Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of SIR ERNST BORIS CHAIN FRS (1906 - 1979)

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Details of Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of SIR ERNST BORIS CHAIN FRS (1906 - 1979)
Title: Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of SIR ERNST BORIS CHAIN FRS (1906 - 1979)
Reference: CSAC 92.3.83
Description:

SECTION A BIOGRAPHICAL AND PERSONAL, A.1 - A.234

 

A.1 -A.6 General biographical information

 

A.7 -A.174 Career, honours and awards

 

A.175-A.217 Personal and family material

 

A.218-A.234 Photographs and press-cuttings

 

SECTION B RESEARCH AT CAMBRIDGE AND OXFORD, B.1 - B.112

 

B.1 -B.7 Research notes and drafts, 1934-39

 

B.8 -B.14 Scientific correspondence, 1931-38

 

B.15-B.33 Penicillin: research, reports, correspondence

 

B.34-B.60 Penicillin: lectures, drafts, publications

 

B.61-B.92 Historical accounts of the discovery of penicillin

 

B.93-B.112 Correspondence on the history of penicillin

 

SECTION C ISTITUTO SUPERIORE DI SANITÀ, ROME, C.1 - C.101

 

C.1 -C.17 Chain's career at Istituto, 1947-65

 

C.18-C.27 The 'Marotta Case', 1965-66

 

C.28-C.65 Administrative correspondence, 1948-65

 

C.66-C.78 Research projects

 

C.79-C.101 Lectures and conferences

 

SECTION D IMPERIAL COLLEGE, LONDON, D.1 - D.168

 

D.1 -D.42 Appointment to the Chair of Biochemistry at Imperial College

 

Correspondence and papers, 1953-64

 

D.43-D.74 Retirement and the future of the Department

 

Correspondence and papers, 1972-79

 

D.75 -D.123 Department of Biochemistry, administrative correspondence, 1961-78

 

D.124-D.153 Department of Biochemistry, research and teaching, 1962-79

 

D.154-D.168 General correspondence on departmental and college affairs

 

SECTION E SOCIETIES AND ORGANISATIONS, E.1 - E.238

 

SECTION F INDUSTRIAL CONSULTANCIES AND COLLABORATIVE RESEARCH, F.1 - F.346

 

SECTION G LECTURES, PUBLICATIONS, ADDRESSES, BROADCASTS, G.1 - G.221

 

G.1 Published papers and bibliography

 

G.2 -G.125 Lectures, papers, addresses

 

G.126-G.155 Undated notes and drafts

 

G.156-G.178 Radio and television

 

G.179-G.221 Correspondence re publications and lectures

 

SECTION H ISRAEL AND JEWISH ORGANISATIONS, H.1 - H.141

 

SECTION J VISITS AND CONFERENCES, J.1 - J.193

 

SECTION K GENERAL CORRESPONDENCE, K.1 - K.341

 

Much has already been written about Chain's career and work, and no attempt will be made here at a detailed biographical account. The paragraphs below aim to do no more than furnish a guide to the contents of the manuscript collection, some of which may be less well known than certain familiar episodes. Additional explanatory notes accompany the relevant entries in the body of the catalogue.

 

More even than most Jewish scientists of his generation, Chain's career suffered from the vicissitudes of politics and war. His father, Michael Chain, had already left his native Russia for Berlin where Chain was born in 1906, and his death in 1919 inflicted hard times on the family; Chain's mother and sister, whom he supported as best he could from his earnings in Britain during the Thirties, disappeared without trace during the Second World War; he himself, after making a home and participating in the great research project on penicillin in Oxford, emigrated once more to Rome for many years before returning to work in London. One of the most obvious signs of all these movements is the polyglot nature of the documents.

 

Throughout his life Chain continued to write in Russian and, more frequently, in German. English became his language of choice (even, sometimes, when replying to German correspondents) and he also wrote and spoke fluently in French. It is remarkable to notice how rapidly he made himself familiar with Italian, writing letters and speeches and giving research talks in that language within a few months of taking up his post in Rome. This linguistic facility can be seen throughout the collection.

 

Although, for obvious reasons, so little survives relating to Chain's immediate family, he himself enjoyed a close and affectionate domestic family life, with his cousin Anna Sacharina, another émigrée for whom special permission was obtained to come to Britain to look after him and who shared his roof (wherever it was) for the rest of her life (A.206 - A.212), and with Anne Beloff whom he married in 1948 and who shared his work and interests (A. 189). Many of the letters throughout the 1950s testify to their happiness and joy in the birth of their three children. It is interesting also to note their pleasure in the tranquil solitude of Western Ireland where they built a holiday home and where Chain died in 1979 (A.191).

 

Mention should be made of Chain's love of music and his skill as a pianist. His pianos are often mentioned, whether as an essential working tool to support his family in the harsh Berlin days, an indispensable appurtenance of his hotel accommodation on an overseas conference (J.166) or part of the household effects requiring on import licence to Ireland. As a young man, Chain had, it seems, seriously contemplated a career in music, whether as soloist or as impressario, and it remained an active principle of calm and balance in his life.

 

Altogether more vital, however, was the Jewish faith which underpinned his existence. References may be found passim but the whole of Section H is devoted to Israel and Jewish organisations, notably the Weizmann Institute of Science, where Chain was a governor and had at one time considered taking up an appointment. It is of interest to note that he arranged for many of his lecturing and broadcasting fees to be given to the London Synagogue or other Jewish charities, and that he declined to accept consultancy fees from close Jewish friends (F.242).

 

Chain's scientific career is for many synonymous with the research and development of penicillin for which he shared with Fleming and Florey the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945. This great achievement, so unhappily marred by various strained relationships and conflicts of view, and remaining still a matter of controversy, is documented in Section B although unfortunately no first-hand material survives in the way of laboratory notebooks, experimental observations and the like. The substantial records relating to Chain's career at Rome (Section C) and at Imperial College, London (Section D) give a fuller account (mainly through research grant applications and progress reports) of his continuing contributions to several biochemical problems such as carbohydrate metabolism, ergot alkaloids, edible protein, aeration studies, etc. Also of interest in Section D are the records of the early negotiations for the creation - administrative, financial and architectural - of the Department of Biochemistry at Imperial College, and of its development after Chain's statutory retirement in 1973. A considerable amount of additional information about Chain's lifelong active research should be sought in Sections E and F, since much was done as collaborative work under consultancy agreements with industrial firms (see especially Astra, Beechams, Ranks Hovis MacDougall) or with funding from various government and charitable organisations (see especially the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research Campaign, Medical Research Council).

 

The writing, lecturing, travel and attendance at conferences concomitant with Chain's position as an acknowledged leading figure in the scientific world are documented in Sections G (Lectures and Writings) and J (Visits and Conferences). The former (Section G) includes a very substantial number of unpublished talks, addresses and papers, and also drafts and versions of published papers additional to those listed in the Bibliography compiled at Chain's death (G.1 and pp.340-361). Although Chain did not regularly keep drafts of published papers once they had appeared in print, the multiple manuscript and typescript versions which have by chance survived in some cases, testify to the care he took in the preparation even of relatively short informal speeches or writings - and indeed occasionally of 'spontaneous' or 'unprepared' remarks.

 

Possibly as the son of an industrial chemist, Chain always argued strongly for the forging of strong links - and well-defined frontiers of interest - between government, universities and industry. This was indeed one of the principal causes of the painful disagreements within the Oxford team over the development of penicillin, and certainly Chain continued to write and lecture extensively on the theme throughout his life; see especially 'Social responsibility and the scientist in modern western society' (1970), 'Relationships between industrial and academic laboratories' (1973), 'The pharmaceutical sciences, government and the people' (1975). In broad terms his argument was that government should provide the initial funding for research projects, universities should foster and guarantee absolute freedom of enquiry, and manufacturing industry should furnish the resources for the eventual exploitation of discovery. He practised what he preached, and in so doing earned a fearsome reputation for persistence whether in defence or opposition, both as a member of academic or official boards, grant-giving bodies or research councils (Section E) or as a consultant to industrial and pharmaceutical firms throughout the world.

