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Frank Greenaway with museum display
Frank Greenaway


Having served during World War II, Frank Greenaway was a destined scientist and is a prominent figure at the Science Museum.

Frank Greenaway was born in 1917 into a working class family who ran a corner shop in Splott, Cardiff. He won a scholarship to Cardiff High School, where it first became apparent that he was destined for a life in the sciences. It was here that Greenaway’s interest in John Dalton was first established, whilst looking at a textbook illustration of him collecting marsh gas.

“Somehow I identified with this plain man doing an adventurous thing and it confirmed my feeling that I would like to live a life of science.”

Greenaway then went on to study chemistry at Jesus College, Oxford, having won an exhibition. Whilst at Oxford, he was scouted to become a coxswain for the first eight rowing team, which he took to with rather more enthusiasm than his studies: “I was, and remain, cheerful about rowing. I was never cheerful about my academic work.”

His university days were brought to an abrupt halt with the beginning of the Second World War, when he served as a junior officer in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and later helped to train foreign agents. After being invalided out of the war, he went on to teach in Bournemouth and then at Epsom Grammar School. Feeling that teaching was not his vocation and struggling to instill the view that chemistry was a part of everyday life, not just a subject to be examined on, Greenaway left the profession and went on to work at Kodak in Harrow.

“I tried to teach the boys I met a view of science as something important in their lives as well as their school careers.”

A change in tack

Frank Greenaway

Greenaway’s first taste of the Science Museum was as a child in 1928, the year that the east block of the building was opened. In 1949, he was invited to work at the Science Museum under the keeper of chemistry, Alexander Barclay. Whilst in his first role at the museum, Greenaway was strongly influenced by Frank Sherwood Taylor, who became the museum’s director in 1950. Sherwood Taylor encouraged Greenaway to study the history of chemistry and he went on to study for a MSc in the history of science at University College London, where Sherwood Taylor had also studied. Both men shared the view that the museum should be displaying science in context, making it more accessible to non-specialists. This was not a popular viewpoint at the time, but would prove to be a turning point in the museum’s history.

Greenaway became active in the newly evolving discipline of the history of science, serving on committees, editing reports and journals, and travelling internationally with his work. The international contacts that he gained proved beneficial for the museum, raising its profile at a global level.

Greenaway was particularly interested in early chemistry instrumentation and held a continued interest in the work of the Manchester chemist, John Dalton. In 1958, he contributed a piece on Dalton to the Memoirs of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, which was later converted into a book. 

A lasting legacy

Until the 1970s, only physical science and technology had featured in the Science Museum. However, when Greenaway discovered that the Wellcome Institute was looking to rehouse its history of medicine collection, he managed to secure the transfer, bringing medicine to the museum for the first time. This acquisition approximately doubled the museum’s entire existing collection. 

For the Royal Institute of Chemistry’s (now the Royal Society of Chemistry) centenary, in 1977, major changes were implemented in all the chemistry galleries. Ground-breaking exhibits were sourced for the event, including a wide variety of post-war analytical instrumentation. Included in the exhibition were Theodor Svedberg’s large ultracentrifuge and a reconstruction of Crick and Watson’s DNA model. After the model’s construction in 1953, it had been dismantled and the pieces had been dispersed. Greenaway and his team managed to relocate all the pieces, allowing the reconstruction to occur.

The team that Greenaway assembled during his time as keeper of the chemistry department continue to build upon his legacy. They remain focused on promoting historical research at the museum, with a recently formed research and public history department and a new research centre due to open in 2015.

Words by Debbie Houghton
lmages © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library
Published June 2014

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