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Safeguarding the atom: the nuclear enthusiasm of Muriel Howorth



There was more than one response to the nuclear age. Countering well-documented attitudes of protest and pessimism, Muriel Howorth (1886–1971) models a less examined strain of atomic enthusiasm in British nuclear culture. Believing that the same power within the atomic bomb could be harnessed to make the world a ‘smiling garden of Eden’, she utilized traditionally feminine domains of kitchen and garden in her efforts to educate the public about the potential of the atom and to ‘safeguard’ it on their behalf. Boldly entering an overtly masculine arena in which, as a woman and a layperson, she was doubly an ‘other’, Howorth used a variety of publications, organizations and staged events to interpret atomic science and specifically to address women. Her efforts, dating roughly from 1948 to 1962, preceded but had broad overlaps with official Atoms for Peace programmes, and culminated in the formation of the Atomic Gardening Society in 1960 to promote the cultivation of gamma-irradiated seeds by British gardeners.

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1 Howorth's relationship with Soddy is the only aspect of her life detailed in secondary sources, and is thoroughly covered in the modern biography of Soddy by Merricks, Linda, The World Made New: Frederick Soddy, Science, Politics, and Environment, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Howorth's unusual atomic activism was first published by Sophie Forgan, and appears in her work on the representations of atomic science in Britain between 1945 and 1960. Forgan, Sophie, ‘Atoms in wonderland’, History and Technology (2003) 19, pp. 177196.

2 Hatton, Austin, ‘Atomic vegetables investigated’, Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, 27 October 1959.

3 A photograph of Muriel Howorth, wearing a fantastic hat and presenting a model of the lithium atom to the mayor of Eastbourne, is among her personal papers. The mayor appears befuddled by the gift. Howorth's personal papers are uncatalogued. They will be referred to in these endnotes as the Wilkinson Collection, as they are now in the possession of her grandchildren.

4 Howorth, Muriel, Isotopia: An Exposition on Atomic Structure … Written in the Form of a Mime to be Produced by Fourteen Players, Eastbourne, 1949. The pantomime Isotopia was never formally published; the typewritten, hand-bound copy in the British Library is the only one known to exist. It details the fourteen players; their spangled, silver and parachute-cloth costumes; and their dance steps as they illustrated the forward march of atomic knowledge from Democritus to the Geiger counter.

5 This account of the dinner at which irradiated peanuts were served is found in Howorth, Muriel, Atomic Gardening, Eastbourne: New World Publications: Distributed in the USA by Rogers Book Service, 1960, p. 14.

6 Among the Wilkinson Collection are two typewritten atomic ‘résumés’ of her activities, dated 1962 and 1964. Who's Who in Atoms was published by Harrap Research Publications, London. Muriel Howorth appears in the 1969 volume.

7 For the concept of the other in popular science see Bensaude-Vincent, Bernadette, ‘A historical perspective on science and its “Others”’, Isis (2009) 100, pp. 359368.

8 For the role of biography in the history of science see Terrall, Mary, ‘Biography as cultural history of science’, Isis (2006) 97, pp. 306313.

9 Howorth's account of her receipt of the letter is contained in the Introductory to her biography of Soddy. Muriel Howorth, Introductory, in Howorth, Pioneer Research on the Atom: The Life Story of Frederick Soddy, London: New World Publications, 1958.

10 Howorth, op. cit. (9).

11 Kirk Willis discusses Soddy's pre-war atomic writings and influence at length. Willis, Kirk, ‘The origins of British nuclear culture, 1895–1939’, Journal of British Studies (1995) 34, pp. 5989.

12 Merricks, op. cit. (1), p. 180.

13 Details of Howorth's pre-atomic activism are summarized from her autobiographical Ideas and Aspirations. Sheldon Wilkinson, Ideas and Aspirations, Eastbourne, 1937. She was born Muriel Edgar, and married Sheldon Wilkinson, a naval officer, in 1913. They divorced in 1929. She married Major Humphrey Howorth in 1937. She dropped the ‘Mrs’ and always used the name ‘Sheldon Wilkinson’ for her film-related activities, which are significant enough in their own right to deserve further study. In addition to her work with the Talkiefone and WIFA, she filmed in Turkey and Greece and produced a short film of the bishop of London. Howorth said she was working on another autobiography, which would have included her atomic activities, during the last years of her life. No trace of it has been found.

14 Howorth formed at least two other societies for women: the Britannia League, c.1939, and the New Parthenon, c.1964. These were never organizations for the promotion of women's rights; rather they were forums that provided a venue for women (and particularly Howorth herself) to air their opinions in a setting of educative lectures. Limited materials from both societies are among the Wilkinson papers.

