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Topical Budget 485-2: Distinguished Scientist's Remarkable Request (1920)


Main image of Topical Budget 485-2: Distinguished Scientist's Remarkable Request (1920)
35mm, black and white, 55 feet
Production CompanyTopical Film Company

The unorthodox burial of the scientist Spencer Pickering, who requested that his burial plot face the dawn.

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This Topical Budget item records the eccentric funeral ceremony for the distinguished biochemist and horticulturalist Spencer Pickering (1858-1920), who had died on 5 December 1920, after what his obituarist E.J. Russell described as "a long and wearisome illness". His funeral was carried out according to his directions: he asked for his coffin to be buried on the Devonshire coastline and arranged so that his head was pointing in the direction of the dawn.

Pickering's wealthy family provided him with sufficient private means to pursue his experiments without worrying about a career. He also initially shunned a conventional academic environment, abandoning university education after taking a First in Science at Balliol College, Oxford, in favour of setting up an independent laboratory at his own house in Bryanstone Square, London.

There, he conducted extensive research into the physical properties of assorted mixtures of acids and water, which initially made his reputation. In 1881 he took up a lectureship at Bedford College, but this came to an end after a serious laboratory mishap in 1887 led to the loss of an eye as well as other associated illnesses.

On medical advice, he moved to the village of Harpenden in Hertfordshire. From then on, his experiments would largely be in the field of horticulture. In 1894, he established the Woburn Experimental Fruit Farm with the support of his former university friend the Duke of Bedford, in order to investigate the care and productivity of fruit trees from the ground up (in the most literal sense). Many of his results seemed to fly in the face of accepted wisdom, but were proved correct.

As a side-effect of his Woburn experiments, he observed that the development of fruit trees was affected by the presence of grass. After much investigation, he concluded that when two differing plants are grown in the same environment, toxic side-effects may be produced which inhibit growth - which is one of the reasons why weeds are undesirable.

But the scientific process that bears his name is that of Pickering stabilisation, resulting from work he conducted in 1907 that established that emulsions could be stabilised by small particles instead of emulsifying agents - a discovery that had spin-off benefits in a great many industries, including food and cleaning.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
Complete film (1:03)
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