Oral history of British science
Berry, Robert James (Sam) (1 of 8). Science and Religion: Exploring the Spectrum. Life Story Interviews
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Science and Religion
2015-01-13, 2015-02-20, 2015-03-16
British Library, London
Berry, Robert James (Sam), 1934- (speaker, male)
Merchant, Paul (speaker, male)
Part 1: [Session one: 13th January 2015] Robert James (Sam) Berry born in Preston, Lancashire in 1934 [26.10.34]. Comments on life of father, including occupation as a dentist (private then among first for National Health Service [NHS]), suicide [in 1952] linked to stress of NHS work. [00:47] Comments on effect of mother’s illness (multiple sclerosis [MS]) on relations with father. Mentions holidays with parents and then father only, including walking in Lake District, UK. [1:18] Brief comments on lives of paternal grandparents. [2:02] Comments on maternal grandfather’s (a plumber’s) view of own extended education. Mentions maternal grandmother. Brief story of this grandfather allowing self to keep extinguished cigar. Mentions visits to maternal grandparents every Sunday. [3:31] Brief description of Sundays as a child. Comments on reasons for description of Sunday evenings (“I used to take my father to church”) related to own membership of the Scouts. Mentions father’s lack of enthusiasm for religion; paternal grandfather’s service as a church organist. [4:14] Description of childhood home, Preston. Mentions maid. Comments on inability to remember young childhood activities on lawn of this home; tendency for mother to be in the ‘drawing room’; father’s dentist surgery at home “beyond the garage” (with second surgery in Preston). Brief story of assisting father at home by operating foot-pump for drill. [8:51] Brief comments on timing of father’s entry into fulltime NHS dentistry (late 1940s). Story of father enrolling self in boarding school [Shrewsbury School attended 1948-1953]. Mentions fellow pupils who are now well-known publically. [10:18] Brief comments on time spent with mother as a child, focussed on particular summer holiday destination. Comments on childhood play in local area, in Preston. Brief story of competing at top of class at grammar school [Kirkham Grammar School, 1945-1948]. [13:00] Comments on childhood reading (mentions ‘Just William’, ‘Biggles’, author Arthur Ransome, ‘Our Island Story’, book on “evolution of life through the ages”). [13:48] Brief discussion of this latter book (still owned). Comments on experience of learning to read/reading as a child. [14:53] Brief comments on childhood toys. [15:13] Comments on lack of knowledge of mother’s religious beliefs; tendency for Christianity to be “in the background”. Mentions own baptism. [15:57] Comments on character/outlook of father, with related story. [17:13] Brief comments on experience of primary school education. Mentions passing of 11-Plus. [18:22] Comments on memories of teaching and learning at grammar school, including relative status of science. [20:20] Comments on relations between parents viewed as an older child. Brief comments on lack of expectation of self to care for mother. [21:32] Comments on experience of boarding at Shrewsbury School [SS] from 1948. Description of typical day here. Further comments on parts of day devoted to “chapel” (“morning and evening prayer”) with some discussion. [27:23] Comments on time spent at SS outside of lessons, with focus on exercise/sport, but including reading and cycle rides; friends at SS; differences between self and other boys at SS, with related story of origin of nickname ‘Sam’. [32:30] Brief comments on reading at this age. Mentions author Dennis Wheatley. Comments on communication with father during term-time years at SS. [34:21] Very brief comments on father’s move into NHS dentistry. [35:01] Brief comments on experience of school holidays during time at SS [1948-1953]. [36:40] Comments on development of interest in science at school, including father’s instruction to pursue any goal in life except that of dentist; winning of place at the University of Cambridge [UOC] to read medicine; decision to focus on biology rather than medicine. [38:48] Story of attendance, at end of university, of course of church Pastoral Aid Society as part of exploration of possible careers. Further comments on career aspirations at end of degree, related to perception of career hierarchy of different levels of commitment among those in the UOC Christian Union [CU]. Mentions attempt to train as school teacher. Story of successful application [in 1956] to pursue PhD at University College, London [‘Inheritance and Development of Two Mouse Mutants’ 1959]. [41:33] Story of being told of father’s death while at SS; tendency to take long walks in an attempt to contemplate/understand father’s suicide; return to SS; invitation from a SS Chaplain to attend a ‘Christian House Party’ in subsequent summer holiday (“that’s where I really committed myself as a Christian”); ability of aspects of Christian religion to answer questions posed by self to self following suicide of father. [44:39] Comments on ‘Christian meetings’ at SS. Story of own confirmation at SS, including related sermon in previous week. [46:59] Brief story of ‘Christian House Party’ in Dorset during school summer holiday. [50:48] Brief comments on homesickness at beginning of SS. [51:40] Story of beginning Natural Science Tripos [NST] degree [1953-1956] in Gonville and Caius College [GCC], University of Cambridge [UOC]. Mentions joining UOC Christian Union [CU]. Brief description of shared room. Comments on