Dr John Poole: Highly valued Commons librarian


I have never understood why MPs require research assistants (I never had one, nor claimed for one). The House of Commons Library has among its staff many scholars who will supply objective information, often very promptly. Working among gifted contemporaries covering other fields was Dr John Poole, who from 1966 until his retirement in 1990 was Head of the Science section of the Library. Indeed, he was the founding father of the provision of serious scientific fact to Parliament.

John Poole was the son of a miner who had left the pits to work for John Player in what was then a thriving tobacco business in Nottingham. As a young MP, then representing West Lothian with its six coal mines, I first knew Poole through a superb piece of work he carried out at my request on the subjects of pneumoconiosis, silicosis and emphysema. When I thanked him for his hard work, he replied in his soft, gentle voice, "Mr Dalyell, it was a personal pleasure. You see, over generations my family suffered from all three in the Nottinghamshire coalfield."

From that vigorous grammar school, the High Pavement School in Nottingham, Poole had won a scholarship to Keble College, Oxford, where he obtained first class honours in chemistry. His PhD was on the dating of the Dead Sea scrolls, whereby he used the then current chemical techniques; it was years before carbon dating confirmed Poole's results. I am told that Poole's PhD thesis is one of two documents which are required reading for students of the Scrolls at the University of Berlin.

He won an International Churchill Fellowship, and after leaving Oxford he worked for the Chemical Society and then for Shell as an industrial scientist, before being enticed away to work for Roskill Mineral Research. His knowledge of geology would prove invaluable to MPs.

In 1966 I was a member of the first Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology. My colleagues, in particular Arthur Palmer, the chairman David Price, Professor Nick Davies, Dr David Owen and I, clamoured the House authorities into appointing a scientist to the Library. They chose exceedingly well in John Poole.

His friend and colleague Priscilla Baines, the Commons Librarian from 2000-2004, told me, "John was a real life-enhancer. Idiosyncratic, he would come away with an unexpected view."

Whenever I explained to Poole (as I always did) why I was asking him to do some work, he would respond with thoughtful and helpful suggestions, or, occasionally, quietly advise me that I was "barking up the wrong scientific tree." Such candour from a briefer is so much more valuable than some young research assistant saying, "Yes, sir, no sir…" Diffident but never deferential, he provided focus in the Library for the Scientific Committee.

Poole, Baines, told me, was also an innovator. In the late 1960s he pioneered the use of computers for a library database, and in 1968, during the Long Recess, he galvanised his colleagues into producing a superb background to the situation in Czechoslovakia, anticipating the special recall of Parliament. It had some effect, in making MPs cautious in thinking about intervention, as the Foreign Secretary, George Brown, wanted. Years later, when the All-Party Heritage group met Mr Dubcek in Prague, he told me, "Should the West have intervened, it would have been catastrophic." Poole's work helped restrain a headstrong Foreign Secretary.

Poole's friend and contemporary, Jane Fiddick, who served as Head of several sections of the Library, reflected to me, "John had the great gift of making comprehensible what seemed impossible. He left me feeling better. Above all, we treasured his dry, droll, surreal sense of humour. He was a genuinely witty man." Fiddick recalled Poole's wedding present to her, The Annotated Alice, a penetrating and hilarious examination of Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass. Above all, perhaps, he had a keen sense of justice, and there was a streak in him which suggested that subversive, awkward and inquisitive MPs should be encouraged. John Poole was one of the heroes of the cause of the public understanding of science.

Tam Dalyell

John Poole, chemist, scholar and librarian: born Nottingham 29 March 1932; Senior Librarian, House of Commons 1966-90; married 1957 Mary Woelfel (one son); died Hertfordshire 21 January 2013.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
The comedian, 42, made the controversial comment following the athlete’s sentencing to five years for the culpable homicide of Reeva Steenkamp on Tuesday
peopleComedian's quip about Reeva Steenkamp was less than well received at music magazine awards
Cumberbatch spectacularly photobombs U2 at the Oscars
Life and Style
Could you tell the difference between this and an organic alternative?
food + drink

Culinary experts in The Netherlands thought it was 'fresh' and 'tasty'

Will menus with calorie counts really deter junk-food addicts from eating junk?
Today's Liverpool Echo back page
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling will not be releasing a 'romance' novel anytime soon
Life and Style

Of all the computers Apple has ever made there’s only one that Steve Jobs had to sell his car to finance

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

2nd Line server support - Microsoft certified

£25000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our large organisa...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, Adobe, ...

Systems Tester - Functional/Non-Functional/Full Life Cycle

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Systems Tester - Functional/Non-Func...

SQL Developer with T-SQL, Watford, Hertfordshire - £350 - £360

£350 - £360 per day: Ashdown Group: SQL Developer with T-SQL, Watford, Hertfor...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?