The Henry Dale collection in the Royal Society’s archive has grown, thanks to a transfer of papers from the National Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) at Mill Hill. Dale was a Nobel Prize-winning physiologist who worked on the chemical transmission of nerve impulses. He was also an accomplished administrator, culminating in his role as President of the Royal Society, 1940-1945. Housed at the Society since 1968, Dale’s archive was already comprehensive, but this small yet significant addition from Mill Hill fills in some gaps about his early research career and wartime activities.

The collection includes a series of Dale’s handwritten draft manuscripts for papers published in Royal Society journals, c.1920s. A reprint of Dale’s significant paper with E H J Schuster on ‘A double perfusion-pump’ is supplemented by a photograph (below) which appears to be an early iteration of the pump. And Dale’s involvement with the Royal Society as Biological Secretary (1925-1935) is documented through his handwritten draft of a memorandum submitted by the Society to a Government Committee on the Co-ordination of Research, 1927.



Early notes (1903-1904) from Paul Ehrlich to the then Dr Dale cut straight to the chase: ‘Dear colleague. Are there sufficient frogs? How are your experiments going on?’ (For preservation reasons, these have now been de-framed, but the fact that these slight notes were framed in the first place points to their significance for Dale).

Much later in Dale’s career, looming international issues are apparent in file HD/25/18, in which a routine scientific seminar in 1938 became weighted with political significance following the arrest of Dale’s friend and colleague Otto Loewi. Born into a Jewish German family, Loewi, his wife and their two sons were arrested in March 1938 upon the invasion of Austria. Tasked with giving the opening statement at the International Physiological Congress at Zurich later that year, Dale’s correspondence about routine arrangements for the Congress is interspersed with reflections on this ‘monstrous injustice’:

‘I wonder if you have heard about Otto Loewi … Appeals come to me, as probably Loewi’s oldest friend among his contemporaries, to do something about it; but it is very doubtful whether I can make any move which would not be likely to do harm rather than good’.

Yet through these letters, you can see that Dale is attempting to mobilise scientific networks to raise awareness of Loewi’s situation. Following an outcry from the scientific community in Zurich, Loewi transferred the money from his Nobel Prize (an award shared with Dale) to the Nazi regime, and he was freed. He lived with Dale for two months before taking up a post in Oxford.


Sir Henry Dale, by James Gunn, 1945 © The Royal Society


Later, during Dale’s wartime Presidency, transcripts for talks broadcast on the BBC (1941-1942) outline his belief in the necessity of a global, collaborative outlook in science, being ‘proud to declare that science knew no frontiers’. The Royal Society has always fostered an international approach to science, and over 70 years later we continue to promote this message through the ‘Science is Global‘ campaign.

A final highlight from the collection is a beautifully presented album of photographs, given to Dale by his colleagues on his retirement in 1942 from the NIMR, where he had served as the first Director. The album contains formal portraits and snapshots of Dale’s peers, some of whom went on to become Fellows, such as Wilhelm Feldberg (whose papers we have also acquired via MRC), J H Gaddum, Marthe Vogt and more. And the album is fully indexed with names for each photo – an archivist’s dream!

Do take a look at the catalogue to see the full list of the additional Dale papers, and you can find more information about visiting the archive on our website.

With thanks to the Medical Research Council for gifting Dale’s scientific and personal papers.


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