Advertisement
RayBiotech
RayBiotech

Reflections of a Biologist

Off-Beat Biologist: The Autobiography of Alan S. Parkes. Alan S. Parkes. The Galton Foundation, Cambridge, UK, 1985. 444 pp., illus. $30, £20. "Early in 1982, at the age of eighty-one, I set out in my usual spirit of 'have a go' to write a full-scale autobiography." An ebullient readiness to "have a go" at new challenges or opportunities, regardless of his formal or experiential qualifications for the task, typified Sir Alan Parkes' attitude in personal and professional life. This characte

By | March 9, 1987

Off-Beat Biologist: The Autobiography of Alan S. Parkes. Alan S. Parkes. The Galton Foundation, Cambridge, UK, 1985. 444 pp., illus. $30, £20.


"Early in 1982, at the age of eighty-one, I set out in my usual spirit of 'have a go' to write a full-scale autobiography." An ebullient readiness to "have a go" at new challenges or opportunities, regardless of his formal or experiential qualifications for the task, typified Sir Alan Parkes' attitude in personal and professional life. This characteristic, plus high intelligence and seemingly unlimited capacity for work, made him a Fellow of the Royal Society at age 32 and brought him international recognition as a pioneer contributor in two fields of endeavor.

In his role as a biologist, Parkes made highly significant contributions to the infant science of reproductive endocrinology. In an extension of his scientific interests, he became an active proponent of family planning and population control and was influential in the formation and development of several international organizations concerned with social aspects of human fertility.

Because his involvement in reproductive biology and in social aspects of human reproduction began when both fields were in their in-fancy, Parkes' reminiscences are peppered with idiosyncratic stories and comments pertaining to various individuals and events that figure large in modern history. Off-Beat Biologist—published by a charity organization in 1985 and therefore virtually unpromoted—will appeal not only to readers concerned with the author's self-portrait, but to others who would appreciate an intimate description of the early days in endocrinology or beginnings of the birth control movement and family planning.

The story of Parkes' education and professional development reflects superior intelligence, unwillingness to exert himself in the service of orthodox goals posing no personal challenge, but a prodigious capacity for sustained motivation and effort in solving unanswered but stimulating questions, or exploring newly discovered territory. His unconcern with traditional academic standards was reflected in an annoyed reply to a bureaucratic questionnaire concerning his professional qualifications, which he received after 15 years' employment at the National Institute for Medical Research: "1916 failed Lower Certificate. 1917 failed School Certificate. 1920 failed National and Cambridge Diplomas of Agriculture. 1933 FRS."

Off-Beat is written in a clear and attractive style but, at 444 pages, is too long for sustained interest, and coverage is somewhat undisciplined. Parkes was unable or unwilling to separate material of likely interest to the general reader from masses of trivia of dubious interest to anybody.

One other stylistic procedure that adds to the length of treatment is Parkes' fondness for self-quotation. Instead of summarizing his opinion of a particular individual, or his reaction to a particular issue, Parkes frequently reprints a selected passage from one of his earlier publications. The source may have been one of his books or lectures, or simply some remarks prepared for introduction of a speaker at a dinner or symposium.

Despite such criticisms, Off-Beat Biologist will entertain and instruct readers with an interest in its author and the areas to which he was such a magnificent contributor.

Beach is professor emeritus of psychology, University of California, Berkeley, 94720.

Follow The Scientist

icon-facebook icon-linkedin icon-twitter icon-vimeo icon-youtube
Advertisement

Stay Connected with The Scientist

  • icon-facebook The Scientist Magazine
  • icon-facebook The Scientist Careers
  • icon-facebook Neuroscience Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Genetic Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Cell Culture Techniques
  • icon-facebook Microbiology and Immunology
  • icon-facebook Cancer Research and Technology
  • icon-facebook Stem Cell and Regenerative Science
Advertisement
Advertisement
The Scientist
The Scientist
Life Technologies