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Discover Science at the British Library


We are the British Library Science Team; we provide access to world-leading scientific information resources, manage UK DataCite and run science events and exhibitions. This blog highlights a variety of the activities we are involved with. Follow us on Twitter: @ScienceBL. Read more

21 October 2016

Britain's first nose job

Science Content Expert Philip Eagle explores the first plastic surgery operation in Britain.

On 22nd October 1814, Joseph Constantine Carpue (1764-1846) performed the first plastic surgery operation in Britain, reconstructing the nose of an army officer whose nose had collapsed due to long-term mercury treatments for a liver complaint. The operation lasted fifteen minutes, with no anaesthetic. Three days later, the patient’s dressing was removed, and on observing the successful results a friend of the patient exclaimed: “My God, there is a nose!”

Illustration by Charles Turner from Carpue's book
Illustration by Charles Turner from Carpue’s book, digitised by the Wellcome Library and released under Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 licence.

Carpue was inspired to perform the operation after reading reports of successful nasal reconstructions in India, using skin flaps from the cheek or forehead. The most famous of these was a 1794 report in the Gentleman’s Magazine, describing the reconstruction of the nose of a man named Cowasjee. Cowasjee had been mutilated by the forces of Tipu Sultan during the Third Anglo-Mysore War for working for the British.

Broadside on Cowasjee's case published by James Wales
Cowasjee’s case published by James Wales, digitised by the Wellcome Library and released under CC BY 4.0 licence.

Nasal reconstructions had been practised as a relatively routine procedure in India for centuries. This was driven by the common use of nasal mutilation in India as a means of punishment or private vengeance for various forms of immorality. The procedures are described in two well-known early Indian medical works, the Suśruta Saṃhitā, thought to date to the middle of the first millennium BCE, and the Aṣṭāṅgahṛdayasaṃhitā, believed to date from the sixth century CE*.  By the nineteenth century the technique had been handed down through separate families in three different parts of India.

Rhinoplasty by transfer of skin flaps from other body parts had also been practiced in Italy in the sixteenth century, most famously by the Bolognese surgeon Gaspare Tagliacozzi (1545-1599). However, it had declined following Tagliacozzi’s death, due to a mixture of professional politics in Italy, misconceptions about the nature of the procedure, and moral disapproval of an operation that was often performed to repair damage done by syphilis. (Even in his own book, Carpue felt at pains to insist that the mercuric treatment that had damaged his first patient’s nose was not for syphilis.)

Carpue published a book in 1816 on the subject, discussing his predecessors and inspiration and then describing two cases of nasal reconstruction that he had performed. The second was on a named patient, a Captain Latham whose nose had been injured during the Battle of Almuera, in the Peninsular War. Carpue’s work inspired further practice by the German surgeon Carl Ferdinand von Gräfe, who is credited with coining the term “plastic surgery”.

Philip Eagle

With thanks to Pasquale Manzo (Curator, Sanskrit Collections) for information on British Library holdings of ancient Indian medical texts.

Further reading:


11 October 2016

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

It’s Ada Lovelace Day today! Now in its 8th year, this special day aims to raise the profile of women working in science, technology, engineering and maths, but also to create role models to encourage girls to pursue scientific careers. The name giver herself was a prime example of a woman following her inclination for analytical thinking. Ada Lovelace made a name for herself as the first computer programmer at a time when women weren’t even allowed to vote.

But she was not the only woman who contributed to our understanding of science. The list of scientific heroines in history is surprisingly long, but mostly unheard-of. It comprises the well-known names of Marie Curie-Skłodowska, Rosalind Franklin and Florence Nightingale, but did you know the following female scientists?


Beatrix Potter's illustration
Beatrix Potter's illustrations of fungi in 'Wayside and woodland fungi' by W.P.K. Findlay (shelf mark X.329/15466)

Beatrix Potter (1866 – 1943)

The name of Beatrix Potter might be familiar to those who grew up with ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’. But besides being a famous author and illustrator of children’s books, she was also a natural scientist. Her love of flora, fauna and landscape, combined with her artistic talent and her ability to closely observe her surroundings, provided the ideal basis for this occupation. However, being a woman, she was rejected to study at the Royal Botanical Gardens. So Beatrix continued to study nature – fungi in particular – on her own and recorded her observations in beautiful drawings and watercolours, ultimately receiving the wide respect she deserved in the field of mycology. We hold a textbook on fungi at the British Library in which a collection of her brilliant illustrations has been used.


Agnes Mary Clerke (1842 – 1907)

Thanks to her parents, Agnes Mary Clerke was educated broadly in scientific subjects and languages, but it was the field of astronomy that became her passion. She started to write about the history of astronomy at the age of 15 and, after having her first important article published in the Edinburgh Review, she was repeatedly asked to contribute to scientific publications. She wrote the main article on astronomy as well as biographies of famous scientists for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. She also published books of her own, her best known work being ‘A Popular History of Astronomy during the Nineteenth Century’ (which, of course, we have at the British Library). Although Agnes Mary Clerke was not a practical astronomer herself, she gained the respect of the profession through her interpretation of astronomical research, and by doing so, also introduced astronomy to a wider public.