 

Despite the wealth of material in the collection, lacunae remain, not surprisingly perhaps in view of Chain's many changes of workplace and the varying methods and efficiency of their secretariats. Mention has already been made of the lack of first-hand research records especially up to and including the penicillin work. Equally unfortunate are the gaps in the correspondence files, which are most noticeable before 1945 but also occur sporadically after that date. Sometimes only Chain's carbons survive, e.g. for the period of the Second World War, and for 1948 when he was organising his move to Rome; some years are fully represented in the remaining folders, e.g. 1958, 1959, 1963, some very sparsely, e.g. 1956, 1966-68, and some are almost completely missing, e.g. 1960. A note is usually made in the relevant catalogue entries where gaps are found, but it is notoriously more difficult to notice absence than presence, and some may have been missed.

Date: 1906-1980
Held by: Wellcome Library, not available at The National Archives
Language: English
Extent: 65 boxes, 2 oversize boxes
Subjects:
  • Biochemistry
Creator Names:
  • Chain, Sir, Ernst Boris, 1906-1979, Knight, scientist and biochemist
Immediate Source Of Acquisition:
  • The collection, which is very extensive, was received from Lady Chain who had assembled it from Sir Ernst's rooms at Imperial College, London, and from their London home. With the assistance of her family and of Miss Vera Owen, Sir Ernst's secretary at the time of his death, she had undertaken a preliminary survey of the material and removed from it ephemera, journals and entirely family material. She had also attempted to make contact with acquaintances of Chain and the Chain family in the hope of tracing more records of his early life, as a result of which the letters to Lola Sarsowsky and Vera Katz were made available and now appear at A.200, A.200a.

Conditions of access:

NOT ALL THE MATERIAL IN THE COLLECTION IS YET AVAILABLE FOR CONSULTATION. ENQUIRIES SHOULD BE ADDRESSED IN THE FIRST INSTANCE TO:

 

THE ARCHIVIST,

 

CONTEMPORARY MEDICAL ARCHIVES CENTRE,

 

THE WELLCOME INSTITUTE FOR THE HISTORY OF MEDICINE, LONDON.

Note:

Compiled by Jeannine Alton and Julia Latham- Jackson

 

The work of the Contemporary Scientific Archives Centre, and the production of this catalogue, are made possible by the support of the following societies and institutions:

 

The Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland

 

The Biochemical Society

 

The British Pharmacological Society

 

The Charles Babbage Foundation for the History of Information Processing

 

The Institute of Physics

 

The Institution of Electrical Engineers

 

The Nuffield Foundation

 

The Physiological Society

 

The Royal Society of London

 

Our main debt is to Lady Chain and her family, for their initial work on the collection, for continuing encouragement and advice throughout the work, and for comments on the draft catalogue.

 

We are also indebted to:

 

Dr. N. G. Heatley and Dr. T.I. Williams, for information about the work at the Sir William Dunn School at Oxford

 

Professor P.F. Ganz and Miss U. Horstmann, for dating and identifying material in German

 

Dr. C.M. MacRobert, for identifying and providing summaries of material in Russian

 

Mrs. M.M. Edwards, for careful and accurate typing.

"
Related Material:
  • Lady Chain retains some personal correspondence.

     

    A biography of Chain has been commissioned and is to be written by R. W. Clark. Mr. Clark has kindly agreed to deposit with the present collection the material assembled in the course of his research. This will eventually be incorporated at the end of Section A.

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