Mary Lyon (1925-2014) – Edinburgh connections

M.M. Perry, R. Phillips, S. Dare-Delaney, M. Lyon, Edinburgh (1950s), from EUA IN1/ACU/A1/5/7

M.M. Perry, R. Phillips, S. Dare-Delaney, M. Lyon, Edinburgh (1950s), from EUA IN1/ACU/A1/5/7

We were saddened to hear recently of the passing of Mary Lyon, a distinguished mouse geneticist. Born in 1925 in Norwich, Mary was best known for her X-chromosome inactivation hypothesis, which proposed that one of the two X chromosomes in every cell of female mammals is inactivated. Mary worked at the MRC Radiobiology Unit in Harwell from 1955 until her death, becoming head of the genetics division (later the Mammalian Genetics Unit) in 1995. What is perhaps not so well-known is that her early work took place in Edinburgh, at the Institute of Animal Genetics.

Mary began at the Institute in 1948 to continue her PhD on mouse genetics, which she had begun in Cambridge under R.A. Fisher. This was after studying zoology at Girton College, Cambridge (although, as women were not allowed to be official members of the University until 1948, Mary was only awarded a ‘titular degree’). The Institute of Animal Genetics, then under the directorship of C.H. Waddington, possessed superior histology facilities, which she needed for her work. Mary ended up staying for a further five years after her PhD, working with Toby Carter on a project funded by the Medical Research Council to study mutagenesis in mice (this was at a time, following the Second World War and atomic bombs in Japan, of great concerns about the effects of nucelar fallout in the atmosphere). In a 2010 interview, Mary Lyon stated that, out of her whole career, it was her time in Edinburgh that she enjoyed the most: ‘It was a very lively academic atmosphere…a big genetics lab and a lot of able and enthusiastic geneticists.’ The above photograph, from the Institute of Animal Genetics archives, shows Mary (far right) with (right to left) Institute Librarian Stella Dare-Delaney, Mary’s assistant Rita Phillips, and distinguished molecular geneticist and embryologist Margaret Perry.

Toby Carter’s Mutagenesis Unit moved south to Harwell in order to find more space in which to breed and keep mice, taking Mary with it, as well as Rita Phillips. Scientists working with Douglas Falconer in Edinburgh had been the first to discover X-linked mutants in mice. With this discovery in mind, Mary, noticed that female mice carrying X-linked coat colour mutations had mottled coats. Male mice which inherited a mottled coat (i.e. a mutant gene on their single X-chromosome) all died, but the females survived. This must mean that the female possessed one, inactivated, mutant gene on one X-chromosome, but a normal gene on the other chromosome, which was activated – therefore a female mouse needs only one X chromosome for normal development. This inactivation of one of the two X chromosomes in the cells of females is still called ‘Lyonisation’, and the discovery had profound implications for understanding the genetic basis of X-linked diseases such as Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. Grahame Bulfield, later director of the Roslin Institute, first positioned the mouse muscular dystrophy mutant on the X-chromosome using Mary’s stock of mouse X-chromosome mutants.

Over the next six decades, Mary also made important studies of Chromosome 17 and ‘the t-complex’, which had significant bearings on the understanding of non-Mendelian inheritance (a departure from the expected one-to-one ratio due to the abnormal segregation of chromosome pairs). Mary’s work pioneered the use of the mouse as a model organism for advances in cell and developmental biology as well as molecular medicine, and laid the foundations for comprehending the human genome. She chaired the Committee on Standardised Genetic Nomenclature for Mice from 1975 to 1990, was made a foreign associate of the US National Academy of Sciences, and was a Fellow of the Royal Society (being the 28th woman to be elected such). In 2004, the Mary Lyon Centre opened at Harwell, a leading international centre for mouse genetics, and in 2014 the UK Genetics Society created the Mary Lyon medal.

Mary died on Christmas Day 2014, aged 89, ‘after drinking a glass of sherry, eating
her Christmas lunch and settling down in her favourite chair for a nap’.

