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27/11/2014

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Mary Adams: Nothing new under the sun

All new? Not exactly. Allan Jones introduces Mary Adams OBE, BBC science producer of the 1930s.

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According to one of her colleagues, BBC producer Mary Adams OBE ‘raised high the level of broadcast science talks.’ When she left BBC radio in 1936, ‘the light she had lit in the Talks Department grew dim again.’ Archive documents at the BBC give us a glimpse of a creative individual, continually exploring the potential of the new medium to make science come alive for listeners.

All new? Not exactly. Allan Jones introduces Mary Adams OBE, BBC science producer of the 1930s.

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According to one of her colleagues, BBC producer Mary Adams OBE ‘raised high the level of broadcast science talks.’ When she left BBC radio in 1936, ‘the light she had lit in the Talks Department grew dim again.’ Archive documents at the BBC give us a glimpse of a creative individual, continually exploring the potential of the new medium to make science come alive for listeners.

Sex education

Mary Adams (née Campin) was born on 10 March 1898 and raised in Wales. In 1921, following study at University College, Cardiff, she gained a first class degree in botany, and moved to Cambridge as a research student. There she became an extramural adult-education tutor. Like many liberally-minded intellectuals of her time, Adams was excited by the potential of the new medium of broadcasting, which in Britain was inaugurated in 1923. Broadcasting, and the BBC’s public-service ethos, were thought to have huge potential for social amelioration in the aftermath World War 1.

In spring 1928, Adams gave a series of six BBC radio talks called Problems of Heredity. These caused widespread interest. In one talk Adams advocated ‘a saner, freer education about sex’ for children. Possibly radical ideas like this were what prompted one listener to write expressing the hope that during the broadcast ‘no member of the opposite sex had been obliged to remain in the studio.’

Ideas and methodology

Adams was invited to give more talks. Already she was thinking about how best to use the new medium. In broadcasting, she considered, ideas counted for more than facts, which were often best omitted. A good voice was more important than subtlety of expression; and broadcast talks ought not to be confused with education, although they might inspire listeners towards education.

In 1930 Adams joined the BBC as an adult education officer, specialising in science. Before 1930, many scientists had broadcast on the BBC, for example William Bragg, Oliver Lodge and D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson. Adams, though, considered that simply putting an expert before a microphone to dispense scientific knowledge was unsatisfactory; and ‘big name’ scientists were often especially disappointing. Once she even said she hated this kind of talk.

Adams liked best broadcasts showing the methods of science. In 1931, speakers in the series Science in the Making invited listeners to report, for example, when blackthorns flowered, or, in auditory perceptual experiments, when one test-sound masked another. The biologist John R. Baker, one of Adams’s favourite speakers, asked listeners to report when blackbirds first laid their eggs. From over 700 replies, Baker established that the breeding season began earlier in the south than the north. His results were published in a zoological journal, and in The Listener.

Controversy

The broadcasts most appreciated by listeners, however, were also the most problematic. This was the ‘science and society’ type, which looked at social applications of science. Some of Adams’s favoured speakers were politically controversial, and then, as now, right-wing elements of the press were eager to denounce the BBC. Nevertheless, Adams produced many such broadcasts, for example the communist mathematician Hyman Levy’s six talks What is Science? and, with Julian Huxley, the series Scientific Research and Social Needs.

Following a radical reorganisation of the Talks department in the mid-1930s, many progressively-minded staff left, including Adams. In 1936 she moved to the fledgling BBC television service. Adams had long been frustrated by the lack of visuals in radio. In television she had a long career producing arts, science, and children’s programmes, eventually becoming its Head of Talks. Following retirement in 1958 she became Deputy Chairman of the Consumers’ Association, but continued to advise the BBC and ITA. She died in 1986.

This piece is a shortened version of Allan Jones’s paper, “Mary Adams and the producer’s role in early BBC science broadcasts”, in Public Understanding of Science, 21(8), 968-983

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Allan Jones
Allan Jones, Lecturer in the Department of Communication and Systems at the Open University, wrote his PhD thesis on science broadcasting at the BBC
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