• Question: was there any science in the great war

    Asked by YEET on 14 Nov 2018.
    • Photo: Rosalind Franklin

      Rosalind Franklin answered on 14 Nov 2018:


      Well, it was before my time, but yes there was – though some of it was science that I wish had never happened.

      Among the more positive outcomes were advances in aeronautical engineering: the need for air support in the war encouraged the development of aeroplane technology. Probably the most positive outcome, though it came out of horrific suffering, was the beginning of the medical speciality of reconstructive surgery: many soldiers were badly disfigured by injuries sustained in the trenches, and surgeons and prosthetics manufacturers started to develop the techniques that are still used today to deal with the aftermath of amputations, scarring from burns, cancer surgery and so forth.

      Much less to be celebrated, there were a number of advances in chemistry during the Great War. Unfortunately most of them were directed at manufacturing ever nastier poison gases. As a chemist myself, I don’t think that was my field’s finest hour, and I don’t want to talk about it in detail.

      I spent my career studying the chemistry of life. I don’t feel that those of my predecessors who advanced the chemistry of death should be celebrated, so I’m not going to mention names.

    • Photo: Stephen Hawking

      Stephen Hawking answered on 14 Nov 2018: last edited 14 Nov 2018 3:19 pm


      Same as Rosalind, I hadn’t been born at this point!
      One of the biggest problems after the war, however was that a lot of engineering, chemistry, and science based developments were happening in Germany. Pretty soon after the war there was a major shortage of pharmaceutical drugs, a committee dedicated to producing chemical based products was founded. Not even a month later, a second committee was made to manufacture optical glass! We needed scientists!

      Even more astonishing, because of how important science was during the war another committee was formed. Called the ‘Neglect of science’ committee. It defended the importance to make sure people were properly educated about science and have professional scientists (up until this point science was seen more as a quirky hobby). There was a clear shortage of scientists in the UK. In fact many historians believe that the great war was a turning point in peoples view of science, showing that brains very well beat brawn.

      Great Question!

    • Photo: John Snow

      John Snow answered on 14 Nov 2018:


      Absolutely! World War I was a time of major advances in the field of medicine. Antibiotics and blood transfusions are important examples but as an anaesthetist myself, I am most impressed with the development of anaesthetics. When I was alive I worked very hard to encourage the use of anaesthetics in the UK. Back then, many operations were performed without pain relief and many people died from the shock. Fortunately I was able to encourage the use of chloroform or ether during operations before I popped my own clogs.

      Amidst the horrors of the war however, the use of chloroform or ether alone was not enough and surgeons began to experiment with mixtures of anaesthetics which provided much stronger pain relief. They also began to administer oxygen alongside the anaesthetics which sustained patients for much longer, enabling physicians to perform more complex, life saving surgeries. Towards the end of the war, peoples attitude to anaesthetic was that it was an integral part of an operation and one that required delicate administration by a trained specialist. This was a much better attitude than in my lifetime where it was provided, almost as an afterthought, and only if you were rich enough!

    • Photo: Mary Anning

      Mary Anning answered on 14 Nov 2018:


      I lived during a time of wars – the Napoleonic Wars from 1803 – 1815, but I didn’t live to see the Great War.

      There certainly were scientific advances that emerged as a result of the great war, as others have said. In my own field of geology, many of the nations involved realised that geologists could help them to find the natural resources they needed to sustain the war efforts: water, oil and gas, metals and minerals. Geologists also had the know-how and equipment to detect underground movement; and their know-how of the landscape, and properties of rocks, were used in the trenching and tunnelling efforts that were such an important element of the war.

      The great war was also a time of loss – and who knows which parts of science came to a halt as a result?

    • Photo: Mary Somerville

      Mary Somerville answered on 14 Nov 2018:


      It’s well after my time, but a lot of the scientific techniques that had been developed were used during the Great War, and then progressed even further.
      Things like taking surveys to create accurate maps already existed, but it was combined with better printing and other communication methods.
      The telephone and telegram were already around, but engineering developed to make sure that troops could be contacted easier.
      Photography was used to enable more accurate reporting back home, nothing like the Great War had happened before, so people didn’t know what to being at the front would be like, especially as tanks and shells were fairly new to warfare. The War Cabinet used the new technology of film to show what was going on at the front, to help soldiers in their return, but also to stop people trying to visit where their loved ones had died (this was really important as people would have thought that their loved ones had a proper burial with full mourning, as was common in Victorian times).
      Things like sonar and radar were developed too, to help with finding out where ships were.

      There were so many things that were developed a lot faster in an attempt to keep up and to win.

    • Photo: Ada Lovelace

      Ada Lovelace answered on 14 Nov 2018:


      oh yes. the way to distribute chlorine gas, more efficient killing in every from
      but you may consider this engineeringnrathr than science

    • Photo: Aneurin Bevan

      Aneurin Bevan answered on 15 Nov 2018:


      Most definitely!! Sadly not all advances in scientific knowledge were used for good such as chemical bombs however world war 1 saw huge advances in fields of work in blood transfusion.

    • Photo: Peter Medawar

      Peter Medawar answered on 15 Nov 2018:


      I was born in the middle of the Great War, but as some of my esteemed friends have already said, science and war always interlink. I myself was inspired to become a scientist because I witnessed a plane crash in World War II and saw soldiers suffering because of burns that couldn’t be properly treated. I was desperate to do something to help so I investigated why skin transplants (called grafts), didn’t work well and found out that the key was to make sure the persons’ immune system would accept the graft. War also had an indirect effect on lots of other amazing discoveries. Penicillin was developed for use in patients in a fraction of the time taken for other medicines because the need for antibiotics to treat wounded service personnel was so desperate. In America, the infamous Manhattan Project saw the countries’ top scientists work together to create the first nuclear weapons. Although I despise the use of nuclear weapons, the success of the Manhattan Project also led to America’s ‘War on Cancer’ that helped develop treatments that still save lives today.

    • Photo: Godfrey Harold Hardy

      Godfrey Harold Hardy answered on 18 Nov 2018:


      There was plenty. And plenty of mathematics. I hated the fact that my beloved field of study is used in a military context – I was a pacifist.

    • Photo: Francis Crick

      Francis Crick answered on 19 Nov 2018:


      I was born during the great war, and like many of my fellow scientist have said science was used alot during the war but some for not the best of reasons! However things like blood transfusion and medicine made many advances during the war to help the injured soldiers. During the second world war the lab I was working in was damaged by a bomb.

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