The University of Edinburgh’s remembrance of Mary Lyon can be read here:

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Project Archivist


– ‘The Gift of Observation: An Interview with Mary Lyon’, Jane Gitschier (2010),
– ‘Mary F. Lyon (1925-2014): Grande dame of mouse genetics’, Sohaila Rastan, Nature, 518, (05 February 2015)

Frozen: The story of Frostie the calf

Frostie calf CROPIan Wilmut is best known for his involvement with the team which cloned Dolly the sheep in 1996. However, his scientific career, which spans more than five decades, includes a variety of groundbreaking achievements and discoveries, which are being revealed as his papers are catalogued as part of the continuing ‘Towards Dolly’ and ‘The Making of Dolly’ projects.

Ian Wilmut initially wished to work as a farmer, but he ‘shuffled sideways into scientific research’*, as he puts it, and ultimately won a scholarship as an undergraduate at Nottingham University to work for two months under Chris Polge at  the Animal Research Station in Cambridge. His role was to help out generally with experiments, but he soon became fascinated by embryos, and returned to work with Polge once he graduated. Wilmut’s PhD, awarded in 1971, was on the freezing of boar semen. Copies of Wilmut’s published papers exist in the archive from 1969 onwards, and a glance through the papers which appeared over the next decade reveal Wilmut’s wide-ranging research on the effects of freezing, thawing and warming on embryos and spermatozoa in mice, sheep and cattle.

In 1973, Wilmut was the first scientist to successfully freeze a calf embryo (using liquid nitrogen), thaw it, and transfer it to a surrogate mother. This process led to the birth of a healthy red and white Hereford-Friesian cross calf, which Wilmut wryly named ‘Frostie’. Wilmut’s findings were published within a few weeks of Frostie’s birth in The Veterinary Record as ‘Experiments on the low-temperature preservation of cow embryos’ (June 30 1973, 686-690), and a copy of the reprint survives in the archives. Wilmut has remarked that this was ‘one of the fastest scientific publications ever’. It also led to some considerable interest from the world’s media, with Wilmut appearing on television and newspapers from as far away as New Zealand seizing upon the story. This media attention was a precursor to the storm which Wilmut, Keith Campbell and team would generate two decades later when Dolly the sheep was born. Wilmut’s discovery of the viability of frozen embryos to produce healthy offspring has since been used across many different species in agriculture and also for the conservation of rare breeds. The first human to be born from a frozen embryo was Zoe Leyland, born in Melbourne in 1984.

Wilmut’s work with Chris Polge equipped him with many of the techniques in reproductive physiology which would instruct his later work on cloning, nuclear transfer, stem cell and regenerative medicine in Edinburgh, where Wilmut moved in 1973. Throughout his career Wilmut has been inspired by the possibilities of advances in reproductive physiology and biotechnology for fertility treatments,practical applications to the farming industry and breakthroughs in treatments or cures for debilitating genetic diseases.

*All quotes taken from The Second Creation: the age of biological control by the scientists who cloned Dolly, I. Wilmut. K. Campbell and C. Tudge (London, 2000).
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Project Archivist

Science From The Tomb…


Coll-1364/1/6: Papers of R.A. Beatty

It’s nearly Hallowe’en, when spooky subjects are foremost in our minds. An ideal time, then, to look at some rather unusual correspondence from the Richard Alan Beatty archive about Egyptian mummies! At first glance, this might seem an unlikely research subject for a reproductive physiologist, but Beatty had his reasons. Writing from the Institute of Animal Genetics to the Department of Egyptian Antiquities at the British Museum in July 1977, Beatty asks whether he may have a sample of ‘a testis of an Egyptian mummy’ to enable him to assess whether ‘ certain aspects of chromosome structure and spermatozoan morphology are stable’. In his letter, Beatty realises his request may be a ‘long shot’, but if it worked, ‘it could make an entertaining letter to Nature.’

Beatty was to be disappointed at first. He received a reply three days later from the Keeper of Egyptian Antiquities at the British Museum regretting that, as all their mummies were still in their wrapped state, the Museum could not allow any ‘surgical operation’ to take place. In reply, Beatty understands this restriction, but wonders if he could obtain any mummified cats instead, as ‘there would be merit in looking first at a mummy of some mammal other than man.’ He adds: ‘I read that 100,000 mummified cats were sold for fertiliser in the last century, and this made me hope that cats are in plentiful supply!’ However, he learned that those mummified animals in the Department’s collection were wrapped as well, and so also unavailable for study.

