Lathe workers cut steel in Sheffield for Cammell Laird shipbuilders, a postcard illustration, c.1916.

Lathe workers cut steel in Sheffield for Cammell Laird shipbuilders, a postcard illustration, c.1916.

A Social Laboratory: Science in the First World War

The Great War provided unprecedented opportunities for scientists, especially women.

War finds many ways of being cruel. On Armistice Day, November 11th, 1918, news reached Wilfred Owen’s family that he had been shot dead in France at the age of 25. Like the other famous war poets, such as his friend Siegfried Sassoon, Owen experienced for himself the trauma of serving on the front line. In ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, which he had sent to his mother the previous year as ‘a gas poem done yesterday,’ he portrayed the physical and psychological suffering inflicted by poisonous gases:

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

Poets often establish their reputation relatively early in life, whereas the scientists serving alongside Owen remain unrecorded because they developed their careers only after returning to Britain. Not all of them, of course, had that opportunity: during the war academic journals regularly carried reports of promising researchers who had been killed, sent to the front by leaders who failed to recognise that these well-educated young men could have been deployed far more usefully elsewhere.

The First World War provided unprecedented opportunities for British scientists – including women – to increase their influence, improve their status and secure substantial funding for further research and education. Collectively, they transformed prewar government indifference into postwar recognition of the invaluable contributions that science could make to British wealth and progress.

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