The 1960s

  • description of imageThe swinging sixties were a decade of great change for Nature. Against a global backdrop of cultural shifts, the Cold War and accelerating technological development, the magazine initially struggled to adapt to the changing times. The 1960s saw one Editor retire, the untimely death of another, and the magazine rejuvenated in content, aesthetics and organization by his successor. The journal was censored, archived, moved offices and resisted at least one attempt to buy it. Scientific advances continued apace, with the magazine hosting the discovery of the structure of the protein haemoglobin and then of the first enzyme, lysozyme, spurring on the biological revolution begun in the previous decade. In physics, the first laser "a solution looking for a problem" was developed by Theodore Maiman The late 1960s also saw the discovery of the first pulsars which were initially interpreted as possible extraterrestrial signals until their true nature as rotating neutron stars was deciphered. Advances were also made in the materials science of plastics and plasticizing agents. Image from archives of Macmillan Publishers.

The genetic code for proteins

  • description of imageDiscovery of the structure of DNA was the start of the golden age of biology and ushered in an era when the blueprint for life was suddenly within grasp. But DNA's structure did not reveal how it coded for proteins until the seminal work of Francis Crick and his colleagues, General Nature of the Genetic Code for Proteins answered at a stroke the critical questions that cracked the DNA-to-protein code (modern schematic is illustrated). They showed that three DNA bases code for one amino acid; the code is not overlapping; the code has a fixed starting point; and different triplet combinations of base pairs can code for the same amino acid. The paper conveys the excitement that it was just a matter of time before more major advances would follow: "the coding problem is wide open for experimental attack...the genetic code may well be solved within a year". By 1966, the base-pair triplets (codons) for all twenty amino acids had been identified, many in Crick's Cambridge laboratory. Image by Mike Jones.

Co-editor Gale retires

  • description of imageArthur J. V. Gale (pictured on the right, next to co-Editor Jack Brimble) retired at the end of 1961 after having worked for Nature for more than forty years. Only the journal's second Editor, Sir Richard Gregory, served in an active capacity for a longer period (1893–1939); the first Editor Sir Norman Lockyer (1869–1919) was Editor in name only for a little more than the last decade of his fifty serving years. Very little is known of Gale, who came over as silent and hard-working next to Brimble's more 'jet-propelled' character. It was apparently an eccentric system that worked only because Brimble was out of the office a great deal (frequently at lunch at the Athenaeum, handing out papers for informal review — see 1950s) and the two communicated with each other only in writing. Upon Gale's retirement, Brimble became the sole Editor. Image from archives of Macmillan Publishers.

Cold War and censorship

  • description of imageAs the Letters section in Nature increased in size, so did the proportion of contributions from countries around the world (pictured — note that submissions from the United States (902) exceeded those from Britain (871)). The second issue of Macmillan News (p16) shows a breakdown of where international contributions originated. The 1960s showed an increase in submissions from the Soviet Union and its satellite states, such as Poland and Hungary, after correspondence all but ceased in the 1950s. Also note East Germany's four Letters to West Germany's fifty-six. Nature was distributed to the communist Eastern Bloc but was censored. An article in the first issue of Macmillan News (page 10–11) details how discussions on science and religion, science and government, aid to developing countries and analysis of Soviet nuclear-bomb tests were blanked out or replaced with advertisements from the back of the magazine.

The office moves; the archives sold

  • description of imageBy 1963 Macmillan's had accumulated a considerable archive of material, but there was no specific commitment to retaining the correspondence related to the weekly publication of journals such as Nature. In 1964 Macmillan's moved out of their offices in London's St Martin's Street, which it had occupied since 1897, and masses of accumulated documents were sorted. In 1967, 1,250 volumes of archives were sold to the Department of Manuscripts at the British Museum (now part of the British Library). This included correspondence with Sir Norman Lockyer and other eminent scientists who were involved in establishing Nature in the nineteenth century. Further deposits of archive material were made in 1990 and 2004, bringing the Macmillan Archive in the British Library up to the 1980s. Although an attempt was made in the 1970s to store archives specifically relating to Nature in the Bodleian Library and then Imperial College most of the material remained unsorted and it was destroyed. Image shows the front cover of the first issue of Macmillan News the in-house magazine of Macmillan's, which would run occasional articles about Nature until the early 1990s. See page 10 for an early example.