However, Beatty was directed to the Museum’s Department of Zoology, where he had better luck. This Department boasted a collection of mummified ‘monkeys, cats, dogs, and mongooses’, and were happy to let Beatty take a testis sample from an adult male dog from the W.M. Flinders Petrie collection, which was in an unwrapped state. He would also be permitted a sample from a human mummy in the Department of Palaeontology. Beatty visited the Museum on 16 December 1977 to take his samples, having been advised that ‘a strong sharp scalpel’ would be needed, the consistency of the mummified tissue being like ‘very hard leather’. Ever prepared, Beatty tested out his scalpel on ‘an old leather boot’ beforehand!

From a report amidst the correspondence, it appears Beatty was eventually successful in getting his samples from the dog and human mummies:

Testis cores taken 16/12/77, wrapped in polythene, placed in tube, tube later maintained in dessicator.

Dog: Consistency very hard – almost rock-like…

Human: Consistency like medium hard cheese, very oily in texture.

It is not clear from Beatty’s archive exactly what resulted from his research on the Egyptian mummies – so we’d be delighted to hear from anyone who may know more about it! In the meantime, you can read more about the strange story, mentioned by Beatty, of the 180,000 mummified cats brought over to England from Egypt in the nineteenth century to be used as fertiliser here:

Happy Hallowe’en everyone!

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Project Archivist

Freshers’ Week – 1870 style

Early portrait of James Cossar Ewart (GB 237 Coll-14/4/2)

Early portrait of James Cossar Ewart (GB 237 Coll-14/4/2)

This week is one of the busiest times of the year for the University of Edinburgh, and a momentous week for our brand new students – it’s Fresher’s Week!

The ‘Towards Dolly’ collections are rich in detail about the research and careers of Edinburgh’s scientists, but there isn’t so much concerning the early parts of their lives. So I was especially surprised when, cataloguing the archives of James Cossar Ewart (Professor of Natural History, 1882-1927) during an earlier part of the project, I came across a perfectly preserved diary from his undergraduate days. This small volume, filled with Ewart’s flowery but sometimes erratic handwriting, captures precious details from his own first experiences of student life. In some ways, they don’t differ hugely from the experiences of a fresher from today; in others, they reveal a University on the brink of major changes, particularly where the education of women was concerned. Continue reading

Research and Refugees – Edinburgh genetics during the 1940s

George Clayton

Last Friday I delivered a talk on genetics in Edinburgh during the 1940s as part of the Scotland-wide Festival of Museums, for which Edinburgh University Library and Collections took the 1940s as its inspiration. This was of course a turbulent decade for the world in general, but not least for the science of genetics. In the four decades since the rediscovery of Mendel’s laws in 1900, scientists were gaining a greater understanding of the gene through the chromosome theory of inheritance and mutation studies, yet the discovery of the structure of DNA itself was yet to be discovered. The 1940s represented a crossroads for genetics, and Edinburgh was an important world player in its future.

Let us begin in the year 1939, when Edinburgh’s Institute of Animal Genetics hosted the prestigious 7th International Congress of Genetics. Originally scheduled for Moscow in 1937, the repressive Stalinist regime made this impossible. After some discussion, Edinburgh was chosen as the most appropriate location for the Congress, now rescheduled for the last week in August 1939. Over 40 Russian scientists were to give papers, alongside delegates from all over the world. However, it would not be plain sailing. Shortly before the Congress was due to begin, the director of the Institute Francis Crew received word that the Russians had been forbidden to attend, and the Congress programme had to frantically reshuffled. Things went from bad to worse once the Congress actually began, as war erupted across Europe and delegates from various countries began to return to their home countries while they could. Once the Congress was over, Crew, who was on the Territorial Reserve of officers, was mobilised, and posted to the command of the military hospital at Edinburgh Castle. He left the Institute in the hands of poultry geneticist Alan Greenwood.