tendency not to take part in undergraduate socialising (mentions negative early experience of drinking alcohol); reasons for not taking part in sport on Sundays; tendency not to take part in “dancing, politics, various intellectual pursuits”. [55:46] Comments on Part 1 of NST [1953-1955] involving zoology, botany, biochemistry and (in second year) history and philosophy of science. Negative comments on philosophy component of latter. Story of fellow undergraduate Jonathan Miller’s [JM] (now a well-known director and performer) amusing behaviour in these philosophy lectures. Positive comments on courses on history of science, history of cytology and history of observational biology (latter taught by former Professor of Divinity Charles Raven). [1:00:47] Further comments on own critical view of content of philosophy course; memories of JM in lectures. [1:02:37] Comments on development of interest in evolution and genes during Sixth Form at SS, and then during Part 1 NST. Story of palaeontology lectures, with brief rendition of related song. Mentions focus of interest on “how genes actually work”. Story of choosing genetics for Part 2 NST [1955-1956]. [1:05:49] Further comments on introduction to evolution in Sixth Form biology, SS. Mentions fact that Charles Darwin had been to SS; lack of comment (during own school career) on relations between evolution and religion. [1:07:19] Discussion and some description of way in which evolutionary biology was taught in botany and zoology, Part 2 NST. Mentions introduction to electron microscopy by Lord Rothschild with bulls’ sperm the examined material; tendency for animal evolution to be taught with fossils, especially of fish and those relating to development of flight; lack of discussion at this stage of relations between evolution and religion. Story of first conversation concerning assumed conflict between evolution and Christianity, at university with former school friend; development of interest in relations between evolution and faith through talks to Christians; later talk to Christian doctors in Australia leading to decision to write book ‘Adam and the Ape’ (1975). [1:12:16] Comments on book published during own degree ‘Evolutionary Theory and Christian Faith’ [‘Evolutionary Theory and Christian Belief: The Unresolved Conflict’] by the ornithologist David Lack. [1:13:26] Detailed comments on reasons why in 1950s (and in the present) evolution is often thought to be incongruent with belief in God. Mentions Richard Dawkins [RD]. [1:15:44] Comments on experience of UOC CU, with related stories. Mentions view that the CU was regarded “with great suspicion” by “senior members” of UOC. Story of “university mission” from Billy Graham. Mentions spectrum of belief/lack of belief from fundamentalism to New Atheism. Comments on/discussion of differences between engagement with Christianity of the CU and the UOC college Chaplains, including comments on relations with GCC Chaplain Hugh Montefiore. Brief story of separation of CU from Student Christian Movement [SCM] in early twentieth century. Discussion of reasons for joining CU rather than SCM at UOC, especially common membership of CU and SS ‘Christian House Party’. [1:24:38] Comments on feelings about trusting care of mother following father’s death to housekeeper. Mentions mother’s death during time at UOC . Brief comments on effect on self of loss of parents at young age. [1:27:02] Comments on Part 2 NST genetics (and embryology); role of Professor of Genetics Ronald Fisher [RF] in ‘neo-Darwinian synthesis’ [NDT] of genetics and evolution earlier in his career (late 1920s). Brief description of NDT. Comments on difference between effects of genes as observed in laboratory experiments, and as observed in the field. Mentions development of own interest in the latter. Comments on course taught by RF. [1:31:35] Positive comments on course on ecological genetics taught by George Owen [GO], including development of interest in natural selection in moths. Mentions related holiday work with Bernard Kettlewell [BK] on effect of natural selection on colouring of moths. [1:32:02] Comments on course on embryology, developing own interest in effect of genes on/expression of genes in organisms; contemporary speculation (mid 1950s) about mechanism of expression of genes before discovery of DNA (mentions presence in GCC of Francis Crick [FC]). Mentions decision to undertake PhD research having not been selected for teacher training. [1:33:11] Comments on own experience/view of FC. Mentions own tendency, at the time, to describe DNA as “an artefact in the mind of God”. Mentions son Andrew’s co-authorship of books with James Watson. [1:34:30] Comments on reasons for enjoying GO’s course on ecological genetics, involving “real organisms”; development of own interest in particular gene affecting length of the tail and size of kidneys in mice (related to RF’s use of experimental mice). Mentions permission to dissect mice on Thursday afternoons when RF went to the Royal Society; decision to undertake PhD in “another mouse laboratory” in London. [1:35:38] Story of BK’s work on natural selection operating in case of colouring of moths in the UK; joining BK in fieldwork in Yorkshire during last undergraduate summer holiday, at time of final stages of BK’s work on peppermoth variation. [1:39:08] Comments on further work assisting BK on peppermoth variation in rural Perthshire, then Shetland Islands. [1:39:28] Further description of fieldwork with BK in Yorkshire during final undergraduate summer holiday. Comments on character/abilities of BK, including