Continental drift divide

  • description of imageBefore 1960 almost no one believed that the continents moved, but a series of papers in Nature changed the way the world was viewed. As new rock forms, the Earth's magnetic field is imprinted in the rock's ferrous elements. But the magnetic 'stripes' (pictured) that formed as the poles periodically reversed did not tally with each other in rocks from different continents — so either the magnetic poles were wandering or the sea floor was moving. Fred Vine and Drum Matthews's 7 September 1963 paper on seafloor magnetism built on key observations made by others, such as Keith Runcorn and Robert Dietz a decade earlier. Although Vine and Matthews were not the first to suggest that the sea floor was spreading, their paper was the first to reconcile an unpopular theory with direct palaeomagnetic evidence from seafloor lava flows. In less than a decade, the idea of continental drift was accepted, and earth science was born as a modern interdisciplinary subject. Image courtesy of the United States Geological Survey. See National Academy of Sciences for more on this story.

Editor Jack Brimble dies

  • description of imageThe shock and sadness felt by colleagues at the sudden death of Jack Brimble on 15 November is conveyed in the tone of the announcement in Nature that week. Unmarried, he died alone and in his flat in Dolphin Square, London, aged sixty-one. The obituary the following week conveys the passion he had for science throughout his life. Brimble (pictured) was devoted to the magazine and fought hard for its independence and integrity. Archive material held in Basingstoke shows that, despite his jovial manner, Brimble was not afraid to take on the house of Macmillan (then chaired by ex-British prime minister Harold Macmillan) if he felt that Nature's core values were being eroded: for example, he strongly objected to the addition of any 'Macmillan Journals' branding to the cover. Brimble lived long enough to mark the 5,000th issue of Nature, when he was interviewed by the BBC and proudly asserted that 250,000 scientists read Nature in 120 countries from a distribution of 15,000 copies. Image from archives of Macmillan Publishers.

John Maddox is appointed new Editor

  • description of imageAfter Brimble's sudden death, it took six months to find a new Editor. Macmillan News announced in June 1966 (see page 1) that the new Editor would be John Maddox (pictured), who had been a scientist, a lecturer in theoretical physics at the University of Manchester and a journalist at the Manchester Guardian (later the Guardian) before becoming an assistant director of the Nuffield Foundation. Maddox would draw heavily on his experience as scientist and journalist during his future editorship. In his interview for the post, Maddox remarked that Nature "didn't have much in the way of news" for a weekly. In fact, there was much about the journal that needed change. More office staff was needed to tackle the massive backlog of manuscripts, and members of the scientific community had issues with the handling of manuscripts that had to be addressed. Overall, the magazine needed an overhaul and required modernizing in many departments. Macmillan archive material shows that eminent scientists were sounded out about the magazine's perceived failings. See the Editors & Eras section for a special essay on Nature under John Maddox.

A formal peer-review system

  • description of imageMaddox's first job was to tackle the backlog of 2,300 unpublished manuscripts. Some scientists complained that during Brimble's editorship the choice of printworthy pieces seemed "arbitrary" and "not up to standard" and that "valuable material was missed" (pictured are minor points from roundtable discussions with scientists. Note point 4: "Nature retains a very Victorian air"). The receipt date of manuscripts was not recorded. The 5,001st issue in 1965 had thirty Letters to the Editor detailing scientific discoveries, in addition to two sections of Articles. Legend has it that the system used to track papers submitted by scientists under Brimble was a particularly wide windowsill, with manuscripts piled high by month — a visible 'histogram' of how much had still to be done. The only solution was a comprehensive refereeing system, which also meant that the referees themselves had to be refereed. It was eighteen months before the backlog of manuscripts was cleared. Image from archives of Macmillan Publishers.

100 years of Nature

  • description of imageBy the time Nature reached its centenary issue (pictured), John Maddox had begun to cast off the antiquated air of the magazine. The most significant introduction was a 'news' section, which actually treated news as something more significant that a mere announcement. News was promoted to the front of the journal to follow the editorials, which continued to address timely issues of the day, and was followed by a reborn 'News and Views' section that decoded complex topics and brought back a readability that had been submerged by increasing specialization. Nature celebrated 100 years with a VIP dinner and a collection of brilliant historical articles, principally authored by Roy Macleod (see the Histories section of this website, Anniversary issues), whose introduction "Is it safe to look back?" (almost certainly written by Maddox) flashes optimistically forward with the reflection: "At this occasion in the domestic history of Nature...it remains an honest objection to win for science...an opportunity to change the world."