Oral history of British science

Wolpert, Lewis (1 of 7).  Science and Religion: Exploring the Spectrum. Life Story Interviews

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  • Subjects

    Science and Religion; Embryology

  • Recording date

    2015-04-28, 2015-04-29, 2015-06-09

  • Recording locations

    British Library, London

  • Interviewees

    Wolpert, Lewis, 1929- (speaker, male)

  • Interviewers

    Merchant, Paul (speaker, male)

  • Abstract

    Part 1: [Session one: 28th April 2015] Lewis Wolpert born on 19th October 1929, in Johannesburg, South Africa. Story of life of father, including Jewish background, emigration from Belfast, Northern Ireland to Johannesburg [but says London] as a child, employment in Central News Agency from early teenage to retirement, own consciousness of his lack of education. Mentions knowing maternal grandmother, but not grandfather. [01:25] Comments on life of mother, including birth in SA, family background in Lithuania, relative wealth of mother’s family. Mentions visits to maternal grandmother as a child. [2:32] Comments on difficult relationship, as a child, with own parents, including problem of finding mother physically unattractive (and therefore not welcoming her affection), father’s dislike of being contradicted, difference between self and the “nice Jewish boy” sought by mother, own opposition to way in which parents’ spoke to Black servants. Mentions own unhappiness at home. Brief comments on academic success at school [King Edward’s School [KES], Johannesburg]; enjoyment of time spent with school friends, including playing of rugby. Negative comments on physical punishments/methods of reinforcement used at this school. [4:23] Comments on development of an interest in science as a child; tendency to play with technical toys with maternal cousin Jack (mentions Meccano, home-built radio, electric trains). [5:23] Brief description of family home, Johannesburg. Mentions Jack’s stays with own family, once for a year; mother’s keenness on gardening. Comments on visualisation of mother on the phone at home, and father drinking whiskey; mother’s concern that members of extended family should avoid doing anything “non-Jewish”, with story of mother’s views on marriage of elder brother to non-Jewish woman (Molly). Mentions mother’s involvement in “Jewish affairs”, including charities; father’s playing of golf; mother’s playing of bowls. [7:30] Comments on positive relations with family on mother’s side, especially wife (anti-apartheid activist and politician Helen Suzman) of particular uncle (Moses). [8:37] Story of decision to read civil engineering [1947-1950] at University of Witwatersrand [UOW], including periods during degree living with (and caring for children of) uncles/aunts, including Moses and Helen Suzman. [9:50] Comments on employment following degree as Personal Assistant to the Director of the Building Research Institute [BRI], South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Pretoria, involving work in soil mechanics and housing [1951-1952]; experience of loneliness in Pretoria, relieved by girlfriend. [10:53] Brief comments on own bar mitzvah, aged 13; Saturday morning synagogue attendance; learning of Hebrew. Comments on development of own political outlook at university, including opposition to apartheid, communist friend (Charles Feinstein), meeting Nelson Mandela [NM] in 1952, selling of NM’s communist newspaper on Sunday mornings. Comments on decision to leave SA after two years in Pretoria. Story of hitchhiking (with friend Norman Morrison) through Africa and Europe to Israel, in 1952/1953. [17:13] Story of appointment as engineer in the Israeli Water Planning Department [1953-1954]. Comments on lack of interest in the job; Israel and Israelis. Mentions relations with women. Comments on development of dissatisfaction/fading interest in soil mechanics; move to London to study soil mechanics at Imperial College [IC], University of London. Mentions single experience of anti-Semitism in Israel. [18:52] Story of period of time spent in Paris, between Israel and London including relationship; circumstances leading to meeting (leading to relationship with) a girl named Rosalind in Soho, London. Brief positive comments on bohemian atmosphere of Soho at this time (mid-1950s). [21:01] Story of correspondence with friend, then in SA, (Wilfred Stein [WS]) concerning dissatisfaction with soil mechanics, including his advice to examine possibility of moving into biology by pursuing work on mechanical properties of dividing cells; meeting with James Danielli [JD], then head of Zoology, King’s College [KC], University of London leading to PhD on mechanics of cell division [awarded 1961]. [22:02] Comments on this PhD, including initial undergraduate courses in biology, friendship with other zoology PhD students at KC. Mentions appointment as Assistant Lecturer [1958-1960] then Lecturer [1960-1964] in Zoology, KC; promotion to Reader in Zoology (Cell Biology), KC [1964-1966]. Comments on reasons for decision to leave KC in 1966, accepting post as Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine (and Head of Department), The Middlesex Hospital Medical School [MHMS], University of London [1966-1982]. [23:32] Story of development, during latter stage of career at KC, of the ‘French flag model’ in development of the embryo where pattern is independent of scale; decision to focus on aspect of embryology with more immediate medical application at MHMS: the development of the [chick] limb. Mentions marriage [in 1961] to Betty Brownstein [BB] [known in Johannesburg and met again during soil mechanics course at IC]. Mentions children with BB: at one point in 1960s having four aged under-five. Comments on BB’s sexuality; house in Belsize Park, London. Brief positive comments on colleagues, students and research at MHMS. [26:33] Comments on absence of memories of parents taking self, as a child, to places matching own interests, with exception of visits to the theatre; parents’ social life; limited time spent with parents as a child; view, as a child, of mother’s unattractiveness. Story of not recognising parents, aged two, following their holiday in Europe. Comments on possibility that own wedding not conducted in a synagogue may have contributed to mother’s death shortly afterwards; own lack of support for father following mother’s death. Mentions father’s dislike of being contradicted. [30:14] Further comments on parents’ wish for self to conform/behave in particular ways, including tendency to hide certain interests from parents. Comments on belief that mother may have wanted a daughter; birth and then death (shortly afterwards) of younger sister. Mentions death of father in violent robbery at his home in Johannesburg. [31:24] Brief comments on play outdoors as a child, including tennis and cycling. Further comments on indoor play with cousin Jack, including Meccano, electric trains, steam engine, building of a radio, building of balsa-wood model aeroplanes. Comments on strong childhood interest in aeroplanes; childhood reading (mentions Rudyard Kipling, ‘Just William’); listening to music. [34:41] Further comments on own and parents’ relations with servants at home, with related story. [35:28] Comments on stopping childhood prayers “at quite a young age”; childhood masturbation; possibility that parents knew of end to own Jewish faith; reasons for end to own faith; parents’ lack of discussion of Judaism. [37:16] Comments on belief that father did not love mother; dominating personality of mother. [38:09] Comments on/discussion of mother’s reasons for limiting own pre-school reading; mother’s rules concerning own health. [39:50] Story of expulsion from and readmission to KES; positive relations with boys in own class. Comments on enjoyment of mathematics and science at KES; continued dislike of learning Hebrew at home. Story of final examination results; winning performance in school debate. Mentions fact that parents visited the school on this occasion, but no others (including rugby matches). [44:01] Further comments on preference for mathematics at KES. Brief comments on travel to/from school; saying of prayers at beginning of school day; lack of awareness of parents’ political views. [45:18] Further comments on experience of reading civil engineering [1947-1950] at UOW, with related stories. Comments on perception of self as not good enough at mathematics to read the subject at university. Mentions chemistry set owned/played with as a child. [48:13] Further comments on political activities at UOW including visits to military groups on way through Africa, guided by NM with related story. Comments on relations with particular girl at UOW; more developed relationship with girl in Pretoria. Mentions weekends spent at home in Johannesburg. [52:09] Comments on lack of change to relations with parents as an adult. Discussion of work as Personal Assistant to the Director of the BRI in Pretoria. [53:36] Further comments on/stories of hitchhiking through Africa, to Europe. Mentions experience of watching sun rise on hill in Israel. Comments on enjoyment of camping (as a child) with friends in South African countryside. Positive comments on experience of Africa generally. Mentions lack of interest in natural history. Story of being temporarily stranded at summit of mountain in SA, the Dragonsberg; discussion with fellow climber (a doctor) who explained concept of biological evolution to self. [1:00:17] Description of PhD work on mechanical properties of dividing sea urchin egg, using tube-like instrument [elastimeter] to measure force applied to parts of dividing egg. Comments on paper published with Harold Mercer on ‘electron microscopy of cleaving sea urchin eggs’ [1958]. [1:02:57] Comments on work at marine stations, first in Bangor, Wales and then in Sweden [Kristineberg] on sea urchins, funded by the Royal Society, including paper (containing errors) on effect of ATP on sea urchin eggs. Comments on publication of incorrect model of mechanism of cell division (specification of furrow) in sea urchin eggs. [1:04:45] Story of very discouraging response of audience to own ‘Friday night lecture’ at Woods Hole marine station, US on the ‘French flag model’, followed by encouragement from Sydney Brenner. [1:06:21] Brief description of work on sea urchin eggs, involving fertilisation, observation and use of elastimeter. Comments on own proposed model of cell division in sea urchin eggs [‘astral relaxation theory’] in which star shaped structures called asters contributed in particular way to division. [1:09:22] Comments on working relations with Trygve Gustafson [TG] during summers at Kristineberg marine station and period of writing together in Stockholm. [1:10:11] Mentions PhD supervisor at KC, JD.

  • Description

    Life story interview with Professor of Embryology, Lewis Wolpert

  • Related transcripts

    Lewis Wolpert interviewed by Paul Merchant: full transcript of the interview

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