History of the UCL Science Society


Gillian Peach

Gillian Peach was Secretary of the Science Society for 10 years from 1993 - 2002.

As Secretary of the Society for ten years it was my job to find speakers for our regular programme of dinners. It was always qratifying when the meeting was a particular success and generated a good deal of discussion. The programme of Lunch Hour lectures was often a source of inspiration for me, because they cover a wide variety of topics and the lectures are of the right length and are suitably non-specialist.

There were some anxious moments though. Several times it got to be about two weeks before the date of the dinner and I was still without a speaker. However, I always managed to find someone who was willing to step in and save my skin, and to them especially I was tremendously grateful. By far the worst time though was when I arrived in College at Midday on the day of the meeting, only to find that there was a message that my speaker was ill and would be unable to come. I thought we would have to just eat the dinner and then go home, but I happened to meet my colleague John Humberston who said that he had heard Sir John Mason, formerly head of the Met Office (among many other things), say that he always had a talk ready in his back pocket. Since he also happened to be the father of Nigel Mason, then a lecturer in our Department, I was able to contact him very quickly and sure enough he came that evening and gave a very interesting talk, so all was well. I suffered from some delayed stress the day afterwards!

Anna Koffer adds: I have found out that her panic evening was on 22nd March 1995 and the intended speaker, Prof. John Guest, was taken ill (His talk would have been on "Venus: Earth's sister planet"). Sir John Mason's talk was called " The Greenhouse Effect and Climate Change".

Hugh White

Hugh White was Treasurer of the Science Society for 21 years, from 1977 - 1997.

I was nominated for membership of the Science Society by Mike Hollaway (Biochemistry) and Barbara Banks (Physiology) sometime in the early 1970s. My very first dinner (as a guest) was a talk by Prof. Av. Mitchison who enthused (at some length) about antigens cross-linking surface antibodies on lymphocytes which led to movement of the antibodies to one side of the cell (capping). Soon after I became a member I found myself asked to take the post of Treasurer. {I was - and still am - enthusiastic about food and I was naïve enough to think catering would be fun and easy.}. Prof. Sebastian Dicker (Physiology) was Treasurer. He had introduced a subscription (was it a pound or 10 shillings?) after a struggle and then faced the imposition of VAT on the cost of meals. Initially meals had been exempt but this concession was soon restricted to student meals. Sebastian held the accountants at bay for a while but inevitably the struggle was lost. He was exhausted and frustrated so I ended up Treasurer and remained in post some 21 years. Sebastian kept the funds in his personal bank account. I thought it wiser to open a society account but this was so horrendously bureaucratic I gave up and opened a special personal account labelled as Science Society. In those days it was Williams and Glyn’s Bank and I still use the original cheque book folder. My will contained a codicil instructing my executors to pay any funds in the account to the Society!

In ancient days the Refectory (UCL run entirely) had a vast list of dishes and a few recommended menus assembled from the vast list. Many of the dishes were traditional and reflected someone’s idea of dishes available at Oxbridge colleges: pheasant, angels on horseback, steak and kidney pudding sort of thing. Prices were not low and the quality was often poor. Members did not see any radical improvement in the meals but I slowly learned some of the things they did less badly and offered better value for money. It was always hard to keep to a reasonable total when CRB (“coffee, roll and butter” – which included a cover charge) and VAT were added.

There were disasters but members were tolerant. Having organised the dinner I tended to relax once the meal started but ate in fear of seeing altercations about the room. One could count on the Refectory getting special diets wrong and vegetarians particularly tended to be forgotten. The Refectory insisted on charging the same meal price for vegetarians although the dishes provided were inevitably less expensive. Having to wait until everyone had almost finished their main course in addition to this did tend to give rise to a certain amount of justified grumpiness.

