Scientist and engineers get a fair crack at adorning Bank of England notes. Since 1970, Isaac Newton, George Stephenson, Michael Faraday, James Watt and Charles Darwin have all had their turn sharing a note with the Queen. I’d also argue Florence Nightingale, who gathered and analysed data to inform her treatments and invented the polar area diagram, clearly counts as a scientist. But soon James Watt, along with his entrepreneurial partner Matthew Boulton, will give up their spot and be replaced on the £50 with another British scientist.
The Bank of England has opened nominations for the new face (or faces) on the reverse of the £50. Heading the field is probably the most recognisable scientist of the modern era, Stephen Hawking. Hot on his heels is Rosalind Franklin, whose contribution to the discovery of the structure of DNA was infamously overlooked for far too long. And certainly in the running is the father of modern computing, Alan Turing.
But there’s a good chance you’ve heard of these candidates, so here’s my list of lesser-known scientists who easily deserve a spot on the £50.
Dorothy Hodgkin (1910 – 1994) is the only British woman to win a science Nobel prize. She received the medal in 1964 for her pioneering work on the use of what’s known as X-ray crystallography to determine the structures of biological molecules such as penicillin and vitamin B12. This has helped us understand how these substances work and so improve our use of them.
From the beginning of her career she also worked on much more complicated protein molecules and in 1969, after 35 years of trying, figured out the structure of insulin. There’s a good case to be made that another dozen Nobel prizes, which related to structures of biological molecules (including the award for the structure of DNA), can be traced back to Hodgkin’s seminal work.
Frederick Sanger (1918 -2013) invented ways to decode or “sequence” both protein and DNA molecules. This laid the bedrock for modern techniques such as DNA fingerprinting and medical analysis of our genomes.
Despite being one of only four people to have won two Nobel Prizes (along with Marie Curie, Linus Pauling and John Barden) Fred Sanger is an unfamiliar name to most (though genetic research Wellcome Sanger Institute is named after him). The lack of fame is probably due to his humble nature. He described himself as “not academically brilliant” and turned down a knighthood because he didn’t want to be called “sir”. He easily deserves to be featured on the note but probably would have hated it, so perhaps we should hope he doesn’t win the nomination.
Edward Jenner (1749-1823) was the father of vaccines. Strictly speaking, he didn’t discover vaccination but was the first person to study the process with any form of scientific rigour, and he certainly coined the term vaccination (from vacca, the Latin for cow). It had long been known that exposing people to fluid taken from smallpox pustules could protect them against developing the disease. The technique, known as variolation, was risky and up to 2% of people died from it. But since this was considerably less than the 30% mortality from full blown smallpox, it was widely practised.
Jenner took the risk of mortality from this form of inoculation down to virtually zero when he noticed that people infected with the less serious disease cowpox were also immune to smallpox. From this observation he devoted himself to the study of vaccination and so changed the way that medicine prevents disease. He has frequently been credited with saving more lives than any other human.
Elsie Widdowson and Robert McCance
And finally, a long shot, a pair who revolutionised the study of human nutrition, the pioneering dieticians Elsie Widdowson (1906–2000) and Robert McCance (1898–1993). In today’s food-conscious age, we expect to be able to check the nutritional content of just about everything we eat and drink. But in the early 20th century there was a very poor understanding of the calorific and chemical content of foods, and much of what was published was incorrect.
One of these errors was spotted by Widdowson while she was studying for her PhD. She was forthright enough to tell the author of the offending study, Robert McCance. He was so impressed with the young student that he invited her to work in his lab, and so began a 60 year-long scientific partnership.
Together, Widdowson and McCance started a detailed analysis of foods and soon developed the first accurate nutrient tables on which modern food labels are based. They then took their worked well beyond the call of duty by putting themselves on near starvation diets to figure out the basic nutritional needs of humans. Their findings were used to formulate war-time rationing diets, and rehabilitate starvation victims from Nazi concentration camps and famines. Later Widdowson also branched into the nutritional requirements of the foetus and newborns, which led her to create the template for infant milk formulae.