This Week in Science History: Feb 27th – Mar 5th

Do you know when humans first landed a probe on a different planet? What about when the National Academy of Sciences was founded? Take a walk back in time with us to find out!

February 27th:
The medical scientist Charles Herbert Best was born on this date in 1899. Best was a recent graduate of the University of Toronto when he was selected to assist with further work at the University by taking on a summer project devised by Professor John J. R. Macleod. Best was to work as an assistant to Dr. Frederick Banting to aid his research into pancreatic secretions and their effect on diabetes.1 This research culminated in the discovery of insulin, and together Best, Banting and Macleod published a paper titled “The Internal Secretion of the Pancreas” where they presented their work.2

For this discovery Banting and Macleod were awarded the 1923 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, although notably Best was overlooked as although he held degrees in physiology and biochemistry, he lacked the medical degree that recipients were required to hold.3

Also on this day:
The US Patent Office granted Felix Hoffmann the patent for Aspirin, 1900.4


February 28th:
Another birthday boy, on this day in 1901 the chemist and peace activist Linus Pauling was born. Pauling is the only person to ever be awarded two unshared Nobel Prizes, the Chemistry Prize in 1954 and the Peace Prize in 1962.5

The Chemistry Prize was awarded for his research into the nature of chemical bonding and the structure of proteins, notably his discovery of the alpha helix which would later enable Watson and Crick to correctly predict the structure of DNA.6 The Peace Prize recognised Pauling’s contributions to the movement for nuclear disarmament. During his time as a nuclear activist Pauling was denied a passport to travel to conferences by the US State Department stating that his travel “would not be in the best interest of the United States”. Pauling was later granted a passport so that he could travel to Sweden to accept his first Nobel Prize.7

Also on this day:
Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman discovers inelastic photon scattering, known as the Raman Effect, 1928.


March 1st:
On this day in 1966, just three years before NASA would put men on the moon, the Soviet space programme successfully put the first manmade object on another planet. The Venera 3 probe was originally designed to explore Mars, but was repurposed along with two other probes for a mission to Venus. The first two probes launched failed to send any data back to Earth and only managed an approach distance of 15000 miles.8 The third probe did make contact with the surface to set this milestone, although like its predecessors it failed to transmit data to Earth. It would take until the Venera 7 probe for readings of atmospheric conditions taken directly on the planet’s surface to be successfully sent to Earth.9

Also on this day:
Nikola Tesla gives first public demonstration of radio, 1893.

Russian stamp commemorating the launch of the Venera 3 probe (Public Domain,

March 2nd:
In 1896 Antoine Henri Becquerel discovered radiation as a separate entity to x-rays. After a failed experiment one day Becquerel placed a sample of fluorescent salts in a drawer next to some photographic film. Days later the films were developed and it was found that even without sunlight as an energy source the salts were still able to produce images on the film.10 Becquerel realised that the salt itself must be emitting its own energy, radiation. For this discovery and the resulting research that he undertook along with Marie Curie and her husband Pierre, all three of them were awarded the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics. Additionally, the international standard unit of radioactivity is named the Becquerel (Bq) after him.11

Also on this day:
Birth of Boris Borisovich Golitsyn, inventor of the electromagnetic seismograph, 1862.


March 3rd:
On this day in 1863 the sitting President of the United States of America, Abraham Lincoln, approved a charter to form the National Academy of Sciences. At this time America was in civil war, and so the original members of the Academy were all from the states that had remained in the Union, with the vast majority of the membership being based in Massachusetts.

It was many years later during the peak of the First World War that the decision was made to expand the membership numbers of the Academy.12 Although this was originally done to allow the scientists to contribute more to the war effort the Academy allowed itself to grow even during peacetime and today its membership totals approximately 2250 American members and 440 foreign associates, including around 200 Nobel prizewinners.13 Last year the Academy elected its first ever female President, the geologist Marcia McNutt, whose term will run until 2022.14

Also on this day:
Birth of Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, 1847.

The National Academy of Sciences headquarters in Washington, DC (Public Domain,


March 4th:
On this day in 1947 Willard Libby performed the first carbon dating experiment. Libby was studying plants in photosynthesis when he observed that the plants were absorbing small amounts of the radioactive isotope carbon-14. He theorised that when the plant material died it would stop absorbing the trace amounts of carbon-14 from the soil and so by studying the rate of decay of the remaining amounts of carbon-14 it would be possible to estimate how long ago that plant had died.15 Since then the same technique has been used to date animal bones and prehistoric artifacts. In recognition of the discovery, Libby was awarded the 1960 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Also on this day:
Soviet space probe Vega 1 returns first ever images of the nucleus of Halley’s Comet, 1986.


March 5th:
Sir Charles Wyville Thomson was born on this day in 1830. Thomson was a medicine graduate from the University of Edinburgh, but soon after his graduation began studies in botany and zoology. At the age of 40 he was awarded the post of Regius Chair of Natural History, also at the University of Edinburgh, after short stints of lecturing at the University of Aberdeen, Queen’s College in Cork, and Queen’s University in Belfast. In the same year the Royal Navy granted his request to repurpose the HMS Challenger for a scientific expedition.16

The Challenger Voyage would last four years and over 68000 nautical miles, and would discover marine life existing at depths of up to 3000 fathoms. Thomson would die six years after the voyage and so never lived to see all of his work from the voyage published, although prior to his death he was knighted by Queen Victoria for his services to science.

Also on this day:
Nikola Tesla describes how ball lightning forms, 1904.



  1. Bliss, L. Charles Herbert Best. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 Feb. 2017].
  2. Banting, F. G. and Best, C. H. (1922). The Internal Secretion of the Pancreas. The Journal of Laboratory and Clinical Medicine, 7(5), pp. 251-266.
  3., (2009). The Discovery of Insulin. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 Feb. 2017].
  4. Hoffmann, F. (1900). Acetyl Salicylic Acid. 644,077.
  5., (2014). Linus Pauling – Biography. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 Feb. 2017]
  6. lpi.oregonstate.ed, Linus Pauling Biography. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 Feb. 2017].
  7., Linus Pauling. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 Feb. 2017].
  8. Mason, B. March 1, 1966: Probe Makes First Contact With Another Planet. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 Feb. 2017].
  9. Satanovsky, G. Russian probe Venera 3 becomes first man-made object to reach another planet. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 Feb. 2017].
  10., (2000). The Discovery of Radioactivity. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 Feb. 2017].
  11. Bowersox, P. (2011). Henri Becquerel and the Discovery of Radioactivity. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 Feb. 2017].
  12., History. [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 Feb. 2017].
  13., Membership. [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 Feb. 2017].
  14., Marcia McNutt. [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 Feb. 2017].
  15., (2016). Willard Libby, Radiocarbon, and Carbon Dating. [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 Feb. 2017].
  16., Charles Wyville Thomson. [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 Feb. 2017].

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