The British Library Homepage
homeHome  >   Online Gallery  >   Online exhibitions  >   Features  >   Beautiful Minds  >  
 
print


Alexander Fleming (1881-1955): Beauty in laboratory notebooks

Enlarged image Enlarged image
Filter paper, showing absorption of Brilliant Green antiseptic   Discs soaked in substance, placed in holes and covered; surface impregnated with bacteria
Filter paper, showing absorption of Brilliant Green antiseptic
British Library Add. MS 56148, f.17
Copyright © The British Library Board
  Discs soaked in substance, placed in holes and covered; surface impregnated with bacteria
British Library Add. MS 56174, ff. 97 and 104

Copyright © The British Library Board
     
Enlarged image Enlarged image
Test tubes showing gas formation of solutions of serum and other substances   Carbon paper graph, using sharp point to show gas production by Clostridium welchii, the bacterium that causes gas gangrene
Test tubes showing gas formation of solutions of serum and other substances
British Library Add. MS 56148, f.157
Copyright © The British Library Board
  Carbon paper graph, using sharp point to show gas production by Clostridium welchii, the bacterium that causes gas gangrene, c. 1917-19
British Library Add. MS 56149, f.35

Copyright © The British Library Board
     
Enlarged image Enlarged image
Photograph of slide cells showing reaction of T693 and sulphonamides   Photograph of slide cells, with table and notes, showing reaction of samples of Fleming's blood and streptoccus with serum and salt
Photograph of slide cells showing reaction of T693 and sulphonamides, red colour added later
British Library Add MS. 56151, f.194
Copyright © The British Library Board
  Photograph of slide cells, with table and notes, showing reaction of samples of Fleming's blood and streptococcus with serum and salt
British Library Add. MS 56173, f.238

Copyright © The British Library Board

Some of the most beautiful examples of human creativity come from the science laboratory. The beauty of mathematical equations and concise theoretical science is widely appreciated; and, of course, science reveals the poetry of nature through its devices and analyses, magnifying the very small and the very distant, revealing and explaining the unknown.

But beauty is also found in the experimental laboratory, in compounds and molecules created, in solutions refined, in technological prototypes, and in the laboratory equipment itself: in the precise design of measuring instruments, in the parsimony of the machinery; even the glassware can be of exquisite delicacy and intricateness. Here we look at the laboratory notebooks of Nobel Prize-winner Alexander Fleming.

In the popular mind, the laboratory notebook is nothing if not of daunting rigidity, intensely dry, forbiddingly opaque to the uninitiated. Quintessential in its regimental presentation of methods, results and conclusions. Documents to be certified and locked up in an institutional cupboard. Although today the laboratory record has an almost legal presence, of unsmiling rigour, and although Michael Faraday wrote a stern guide to the keeping of laboratory records as long ago as 1827, in reality lab notes have over the decades been liable to individualism.

In the light of expected formality, Fleming's notebooks are disconcertingly ill-sorted, not disorganised but challenging the cataloguer to decipher the date, place, and subject matter. Dates out of sequence. Experiments and observations made in the middle of one notebook, followed up in a distant section in another. Perfunctory notes clearly intended for the writer alone. Shuffled, with loose sheets inserted and misplaced. A jigsaw in multi dimensions, time and space.

Careful examination rewards richly with valuable information for the scientist or historian. But it may take a special mind to see beauty in these dusted, flaking, battered remnants from the confined and untidy laboratory - a laboratory one might remember that saved many millions of lives. Fleming was famously adept in the laboratory, making his own glass capillary tubes, devising experimental tools and means. This feature highlights some of the elegantly ingenious approaches to scientific investigation represented in these notebooks. The examples displayed also reveal some of the visual grace that lies in such an unpromising source.

Main
Nobel Prizes - Did you know?
Alexander Fleming (1881-1955)
Sounds - Nobel Laureates
Learning
Events
Shop
 
 
 
Discover more:
Main
Nobel Prizes - Did you know?
Alexander Fleming (1881-1955)
Sounds - Nobel Laureates
Learning
Events
Shop
Accessibility Terms of use Site map
Copyright The British Library Board