Even meals that were barely edible were usually eaten without complaint although there was polite comment afterwards. One did not have to complain about portions: these were vast (informed by student appetite?). Once we had baked apple as the sweet. Each diner was presented with a huge, baked to mush, Bramley. Eventually one found a few buried raisins at the bottom. One member was horrified to find a squashed cockroach among the raisins! This time there was a fuss. The Refectory seemed to think that it was somehow less offensive having been cooked.

Service was never fast and became slower over the years as the old, experienced Refectory staff were replaced by fewer and inexperienced staff sometimes recruited from the student body and sometimes from the casual work force that the catering industry thrives/survives on. Once I dared to choose trout. The diminutive girls on duty that evening had to serve whole trout from huge salvers awash with buttery fish juices. One poor waitress got hers off balance and (after a brief stagger back and forth) showered Fred Brett with fish juice. We could smell Fred for the whole talk.

Rising prices and poor quality led to experiments with alternative meals. The Refectory allowed us to provide our own food for buffets in the Old Refectory as long as we purchased wine from them. We ended up buying some dishes from them and the rest brought in. My partner and I bought a house in 1976 and turned the garden over to vegetables for 3 years. I made heaps of salad, dressings and potato salad and ferried these in initially on the 73 bus and later in motorcycle panniers. I recall the Refectory providing whitebait and a sweet and the rest of it self-catered. We had a mixture of Refectory meals and self-catered meals over the years. The self-catered meals were time-consuming both in setting up (the Secretary always chipped in) and in preparation. When the vegetable garden was turned over to shrubs and perennials and I became busier DIY meals had to stop.

The Chemistry Department stepped into the breach with an offer of the use of the Nyholm Room. It was equipped with a kitchen and the Chemistry Dept had staff who would prepare a cold buffet. We had a couple of blissful years of excellent Nyholm Room buffets at reasonable prices. Each year we had the AGM in the Refectory to keep them sweet. All was well until one of the regular Refectory financial crises led to their approaching Sir James Lighthill (Provost) to put a stop to the arrangement (as they feared other groups would follow our lead).

We were forced back to the Refectory. They had made some changes and there was an improvement in the quality of the food but prices were still high. The subscription had been used to subsidise meals from the outset and the level of subsidy increased with the subscription. This helped keep the apparent price lower and increased the perception of improved value.

Sometimes we experimented with cheaper alternatives : sandwich buffets in the Haldane Room worked when numbers were lowish. Once we had a large number and had booked the Old Refectory for a buffet. The Refectory cocked up the booking and we ended up stuffed into the Haldane Room. Cedric Smith (Genetics and Biometry) was a vegan. For one of his talks I oganised a vegetarian meal. We had a vegetable soup followed by pasta. The Refectory provided not only vast heaps of pasta but a huge baked potato as well. The phenomenal amount of starch led to a near revolt.

Predinner sherry was another honeypot for the Refectory. They charged an astronomical amount for a tiny schooner of sherry. During the years of turmoil we won an agreement from them that if we bought the sherry from them they would allow us to serve it ourselves. Although they were prepared to provide the glasses this worked so rarely that I bought some decent ones for the Society. I think the Society is now on its third set of glasses. Getting sherry from the Refectory was always fraught: when they remembered to get it from the cellars it had to be collected from their cashier who lived in a locked box and could not pass out the sherry unless someone else was present to prevent a break in (they had had a couple of dramatic robberies – one masterminded by Brian the skinhead from Botany but that is another tale). Eventually we switched to buying our own sherry and Refectory did not fuss.

Afterdinner port happened by accident: the Refectory sent port and a waitress along in error and members enjoyed having it available. Around this time we switched to having coffee served in the Haldane Room. This was pleasant and avoided some delays. A glass of wine with the dinner price was introduced as the method of wine purchase was so slow: often many had no wine until the sweet. This at least provided some refreshment.

As the years passed the Refectory food and service improved and latterly I had no problems. Prices continued to rise but members seemed to feel the value for money was acceptable. I should mention that throughout all of these problems the Refectory staff were always helpful and friendly.

