The Physical World

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Theme Conveners: Arthur Garratt and Jan Read ◦ Display Designers: Ronald Ingles and Clifford Hatts

In this section is the story of those who have explored inside nature to discover how matter – the substance of all things – is made, and what natural laws govern its behaviour. The desire to know these things has long burned in this country and in pursuing it we have done much to found and develop the sciences of chemistry and physics – the names by which we call these provinces of enquiry.

Pure science – discovery for its own sake – has huge rewards to offer the human mind: whole new territories of beauty and order, fantastic in their intricacy. This you can see in the Exhibition of Science in South Kensington. But these explorations have produced something else of vast importance – the basis for most, if not all, of the great material achievements of the modern world. It is these discoveries that form most of the displays in the Physical World.

As you come into the section, you can make the same choice as the earlier scientists did – whether to find out first how matter is built up (chemistry) or why it behaves as it does (physics). Whichever of these sequences you take first you can follow out the second later; both, however, come together again (as the sciences do) in the subject of the atom and its nucleus which is displayed on the upper gallery.

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Chemical discovery

The chemical sequence shows how much men like Boyle, Black, Cavendish, Priestley and Dalton added to our knowledge of the structure of matter and how the conception of atoms, molecules and elements arose. The story then passes on to the ways in which various substances can combine together to produce materials quite unlike any of their constituents. Such knowledge enables chemists not only to produce such combinations at will, but nowadays to make substances that do not occur in nature. This synthesis, as it is called, is the highlight of modem chemistry. Already it has produced sulpha drugs, paludrine and vitamins for preserving the health of mankind, rayon, nylon and terylene for clothing and plastics for all manner of purposes.

Physical discovery

The fundamental discoveries of British physicists have had very many applications. One example of Boyle’s law, for instance, is the modern mechanism for closing the doors of underground trains; one of the outcomes of Newton’s genius has ultimately been the jet engine; Faraday’s classical experiments with a magnet and some coils of wire made electric power possible. Kelvin’s mathematical insight helped to create refrigerators; Maxwell laid the foundations of radio before a message had ever been transmitted; J. J. Thomson’s discovery of the electron resulted, among many other things, in the cathode ray tube of a television set. It was Rutherford who provided the means for releasing nuclear energy.

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The results of the physicists and chemists have led also to many technical advances in other subjects. Motor cars, for example, are more efficient as a result of the instruments physicists have evolved for testing every new design. Medicine, biology, metallurgy owe them a great debt for the provision of research tools. It was mathematics that offered the principal tool to physicists; now physicists have provided calculating machines which take minutes to solve problems that would take mathematicians many months.

Nuclear research

The pioneer work in nuclear physics was done in Britain, though the development of the atomic pile, as such, was largely an international achievement. The displays of this subject, which form the conclusion of the Physical World section, do not embark on speculation about future marvels; they do show, however, some of the applications that are being developed at the present time. Important among them are the by-products of research which have given medicine the very important new technique of radioactive tracers. With these an atom can, as it were, be labelled and observed in its movements through the human body.

This great field of exploration, then, has affected the lives of all of us. It has given us machines that lighten our labours, drugs that have altered the relationship between man and disease and altogether new means of communication. More than this, it continues to provide new tools and devices by which exploration in all other fields can be intensified, so that the horizons for human endeavour will continue to expand.



Theme Conveners: Surgeon Vice-Admiral Sir Sheldon Dudley, k.c.b., f.r.s., and Nigel Clayton ◦ Display Designer: Peter Ray

The “Country” Pavilion and “Homes and Gardens” together show what is being done in two quite different spheres to make the best and most pleasant use of the small amount of space that is available for living purposes in Britain. The “Health” Pavilion deals with another aspect of the peoples well-being; it shows what is being done to make the small span of life of the individual as fit and fruitful as it can humanly be.

“Humanly” is important. The thing which has always distinguished British work in medicine, surgery, public health and nursing is the recognition that every patient is an individual human being. It follows, then, that the patient peculiar needs and happiness must be ensured before the “scientific” part of medical treatment – operations, inoculations, and so on – can become really effective. “Care of the patient” in this sense is still something for which Britain is famous.

