The J. G. Crowther Archive

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The Collection falls into eight sections:

Section I, Personal papers, is arranged around the personal correspondence between 1920 and the early 1970s. The letters are listed according to name of correspondent, the period in which the letters were received, and the total volume of correspondence. The more frequent correspondents included Lancelot Hogben, A. L. Rowse and C. K. Ogden.

Section II, Visits to foreign countries, describes visits between the late 1920s and the early 1960s, with notes, documents and drafts of articles. This material is linked in many places to that in sections III, IV and V.

Section III, Non-journalistic activities between the Wars, includes particularly valuable information on science and technology in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Section IV, Non-journalistic activities, 1940-45, is a useful source on the history of international scientific co-operation and the origins of the United Nations and its specialised agencies.

Section V, Non-journalistic activities since 1945, contains voluminous private and official documentation on the Cold War period, and on the international organisation of scientific workers.

Sections VI, Journalism and associated activities, and VII, Books and publishing, bring together material relating to Crowther's career as journalist and author, lecturer and broadcaster. In some instances the arrangement of section VI makes it possible to follow the journalistic process from the initial commissioning of an article to its final publication; and section VII, which is prefaced by Crowther's correspondence with his literary agent, collates the working notes, successive drafts and proofs of forty books.

Section VIII, Pamphlets and offprints, comprises a very large collection. Some of the pamphlets, particularly those in the history and sociology of science, are rare and many of the more important scientific offprints are autographed.

Administrative / Biographical History

James Gerald Crowther (1899-1983) gained an exhibition in mathematics and physics from Bradford Grammar School to Trinity College, Cambridge, to be taken up at the end of the Great War. In the intervening period, Crowther worked as a research assistant in anti-aircraft gunnery under the direction of A. V. Hill. It was this experience, together with an aversion to the abstractions of pure mathematics, which diverted him away from academic life and directed him towards the world of 'working science'.

Crowther left Cambridge without taking a degree and struggled hard throughout the early 1920s to make a living as a schoolteacher, as a lecturer on scientific and political affairs and as an advisor to technical and scientific publishers. In time, this diversity of occupations reaped a rich harvest of experience and friendship in the world of science. He was determined to become what nobody else had ever thought of becoming: a full-time scientific journalist on a leading national daily. His many-sided career in the 1920s enabled him to meet journalists, academics and political activists - including Lancelot Hogben, C. K. Ogden, Clifford Sharp and Ralph Fox - from whom he learnt a great deal, and through whose help he won right of entry to influential intellectual circles. In 1928 he boldly suggested to C. P. Scott that the Manchester Guardianshould appoint a full-time writer on science. Scott was persuaded and subsequently invited Crowther to become the Guardian's first scientific correspondent.

The Crowther of the 1930s was a formidably industrious figure. He became acquainted with the leading scientific figures of the day and, thanks mainly to his ability to summarize complex research findings with speed and accuracy, he also gained their trust. His scientific reports in the Guardianwere studied not only by an educated general readership but also by practising scientists who looked to him for news of developments in neighbouring disciplines. But daily journalism was for Crowther only one of many activities. In a rapid sequence of books, including An Outline of the Universe(1931) and The ABC of Chemistry(1932) Crowther communicated momentous discoveries in the physical sciences to a wide readership.

Crowther made no attempt to hide his enthusiasm for recent political changes in the Soviet Union, and made several visits there between 1930 and 1936. His own ideological position, later elaborated in The Social Relations of Science(1941), was based on two fundamental convictions: first, that professional scientists could only expect to receive fair recognition and reward in a planned socialist society; and secondly, and reciprocally, that the scientific community should be granted access to the formulation of social policy under capitalism. Similar views were propounded throughout the 1930s by such figures as J. D. Bernal, P. M. S. Blackett, Joseph Needham and J. B. S. Haldane.

At the outbreak of war Crowther was appointed the first Director of the Science Department of the British Council. His view of his department, a view which was emphatically not shared in the higher echelons of Government and the Royal Society, was that the British Council should stimulate co-operation between the developed and the colonial, and between the capitalist and the socialist countries of the world. It followed from this that scientific knowledge should serve as a transnational lingua franca in discussions leading to a narrowing of disparities between rich and poor. This was an exceptionally far-sighted ideal and Crowther can hardly have been surprised when, at the end of the war, it was the Royal Society, and not a revitalized British Council, which re-established itself as the scientific institution which was most frequently consulted by Government on matters of national importance.

But the British Council years were not barren. From about 1943 onwards the Science Department, invariably represented by Crowther himself, played an important part in creating the international cultural body which ultimately became Unesco. Indeed, there is material in the archive which indicates that, without Crowther's pertinacity in committee, science might well have been excluded from the rubric of the new organization altogether.

Two further war-time endeavours deserve mention in the context of Crowther's dedication to internationalism in science. First, in 1942, the British Government, acting through the British Council, decided to establish a Cultural Scientific Office in Chungking. Crowther recommended that Joseph Needham be made director. The Civil Service made it quite clear to Crowther that they disapproved of the proposed appointee's political record: and the idea that British culture might be enriched - as both Needham and Crowther believed that it would be - as a result of a deeper understanding of Asian science and technology, was derided in high places. But for Crowther's determined championship of Needham, the writing of Science and Civilizationin China would almost certainly have been seriously delayed.

Second, Crowther recognized the fact, apparent from the mid-1930s onwards, that many academics in Nazi Germany and Austria would eventually be either banished or killed. The escape-routes that were opened up for scholars in the humanities - notably those supported by Maurice Bowra and his migr colleagues in Oxford - are now fairly well known. The work of the Society for Visiting Scientists, yet another product of Crowther's directorship at the British Council, deserves wider recognition for the hospitality and financial assistance which it extended to scientists from each of the occupied countries.

In the immediate post-war period Crowther strengthened his commitment to socialist science. There was no longer a place for him at the British Council, and his contributions to the Manchester Guardian all but ceased following the 'spiking' of a powerful analysis of the long-term implications of Hiroshima. Crowther now gave his energies to radical politics and the politicization of scientific workers. He held high office in the World Federation of Scientific Workers and continued to travel extensively, lecturing and collecting material for works of scientific popularization and for the more scholarly books which now flowed from his pen. He spoke out and wrote against what he believed to be the abuse of science under capitalism: the enthusiasm with which he had greeted the planned organization of scientific research in the Soviet Union in the early 1930s remained essentially undimmed.

In the five and a half decades in which he was 'with science, though not in it', J. G. Crowther was journalist, civil servant and pioneering advocate of the social relations of science. Historians (and journalists, too) will find it useful to consult his papers both to deepen their knowledge of the men and women of science with whom he enjoyed long and cordial contact: and to explore the complex interactions between science and government in twentieth-century Europe.

(From William Luckin's introduction to the handlist, with minor editing.)

Conditions Governing Access

Items in the collection may be consulted for the purpose of private study and personal research, within the controlled environment and restrictions of The Keep's Reading Rooms.

Acquisition Information

Deposited by J. G. Crowther in December 1974.


Prepared by John Farrant, September 2002

Other Finding Aids

An online catalogue is available on The Keep's website.

Conditions Governing Use

COPIES FOR PRIVATE STUDY: Subject to copyright, conditions imposed by owners and protecting the documents, digital copies can be made.

PUBLICATION: A reader wishing to publish material in the collection should contact the Head of Special Collections, in writing. The reader is responsible for obtaining permission to publish from the copyright owner.