The Royal Institute has produced some of the most important scientific discoveries of the last century - a revival is in order

The pursuit of new knowledge differentiated the Royal Institute from competitors

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Ludwig Mond (1839-1909) was one of the greatest ever industrial chemists and an extraordinarily generous benefactor.  Co-founder of Imperial Chemical Industries and founder of the Mond Nickel Company, inventor of Mond gas (used for street lighting) and discoverer of nickel carbonyl (a ‘volatile metal’).  His exceptional collection of Old Masters was bequeathed to the National Gallery, his accumulated masterpieces of German literature to King’s College, London and the Royal Society was the beneficiary of a massive financial bequest.

In 1894, Mond made a stupendous proposal to the Royal Institution (founded by Count Rumford in 1799 in 21 Albemarle Street) - an offer to set up a new research laboratory under the RI’s wing.  He had already purchased Number 20 Albemarle Street, an 18 century house next door to the RI.  He would give this house, equipped to be a national laboratory.  Among other things it would provide more room for Lord Rayleigh and Sir James Dewar (the resident professors at the RI) to pursue their scientific researches.

Following Mond’s generous additional bequest of £100,000, the Davy-Faraday Research Laboratory (DFRL) was opened by the Prince of Wales on 22 December 1896.  The December issue of the journal Nature reported Mond’s address, which referred to the “enlightened mind” of Prince Albert who, he said, had “fully realised that the pursuit of pure science was the most potent factor in the promotion of the intellectual as well as the material progress of this or any other nation or of humanity at large”.  In his address, Mond also disclosed that he had decided “to found in London a laboratory or research in purely scientific chemistry and physical chemistry form, from which, we might hope to learn more about the real nature of things than from any other branch of natural science.”   He had come to the conclusion that “such a laboratory would derive the greatest advantage if it could be associated with the RI, which had during its long existence made the promotion of original research in these sciences one of its main objects.”   He added that the DFRL of the RI “was unique of its kind, being the only public laboratory in the world solely devoted to research in pure science”.

It was a source of great gratification to Ludwig Mond that the eminent successors of Davy and Faraday, namely Lord Rayleigh and Professor Dewar (the inventor of the thermos flask) had consented to undertake the duties of directors of the DFRL without payment.

Achievements

In his low-temperature studies, Dewar succeeded in liquefying oxygen and hydrogen.  Lord Rayleigh, one of the greatest classical physicists ever, was awarded the first ever Nobel Prize to a British citizen (in 1904) for the discovery (at the DRFL) of the noble gas argon.  Dewar’s successor in 1923 was Sir William Bragg who, jointly with his son, Lawrence, had been awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1915 for the analysis of crystal structures by X-rays.

Sir William was a brilliant leader of other scientists and a superb experimentalist.  He set up one of the best research groups on condensed matter physics in the world.  WT Astbury (1889-1961), prompted by Bragg, started investigating fibres such as wool, hair and silk by X-ray diffraction.  JD Bernal (1901-71), shortly after arriving from Cambridge, demonstrated his scientific excellence by determining, using X-rays, the structure of graphite.  Bernal returned to the Cavendish Laboratory where, with Dorothy Hodgkin and Max Perutz, he pioneered the ways to approach the structures of enzymes.

A graduate of Bristol University, EG Cox – later Sir Gordon - became such an excellent X-ray crystallographer that he was called on by Sir Norman Howarth at Birmingham University to establish the detailed atomic structure of vitamin C.  Kathleen Yardley (later Dame Kathleen Lonsdale) came to the DFRL from Bedford College, London aged 21. After marriage and the birth of her three children she returned there for nearly 20 years, and achieved fame by establishing the planarity of the benzene molecule, thus vindicating the structure German chemist August Kekule had predicted in a daydream while journeying on a horse-drawn London bus in 1855.  With Astbury, Lonsdale (who later became the first tenured woman professor at UCL, and one of the first two women Fellows of the Royal Society in 1945) was responsible for the birth of International tables for X-ray crystallography, compilations that are an essential aid even now for all X-ray crystallographers worldwide.

Sir Lawrence Bragg stepped in to fill his father’s position upon the latter’s retirement and also ran a powerful workshop, manned by expert technicians.  With such facilities Phillips and Arndt built a linear X-ray diffractometer, the first in the world.  This instrument, adapted to make multiple simultaneous measurements of X-ray intensities, was to have profound consequences.  With it, Kendrew and Phillips, solved the structure of myoglobin in atomic detail in 1958, the first ever protein structure to be determined: some 70,000 have now been reported.  And in 1965, David Phillips and his PhD student Louise (later Dame Louise) Johnson solved the structure and explained the mode of action of lysozyme, the first-ever enzyme to yield its atomic details to X-ray analysis.

What happens now?

This kind of world-class work in the boundaries between physics, chemistry and biology, were triumphantly continued by Sir George (later Lord) Porter when he succeeded Sir Lawrence Bragg as Resident Professor and Director of the DFRL in 1966.  Porter was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry, jointly with Norrish (Cambridge) and Eigen (Göttingen) in 1967 for tracking fast photochemical reactions.  Porter’s team at the DFRL over a period of 20 years took photochemistry and, later, photobiology to new heights.  His successor, appointed in 1986, introduced solid-state chemistry and heterogeneous catalysis to the DFRL.  This work earned him many international prizes.

His Deputy as Director, and Wolfson Professor of Natural Philosophy, CRA Catlow (now Dean of Mathematics and Physical Sciences at UCL) pioneered computational chemistry; and in 1991, research in superconductivity was pursued by the new Director.  An indication of quite recent strength of the research activity at the DFRL is given by the fact that, in the period 1989-2007, close to 1000 research publications (which have been cited over 30,000 times) appeared in international scientific journals.  Senior workers there were also recipients of numerous national and international awards for original research.

Now, however, little research work is pursued at the DFRL.  The workshop has disappeared; and, in the current debates concerning the future of the RI – which might indeed be put up for sale -  little mention is made of resuscitating the DFRL. 

One of the key features of the RI’s activities that has distinguished it from all other institutions in the kingdom that also  specialise in the public presentation and understanding of science is the pursuit of new knowledge.  Less than a decade ago, research at the DFRL was flourishing and financially viable, with over a dozen PhD students (registered for higher degrees in London) and two dozen or so postdoctoral workers, many of whom now occupy prestigious chairs in five continents.  Is it too much to hope that it will prosper again in a secure future?

Sir John Meurig Thomas, worked at the Davy-Faraday Research Laboratory for 20 years as Director of the RI, its Fullerian Professor, and Director and Emeritus Professor of the DFRL.

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