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The John Maynard Smith Archive

The John Maynard Smith Archive (Add MS 86569-86840) is a wonderful resource for the history of twentieth-century evolutionary biology. It is held by the British Library in London and can be explored through its online finding aid.

John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) was one of Britain’s most eminent evolutionary biologists. A theoretician, he made several outstanding contributions to the field – from defining the “two-fold cost of sex” to introducing evolutionary game theory and the evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS). In 1977, he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society, whose Medal he was awarded twenty years later. Other prizes include the Crafoord Prize (biology’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize, 1999) and the Kyoto Prize (2001).

After a first career as an aircraft engineer (with a degree from Cambridge), Maynard Smith read zoology at University College London. He stayed on as a lecturer and worked on the genetics of the European fruit fly Drosophila subobscura, before accepting a deanship and moving to the newly founded University of Sussex in 1965.

(John Maynard Smith. Sussex, 1989. Copyright © Anita Corbin and John O’Grady. Courtesy of John Maynard Smith’s Estate)

The archive was donated to the British Library in 2004. It is a hybrid archive – as many of the more recent acquisitions of libraries and archives are: apart from the traditional paper-based material, it contains born-digital material on floppy disks and hard drives.

Next to research notes, offprints, a few notebooks and lecture notes, the archive contains a large number of letters in which Maynard Smith discussed scientific problems in detail with scientists in Britain and around the world. There are no committee papers or political material and very little of a personal nature. Web of Stories, however, hold an interview with Maynard Smith that was conducted by Richard Dawkins in 1997. Divided into stories, it takes the viewer from early childhood through student days and a half-century long career, including reminiscences of JBS Haldane and Peter Medawar. (That same year, he have a public talk on “Flight in Birds and Aeroplanes” for the Vega Science Trust, going back to some of his earliest research.)

Both of these scientists also feature in the archive, Haldane more so than Medawar. Several folders deal with Haldane’s legacy, including letters and notes about meetings, appreciations, lectures and a ‘potted biography’.

Other contemporary science archives at the British Library include the following:

Another excellent British Library resource about contemporary and recent British science is the Voices of Science collection. This holds life story interviews with prominent British scientists and engineers, telling stories about some of the most remarkable scientific and engineering discoveries of the past century. You can explore themes of interest, or focus on specific people – well worth a listen!

(As part of her collaborative PhD project with the British Library’s Oral History department and the University of Leicester, my colleague Emmeline Ledgerwood is currently conducting further life story interviews with former scientists and civil servants, which will be added to the collections.)

Some Maynard Smith-related archives held elsewhere:

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