15 Howorth constructed all of her societies with a quite modern attention to what would now be called ‘branding’: generating slogans, logos and letterheads that gave the impression of a large organization; issuing press releases; self-publishing supporting documents; and attaching the organization to a reputable public figure.

16 Muriel Howorth was very proud of Einstein's response, and quoted it often. Actual copies of any correspondence between them have not been found: Howorth, op. cit. (9), p. 324. According to family history, she also met Einstein at one of the Nobel laureates' meetings she attended with Soddy.

17 See, for example, Bensaude-Vincent, Bernadette, ‘A genealogy of the increasing gap between science and the public’, Public Understanding of Science (2001) 10, pp. 99113.

18 Howorth's correspondence with Frederick Soddy is archived at the Bodleian Library, and well characterized by Merricks. Howorth's limited correspondence with Niels Bohr is preserved in his archives in Copenhagen: Niels Henrik David Bohr General Correspondence Box: Ho–Hv, OCLC# 488870926.

19 According to a record of education in the Wilkinson Collection, Muriel attended Canon Francis Holland College in London and then the Royal Academy of Arts, becoming a licentiate and following her studies with finishing schools in France and Vienna.

20 Layman, A, ‘The Nobel prizewinner's conference in Lindau, Bavaria’, Atomic Digest (1953), pp. 1825.

21 This quote of Soddy's was another favourite of Howorth's. She gave it a prominent place in a small pamphlet of quotes by Soddy which she published on the occasion of his death, though it was hardly one of the most important pronouncements of a Nobel laureate.

22 ‘Royal Society to Major H. Howorth, 7 May 1953’, Atomic Digest (1953), p. 26.

23 The methods by which Howorth obtained, reconfigured and communicated expert knowledge to her lay members are worthy of further study.

24 Anon., ‘Foreign news: the explosion and all’, Time, 30 October 1950, p. 40, available online at,9171,805562,00.html.

25 Anon., op. cit. (24).

26 Anon., op. cit. (24).

27 Howorth, Muriel, Atom and Eve, London: New World Publications, 1955, p. 8. In the foreword to Atom and Eve, Howorth refers obliquely to some of her prior atomic activities, recording that she had spoken about the peaceful uses of the atom to ‘many audiences in London’ seven years prior, which would have been in 1948. She later states that ‘a little while ago a women's organization asked me to write a thousand-word study essay on the Peacetime Uses of Atomic Energy’ (p. 22), and ‘as far back as 1948, having contacts from a year's stay in America, I wrote to the universities for information as to progress being made in atomic energy for peaceful purposes’, and ‘a paper I subsequently wrote on the subject’ (p. 45).

28 Anon., op. cit. (24), p. 40.

29 See particularly Forgan, op. cit. (1), pp. 178–179. Forgan notes that the idea of the observant, intelligent layman was particularly strong in the British imagination in the period from 1945 to 1960.

30 Howorth used the term ‘layman’ in a non-gendered fashion, including as a self-reference. See Howorth, op. cit. (27), p. 71.

31 Howorth, op. cit. (27), pp. 7–8.

32 Howorth, op. cit. (27), p. 7.

33 Forgan, op. cit. (1), p. 231. The emphasis of statements such as these is on the supposed simplicity of science rather than the presumed intelligence of the public.

34 Howorth, op. cit. (27), p. 35.

35 ‘Meetings in London’, Atomic Digest (1954) 2, p. 31.

36 Howorth, op. cit. (27), p. 46.

37 Hatton, op. cit. (2).

38 Clare Booth Luce, ‘The role of women in the atomic age’, in Saint Mary's College Notre Dame, Commencement Address, 31 May 1947.

39 Howorth, H., ‘Editorial’, Atomic Digest (1955), p. 2. Though this editorial at the front of the Summer 1954 issue of Atomic Digest was signed H. Howorth, it was clearly the voice and ideas of M. Howorth.

40 Bennet, Margot, The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Atomic Radiation, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964, pp. 105120.

41 House of Commons debates, Nuclear Explosions (Genetic Effects), 22 March 1955. Full text of the debate is available online at

42 Howorth, op. cit. (27), p. 71.

43 Dennis, Nigel, ‘A treasury of eccentrics’, Life, 2 December 1957, p. 112.

44 The author is grateful to Ingrid Jendrzejewski for making me aware of atomic protest songs and dramas at the 2010 Conference on British Nuclear Culture at the University of Liverpool.

