‘Dear John’: Collaborating with the British Library on a Research-Based Performance, by Helen Piel

This March, WRoCAH CDP student Helen Piel wrote and co-presented a public engagement event based on her research at the British Library. Here, she describes the event itself and reflects more widely on the collaborative research process.

Helen Piel

School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science

University of Leeds

As a collaborative PhD student, I have two homes: the University of Leeds and the British Library (BL). At both I have been involved in events and outreach opportunities, from organising workshops to giving public lectures and writing blog posts. Several of the latter contributed to British Science Week, a ten-day celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths.

This year, my supervisor at the BL, Jonathan Pledge, and I went bigger for British Science Week: we re-staged an hour-long performance based on my research and archival material. ‘Dear John: The Kin Selection Controversy’ is an event that grew out of a successful collaboration with Undercurrent Theatre, the BL’s first Associate Theatre Company. It deals with a priority conflict between two British evolutionary biologists, William D. Hamilton (1936-2000) and John Maynard Smith (1920-2004). Who was getting the credit for coming up with the idea and maths for biological altruism?

(Today – and for the most part, back in the 1960s to 1980s, when the controversy took place – no one disputes that all credit should go to Hamilton. His papers are some of the most cited in evolutionary biology.)

The event’s focus is on the letters between Hamilton, Maynard Smith, and their colleague George Price (1922-1975). Together with director Laura Farnworth I had decided to write the script in a dynamic documentary style: I split the letters into sections and inserted them into a historical narrative that discussed the controversy’s background and development. Who was involved, and where and when? What were they saying, and why and how?

Neal Craig and Helen Piel performing at the British Library, March 2019. Copyright © The British Library: photograph by Sarah Ellis.


On the evening itself – after read-throughs, rehearsals and, yes, dress rehearsals! – actor Neal Craig brought Hamilton, Maynard Smith and Price to life. His dramatic readings of the letters gave each biologist a distinct character through voice and costume, allowing them to tell their story almost half a century on. As pointed out above, I framed and interjected the letter readings with explanation and analysis, even occasionally interrupting ‘my biologists’: ‘I’m sorry, George, but let me briefly…’ ‘John, may I…?’

The performance was a wonderful success, sparking discussions with the audience afterwards about priority, plagiarism, altruism, senior and junior researcher relationships, and – for some reason or another – something about life and afterlife…? For anyone who missed it: it was recorded live and is available to listen to on the BL’s SoundCloud.

The set, designed by Tanya Joelle Stephenson. Copyright © The British Library: photograph by Sarah Ellis.

In the meantime, I’m back to ‘normal’ PhD life at the Library, working on my thesis around Maynard Smith’s archive, talking about it at events, working with curators on funding applications, archive appraisal and repackaging, and exhibitions.

This collaborative project has been a fantastic opportunity. Having backstage access to and working with and at an institution like the British Library has been invaluable. Not only has it enriched my PhD itself, it has also helped me decide on post-PhD career paths: I’ve been able to be part of both the academic and the GLAM sector (GLAM being galleries, libraries, archives and museums), and while I enjoy both, I am now leaning heavily towards GLAM.

But who knows what’s next: I’ll have to finish my thesis first! Luckily, being 2 ½ years in, there is some light at the end of that tunnel.


Helen’s research project is a collaboration between the University of Leeds and the British Library (BL). It studies the working life of one of the most eminent British evolutionary biologists, John Maynard Smith (1920-2004), whose archive is held by the BL. Against the backdrop of the history of twentieth-century evolutionary biology (with a focus on, but not limited to, Britain), the thesis traces Maynard Smith’s popular, professional and controversial contributions to his field and his engagement with science communication.