The meal is really peripheral to the Science Society’s reason for existence. It serves to provide a pleasant starter for the main course of the talk. The Secretary has always borne the burden of arranging this and I am sure past Secretaries will have their nightmare reminiscences of audiovisual disasters, room bookings cockups and indecisive speakers. I do remember a few notable evenings.

The Society’s 25th anniversary dinner was one. The Secretary had the excellent idea of getting someone who was in the news because of his investigations of paranormal phenomena (Uri Geller was well established as a molester of cutlery at this time). The turn-out was good and interest was high. Unfortunately the speaker had a monstrous chip on his shoulder and the discussion was embarrassing. Any question was taken as a personal challenge. We came away very unconvinced.

One evening we had Chris Stringer from the Natural History Museum. It was a pleasant May evening and some sort of student ball was in progress. The talk had barely begun when alarms sounded and we had to evacuate. There had been a bomb report (false it later proved) and we were not to be readmitted until the whole of the Wilkins building had been searched. In the end Chris Dean arranged for the meeting to continue in the Rockefeller Building after rescue of the speaker’s slides.

Once we had to cancel a meeting when the fall of a couple of centimetres of snow caused the collapse of civilisation. Once members showed up but the speaker did not! We sat around for a while over coffee before aborting the meeting. The eminent person had simply forgotten the engagement. He did give a talk a few months later.

The best attended Science Society dinner (about 60) was for the first talk given by Sir James Lighthill. He had recently become Provost and interest was high. His topic was on animal and particularly insect flight. Some members and their guests found the crowds over sherry oppressive and availed themselves of the Housman Room bar. Ample wine over a slow dinner meant that they were thoroughly relaxed. Sir James was an animated and authoritative speaker. His demonstration of the clap and fling flight mechanism brought some very unscientific, strangulated noises of mirth and a thud or two from the back of the crowded room. Sir James took it in good stead and gave one or two other talks to the Society during his time at UCL.

The Science Society provides a sociable way of hearing about science and engineering research combined with an opportunity to mix with members with different specialities. The changes in higher education and at UCL make this difficult otherwise and the Society helps to retain some collegiality. I hope it will survive and thrive but attendance has slowly dropped off as people become too stretched to find time and energy to attend. Even rarer these days are colleagues prepared to act as Secretary, Treasurer and President. I was Treasurer for a long time but things were much easier then. Today’s officers deserve our thanks for keeping the Society running!

Ursula Mittwoch

I am far removed from being a founder member. Although I think the Society was founded specifically to allow membership to women (in contrast to the Natural History Club), and was also to be mainly for non-professors, to be elected was a great honour, not easily achieved. I believe Dr Florence Nightingale David, a very formidable lady in the Statistics Department, was a moving spirit in founding the Society.

Also, though I have by now been a member for many years, I cannot remember a single amusing incident. On the other hand, I regard the Science Society as one of the great institutions at UCL, combining a pleasant social evening with extending one's scientific horizon, removed from the many pressures of funding, RAEs, etc,.that seem to be there to make life in universities less enjoyable. Meetings of the Science Society serve to make science more enjoyable - long may they continue!

