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Event Review: Anne McLaren - Science, Ethics and The Archive

7 August 2017
Appeared in BioNews 912

'We're here to have a conversation about the archive,' is how Professor Sarah Franklin from the University of Cambridge introduced the event, 'Anne McLaren: Science, Ethics and the Archive'. Featuring talks and a panel discussion, this evening at the British Library celebrated the life and work of Anne McLaren, one of the UK's leading developmental biologists, who sadly died ten years ago. Anne's early research paved the way for the development of IVF technologies, and she made key contributions to the ethical debates and subsequent regulatory policy surrounding IVF and stem cell research in the UK.

With ambient harp music, soft lights, leather seats – 'very civilized' as the gentleman next to me commented – the evening started with a keynote speech by Baroness Mary Warnock, who worked with Anne on the Warnock committee to decide the future use and regulation of IVF. The memories she shared were told well and spiced with witty comments, which made it fun to listen to as well as full of insight into Anne's personality, and her contributions to the committee. 'The effect that Anne had on the production of the [Warnock] report was incalculable,' said Baroness Warnock. She pointed out that since Anne had been the only embryologist on the Warnock committee, she had contributed most of the science underpinning of the report's recommendations. In addition to her scientific knowledge, Anne McLaren had the 'clearest head' and her ability to think through problems 'kept me [Baroness Warnock] in a healthy mind', during difficult times. Baroness Warnock ended her address by recollecting the six years between the publication of the report in 1984 and the legislation in 1990: during this time she saw herself and Anne as a 'powerful pair of persuaders', who talked to people, and explained the science and ethics.

'[Anne] was our teacher. And she was the best teacher. She somehow managed to inspire, with the most amazing enthusiasm for the subject she was talking about.' It seemed to me that this enthusiasm had sprung over to Baroness Warnock, and now to the audience. Her talk really brought Anne to life and I found myself thinking that this is how amazing people like Anne should be portrayed, with memories from those who knew her. Why just keep an uninspiring archive with childhood items, notebooks and other random stuff?

That the 'stuff' in the archive is worthwhile, however, became very clear through the second speaker. Professor Elizabeth Robertson, embryologist at the University of Oxford, delivered a brief, informative introduction to embryo development, and then took the audience through three experiments Anne performed during the summer of 1965, using one Anne's handwritten laboratory notebooks and photographs from the archive. One experiment was to find out how the embryo synchronizes with the uterine environment. Anne had removed embryos and then re-implanted them in a uterus of the same or different age. She had recorded the performed procedures in minute detail in her notebook through drawings of the embryos, descriptions and comments about the 'plum-puddingy cell mass'. What I liked about Professor Robertson's talk was how enthusiastically she shared the experience of doing benchwork science, so that even non-scientists seemed to enjoy it too. Everyone got to appreciate the beauty of how meticulously Anne had kept her notebook and could see how very interesting the experiments were – an experience which non-scientists could not have had by visiting the archive, as they would probably not have picked up a lab notebook.

The set of talks was finished by a lecture from Chris Hassan, portfolio developer at the Wellcome Trust. He called Anne McLaren an 'archiver's dream', because she recorded her life and work very thoroughly. He set out to list the collection, including notes from high school and university studies, letters, laboratory equipment and personal items from childhood. He pointed out how her tendency to draw images and diagrams, such as in her lab notebooks, became a key way in which she made the point of science and ethics, something which makes her archives very visual. Yet in stark contrast to Baroness Warnock and Professor Robertson, who had met Anne McLaren during their careers, he didn't have a personal connection with Anne. Nor did he seem to have engaged with the collection that he was praising, so the praise felt somewhat empty and boring. And I found myself wondering why they could not have found a different speaker, such as Anne's daughter or scientist colleagues, all of whom were sat among the audience?

Their presence was felt when the Q&A started, as more insight about her personality and her work were shared: Anne's daughter Susan told the audience about the 'charming and very funny' diaries which Anne had kept from a very young age; and a scientist in the audience explained some recent experiments which confirmed data from Anne's experiments that we had heard about earlier, saying 'Anne would have loved that result.'

The audience, about half of whom were aged 60 plus, with a few students and others in-between, also had many questions for Baroness Warnock about the specific recommendations of the Warnock report, such as the 14-day limit, and its reception. Unfortunately, not all the speakers engaged in the Q&A and as a result the questions did not stimulate a discussion, which I thought would only have been appropriate given the interest of the audience and how Anne's contributions to science and policy had stimulated public discussion on IVF at the time. Especially because the 14-day rule is now back up for questioning, it is worth looking back to see how it was decided in the first place, and to consider the scientific reasoning and communication contributed by Anne, which Professor Franklin described as 'I'm a scientist, this is what I think, see what you think'.

The event did well in communicating this approach of Anne McLaren - driven by curiosity and enthusiasm for the subject, with a duty to explain her work and the ethical consequences to the public. It portrayed Anne as a role model, not just for aspiring scientists like myself, and I felt the time spent attending this event had been worthwhile and uplifting. I would recommend anyone with an interest in the scientific process, IVF and the surrounding ethical and political debate to engage with the Anne McLaren archives and become inspired by the life and work of a scientist-citizen role model. Interested readers should also consider attending the second anniversary event, all-day on 12 December, looking at Anne's translational role both within and beyond science, which will be sponsored by the Wellcome Trust.

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