Nobel Prizes, Footprints of Giants & Oxford's History of Science Museum

Good morning!

     Following last week's pictures of Oxford's Botanic Gardens, this weeks pictures are about some of the city's scientific history.

     You don't have to walk very far around Oxford's city centre to get a real sense of it as a place with a long and often interesting (if not always pleasant) history. A fair number of the world's great and the good (as well as the villainous and the not very impressive) have made their way across the uneven pavements and between the honeyed stone buildings over the centuries. These include various students, lecturers, researchers and more transient visitors, as well as the city's non-university population. But, in case there was any doubt, every now and then you will pass a metal sign telling you this or that great historic event happened here. Everything seems to be the "first" or the "oldest surviving" something or other. Sometimes the things that are commemorated are quite absurd. The city's bustling "covered market" for example boasts a display of the world's oldest piece of cured meat hanging in one of its shop windows: only in Oxford could that be considered a draw, rather than a reason to run far, far away, screaming....

View of "The High" (Street), Oxford City Centre, England

Blossom and Inward-Facing Walls of Jesus College, Oxford

     That said, amongst the endless, glorious and inglorious plaques and historical boasts, there are a few interesting scientific milestones commemorated. The small but interesting "History of Science Museum" on Broad Street also has a cluster of scientific relics that make a change from the usual parade of historical cherub-paintings, treaties and saint reliqueries cluttering up town halls across half of the city centres in Europe.

     For example. on "The High" (Street), beside the University's Examination Halls, you will find the spot where both Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle made their famous discoveries, changing humanity's understanding of the natural world and the behaviours of gases, respectively. (See below).

Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke lived here: "The High" (Street), Oxford, England

Site of house of Robert Hooke and of Robert Boyle, Oxford City Centre, England

      Elsewhere, you can find commemoration of Sir Howard Florey and Sir Ernest Chain's lifesaving work to create the functioning drug penicillin from the penicillium mould. 

Everyone knows the story of penicillin and its importance, worldwide. But this short extract from Howard Florey's wikipedia page bears repeating- 

" In 1941, he and [Ernst] Chain treated their first patient, [Reserve Constable] Albert Alexander, who had had a small sore at that corner of his mouth, which then spread leading to a severe facial infection involving Streptococci and Staphylococci. His whole face, eyes and scalp were swollen to the extent that he had had an eye removed to relieve some of the pain. Within a day of being given penicillin, he started recovering...."

Sadly, as wikipedia explains, 
"the researchers did not have enough penicillin to help him to a full recovery, and he relapsed and died".

     Subsequent patients fared rather better and so it is hardly surprising that Howard Florey, Ernst Chain shared the shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1945 with Alexander Flemming. Now, should you wish to see Sir Howard Florey's Nobel Prize Medal*, I am happy to report that you can do so- it is on public display at Oxford's aforementioned "History of Science Museum".

Howard Florey and his Nobel Prize Medal, Museum of the History of Science, Oxford, England.

The Nobel Prize (Medal) awarded to Sir Howard Florey, on public display in Oxford's History of Science Museum, England

     Now, for all it is lovely to see artifacts of scientific work done locally in Oxford's History of Science Museum, the little museum also boasts a generous selection of more exotic material- the most striking items perhaps being its collection of Arabic and Persian Astrolabes. Pictures are below.


Astrolabes, sundials and related items are on prominent and impressive display in Oxford's History of Science Museum, Broad Street, Oxford, England

Explanation in Oxford's History of Science Museum- cabinet showing Arabian and Persian Astrolabes and related items

Early Asian horological devices on display in Oxford's History of Science Museum, England.

      I find the history of science interesting in part because it is really just a history of people and of ideas. With that in mind, the way one idea or discovery leads on to another has long been of particular interest. This is a theme that this blog will return to in the future, but for now, I'd just like to note how striking it was to see the collection of astrolabes and sundials in Oxford's Museum of the History of Science juxtaposed alongside more complex instruments. When you look at the physical and manual skill-sets required to create these early precise instruments, you are seeing the beginings of horology and, with it, the beginnings of scientific measurement itself. It is often said that Leonardo DaVinci was unable fully to realise his astonishing potential (even though what he did acheive was beyond parallel) simply because the materials that would have made his more exotic machines work had not been invented. In the precise instruments housed in Oxford's History of Science Museum, the visitor almost gets to see this argument made the other way around- she/he gets to see a historical procession of ever more refined instruments, often crafted with quite exquisite skill- and, alongside them, the scientific discoveries and ideas that came from this evolving tool set. It may be entirely true that a "bad workman blames his tools", but it is also true that a really good workman can only realise his greatest potential with tools appropriate to his purpose.

Thanks for reading,
The next blog post will be on Friday.


*As an aside, Albert Einstein's Nobel Prize medal is also on public display (see below)- but it is housed in the Bloomfield Science Museum in Jerusalem

Nobel Prize (Medal) awarded to Albert Einstein - on public display in the Bloomfield Museum of Science, Jerusalem.


  1. It's really a testament to how well behaved Oxford students are, that no one has stolen and attempted to eat the piece of oldest curated meat as part of a hazing ritual!

  2. That's a great post. I love the blossom in Jesus College Oxford picture.


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