Past Officers of the Society

Year President Treasurer Secretrary
1951 W.R. Trotter H. Kestleman F.N. David
1952 K. Lonsdale H. Kestleman F.N. David
1953 C.E. Dent H. Kestleman F.N. David
1954 F.L. Warren H. Kestleman N. Please
1955 M.G. Eggleton H. Kestleman N. Please
1956 L.S. Penrose H. Kestleman D.R. Wilkie
1957 F.N. David H. Kestleman D.R. Wilkie
1958 N. Harris M.G. Eggleton J. Grenville-Wells
1959 ? M.G. Eggleton D.E. Barton
1960 W.R. Merrington M.G. Eggleton D.E. Barton
1961 E.M. Crook M.G. Eggleton M. Schachter
1962 E.M. Crook M.G. Eggleton M. Schachter
1963 D.R. Wilkie M.G. Eggleton M. Schachter
1964 C.A. Rogers M.G. Eggleton A. P. Matthias
1965 C.A. Vernon M.G. Eggleton A. P. Matthias
1966 C.A. Vernon B.E.C. Banks A. P. Matthias
1967 D.A.W. Edwards B.E.C. Banks P. Meadow
1968 J. Mongar B.E.C. Banks P. Meadow
1969 B.R. Rabin B.E.C. Banks B.G. Duff
1970 J. W. Fox B.E.C. Banks B.G. Duff
1971 H. Steinberg B.E.C. Banks S. Doonan
1972 S.E. Dicker B.E.C. Banks S. Doonan
1973 A. P. Matthias S.E. Dicker S. Doonan
1974 E.R. Beck S.E. Dicker F.L. Pearce
1975 B.E.C. Banks S.E. Dicker F.L. Pearce
1976 J. W. Fox S.E. Dicker L.H. Smaje
1977 W.D. Fletcher H.A. White L.H. Smaje
1978 Pat Clarke H.A. White J.McKenzie
1979 Ursula Mittwoch H.A. White J.McKenzie
1980 F.F. Heymann H.A. White J.McKenzie
1981 Pauline Meadow H.A. White D.C. Imrie
1982 R.C. Fisher H.A. White D.C. Imrie
1983 A.J. Fourcin H.A. White D.C. Imrie
1984 B.G. Duff H.A. White J.C. Foreman
1985 Evelyn Abberton H.A. White J.C. Foreman
1986 F.L. Pearce H.A. White J.C. Foreman
1987 E. Power H.A. White J.W. Humberston
1988 C. Wilkin H.A. White J.W. Humberston
1989 D. McMullen H.A. White Susan Gove
1990 J.C. Foreman H.A. White F.L. Brett
1991 J.McKenzie H.A. White F.L. Brett
1992 J.W. Humberston H.A. White F.L. Brett
1993 E.J.W. Jones H.A. White Gillian Peach
1994 J.S. Hyams H.A. White Gillian Peach
1995 J.E. Parkin H.A. White Gillian Peach
1996 M.A. Rosemeyer H.A. White Gillian Peach
1997 F.L. Brett H.A. White Gillian Peach
1998 D.A. Bender N.J. Mason Gillian Peach
1999 J.S. Hyams N.J. Mason Gillian Peach
2000 D.G. Smith N.J. Mason Gillian Peach
2001 H.E. White N.J. Mason Gillian Peach
2002 Helen D. Donoghue N.J. Mason Gillian Peach
2003 Helen D. Donoghue Hannelore E. Saraph Gillian Peach
2004 Helen D. Donoghue Hannelore E. Saraph Anna Koffer
2005 M. Huckvale Hannelore E. Saraph Anna Koffer
2006 M. Huckvale Hannelore E. Saraph Anna Koffer
2007 M. Huckvale Hannelore E. Saraph Anna Koffer
2008 M. Huckvale Hannelore E. Saraph Anna Koffer
2009 M. Huckvale Hannelore E. Saraph Anna Koffer
2010 M. Huckvale Hannelore E. Saraph Anna Koffer
2011 M. Huckvale Hannelore E. Saraph Anna Koffer
2012 M. Huckvale S. Bolsover Anna Koffer
2013 M. Huckvale S. Bolsover Anna Koffer & Caroline Wardle
2014 M. Huckvale S. Bolsover Anna Koffer & Caroline Wardle
2015 M. Huckvale S. Bolsover Anna Koffer
2016 S. Cockcroft S. Bolsover M. Mayston
2017 S. Cockcroft M. Mayston M. Mayston
2018 S. Morris M. Huckvale M. Mayston


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