45 Golden Gate Quartet, Atom and Evil (1947), lyrics available at, 1947.

46 Krige, John, ‘Atoms for peace, scientific internationalism, and scientific intelligence’, Osiris (2006) 21, pp. 161181.

47 Krige, op. cit. (46), p. 165.

48 ‘Atomic science: an announcement’, New Scientist, 20 December 1956, p. 5.

49 This overlap is noted by editor Andrew Bone in the ‘Introduction’ to Bertrand Russell, Detente or Destruction, 1955–57, in The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell (ed. Andrew G. Bone), vol. 29, London: Routledge, 2005, p. v.

50 Muriel Howorth's only son, Dr David Wilkinson, recorded some of his recollections of his mother in a series of 2003 letters to Sophie Forgan regarding her Atoms in Wonderland publication. These are part of the Wilkinson Collection.

51 The Wilkinson Collection contains a ‘Staff records’ form on which Howorth wrote a chronology of her education and employment. Along with her affiliation with the Atomic Energy Department, she recorded the acronyms RDAC and RDACI, which the author has been unable to decipher.

52 Events and locations are summarized from the announcements in Atomic Digest.

53 Roseby, M., ‘International banquet’, Atomic Digest (1954), p. 3.

54 Roseby, op. cit. (53), pp. 3–8.

55 In 1946 oversight of atomic energy was transferred from the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research to the Ministry of Supply by the Atomic Energy Act. It was transferred again to the UK Atomic Energy Authority, a statutory corporation, by the Atomic Energy Act of July 1954.

56 Howorth, op. cit. (9), p. 324.

57 Howorth, Muriel, ‘Atomic World Liason Service’, Atomic Digest (1955), p. 2.

58 Sophie Forgan points out the effect of post-war rationing on printing quality and the lack of illustration in British Cold War publications, leading to a ‘reliance on old established textual representations’. Forgan, op. cit. (1), pp. 177–178.

59 Anon., ‘Atoms for peace exhibition ends successful five-month British tour’, Atoms for Peace Digest (1955), p. 3.

60 Anon., op. cit. (59).

61 No membership records for any of Muriel Howorth's societies have been found. This reference to 250 members is found in a newspaper article dated Saturday, 3 September 1955 in the Wilkinson Collection. The headline has been removed from the clipping, so the original source is unknown.

62 The author has found neither the exact last date of publication nor any comment from Muriel on the reasons for its conclusion.

63 The IAIL continued after 1955, at some point retitled the New Institute of Atomic Information, but the demise of Atomic Digest means that evidence of their activities is limited. There is an invitation to an ‘Inaugural Dinner’ in 1958 within the Howorth correspondence at the Niels Bohr archive, and a new post-1955 letterhead ‘From the directorate of Atomic Information: a federation of laymen for atomic information, Ltd., Journal: Atom Review’ amongst Muriel's personal papers. No record of the Atom Review has been found. Also in the personal papers is a clipping (without header or date) of a newspaper article referring to the demonstration of a laser at the fifteenth-anniversary gathering of Mrs Howorth's Institute of Atomic Information. Taking 1948 as the inaugural year, as Howorth usually did, would mean the event occurred in 1962.

64 The account of the dinner and the peanut plant is summarized from Howorth's account in Atomic Gardening. Howorth, op. cit. (5), pp. 13–17.

65 Howorth, op. cit. (5), p. 14.

66 In addition to Howorth's own account in Atomic Gardening, see Marjorie Hillary, ‘So her peanut plant is filmed for TV’, Eastbourne Herald Chronicle, 24 October 1959, pp. 6, 9. The portrait of the atomic peanut plant was printed on the dust cover of Atomic Gardening.

67 Howorth, op. cit. (5), p. 16.

68 Algeo, John, Fifty Years among the New Words: A Dictionary of Neologisms, 1941–1991, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 148.

69 David Riechle, U.S. Atomic Energy Commission's Environmental Research Programs Established in the 1950s (HISAP, 1997 (cited 2011)); available from∼webworks/cpr/pres/104816.pdf. A manuscript surveying the plant irradiation experiments, including the entrepreneurial activities of C.J. Speas and a detailed account of the Atomic Gardening Society, is currently in preparation by the author. The obvious parallels to modern genetically modified crops remain to be explored.

70 Manchester, Harland, ‘The new age of atomic crops’, Popular Mechanics (October 1958), p. 106.

71 Author, ‘Notes and comments’, Gardeners Chronicle, 19 January 1957, p. 58.

72 Bowen, H.J.M. and Cawse, P.A., ‘Some effects of gamma radiation on plant transpiration’, Radiation Research (1960) 13, pp. 395402.

