Letter: No prize from the ivory tower for book-mockery

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Sir: If William Hartston is short of material for his new column 'Ivory Towers' (24 March), I can suggest a thousand scientific studies that are deliciously easy to lampoon, for the entertainment of your less critical readers. Let's start with this:

Unfortunately, because of careless handling, the plates on which the staphylococcus bacteria were being grown became contaminated by spores of P. notatum, a mould of the type that is responsible for the appearance and taste of strong blue cheeses. Amazingly, the bacterial cultures failed to grow in the regions of cheesy contamination.

Subsequently, with considerable financial support from the United States and Britain, other researchers developed methods for mass production of cheese mould and amused themselves by injecting it into defenceless mice.

What I am describing is, of course, the discovery and development of penicillin, arguably the single most important advance in medical science, which led to Nobel Prizes for Fleming, Florey and Chain, and has prevented the death of millions of suffering human beings.

Anyone guided by ignorance or malicious intent could do a similar hatchet job on almost any other area of scientific research that has subsequently produced immense benefit for industry or medicine. Mr Hartston could take a few lessons from anti-vivisectionist groups whose disgraceful parodies of medical science involving animals lead to witch hunts and bombs under scientists' cars.

I am not suggesting that the research on the sexual behaviour of lizards (which Mr Hartston so humorously described) is going to win a Nobel Prize, cure dread diseases or save the British economy. But I trust the university that employed the researcher involved, the grants committee that funded the work and the peer reviewers and editor of his paper in the distinguished journal Animal Behaviour more than I trust Mr Hartston to judge the quality of the work and its contribution to knowledge.

It's only a small step from book-mocking to book-burning.

Yours sincerely,


Waynflete Professor of


University of Oxford


24 March