Beauty, strangeness and science

This year the Museum is playing host to three poets in residence as part of our Visions of Nature year. The poets, John Barnie, Steven Matthews, and Kelley Swain, have been working alongside staff in our collections and out in the Museum itself to gain inspiration for their writing over the past six months. In the autumn, they will take part in a number of events and activities to present their work, and will be publishing a small anthology at the end of the year.

Here Steven Matthews reveals what has inspired his poems during one of his recent visits to the Museum.

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Fossil in the Charles Lyell collection

I was struck strongly, during our early visits as poets-in-residence behind the scenes at the Museum, by one particular aspect of the research being undertaken. The history of the Museum collections, their vast reach, is being traced in several instances by the identification of the particular individual specimen which was drawn and lithographed as part of a key scientific paper, in the nineteenth- or twentieth-centuries. Out of the many thousands of specimens held at the Museum, for example, we were shown the exact fossil in the Charles Lyell Collection which had helped, when reproduced in a paper, confirm the geological record of part of the United States.


'Observations on the White Limestone and other Eocene or Older Tertiary Formations of Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia' by Charles Lyell, 1845
‘Observations on the White Limestone and other Eocene or Older Tertiary Formations of Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia’ by Charles Lyell, 1845

The history of the Collections, in other words, is the history not just of their remarkable beauty or strangeness, but of their usefulness in advancing scientific thought; just as it is the history of the individual people who have recognised something new to say from the specimens they were studying. There is a firm analogy between this activity and what the making of poems involves. Concise comparison is, after all, what poetry also seeks to attain, bringing the multifariously divergent elements of the world into intense and new combinations with each other.

In preparing to write poems in response to the Museum building and Collections, I have kept that history in mind, researched it. I have read pamphlets by Henry Acland and John Ruskin, Victorians key to the impulse behind the creation of a Museum here to Science, and to defining what the nature of a building on these principles should look like. I have re-read much Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite poetry in order to steep myself in the kinds of language being used to describe Nature by poets at the time the Museum was becoming active. I have read in the work of scientists working at, or associated with, the Museum in its early days and subsequently.

One of the capitals that adorn the Museum court carved by the O’Shea brothers

Out of this reading, but also out of the looking, the many hours spent with the Collections on public display or behind the scenes, have come what is a surprising variety of poems which reflects the wonderful and overwhelming reach of the items at the Museum. I have written about the O’Shea brothers who did much of the amazing carving of column-tops on the Ground Floor; there is a poem on the crystallographer Dorothy Hodgkin, whose lab I was privileged to spend some time alone in.


Nonsense verses have arisen from contemplating the presence of Lewis Carroll here; the astounding collection of multi-coloured marble blocks, the Corsi Collection, has impelled me to create blocks of prose-poetry in their shape. There is a poem ‘voiced’ by an ammonite. The sadness of some specimens, posed in isolation (or in glass jars) far from their original contexts, has moved me; as has the shocked intensified awareness that the history of the Collections is a history of accelerating losses, as more and more of the species gathered in the Museum are extinguished from the world each day.

‘A thoroughly unhousewifely skill’

HodgkinBust etc 009

For International Women’s Day, the Museum of Natural History celebrates the life and career of Dorothy Hodgkin, one of its most eminent researchers. Hodgkin was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964, and is still the only UK woman to have been awarded one of the science Nobels.

When the Museum of Natural History was designed in the 1850s, the building was intended not just to house a museum but also the burgeoning science departments of the University. The lettering above the doors facing the court continues to record these early affiliations: ‘Department of Medicine’, ‘Professor of Experimental Philosophy’, and so on.

Dorothy Mary Hodgkin (1910–1994) Image: Nobel Prize

As individual departments grew they moved into their own buildings across the science campus. One of the last research groups left in the Museum was the Department of Mineralogy & Crystallography, which, from the 1930s onwards, was the research home of the outstanding X-ray crystallographer Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-1994), winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964.

The Daily Mail famously celebrated her success with the headline ‘Oxford housewife wins Nobel’, but The Observer was no more enlightened, commenting that Hodgkin was ‘an affable looking housewife’ who had been awarded the Nobel Prize for ‘a thoroughly unhousewifely skill’.  That socially disruptive ability was an unparalleled proficiency with X-ray analysis, particularly in the elucidation of the structure of biological molecules.

Hodgkin undertook her first degree at Oxford from 1928 to 1932, initially combining chemistry and archaeology but later focusing on the emerging technique of X-ray crystallography. Her undergraduate research project was carried out using this technique in a Museum laboratory within what is now the Huxley Room, the scene of the 1860 Great Debate on evolution between Bishop Wilberforce and T. H. Huxley. She then journeyed across to Cambridge for her PhD before returning to Oxford in 1934 and resuming her association with the Museum.

Model of the Structure of Penicillin, by Dorothy Hodgkin, Oxford, c.1945, in the Museum of the History of Science

Back in Oxford, Hodgkin started fundraising for X-ray apparatus to explore the molecular structure of biologically interesting molecules. One of the first to attract her attention was insulin, the structure of which took over 30 years to resolve – a project timescale unlikely to appeal to modern research funders. Other molecules proved more tractable, including the newly discovered penicillin, which Hodgkin began to work on during the Second World War, and vitamin B12.  It was for the determination of these structures that she was awarded the Nobel Prize.

Dorothy Hodgkin’s new X-ray laboratory was set up in a semi-basement room in the north-west corner of the Museum.  The room is now a vertebrate store but was once also the research home of Prince Fumihito of Japan, when he was based in the Museum for his ichthyological research (and It is still the only room in the Museum with bulletproof windows).

Initially, Hodgkin’s only office space consisted of a table in this room and a small mezzanine gallery above, which housed her microscopes for specimen preparation. Once prepared, she then had to descend a steep, rail-less ladder holding the delicate sample to the X-ray equipment below. Later, Hodgkin had a desk in the ‘calculating room’ (now housing the public engagement team) where three researchers and all of their students sat and undertook by hand the complex mathematics necessary after each analysis to determine the crystal structures of organic molecules.

Paul Smith – Director

If you would like to learn more about Dorothy Hodgkin and her work, then read Georgina Ferry’s excellent biography ‘Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life’ which has just been re-issued as an e-book and new, print-on-demand paperback by Bloomsbury Reader.

 This year’s Dorothy Hodgkin Memorial Lecture will be held in the Museum at 5 pm on Thursday 12 March, and is open to all. The lecture will be given by Dr Petra Fromme (Arizona State University) who is an international authority on the structure of membrane proteins.