KB Home Guard transport

The King’s Buildings Home Guard Transport Unit

During the lean five years which followed, the Institute did its bit for the war effort. The land adjoining the Institute building was used for allotments for growing animal feed and planting vegetables. All male staff joined the ARP or Home Guard as well as the Watch and Ward parties for the protection of University buildings, while the women were involved in First Aid work. The annual report for 1940-41 records that everyone was given ‘a daily dose of halibut liver oil to reduce the incidence of winter colds’! Genetics teaching and research continued as much as possible by a skeleton staff, including Charlotte Auerbach, who would make a major scientific discovery during this period.

Lotte Auerbach, Wadd birthday album

Charlotte Auerbach

Charlotte (‘Lotte’ to her friends) Auerbach was from a scientific German Jewish family, and had sought refuge in Edinburgh after being dismissed from her teaching job in Berlin under Hitler’s anti-Semitic laws. Once established at Crew’s Institute, she had begun a developmental study of the legs of Drosophila, the fruit fly. But the arrival at the Institute of Hermann Joseph Muller in 1937 changed Auerbach’s career forever. Muller was the outstanding scientist of his generation: he had been part of Thomas Hunt Morgan’s famous ‘Fly Room’ at Columbia University in the 1910s, helping to formulate the groundbreaking chromosome theory; Muller’s later discovery that X-rays cause mutation, gained him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. But he arrived in Edinburgh a broken man after undergoing political and racial persecution in America, Germany and the Soviet Union. Muller had a radical effect on the staff and students at the Institute, and he quickly interested Charlotte Auerbach in mutation studies.

In 1940, the year Muller returned to America, Auerbach and her colleague J.M. Robson were tasked with conducting research into mustard gas. They were not told the true nature of the work, which had been commissioned by the Chemical Defence Establishment of the War Office. Auerbach reported sustaining horrific injuries to her skin from working with the gas with inadequate apparatus, but it shortly became clear that the results were astonishing for the science of genetics. Mustard gas caused mutations in similar ways to X-rays. Although this important discovery had to be kept confidential until after the war, Auerbach would be awarded the prestigious Keith Prize from the Royal Society of Edinburgh for the work.

Waddington portrait

Conrad Hal Waddington

Once the war ended, it was assumed that Crew would return to the Institute and that research would continue much as before. However, Crew felt he had been left behind by recent advances in genetics, and decided to transfer to the Chair of Public Health and Social Medicine at the University. Around the same time, the government were looking to move scientific research into areas of agricultural interest, following the acute food shortage crisis of the war years. It was decided to establish a National Animal Breeding and Genetics Research Organisation (NABGRO, later ABRO), and Edinburgh’s strong track record in genetics, animal breeding research and veterinary medicine made it the obvious choice. Conrad Hal Waddington, a developmental biologist and embryologist, was appointed director of the new Genetics Section of NABGRO, which moved to occupy the more-or-less empty Institute building. Alan Greenwood moved to become director of the newly-formed Poultry Research Centre, next door to the Institute.

Staff socialising at the Institute of Animal Genetics, c. 1955

Staff socialising at the Institute of Animal Genetics, c. 1955

ABRO’s work was to be split between research into fundamental work on genetics and the applied science of animal breeding and livestock improvement. However, conflict soon arose between the experimental geneticists and the animal breeders, which was not helped by the rather bizarre initial arrangement of Waddington, his staff and their families living together under one roof, taking their meals communally and driving to work together every day. As might be imagined, there were some scandals and arguments, and eventually the arrangement disintegrated and administrative shifts took place to accommodate the rift.

Waddington set about recruiting as many promising research workers as he could, including some of his old army contacts from his days in Operational Research and Coastal Command. One scientist who joined the Institute at this time, Toby Carter, had been in the RAF at the time of the fall of Singapore, and had commanded the only boat to escape towards Java.  A diploma course in genetics was established, and laboratory space increased apace. By 1951, Waddington’s staff numbered 90 and the Institute grew to become the largest genetics department in the UK and one of the largest in the world.

By the time the 1950s arrived, molecular biology was on the horizon, paving the way towards advances in genomics and biotechnology which we see today. Edinburgh has consistently remained at the forefront of these advances, but it is interesting to reflect that early organisations such as the Institute of Animal Genetics and ABRO paved the way, and that the 1940s was a hugely important decade for this evolution.

