My research explores relationships between science and visual and material culture, both past and present. In 2016 I completed a PhD across the Royal College of Art History of Design department and the Science Museum through an Arts and Humanities Research Council Collaborative Doctoral Award. My project, Mid-Century Molecular: The Material Culture of X-ray Crystallographic Visualisation across Postwar British Science and Industrial Design, bridges the histories of science and design. Below is an abstract of my thesis describing this research.


Sample of white lace with haemoglobin pattern, manufactured for the Festival Pattern Group by A. C. Gill Ltd and designed by Arnold Parker based on haemoglobin structure elucidated by X-ray crystallographer Max Perutz, 1951.
© Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

This project investigates the use and significance of X-ray crystallographic visualisations of molecular structures in postwar British material culture across scientific practice and industrial design. It is based on research into artefacts from three areas: X-ray crystallographers’ postwar practices of visualising molecular structures using models and diagrams; the Festival Pattern Group scheme for the 1951 Festival of Britain, in which crystallographic visualisations formed the aesthetic basis of patterns for domestic objects; and postwar furnishings with a ‘ball-and-rod’ form and construction reminiscent of those of molecular models.

A key component of the project is methodological. The research brings together subjects, themes and questions traditionally covered separately by two disciplines, the history of design and history of science. This focus necessitated developing an interdisciplinary set of methods, which results in the reassessment of disciplinary borders and productive cross-disciplinary methodological applications. This thesis also identifies new territory for shared methods: it employs network models to examine cross-disciplinary interaction between practitioners in crystallography and design, and a biographical approach to designed objects that over time became mediators of historical narratives about science. Artefact-based, archival and oral interviewing methods illuminate the production, use and circulation of the objects examined in this research.

This interdisciplinary approach underpins the generation of new historical narratives in this thesis. It revises existing histories of the cultural transmissions between X-ray crystallography and the production and reception of designed objects in postwar Britain. I argue that these transmissions were more complex than has been acknowledged by historians: they were contingent upon postwar scientific and design practices, material conditions in postwar Britain and the dynamics of historical memory, both scholarly and popular.

This thesis comprises four chapters. Chapter one explores X-ray crystallographers’ visualisation practices, conceived here as a form of craft. Chapter two builds on this, demonstrating that the Festival Pattern Group witnesses the encounter between crystallographic practice, design practice and aesthetic ideologies operating within social networks associated with postwar modernisms. Chapters three and four focus on ball-and-rod furnishings in postwar and present-day Britain, respectively. I contend that strong relationships between these designed objects and crystallographic visualisations, for example the appellation ‘atomic design’, have been largely realised through historical narratives active today in the consumption of ‘retro’ and ‘mid-century modern’ artefacts. The attention to contemporary historical narratives necessitates this dual historical focus: the research is rooted in the period from the end of the Second World War until the early 1960s, but extends to the history of now.

This thesis responds to the need for practical research on methods for studying cross-disciplinary interactions and their histories. It reveals the effects of submitting historical subjects that are situated on disciplinary boundaries to interdisciplinary interpretation. Old models, such as that of unidirectional ‘influence’, subside and the resulting picture is a refracted one: this study demonstrates that the material form and meaning of crystallographic visualisations, within scientific practice and across their use and echoes in designed objects, are multiple and contingent.


Two models of the structure of ice based on research by X-ray crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale,
circa 1955, © Science Museum, London

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