his tendency (related to medical training) to seek confirmation of diagnosis rather than collect data in more open way. Mentions BK’s relations with naturalist Peter Scott. Positive comments on BK’s abilities as a field naturalist. [1:42:49] Detailed comments on results of fieldwork in moth variation (lighter and darker forms) in unpolluted Black Wood of Rannoch, Perthshire. Comments on content of conversation between self and BK. Mentions later work with BK in Caithness, Scotland drawing out BK’s interest in fly fishing. [1:45:54] Comments on course on embryology, Part 2, NST, UOC, including focus on amphibians, concern with development of particular physiological structures including ‘primary long axis’ (“notochord”) as first stage of vertebrae and spinal cord and with supposed component ‘the organiser’. Mentions focus of PhD in this area [‘Inheritance and Development of Two Mouse Mutants’ (1959)]. [1:47:55] Story of beginning of PhD at University College London [UCL] [in the Medical Research Council’s Experimental Genetics Research Unit] [1956-1959] with questions concerning “working-out” of particular mutations during lifetime of a mouse, first hydrocephalus then development ‘pintail’ (attenuation of tail). [1:51:27] Discussion/description of process of investigating effect (on embryo) of genetic mutation in mice. [1:55:09] Comments on links between living arrangements (shared flat) during PhD and previous relations in UOC. Mentions joining of same local church as flatmate. [1:56:07] Story of accepting invitation of Oliver Barclay [OB] (founder of Research Scientists Christian Fellowship [RSCF] now named Christians in Science [CIS]) to join London “study group” producing written material for annual conference of RSCF. Comments on lack of clear memory of origin, during own undergraduate life, of relations with OB. [1:58:04] Comments on churchgoing in South Kensington, London during PhD, including presence of many Imperial College students at services and in ‘Young Peoples’ Fellowship’ [YPF]. [1:59:30] Brief comments on relations with senior members/offices of this church. Comments on content of meetings of the YPF. Mentions probability that own first talk on relations between science and religion was given at meeting of YPF. Brief comments on likely content of this talk. [2:01:11] Comments on experience of London “study group” of RSCF, including detailed reflection on such topics as the Christian explanation for suffering in biological (including human) life, leadership of OB, difficulty in remembering other members, possibly including Gareth Jones. [2:03:12] Discussion of ways in which RSCF may have advertised its existence to scientists, including annual meeting and advertisements for evening meetings. [2:06:36] Comments on view of self as scientist who went to church by colleagues who didn’t, at the time of own PhD and since. [2:08:55] Comments on some of conferences of RSCF attended by self in the later 1950s; leading members of RSCF at this time including OB, Donald MacKay [DM], Gordon Barnes, Douglas Spanner, Colin Russell; questions/matters discussed at RSCF conferences at this time. [2:13:30] Story of work undertaken following PhD, led by “then boss” interested in effects of natural radiation on mice (then rats), involving fieldwork in southern India. Comments on development of own interest here in “natural” variations in wild mice, leading to relations with UK Natural History Museum [NHM] and UK Ministry of Agriculture [MAFF] in catching “wild mice” and identification of Welsh islands as field site. Story of declining offer of job working at Medical Research Council [MRC] Radiobiological Research Unit, Harwell, Oxfordshire to continue work on effects of radiation on mice, choosing instead to take post as Lecturer in Genetics, Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine [RFHSM] [1962-1978]. [2:16:48] Story of fieldwork in southern India following PhD involving collection of rats exposed to different levels of natural radioactivity, including account of communist village returning unusually small catches with provided traps. [1:19:42] Description of method of producing ‘skeletal preparations’ following dissection of caught, killed rats. Story of difficulties taking this skeletal material back to UK through Indian customs. Detailed comments on analyses of skeletal material back at laboratory, UCL including own first experience of computer analysis of data. [2:22:51] Comments on interaction with local and post-colonial communities in India during fieldwork. [2:25:07] Story of association [in 1960] with UK Ministry of Agriculture [MAFF] [Rodent Research Branch] in own collection of mice from treated corn ricks. Comments on reasons for decision to collect mice from an island, allowing sampling of “same genes over a period”. Story of origins of collection of mice on Welsh island used by MAFF as “rabbit laboratory”: Skokholm [1960-1970]. Comments on development of own interest in population dynamics of mice on Skokholm; use of release experiments to study relations between genotype and survival. Brief comments on variation of genotype in individual species; method of marking mice in the field for release and capture; methods of making estimates of survival rates between genotypes; tendency for mice to be easy to re-trap; engagement with discipline of ecology through this particular approach to studying effects of genes in whole organisms, and their populations in particular environments; annual variations in mouse numbers on Skokholm.
Life story interview with Professor of Gentics, Dr Sam Berry