Freedom itself is again at stake… It is difficult to believe in progress, at least in decency and commonsense, when this can happen almost in a night in a previously civilised State… [W]e must ensure that the same folly, the same fury, does not occur elsewhere.
— A.V. Hill (Nature, 1933).
Early in 1933, Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany. By the middle of the year there had been purges and even violence in the universities, and book burnings in the streets. Hill’s plea to scientists appeared in Nature in December. It was reported to be based on a lecture he gave a few weeks earlier.
A.V. Hill (1886-1977) was one of the leading scientists of his time. His views carried great weight then, and I think we need to listen to him again now.
He was a mathematics whizz kid who loved running, and became a pioneer in exercise physiology. Hill had won the 1922 Nobel Prize – before he was 40 – “for his discovery relating to the production of heat in the muscle.” He refused the knighthood that would have come with it.
He shared the Prize with a German colleague, Otto Fritz Meyerhof, and he ended his banquet speech with his passionate belief in the importance of internationalism in science, and the symbolism of the Prize being shared by an Englishman and a German just a few years after war between their countries ended. You can read about his scientific work and life here and here [PDF].
Historian Paul Weindling described Hill as an elite intellectual “committed to liberal causes”. He didn’t come from a wealthy or upper class background: his parents’ marriage broke up when he was 3, and he never saw his father again.
His mother, Ada, came from a poor family, and Hill describes her as having character, originality, resourcefulness, and “a lively sense of the ridiculous” [PDF]. Hill got to Cambridge on a mathematics scholarship.
Weindling suggests the struggles of his single parent childhood “may have given him greater sympathy for those requiring assistance”. He married Margaret Keynes in 1913, a social worker who did a stint as a mayor. Her brother was John Maynard Keynes, as in “Keynesian economics” – using economic policy to mitigate the adverse effects when free market systems bust and plunge societies into hardship.
By the time Hill wrote the Nature piece, “International status and obligations of Science” in 1933, he had been active and vocal on what he called there the rise of “nationalism in its present embittered form”. And he didn’t just do it from a safe distance, either. The year before, the International Physiological Congress was in Rome. Francis Otto Schmitt was at the Congress. He wrote:
Mussolini arrived. Thereafter the gates to the area were immediately closed to vehicles and the doors of the lecture were locked. A.V. Hill, the main speaker of the day, arrived some minutes later. To get into the hall he had to climb through a window and then take his seat on the platform. Mussolini, with characteristically jutting jaw and gaudy uniform made the opening speech which was not taken very kindly by the audience of scientists. Undaunted, A.V. Hill made his speech in which he called a spade a spade with respect to international cooperation in scientific research. This was not taken very kindly by Il Duce!
Hill would allude to that congress “being used as an opportunity for political propaganda”, as was the one in 1935 in the Soviet Union.
In May of 1933, A.V. Hill was one of the key figures creating the Academic Assistance Council (AAC) to rescue German academics who couldn’t work because of the Nazi purge, and ensuring it could be housed at The Royal Society.
Hill remained active in the organization for 40 years, as it first expanded from rescuing refugees to defending academic freedom as well, as the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (SPL), and then its present incarnation, Cara (the Council for At-Risk Academics). I wrote about a friend of mine whose family was helped by Hill directly and SPL in my post, What Lies Beneath a Scientist’s Life: A Father and Son Story. In a comment, Cara’s current Executive Director, Stephen Wordsworth, wrote wrote that the organization has more to do now than at any other time since its early years.
We are witnessing to-day, all over the world but particularly in Europe, an extraordinary phenomenon, the growth of a peculiar kind of ‘nationalism’… As a natural reaction, of course, to nationalism, we see internationalism developing.
A.V. Hill (Nature, 1933)
The coercion of scientists “to certain specified political opinions, as in Russia, Germany or Italy, may lower the standard of scientific honesty and bring science itself into contempt”. He argued that even more than “the republic of letters”, science had become quintessentially internationalist:
International congresses, international measures of natural constants, geographical and navigational data, and to-day radio, are signs of the common interests of reasonable people in different countries.
This couldn’t exist, though, without “freedom of action, freedom of belief, freedom of thought and speech”:
We cannot take the freedom, so slowly and hardly won, as a birthright: we must see to it that neither race, nor opinion, nor religious belief, nor the advocacy of theories unpopular perhaps at the moment shall cause disinterested able men to be deprived of the means of carrying on their work.
Gender doesn’t seem to have come to the fore for him at that point. Weindling wrote that later, he would champion the issues of women doctors and medical students. In his strenuous efforts to get Jewish doctors into Britain, he had to deal with both the British Medical Association’s antisemitism and discrimination against women: they had re-tooled the same approach that had worked for them in opposing the entry of women into the profession, to keep foreign doctors out.
Nature published a repugnant letter to the editor in response to Hill’s 1933 piece by German physicist and Nobel Laureate, Johannes Stark. The rationalizations and tactics used in this letter could have been ripped from pro-nationalist arguments today – including: “It would be a good thing to keep political agitation and scientific research apart”. Hill slams back, including this for good measure: “No doubt in Germany, after this reply, my works in the Journal of Physiology and elsewhere will be burned”.
Weindling wrote that
Hill believed that scientists should not remain closeted in the laboratory and should act in the public interest. He also advocated the public understanding of science…Hill supported a progressive agenda of science as a means of securing social modernization.
Scientists required freedom, in his view, but that came with “intellectual, moral, and public responsibilities and duties”. In 1940, with his laboratory closed for the war, he took his beliefs in the importance of government relying on scientific advice a step further: he became an independent Member of Parliament for the duration of the war [PDF]. Back then, English universities could elect parliamentary representatives – A.V. Hill represented Cambridge University. (The tradition ended in 1951.)
Hill argued in Science (1941) for the importance of independent scientific societies having power, and using it provide sound advice, and protect academic freedom. And he argued that it wasn’t enough that “directors of research, heads of laboratories, etc” be excellent scientifically: they should be “people of exceptional quality, not only in ability, originality and experience, but also in their human relations and sympathy”.
Those are high standards. And he met them. As we face a rise of nationalism again, with people’s ability to live and work freely internationally facing increasing constriction, it’s worth going back to A.V. Hill’s basics. For scientists, he said, the “fundamental faith is co-operation in the pursuit of an end outside and greater than ourselves”:
It is quite certain that science cannot progress properly except by the fullest internationalism. Accepting freedom of thought and research as the first postulate, the second is that knowledge, however and wherever won, should be freely available for the use of all.
The citation for Hill’s 1933 paper is: A.V. Hill (1933). International status and obligations of Science. Nature 132;3347: 952-954. It was reported there and elsewhere as being the annual Huxley Memorial Lecture for 1933. But it’s not listed at the Huxley Memorial Lecture website. If anyone knows what happened, I would be grateful to hear about it.
Photo of A.V. Hill in 1922 via Wikimedia Commons.
Drawing of Burlington House, The Royal Society, by Lady Huggins (1912) (via Wikimedia Commons).
* The thoughts Hilda Bastian expresses here are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.