73 Bowen, H.J.M., Cawse, P.A. and Dick, M.J., ‘The induction of sports in chrysanthemums by gamma radiation’, Radiation Botany (1961) 1, pp. 297304.

74 Bowen, H.J.M., Cawse, P.A. and Smith, S.R., ‘The effects of low doses of gamma radiation on plant yields’, International Journal of Applied Radiation and Isotopes (1962) 13, pp. 487492. These experiments were also referred to in the popular press: Fraser, Donald, ‘Radioactive gardening’, Gardeners Chronicle, 31 October 1959, p. 237.

75 Howorth, op. cit. (5), p. 47.

76 Howorth, op. cit. (5), p. 65.

77 Howorth, op. cit. (5), Preface.

78 Howorth, op. cit. (5), p. 23.

79 Howorth, op. cit. (5), p. 65. Howorth detailed the organization of the AGS, the members of the Scientific Advisory Committee and the gardens where atomic plants were located in an Appendix to Atomic Gardening.

80 Howorth, op. cit. (5), p. 47.

81 Berland, Theodore, ‘Atomic gardens of tomorrow – now’, Oak Ridge Business and Industry (1960), p. 146.

82 Muriel Howorth may again be crediting her husband with what was in fact her own endeavour. Family memories regarding Humphrey Howorth's disdain for those involved in trade make it unlikely that he would have considered selling seeds an appropriate profession. The atom-blasted seeds were imported and distributed by Van Hage Ltd. Howorth, op. cit. (5), p. 24.

83 Hillary, Marjorie, ‘“Atomic gardeners” take a stand at RHS Show’, Eastbourne Herald Chronicle, 15 October 1960, p. 6.

84 Howorth, op. cit. (5), p. 23. The atomic garden was featured in publicity cards from Wannock Gardens, some of which remain in the personal collection of Jenny Wootton, daughter of owner Harold Wootton. She also retains a silver cup inscribed ‘NC4X’ which was awarded to their head gardener, Mr Mutch.

85 Howorth, op. cit. (5), p. 24.

86 27 June and 10 July 1963 letters in the archives of A.M. Young at the University of Durham are written on Atomic Gardening Society letterhead listing Dr Thomas Gray as president: MSS.79/ASW/6/25.

87 For an extensive discussion of atomic dreams and disappointment in American culture relative to the Atoms for Peace programme see Boyer, Paul, By the Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994. No equivalent compilation exists for British nuclear culture.

88 Osborne, Thomas S., Improving Plants with Radiation, Oak Ridge: Oak Ridge Atom Industries, Inc., 1960.

89 This quote is taken from one of two undated letters from Muriel Howorth to Harold Wootton of Wannock Gardens, which are in the possession of his daughter Jenny Wootton.

90 Nieburg, H.L., ‘Atoms for peace: hope deferred’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 1964, p. 35.

91 See the current state of the joint FAO/IAEA programme of the United Nations: ‘Nuclear techniques in food and agriculture’, at

92 Howorth certainly knew of these, and says when referring to atomic models in Atom and Eve, ‘some of you will have seen them in the South Kensington Museum and other exhibitions’.

93 One of Howorth's supporters and fellow atomic gardeners, F.R. Paulsen, wrote the Introductory to Atomic Gardening, in which he said of her, ‘Were she a scientist her enthusiasm and ebullience of bright ideas would surely have made her a pioneer of the Nobel Prize class.’ F.R. Paulsen, Introductory, in Howorth, op. cit. (5).

Muriel Howorth's grandchildren – Julia, David and John, and granddaughter-in-law Sue – generously opened the family home, their personal memories and ‘Mitzi's’ mementos to me. Fellow historian Valerie Joynt drove me all the way from Hampshire to Eastbourne to find Muriel's home and two atomic garden sites, including Wannock Gardens where Jenny Wootton shared remembrances of her father's atomic gardening. Samantha Hide of the Eastbourne Library searched out important local publicity surrounding Muriel's atomic efforts. The University of Tulsa librarians patiently answered many requests for obscure atomic publications, research assistant Kate Nelson helped me sort and transcribe them, and the University of Tulsa Office of Research supported my attendance at the 2010 conference on British Nuclear Culture at the University of Liverpool to present the genesis of this paper. All were essential to the writing of this article, and have my sincere gratitude.

Safeguarding the atom: the nuclear enthusiasm of Muriel Howorth



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