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Project Archivist

New Strides, Old Stripes: Zebras and the tsetse fly

Glass slide, which probably once belonged to James Cossar Ewart, showing the tsetse fly (Coll-1434/3139)

Glass slide, which probably once belonged to James Cossar Ewart, showing the tsetse fly (Coll-1434/3139)

It was announced last week that scientists have deciphered the genetic code of the tsetse fly, which offers hope of eradicating one of Africa’s most deadly diseases. The fly, which is only found in Africa, carries parasitic micro-organisms which cause sleeping sickness (trypanosomiasis) in humans by attacking their circadian rhythms (biological clock) and can be fatal if left untreated. As well as the threat to people, the tsetse can have equally devastating effects on animals, particularly livestock, causing infertility, weight loss and decrease in milk production. By also rendering animals too weak to plough, the consequences for farmers can be catastrophic. Since the parasite can evade mammals’ immune systems, vaccines are useless, and control of the tsetse is currently only achievable through radiation, pesticides or trapping.

James Cossar Ewart with one of his zebras in Penicuik, outside Edinburgh, c.1900 (GB 237 Coll-14/4/6)

James Cossar Ewart with one of his zebras in Penicuik, outside Edinburgh, c.1900 (Coll-14/4/6)

Concerns about the tsetse fly in Africa date from far before such advances in genetics could hope to help. There are several letters in James Cossar Ewart’s archives which give an insight into how the problem was being dealt with over a century ago. As you may remember from other posts, Ewart, Professor of Natural History at the University of Edinburgh from 1882 to 1927, famously conducted cross-breeding experiments with zebras and horses on his home farm in Penicuik. It is perhaps not too surprising then, that zebras featured in Ewart’s thoughts about the tsetse fly…

Ewart’s letters show that between 1903 and 1909 he was corresponding with various individuals involved in the administration of East Africa (which was then a protectorate of the British Empire), where the tsetse fly was a great problem, particularly where animals such as horses – which were invaluable for transport – were being infected. Ewart believed his zebras could be the solution, if it could be shown that they were immune to the disease the fly carried. (Ewart had already been researching the potential of zebras and zebra hybrids as alternative pack and transportation animals in military, mining and agricultural contexts around the world). However, in June 1903, a letter from Ewart’s regular correspondent, the German animal dealer and trainer Carl Hagenbeck, regretfully informed Ewart that three zebras had died in Berlin after being infected. However, hope was not lost; a month later, Alice Balfour (sister of the 1st Earl of Balfour) wrote to Ewart wondering whether cross-breeding infected zebras with healthy horses might lead to an immune hybrid strain being created. As a matter of fact, zebras are indeed immune to the bite of the tsetse, with some theories holding that zebras have evolved stripes to confuse the flies and deter attack. In 1909, the author, soldier and hunter Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson wrote to Ewart stating that it was a shame zebras were not easily domesticated, as East Africa sorely needed animal transport immune from ‘the fly’.

Glass slide, which probably once belonged to James Cossar Ewart, showing the distribution of the tsetse fly across Africa (GB 237 Coll-1434/2058)

Glass slide, which probably once belonged to James Cossar Ewart, showing the distribution of the tsetse fly across Africa (Coll-1434/2058)


We don’t know from Ewart’s correspondence whether zebras did end up being used in East Africa, although they have remained useful to the present day – in 2010, for instance, it was announced that cattle in East Africa were being scented with zebra odour in order to deter the tsetse!



These letters offer an insight into ways of tackling the tsetse problem through species selection and cross-breeding before scientific advancement enabled the full sequencing of the tsetse genome.

Read more about the sequencing of the tsetse here:

See the catalogue of James Cossar Ewart’s paper here:

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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:

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:

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.’

‘To sow the seeds of a new science…’ Happy Birthday James Cossar Ewart

Ewart Verlag portraitThe name of James Cossar Ewart (1851-1933) has featured regularly in this blog over the past year or so, but we wish him a happy 163rd birthday for tomorrow (26th November). