‘Riding High on a Spiral’

Wadd Crick letterThis Friday 25 April is ‘DNA Day’, an international celebration of the day in 1953 when James Watson, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin and colleagues at Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, announced the discovery of the famous ‘double-helix’ structure of DNA. I thought this would be a good opportunity to look at some of the Watson and Crick-related material in the ‘Towards Dolly’ collections.

The C.H. Waddington collection contains a copy (GB 237 Coll-41/5/4/2) of Waddington’s review of James Watson’s book The Double Helix (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968). Titled ‘Riding High on a Spiral’ and published in the Sunday Times, 28 May 1968, Waddington compares DNA to playing ‘a role in life rather like that played by the telephone directory in the social life of London: you can’t do anything much without it, but, having it, you need a lot of other things – telephones, wires and so on – as well’ and discusses the importance of Watson, Crick et al’s discovery in the wider context of the life sciences. However, he expresses concern at the purely intellectual and abstract nature of Watson’s work, with little practical familiarity with experimental material: ‘There is no evidence in the book that Jim Watson had ever seen any DNA, let alone started with ten pounds of liver, or whatever, and prepared it. It’s as though one wrote an account of the life of a musician who never did any practice.’

Waddington was certainly not one to mince his words, either in public reviews or private correspondence. This can also be seen in his 1974 correspondence (ref: GB 237 Coll-41/5/3/2) with Francis Crick, who was at this time working in the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. What is particularly interesting about this correspondence is the spirited intellectual discussion – and disagreement – between the two scientists. Crick wrote to Waddington on 6 June 1974 asking Waddington to clarifiy some aspects of his ‘epigenetic landscape’, which Waddington had first proposed in 1957 as a way of visualising the development of a cell or group of cells in an embryo. He depicts the cell/s as a ball rolling down the ‘landscape’ and facing several ‘choices’ as to which way to go – just as the developing embryo is influenced down certain ‘paths’ by various genetic and environmental factors. In his letter, Crick admits to some difficulty in grasping exactly what certain aspects of the landscape might represent.

Waddington’s three-page reply to Crick is more than a little prickly, claiming that ‘it is a very simple and perfectly clear idea.’ Crick retorts on 28 June by stating that the concept seems ‘so vague as to be useless’ and that he would envisage the ball as ‘the lineage of a single cell of the adult animal’ rather than Waddington’s conception of it as ‘cell, tissue or pattern.’ Two weeks later, Waddington writes from his Italian holiday home that Crick seemed to ‘make such heavy weather of grasping the point’; the landscape model should not be applied to every dynamic system and the ball could represent either a single cell or a group of specialised cells. However, this reply still does not satisfy Crick. ‘It was nice of you to write at such length especially when you were on holiday’, he begins on 30 July. However, while the epigenetic landscape ‘may have been a useful idea in the Thirties’, Crick suspects that ‘it has long outlived its usefulness.’ Waddington has still not addressed his main issue, which is that the ball must represent a single cell in order to make sense, as the fertilised egg, ‘where it should all start’, after all is only one cell. His advice to Waddington about his idea? ‘Throw it away and start again!’

Almost a month later and back in Edinburgh, Waddington exasperatedly responds that ‘I should not leave you talking such nonsense without putting some reply on record’. As for the ball having to represent a single cell, he exclaims ‘for Heaven’s sake, why [?]‘ He suspects Crick’s problem is his preoccupation with labelling single cells, tracing clonal descendants and ‘desperately – and not very successfully – looking for some questions that technique can answer. It’s your choice to follow that lead.’

Crick’s final reply in September 1974 is conciliatory: ‘Peace! Peace! I really am trying to get the most of your epigenetic landscape even if at times my manner gets a bit too brisk.’ He suggests that the two meet and discuss the matter face to face later in the year – an occasion where being a fly on the wall would have been quite enlightening!

Clare Button
Project Archivist

Lab Books

Wadd 50 years on draftI have recently been reading about the ‘What Scientists Read’ project, which aims to explore the influence of literature and the arts upon scientific thought and practice. The project has interviewed scientists across the Scottish Central Belt with a view to establishing what their literary predilections and influences are, analysing the different genres discussed and their impact upon scientific work. This project reminded me of a draft of an article in our archived papers of Conrad Hal Waddington, the developmental biologist, embryologist and geneticist who was Director of the Institute of Animal Genetics, Edinburgh and Buchanan Professor of Genetics at the University of Edinburgh from 1947-1975. The article, titled ‘What I Was Reading, Fifty Years Ago’, was published under the title ‘Fifty Years On’ in Nature (Volume 258, Issue 5530, pp. 20-21) in November 1975, two months after Waddington’s early death. The draft typescript, marked with Waddington’s annotations and crossings-out, outlines some of his main literary influences during the years 1925-30 when Waddington was aged 20-25. This was at a time before seminal works by T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound changed the face of modern poetry, so Waddington at this time favoured ‘the English poets of the generation of Wilfrid Owen.’ He also had a keen interest in philosophy. From an early age, Waddington was heavily influenced by the philosopher A.N. Whitehead, lamenting that Whitehead ‘scarcely gets mentioned’, except in the context of being Bertrand Russell’s co-author of Principia Mathematica. Whitehead’s influence on Waddington strongly influenced his way of looking at the world, particularly his opposition to a division between mind and matter. Waddington felt that Whitehead ‘inoculated’ him against ‘the present epidemic intellectual disease, which causes people to argue that the reality of anything is proportional to the precision with which it can be defined in molecular or atomic terms.’

Waddington was also intrigued by thinkers who ‘brought literary criticism and philosophy very near together’, such as I.A. Richards and C.K. Ogden. ‘I doubt’, Waddington muses, ‘if, today, you would find anywhere the intimate interplay between poetry, philosophy and the foundations of science, which Ogden and Richards displayed.’ Waddington’s admiration for this interplay mirrored his own wide-ranging interests. From folk dance and music to art, architecture, ecology, computer science, robotics and more, science for Waddington was always closely integrated within, and informed by, all aspects of man’s life in society and upon earth. What comes across throughout the article is Waddington’s feeling that the flexibility of his interests was partly a product of his time: ‘[i]t was absolutely natural to have interests in philosophy, poetry, even painting, and to allow them to show. This was well before there was considered to be any firm dividing line between the natural or the moral sciences, or even between those and the Arts.’ This ‘dividing line’ between the arts and sciences, famously discussed in a famous 1959 lecture ‘The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution’ by C.P. Snow (incidentally a Cambridge colleague of Waddington’s) is one of the things which the current ‘What Scientists Read Project’ is attempting to combat. Waddington’s article provides an intimate glimpse into his intellectual background and how literature influenced his personality and his approach to science. No doubt ‘What Scientists Read’ will provide similar valuable insights as it progresses; I look forward to seeing the results.

More information on ‘What Scientists Read’ here: http://www.whatscientistsread.com/

Clare Button, Project Archivist

Picture Perfect!

Photo album coverBeing lucky, as I am, to work with a wide variety of archival collections relating to the history of animal genetics in Edinburgh, it can be mightily difficult to select an all-time ‘favourite’ item. However, it was ‘make-up-your-mind time’ last month at the University of Edinburgh’s Innovative Learning Week, when myself and several colleagues from the Centre for Research Collections were invited to give a Pecha Kucha (a fast-paced and time-controlled) presentation on our favourite items or aspects of the collections with which we work.

For me, there were a few strong contenders, but the ultimate winner had to be a photograph album presented to C.H. Waddington, the director of the Institute of Animal Genetics in Edinburgh, by his staff and students on the occasion of his 50th birthday in 1955.

Wad presentation of album

The beautifully presented volume is still in perfect condition and contains a wonderful selection of photographs, all with careful names and annotations. The more formal portraits of staff and scientific researchers give a unique insight into laboratory and research work in the 1950s. In terms of white coats and microscopes, not much has changed today, but I’m not so sure about this suave example of pipe-smoking!

George Clayton

The album also contains pictures of individuals who don’t always feature in the official histories of Edinburgh’s animal genetics community, including the scientists’ wives. The Institute was sometimes rumoured to be a hotbed of scandal and intrigue, so one would like to have been a fly on the wall at this particular party…

Wives cropped

I also love the informal and humorous photographs in the album, which paint a much more individual and human picture of the geneticists’ lives and working environment than can be gained simply through printed papers, research reports and official correspondence. Who can fail to be inspired by pictures of an amateur ballet based on the fruit fly Drosophila, for example?

Drosophila ballet cropped

You can watch a video of the Pecha Kucha here: http://vimeo.com/87273640

A Passage to India: J.B.S. Haldane and the Journal of Genetics

Haldane to Wadd Coll. C.H. Waddington collection contains a folder of correspondence with J.B.S. Haldane, who died 50 years ago this year, concerning the Journal of Genetics. The correspondence, which covers 1956 to 1957, expresses Waddington’s concern at the decision made by Haldane to take the Journal, of which he was editor, out to India with him when he retired.

The Journal of Genetics had a long-standing, although somewhat fraught, relationship with Edinburgh’s Institute of Animal Genetics.  Established in 1910 by two men who could be called the ‘founding fathers’ of the science in Britain, William Bateson (who coined the term ‘genetics’ to encompass its present scientific meaning), and Reginald Punnett (who held the first Chair of Genetics in Britain), it is the oldest English language journal in that field of science. However, in its first few decades it was felt to be inaccessible and somewhat limited in its publication remit by certain more experimental scientists, including those at the Institute of Animal Genetics. This was so much the case that the Institute’s director, F.A.E. Crew and his colleagues at the Institute, Julian Huxley, Lancelot Hogben and others, teamed together in 1923 to establish the Journal of Experimental Biology along with an associated Society of Experimental Biology. As hinted at in its title, the new Journal aimed to publish papers of a more experimental nature covering a wider range of genetical and evolutionary biology theories and hypotheses than covered by the Journal of Genetics at that time.

However, when editorship later passed to physiologist, geneticist, mathematician and general polymath J.B.S. Haldane, his remarkable breadth of interest and abilities and sharp, colourful personality transformed the Journal’s remit and potential (although Waddington claimed he was ‘a rather niggling editor about details and notoriously bad at answering letters’ [part of GB 237 Coll-41/5/2/9 ]).

However, when Haldane decided to retire to India in the late 1950s, where he would become a naturalised citizen, his decision to take the Journal with him caused some consternation in Britain. Waddington, who was Crew’s successor as director of the Institute of Animal Genetics, felt that the editorship should pass over to him and his colleagues and that for Haldane to continue in India would be ‘chaotic’. But Haldane would not be dissuaded, writing with characteristic wryness to Waddington on 19 January 1957:

You can, of course reply that I am an old man and may soon die or lose such intellectual powers as I still possess. I may. But my systolic pressure is 120-130mm Hg. And I have not lost a day’s university teaching through illness since 1930. And meanwhile a thermonuclear bomb or a major economic crisis may affect British publication. When I die or become too senile to edit, there need be no more difficulty in transferring the Journal back to Britain than in transferring it to India.
(part of GB 237 Coll-41/5/2/9).

Following Haldane’s death in 1964, his widow Helen Spurway continued publication in India with Madhav Gadgil, H. Sharat Chandra and Suresh Jayakar until she died in 1977. In 1985, the Indian Academy of Sciences resumed publication of the Journal, which still continues to this day in association with Springer publishing.

Look out for a longer piece here on J.B.S. Haldane late this year!


Printed Material Highlights from the Roslin Collection

With phase I of the Towards Dolly project ending for me, the Rare Books Cataloguer, I thought to look back over the material I’ve worked with and to highlight a few of my favourites from the three different mediums – offprints, rare books and glass plate slides. One of the most interesting things I found when cataloguing this material was the range of topics of interest – the geneticists collected a wide-range of subjects from specifically dealing with animal genetics to ethnography and  botany that opens this material to a variety of researchers.

In the offprint series the two - out of thousands - that I’d like to feature are:

RoslinOffprintDollyUpdateFrom the Roslin Institute offprints, Harry D. Griffin’s article, Update on Dolly and nuclear transfer, Roslin Institute, Edinburgh: Annual Report from 1 April 97 to 31 March 98, (GB237 Coll-1362/4/1848) which discusses the advances in nuclear transfer technology a year after Dolly, the sheep’s birth.


CrewOffprintWJBryanFrom the FAE Crew offprint series, William Jennings Bryan’s closing argument in the Scopes evolution case in Tennessee from 1925. (GB 237 Coll-1496/33 – General Biology 2). Bryan was the prosecuting attorney in the ‘Scopes Monkey Trial’ who argued against the teaching of evolution in schools with Clarence Darrow for the defence.



Two from the rare book collection:


The beautifully illustrated cover contains an interesting map, text and illustrations of the Chinese Langshan fowl in A. C. Croad’s book, The Langshan fowl: history and characteristics from 1899. (Roslin.S.10)




Roslin_S_50-58_7Another beautifully illustrated cover, is a favourite of mine from the nine volume series, The horse : its treatment in health and disease, with a complete guide to breeding training and management, 1905 (Roslin.S.50). Some of the volumes have pop-up style inserts showing the physiology of hooves and mouths layer-by-layer.



And two from the glass plate slides collection:

Ostriches Pigs and PumpkinsThis is one of my absolute favourites from the Roslin glass plate slides collection simply for its oddity - ostriches and pigs in a field of pumpkins with farm houses in the background in the early 20th century. (Coll-1434/1177).



Coffee Ranch in Vera CruzCoffee is a passion of mine and so I was thrilled to find this image of a coffee ranch in Vera Cruz, Mexico in the early 20th century. The image shows a family standing in front of their thatched hut, a man on a horse and two men carrying coffee bean baskets on their back with trees and bushes in the background. (Coll-1434/1103.


Each of these are personal favourites, as well as being a representative sample of the diversity of the collection. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have!

The Hen Who Made History…Nearly

Greenwood photos hen and eggs CROPPED

Edinburgh holds a number of world records in genetics and animal breeding, which, considering its historic significance in the history of the science in Britain, is not all that surprising. Its most famous ‘first’ is of course Dolly the sheep – the first mammal to be cloned from adult cells – although there are many other examples. However, sometimes the ‘almost firsts’ are just as interesting historically, as well as a little poignant, as I found recently when cataloguing the archive of Alan Greenwood, director of the Poultry Research Centre from 1947 to 1962.

Amongst his wonderful collection of photographs is one depicting a hen standing proudly astride crates and baskets of eggs. The caption informs us that the hen is ‘the sister of the hen which laid 1515 eggs in 9 laying years and shared the world’s record.’ This was intriguing enough in itself, but a full explanation wasn’t forthcoming until I came across two typed pages in Greenwood’s collection of draft lectures and articles. Titled ‘So Near and Yet So Far’, this short piece describes the particularly productive life of the chicken named L1641, ‘from which so little and yet so much more was hoped.’

Part of the research carried out at both the Institute of Animal Genetics and the Poultry Research Centre in Edinburgh was concerned with increasing the productivity and economic value of domestic animals by applied genetics and breeding schemes. In the case of chickens, a large aspect of their value clearly lies in the number and quality of eggs they produce. On 10 April 1939 however, a chicken was hatched at the Institute which would push the limits of egg production beyond the expectations of the staff.

Chicken L1641 (as she was wingbanded) laid her first egg soon after the outbreak of the Second World War. From her first year she was a high producer, laying 273 eggs ‘in spite of wartime stringencies’ as Greenwood wryly tells us. Over the next 8 years she produced on average 142 eggs per year. This is high, although not as impressive as the hens which held world records for the number of eggs laid in a single year. In 1915 a white Leghorn hen in Greensboro, Maryland by the name of Lady Eglantine set a record at 314 eggs in one year. A number of Australorp hens in Australia broke this record successively during the 1920s however, with the number of eggs in one year standing at 347 to 354 to 364!

Where Edinburgh’s chicken L1641 excelled, however, was in the total number of eggs produced over a lifetime. By the time she went into moult in the autumn of 1948, she held the joint world record, which stood at 1515 eggs. However, the strain imposed on her calcified and thickened arteries by the moult was too great, and she died before the end of the year. As Greenwood sadly concludes his article, ‘One more egg only and she would have made history.’

Alan Greenwood’s catalogue can be viewed on our brand new website at: http://www.archives.lib.ed.ac.uk/towardsdolly/

A Sample of the Roslin Institute’s Cloning Research Post-Dolly: 1998 and 2007

Dolly and Bonnie

As mentioned in a previous post, Dolly, the sheep caused a media sensation in 1997 as the first cloned animal using a nuclear transfer process  and so, I thought it would be interesting to highlight several articles that I came across on Dolly and cloning at the Roslin Institute in 1998 and then again in 2006. I wondered what cloning research had developed over the years since Dolly, the sheep’s birth in 1996 and surprisingly, or not, the articles I came across (that evoked Dolly) dealt with the issue of eating cloned animal meat and the ethical debate of cloning humans for medical purposes.

Note:  these four articles are just a sampling of the articles produced by the Roslin geneticists on the  issues, debates and research surrounding Dolly, nuclear transfer, animal and human genetics, cloning purposes (medical, agricultural, genetic conservation, etc..) to illustrate what way being discussed at the time. For more articles on these subject, please consult the Roslin Institute off-prints for 1998 and 2006 at GB237 Coll-1362/4/.

Update on DollyIn the 1998 Roslin off-print bound volumes, I found Harry Griffiths report, ‘Update on Dolly and nuclear transfer’ in the Roslin Institute, Edinburgh: Annual Report April 1, 97-March 31 (GB 237 Coll-1362/4/1848) and Sir Ian Wilmut’s article, ‘Cloning for Medicine’ in Scientific American, December 1998 (GB 237 Coll-1362/4/1897). Griffiths report describes Dolly’s creation by the Roslin geneticists and notes that their breakthrough caused several other groups to ‘take advantage of public interest in cloning to advertise their successes …. Calves cloned from adult animals were reported from Japan and from New Zealand.’ The New Zealand clone was from ‘the last surviving animal of a rare breed’  which highlighted the use of cloning to preserve endangered species. He continues with discussing Intellectual Property issues in relation to Professor Yanagimachi and his colleagues at the University of Hawai’i ‘Honolulu Cloning Technique’ and closes with a couple of paragraphs on human cloning. He notes the UK Human Genetics Advisory Commission and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority’s report ‘Cloning  issues in Reproduction, Science and Medicine’ from 7 December, 1998 which recommends that ‘there should be a continued ban on all ‘reproductive  cloning’ – the cloning of babies – but gives cautious support  to the cloning of human cells for therapeutic purposes.’

IMG_4359Wilmut’s article in Scientific American reports on the how biomedical researchers are developing ways to use genetically modified mammals for medical purposes.  He mentions the sheep, Megan and Morag who were the first mammals cloned from cultured cells. A technique that allows cloned sheep to carry human genes and such animals produce milk that can be processed to create therapeutic human proteins. The sheep, Polly, is a transgenic clone of a Dorset sheep and ‘a gene for a human protein, factor IX, was added to the cell that provided the lamb’s genetic heritage, so Poly has the human gene.

In the 2006 Roslin off-print bound volumes, I found two fascinating articles:– Sir Ian Wilmut’s  ‘Human cells from cloned embryos in research and therapy’ in BMJ Vol. 328, February 2004 and J. Sark, et al.’s  ‘Dolly for dinner? Assessing commercial and regulatory trends in cloned livestock’ in Nature Biotechnology, Vol. 25, No. 1, January 2007.

IMG_4371Sir Ian Wilmut’s article ‘Human cells from cloned embryos in research and therapy’ in BMJ Vol. 328, February 2004 is one of the more contemporary papers in the collection that discusses stem cell technology and human cloning issues. He cites studies of human genetic diseases and how cloned cells ‘will create new opportunities to study genetic disease in which the gene(s) involved has not been identified’, specifically describing work with motor-neurone diseases. Then, Wilmut notes how stem cells could be used in treatments for a variety of degenerative diseases, i.e. cardiovascular disease, spinal cord injury, Parkinson’s disease and Type I diabetes. Finally Wilmut discusses the differences in regulation of nuclear transfer and human cloning in various countries, noting that in the United Kingdom, ‘project to derive cells from cloned embryos may be approved by the regulatory authority for the study of serious diseases. By contrast human reproductive cloning would be illegal.’

Dolly for DinnerThen, in 2007, the article by and J. Sark, et al’s ‘Dolly for dinner? Assessing commercial and regulatory trends in cloned livestock’ in Nature Biotechnology, ‘reviews the state of the art in cloning technologies; emerging food-related commercial products; the current state of regulatory and trading frameworks, particularly in the EU and the United states and the potential for public controversy.’

As you can see by these four examples there are a range of issues and concerns that have been discussed over the years. While advances are made in cloning and genetic modification, there are still ethical debates to be had and more research to be done. In reading over these and other similar articles in the Roslin off-prints, I enjoyed learning about the different uses of transgenic animals.

Geoffrey Herbert Beale

Geoffrey Beale, Wadd birthday albumTwo weeks ago, when we posted about the Lysenko Controversy in Soviet Russia, mention was made of Geoffrey Beale’s interest in and knowledge of the Russian language and scientific history. Beale was based at the Institute of Animal Genetics in Edinburgh from 1947 until 1978 and is best known as the founder of malaria genetics. His personal archive, which takes up some 40 boxes and contains notebooks, correspondence, publications and drafts, is currently being catalogued here in Edinburgh University Library Special Collections, so a brief biography may be in order to shed some light on this humane and fascinating man.

Beale, born in Wandsworth, London in 1913, developed a keen interest in Botany while a student in Imperial College, London, despite his parents’ opposition to a scientific career (he was even made to sit a psychological examination which recommended that he become a tax inspector instead!). In his third year of university, Beale completed a summer course in plant genetics given at the John Innes Horticultural Institute, which would shape the course of his future career. Beale was eventually offered a job at the John Innes, receiving his PhD in 1938 and studying, among other things, the chemistry of flower colour variation until being called up to the army in 1941.

Due to having what he called a ‘smattering’ of languages, including Russian, Beale was drafted into the Intelligence Corps (Field Security) and posted to Archangel and then Murmansk, Russia, where he had the opportunity to improve his Russian. Beale was awarded an MBE for his military service in 1947.

After the war, Beale wondered how he would get back into science after his five year absence. Fortunately, he was offered a job at Cold Spring Harbor working with Escherichia coli. Beale also worked for a spell with geneticist Tracy Sonneborn at Bloomington, Indiana, and it was then Beale developed his lifelong interest in the protozoan Paramecium. The award of a Rockefeller Fellowship necessitated his return to the UK in 1947, where he was duly offered a lectureship by C.H. Waddington, who had just arrived in Edinburgh as director of the genetics section of the National Animal and Genetics Research Organisation within the Institute of Animal Genetics. At the Institute, Beale became close friends with Henrik Kacser and Charlotte ‘Lotte’ Auerbach, about whom he would later write an account, and gained funding to design and build dedicated research laboratories, including the Protozoan Genetics building for his research group. This group worked on the genetics of Paramecium and on protozoan parasites, and attracted visiting scientists from all over the world. Beale was appointed a Royal Society Research Professor in 1963, a position he held until his retirement.

In the mid-1960s, Beale developed an interest in malaria genetics, gaining a grant from the Medical Research Council in 1966. Together with programme leader David Walliker, who would become a renowned malariologist, they established a mosquito colony, built an insectary, collected parasite strains and established rodent facilities for African tree rats. The work of another researcher, Richard Carter, helped establish the parasite genetic markers, and the foundations of genetic analysis in malaria parasites were laid. Later research covered the genetic analysis of drug resistance, virulence and the classification of rodent malarias into species and subspecies. He continued his malaria work during a six month visiting professorship at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, establishing a collaborative research programme with Professor Sodsri Thaithong as well as a malaria research laboratory which achieved World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre status. This phase of Beale’s career laid the groundwork for many other scientists working on parasite diversity and genetics. In 1996 Beale was awarded an honorary DSc from Chulalongkorn University, one of the first foreigners to be so honoured.

Beale married Betty MacCallum in 1949 (they were divorced in 1969) and he would often take their three sons to the laboratory with him on Sundays where they would learn about science and film printing techniques. Beale continued to work at the laboratory every day well after his retirement. After 1998 he began work on a new book on Paramecium to show the advances and new directions of research in the area. However, his health was deteriorating and much of the later writing was done by co-author John Preer. The book, Paramecium: Genetics and Epigenetics, was published in 2008, when Beale was 95 years old. Geoffrey Beale died in Edinburgh on 16 October 2009.

We’ll be posting up items of interest from the Beale collection as cataloguing progresses, with the finished catalogue being mounted online on our newly-launched project website at: http://www.archives.lib.ed.ac.uk/towardsdolly/


J. R. Preer Jr and Andrew Tait, ‘Geoffrey Herbert Beale MBE’, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 57: 45-62 (2011)

Geoffrey Beale, ‘Autobiograpy (written July 1997)’, in Coll-1255, EUL Special Collections.

Hermann J Muller (1890-1967), American Geneticist: Radiation and Mutation Studies in the USA, USSR and Edinburgh

Muller LeninContinuing with the Soviet –Edinburgh genetics link, this week’s post focuses on the American geneticist and Nobel laureate, Hermann Joseph Muller (1890-1967) known for his work on the physiological and genetic effects of radiation. Born in New York City, he attended Columbia College for both his undergraduate and graduate degrees focussing on biology and the Drosophila genetics work of Thomas Hunt Morgan’s fly lab and was an early convert of the Mendelian-chromosome theory of heredity — and the concept of genetic mutations and natural selection as the basis for evolution. He formed a Biology Club and also became a proponent of eugenics; the connections between biology and society would be his perennial concern. Muller’s career first took him to the William Marsh Rice Institute, now Rice University  in Houston in 1915, then back to Columbia College in 1918 where he continued teaching and expanding on his work on mutation rate and lethal mutations. In 1919, Muller made the important discovery of a mutant (later found to be a chromosomal inversion) that appeared to suppress crossing-over, which opened up new avenues in mutation rate studies. He was additionally interested in eugenics and investigated After Columbia, he went to the University of Texas and began to investigate radium and x-rays and the relationship between radiation and mutation.  After a period of time Muller became disillusioned with the political situation in the United States and life in Texas and so, in 1932 he moved to Berlin, Germany to work with Nikolai Timofeev-Ressovsky, a Russian geneticist. Initially, his move was to be a limited sabbatical that turned into an eight-year five country stay. Later in 1932 Muller moved to the Soviet Union after being investigated by the FBI due to his involvement with the leftist (Communist) newspaper, The Spark, that he contributed to when in Texas. In Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) then Moscow, Muller worked at the Institute of Genetics where he imported the basic laboratory equipment and flies for a Drosophila lab.Muller Human Genetics USSR At the Institute, Muller organized work on medical genetics and explored the relationship between genetics and radiation in more detail and completed his eugenics book, Out of the Night in which the main ideas dated to 1910. By 1936 Stalin and Lysenko were making it difficult for scientists and geneticists to work in the USSR (see previous post on the Lysenko Controversy) and Muller was forced to leave after Stalin read a translation of his eugenics book.

Muller moved to Edinburgh in September 1937 with c250 strains of Drosophila and began working for the University of Edinburgh. In 1939 the Seventh International Congress on Genetics was held in Edinburgh and Muller wrote a ‘Geneticists’ Manifesto’ in response to the question, “How could the world’s population be improved most effectively genetically?”

In 1940, he moved back to the United States to work with Otto Glaser at Amherst College and consulted on the Manhattan Project as well as a study of the mutational effects of radar. In 1945, owing to difficulties stemming from his Socialist leanings, he moved to Bloomington, Indiana to work in the Zoology Department at Indiana University. In 1946, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for the discovery that mutations can be induced by x-rays”.

Muller signature visitors book

In 1955 Muller was one of eleven prominent intellectuals to sign the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, the upshot of which was the first Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs in 1957, which addressed the control of nuclear weapons. He was a signatory (with many other scientists) of the 1958 petition to the United Nations, calling for an end to nuclear weapons testing, which was initiated by the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling.[3]

3 – John Bellamy Foster (2009). The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet, Monthly Review Press, New York, pp. 71-72.


The Lysenko Controversy: Soviet Genetics and Edinburgh

Lysenko RussianBritain has been fortunate in the freedom it has enjoyed to carry out scientific research; something which has not always been the case with other parts of the world. The animal genetics archives here are full of individual stories of persecution, government interference and other threats to research and human life. In fact, in the 1930s the Institute of Animal Genetics became a haven for many refugees escaping the rise of fascism (not least H.J Muller and Charlotte Auerbach), but there was trouble on the left side of the political spectrum too.

The Seventh International Congress of Genetics was planned to be held in Moscow in 1937, but interminable delays in the planning process meant that eventually a decision was made to relocate to Edinburgh at the later date of August 1939, where the Congress would be hosted by the Institute of Animal Genetics and organised by its director, F.A.E Crew. The exact reasons for such a delay from the Russians were not made apparent to the Congress’ international planning committee, but it would have been clear to anyone with a vague idea of what was afoot in the Soviet Union at that time.

Trofim Lysenko had been director of the Soviet Union’s Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences since the 1920s, where he claimed to have developed a new agricultural technique which promised to solve the Soviet Union’s agricultural crisis and famines. ‘Vernalisation’ seemed like the magic solution, and Lysenko was hailed as a Soviet hero (although his theory did not produce the results he claimed and was backed by fake experimental data). However, the practice did not produce anywhere near the increase in crop yields that he had predicted. Lysenko’s theories were based on the grounds that characteristics that were acquired by an organism during a lifetime could be passed on to the next generation – a theory which went against evolutionary theory and Mendelism.

Once Lysenko was in a position of power, his influence was disastrous for Soviet scientists. He began a campaign of denouncing theoretical genetics and all biologists who did not hold his views. In 1949, genetics was officially declared ‘a bourgeois pseudo-science’ and all geneticists were dismissed from their jobs and genetics research discontinued. Many were also arrested; some were sentenced to death. One victim of the arrests was Nikolai Vavilov, who was to have been Chairman at the Congress of Genetics in Moscow. Once the Congress was relocated to Edinburgh, Vavilov and some 50 Russian geneticists planned to travel over to present their papers. However, less than a month before the Congress was due to begin, Crew and his organising committee learned that the Russians had been forbidden to come; Vavilov was ultimately arrested and died in prison in 1943. Although the Congress went ahead without the Russian delegates, it was much overshadowed by the outbreak of war across Europe. (In fact, Britain declared war on Germany while the Congress was still in progress, and Crew laboured to ensure that all foreign delegates returned safely home, or else sought refuge elsewhere.)

One British geneticist who took a good deal of interest in the ‘Lysenko Controversy’ as it became known, was Geoffrey Beale, best known as the founder of malarial genetics. Beale, who worked within the Institute of Animal Genetics from 1947 until his retirement in 1978, had a lifelong interest in the Russian language. His personal papers and library, currently being catalogued here at Edinburgh University Library Special Collections, contains many examples of his reading and research into Russia and Russian science particularly. His best known article on the subject was ‘The cult of T.D Lysenko: thirty appalling years’, a review (published in the Science Journal, October 1969) of I.M. Lerner’s translation of Z.A. Medvedev’s book The Rise and Fall of T.D Lysenko.

Lysenkoism remained established in many countries in the Eastern Bloc, and in China until the late 1950s. The ban on genetics research was finally lifted in the Soviet Union in 1964 when Lysenko retired from his post. In Beale’s words, the Lysenko affair was ‘the most extraordinary, tragic and in some ways absurd, scientific battle that there has ever been.’