Knowing your body

A mechanic cannot repair an engine until he knows the way that engine works. Similarly, the great achievements of surgeons and doctors in recent times would be impossible without the knowledge passed on to them by the pioneers who first discovered how the body works, and the scientists who are still revealing the secrets of its many mechanisms.

In such research, the British have played a leading part. What is more, the renown in the names from the past can very often be equalled by that of our men of science in the present time. Hughlings Jackson, Sherrington and Adrian are world-famous in matters relating to the nervous system. It was Harvey, 300 years ago, who first discovered the circulation of the blood; Barcroft and Haldane in our own time have added much to our knowledge of the blood itself and respiration. In nutrition, Hopkins and Mellanby were foremost in recognising the nature of vitamins. In the control of the bodily machine Bayliss and Starling have added greatly to knowledge, while Banting and Best are the benefactors of all sufferers from diabetes by discovering the role of insulin.

The human body, then, is like a land rich in prizes for its explorers, and British initiative here has been characteristically active.

On knowledge follows development. What we have done with what we know is told in the remaining sections of the Pavilion which describe the research, skill and organisation that exists in Britain to maintain the health of fifty million individual human bodies. Mental health is, of course, equally important, but it does not lend itself to display in an exhibition.

Safe water, good drainage and the right food

Much as we differ, as individuals, in our idiosyncrasies, there is a number of requirements common to us all, if the nation is to be secure in health. Three of these in which the British have been pioneers are: safe water, good drainage, and the easy supply of the proper foods, so that there shall be no malnutrition. In all of these, the British way has been to put the emphasis on prevention, as being better than any cure. Our most recent example of this was the scientifically based organisation of mass feeding on a nation-wide scale during the war.

Prevention rather than cure

Safe water and safe drainage are now accepted without a thought by most people in Britain. There is, however, another specific form of prevention of disease in which Britain has led the world, of which the individual is fully conscious because he plays an active part in it. This is vaccination and immunisation. The efficiency of these in maintaining the nation’s health would be altogether vitiated if the individual citizen did not himself make the voluntary act of being vaccinated or inoculated, and of ensuring that his children are similarly protected.

It was Jenner, a Gloucestershire doctor, who started mass immunisation a hundred and fifty years ago, when smallpox was a familiar scourge throughout the country. Later, Wright and Leishman did pioneer work on the enteric fevers, such as typhoid, which becomes particularly menacing in times of war.

Biological standards

i75Some of the more important substances used in medicine, such as anti-toxins for controlling infectious diseases, drugs needed for treatment, and so on, occur as a small part of a complex mixture, and the proportion varies from one sample to another. If treatment is to be successful, therefore, it is vital that the amount of this “active principle” present in any sample shall be precisely known. This is now measured in terms of international units accepted throughout the world. Charged with maintaining these international units and standards for all substances that come within the international scheme, Britain shares the honour with Denmark. Among these substances are the anti-toxins for diphtheria; hormones such as insulin for diabetes; drugs for the heart such as digitalis; vitamins and penicillin.


This, the century’s most important discovery in clinical medicine, sprang from the historic work of Fleming and Florey. The discovery of penicillin has stimulated the search for similar therapeutic substances.

Restoration of health

Since the days of Hunter, whose influence established surgery as a science in Britain, and of Lister, the greatest surgeon of all time, British surgeons have given new principles and technique to the world in various specialised fields – in Thoracic Surgery, whereby operations on the heart and great blood vessels and lungs are now possible; in Orthopaedics, now becoming more and more the surgery of broken bones; and in Plastic Surgery, whereby many sorts of deformities due to wounds and burns have been so effectively repaired.

No scientific surgery at all was possible before the two great discoveries of asepsis and anaesthesia, and, until the recent extensive use of blood transfusions, numbers of deaths continued to result from surgical shock and loss of blood. In all these three saving developments, British research has played a part.


Finally, there is one essential factor in the successful cure and rehabilitation of the sick; that is, the human factor of good nursing. All British progress in medical treatment bears the additional stamp of a superb tradition of nursing – the Nightingale tradition. It is through the British nurse of to-day that the community’s care for its sick and injured is focused on to every individual patient in the land.