and intellectual property rights to his work, Herchel Smith retires in 1973 to become a philanthropist. He donates hundreds of millions of dollars to Cambridge, the University of London, and Harvard for research and scholarships.

1965 OWEN MACLAREN DESIGNS A DOUBLE-JOINT BABY BUGGY

It may seem a small, unimportant invention, but to parents pushing heavy, cumbersome baby carriages, it is heaven-sent: a strong, light, baby buggy they can fold in half. Owen Maclaren is a former test pilot and aeronautical designer who designed the undercarriages of planes. He understands how to make lightweight, rigid, load-bearing structures that fold.

Inspired to design an alternative while struggling to push his grandchild in an unwieldy pram, Maclaren invents a new generation of baby transport using modern lightweight materials like tubular aluminum and a double-joint that allows them to fold. He creates his first buggy in the converted stables of his restored medieval farmhouse. Maclaren buggies are now sold around the world.

Defibrillator about to be used

Frank Pantridge also develops a smaller defibrillator that can be kept at home or placed next to public fire extinguishers. Applying his defibrillator early prevents massive heart damage and premature death.

Photo: stevedangers@istockphoto.com

1965 FRANK PANTRIDGE INVENTS THE PORTABLE DEFIBRILLATOR, AND SAVES THOUSANDS OF LIVES

Absolutely cool under fire, Frank Pantridge serves as a medical officer during World War II, and helps to save the wounded while under continuous bombardment. Captured, and sent to the notorious slave labour camps on the Siam-Burma Railway, he survives almost certain death. (He believes he is saved because the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan ends the war.)

Many British prisoners of war had died of fatal cardiac beriberi. Back in Britain, Pantridge turns his attention to cardiac disease, which was reaching epidemic proportions in the 1950s. Unimpressed with the current state of care, he is aware that the majority of coronary deaths result from ventricular fibrillation, a disturbance of the heart rhythm, which can be corrected by applying an electric shock of momentary duration across the chest. Unfortunately most patients suffering ventricular fibrillation do not get help in time.

In response, Pantridge produces the first portable defibrillator. He powers it with car batteries, installs it in an ambulance, and creates the pre-hospital coronary care unit now known as the Pantridge Plan, which has been adopted around the world. On his small, mobile defibrillator he incorporates a fail-safe mechanism to ensure the defibrillator does not deliver a shock unless the lethal arrhythmia is present.

A young  nurse's hand tenderly covers an older man's hand

Dr. Cicely Saunders establishes the modern hospice to bring pain relief and comfort to the dying and their families.

Photo: JackValley@istockphoto.com

1967 CICELY SAUNDERS ESTABLISHES MODERN HOSPICE CARE

Cicely Saunders nurses wounded soldiers during World War II, and feels called to take a degree at Oxford that will allow her to work professionally as a medical social worker. She falls in love with David Tasma, a young Polish man who is dying in great pain. He tells her he needs to make his peace with the God of his fathers, and they talk about a place that could help him do this. The hospital where he presently lies is not the place. Its resources are directed toward saving the living. The dying die largely on their own, often without proper pain relief.

David leaves Cicely £500 in his will so she can study to become a physician and learn how to help the dying. She becomes a doctor, and singlehandedly launches a campaign to build the world's first modern hospice, St Christopher's.

Despite initial apathy and hostility, she succeeds, and charts new approaches for caring for the dying and for their families based on the Christian belief that every human person deserves dignity and love. As a result of her work, palliative care makes medical advances that will provide real comfort to the dying.

With its light and airy wards, its welcome to people of all religious faiths or none at all, and its unique approach to pain and death, St Christopher's becomes a model for the modern hospice movement worldwide.

1969 - 1990s GEOFF RAISMAN DISCOVERS NEUROPLASTICITY, KEY TO CURING INJURIES

A tailor’s son from Leeds, Geoff Raisman marries his childhood sweetheart at 18, loses his scholarship as a result, gains another, graduates from Oxford, and proposes a theory about the brain and central nervous system that is widely debunked before he proves it is true, and crucial to healing injuries.

We are born with over 100 billion neurons, which help us to have sensations, think, and act.  Neurons send and receive messages that control the whole body through myriad branch-like nerve fibres. When Raisman first observes neurons through an electron microscope, “It was like snorkelling through a kelp forest. . .All was in a state of flowing motion. . .continual change”. Quote from "The Miracle Worker" by John Cornwell, Times

Still in his twenties, Raisman theorises that the brain and central nervous system have an astonishing capacity to reorganize themselves after loss or trauma. He calls the theory “plasticity”. Apart from the olfactory nerve cells in the nose, neurons do not regenerate when they die, but Reisman shows that loss of neurons is often compensated for by the flourishing growth of neighbouring neuronal branches known as dendrites, which take over the space vacated by neurons that have died.

The results of his meticulous experiments over the next thirty-five years will bring him to the brink of repairing spinal cord injuries, and much else. See 21st Century

TO 1971 - 1999

When you contribute to this website,
you support Brits at their Best.

Join the Circle of Friends

English bulldog puppy

 

Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass