Three women, whose only connection with one another is that they died too young, have been in my thoughts recently.
A few weeks ago, as part of my MSc course on the History of Science, I wrote an essay about Rosalind Franklin, who died in 1958. Franklin had done pioneering work in X-ray diffraction studies of DNA, which contributed to the Nobel Prize-winning discovery of the structure of DNA by Crick and Watson in 1953. But her role in this discovery was consistently underplayed, and she was on the receiving end of some particularly unkind comments in James Watson’s book, The Double Helix, which was published in 1968, ten years after her death from cancer at the age of 37. Ironically, it has been said that without Watson’s decidedly lopsided portrait of her, she would have been less well known than she is today; to which her mother replied that she “would rather she were forgotten than remembered in this way”.
Sandy Denny was eleven years old when Franklin died. Ten years later she was the lead singer of Fairport Convention, who pioneered a whole musical genre, folk-rock. I guess most of us have a period in our lives when great changes are occurring, and things are happening which can scarcely be articulated in words. For me, that period encompassed the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 70s, a time when Fairport, and later Sandy’s band Fotheringay, were at their creative height, and thus formed part of the musical backdrop to that time. I was reminded of all this when I went to a concert last year at which various singers and other musicians paid tribute to Sandy, who died in 1978 at the age of 31, after falling down a flight of stairs and sustaining a brain haemorrhage.
Elizabeth Spreadbury was born a year before Rosalind Franklin’s death. After leaving school, she went to the Isle of Skye, and became interested in astronomy. This inspired her to take an Open University course, on which she was tutored by Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the discoverer of pulsars. Jocelyn helped Elizabeth to get a place at UCL to study physics full-time; she started a first degree in Astronomy and Physics in 1985.
After graduating with first-class honours, Elizabeth began a PhD in the High Energy Physics Group at UCL, working on the OPAL experiment on CERN’s LEP collider (forerunner of the LHC). In February 1990 she was working on the experiment at CERN when she was knocked off her bicycle and killed. She was a month short of her 33rd birthday.
Elizabeth’s parents donated her collection of physics and astronomy books to the UCL HEP Group, and they formed the nucleus of a specialist library for the group – the Elizabeth Spreadbury Library – which continues today, and has grown to over 400 books. Some insurance money was also donated, allowing the Group to set up a fund to pay for an annual lecture in memory of Elizabeth, and for a postgraduate student to act as librarian. Today, 6 February 2013, was the 23rd anniversary of her death; a new display case in the library, containing a special bound volume of papers to which Elizabeth contributed, was officially “opened” by her mother, Jane Spreadbury, and the Head of the Physics & Astronomy Department, Jon Butterworth.
During lunch, someone asked what Liz would be doing today if she had lived. It was a hard question for anyone to answer. Less than 50% of PhDs in High Energy Physics go on to do postdoctoral research in HEP or a related field, but if she had done, perhaps she would by now be a professor, a name well-known throughout the world HEP community.
But it was not to be. Instead, thanks to the generosity of her parents and the support of members of the UCL HEP Group, she has achieved a different sort of fame – a lesser sort, one must add, and not the kind that any parent would wish upon their child; but at least her name has not been lost to posterity. The Spreadbury Lecture has been given, over the years, by many well-known physicists and astronomers, including Jocelyn Bell-Burnell and Martin Rees; and everyone who has attended these lectures has heard the story of Liz’s short life and untimely death. The room which houses the library is also used as the Group’s meeting room, and as such it has played host to many of the big names in the field, including (it is rumoured) Brian Cox; and everyone who enters that room is aware of who it is named after, and why.
Rosy, Sandy and Liz all deserved far more than they got. Now, you can’t weigh a person’s life and achievements and say, well, she did this and this and this, so she had her fair share. It just doesn’t work like that. And yet … Rosalind Franklin has become well-known, not just as a great scientist, but also as a symbol of the appalling treatment of women in academia, and even (though it is said that she would not have liked this much) as a feminist icon. And Sandy Denny’s beautiful voice can still be heard in her prolific recorded output, and her creativity lives on in the form of some unfinished songs that have been given new life recently, after being set to music by the singer Thea Gilmore.
Elizabeth Spreadbury drew the shortest straw. But still, in a sense, she lives. I am proud to have played a small part in keeping her memory alive.