Sophie Germain's letter
A letter written by Sophie Germain under her pseudonym M. Le Blanc to C.F. Gauss (shelf mark 10902.h.5)

Sophie Germain (1776-1831)

Sophie Germain’s interest in mathematics was sparked at an early age, but in order to be able to study it, she had to overcome her parents’ opposition first and the society’s prejudice against her sex next. The latter she did by assuming the identity of M. Le Blanc, a former student of the Ecole Polytechnique near Paris, and sending the answers to his homework to his professor. She also corresponded with the famous mathematician Carl-Friedrich Gauss under her pseudonym. An impression of their discussions can be obtained through the letters in the British Library’s collection. In both instances, she was eventually unmasked, but was accepted immediately by the two men – and eventually by the whole scientific community – as an equal. Sophie Germain is best known for her progress on the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem and her work on elasticity which to this day underpins the science of building construction.


Science Fiction by Margaret Cavendish
Margaret Cavendish's science fiction work 'The Blazing World' (shelf mark 8407.h.10) 

Margaret Cavendish (1623 – 1673)

Back when scientists were still called natural philosophers, Margaret Cavendish established herself as the first English female representative of this profession. She wrote treatises on a variety of subjects, including gender, power, scientific method and philosophy and by doing so helped popularise the scientific revolution. Although she was widely known (and often ridiculed) for her eccentricity, her innovative views added to the scientific discussion of her time. Not only was she one of the first to contest the validity of theological aspects in science, she also argued for the education of women and is claimed to be an early opponent of animal testing. On top of that, she managed to write one of the first examples of science fiction, ‘The Blazing World’, which has been digitised by the British Library and can be read online.


Hildegard von Bingen (1098 – 1179)

The German Benedictine abbess Hildegard von Bingen was what you call a polymath. She was a theologian, philosopher, author, linguist and composer, but also a physician and natural scientist. While most of her non-scientific work was heavily influenced by the visions she is said to have received from a young age onwards, her botanical and medicinal texts are based on observations and experience. You can find a translation of her first book on the treatment of diseases ‘Physica’ at the British Library. Some of the remedies she described in her works might seem far-fetched from a modern scientific point of view, but she also made many accurate observations and is with good reason considered to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany.


These five women achieved extraordinary things through their dedication to further scientific knowledge, even though (or possibly because?) they were women. Let them inspire you to strive for the same. Happy Ada Lovelace Day everyone!

Mandy Kleinsorge, PhD placement student


05 September 2016

Social Media Data: What’s the use?

Team ScienceBL is pleased to bring you #TheDataDebates -  an exciting new partnership with the AHRC, the ESRC and the Alan Turing Institute. In our first event on 21st September we’re discussing social media. Join us!

Every day people around the world post a staggering 400 million tweets, upload 350 million photos to Facebook and view 4 billion videos on YouTube. Analysing this mass of data can help us understand how people think and act but there are also many potential problems.  Ahead of the event, we looked into a few interesting applications of social media data.

Politically correct? 

During the 2015 General Election, experts used a technique called sentiment analysis to examine Twitter users’ reactions to the televised leadership debates1. But is this type of analysis actually useful? Some think that tweets are spontaneous and might not represent the more calculated political decision of voters.

On the other side of the pond, Obama’s election strategy in 2012 made use of social media data on an unprecedented scale2. A huge data analytics team looked at social media data for patterns in past voter characteristics and used this information to inform their marketing strategy - e.g. broadcasting TV adverts in specific slots targeted at swing voters and virtually scouring the social media networks of Obama supporters on the hunt for friends who could be persuaded to join the campaign as well. 

Image from Flickr

In this year's US election, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are making the most of social media's huge reach to rally support. The Trump campaign has recently released the America First app which collects personal data and awards points for recruiting friends3. Meanwhile Democrat nominee Clinton is building on the work of Barack Obama's social media team and exploring platforms such as Pinterest and YouTube4. Only time will tell who the eventual winner will be.

Playing the market

You know how Amazon suggests items you might like based on the items you’ve browsed on their site? This is a common marketing technique that allows companies to re-advertise products to users who have shown some interest in the brand but might not have bought anything. Linking browsing history to social media comments has the potential to make this targeted marketing even more sophisticated4.

Credit where credit’s due?

Many ‘new generation’ loan companies don’t use a traditional credit checks but instead gather other information on an individual - including social media data – and then decide whether to grant the loan5. Opinion is divided as to whether this new model is a good thing. On the one hand it allows people who might have been rejected by traditional checks to get credit. But critics say that people are being judged on data that they assume is private. And could this be a slippery slope to allowing other industries (e.g. insurance) to gather information in this way? Could this lead to discrimination?

Image from Flickr

What's the problem?

Despite all these applications there’s lots of discussion about the best way to analyse social media data. How can we control for biases and how do we make sure our samples are representative? There are also concerns about privacy and consent. Some social media data (like Twitter) is public and can be seen and used by anyone (subject to terms and conditions). But most Facebook data is only visible to people specified by the user. The problem is: do users always know what they are signing up for?

Image from Pixabay

Lots of big data companies are using anonymised data (where obvious identifiers like name and date of birth are removed) which can be distributed without the users consent. But there may still be the potential for individuals to be re-identified - especially if multiple datasets are combined - and this is a major problem for many concerned with privacy.

If you are an avid social media user, a big data specialist, a privacy advocate or are simply interested in finding out more join us on 21st September to discuss further. Tickets are available here.

Katie Howe