The recent death of the cell biologist Sir Michael Stoker (1918-2013) prompted me to see if his name appeared in our digital archives. It does. I found a number of letters he wrote to other scientists, including Francis Crick, Jim Watson and Guido Pontecorvo, and I was struck by the importance of letterwriting in a time before emails. Setting up meetings, exploring career options and discussing research questions was all done by letter. Obvious, but easy to forget now that we have email and mobile phones. Here are three letters which I found interesting.
In 1959 Sir Michael wrote inviting Francis Crick to a meeting. At the time he was the Professor of Virology at the University of Glasgow and the note is typed on the university’s headed paper. I love how the apparent formality of the letter is disrupted by Sir Michael venting his frustration with the office equipment by writing:
I hope DNA replicates more efficiently than our photocopying machine.
There are a number of letters Sir Michael wrote to Jim Watson. The earliest one is an aerogram from March 1957, when Sir Michael was based at Clare College, Cambridge. The pale blue paper is covered in his neat handwriting and sets out the pros and cons of two career opportunities.
When Sir Michael became the Director of the Imperial Cancer Research Laboratories in London he persuaded one of his Glasgow colleagues to accompany him. These letters to Guido Pontecorvo include an interesting mixture of professional and personal matters – concerns about a pension fund, research proposals and house hunting in the South of England.
Writing remains an importing networking tool but in our digital age we normally don’t have to wait long for a reply.
Author: Sue Davies is external projects officer at the Wellcome Library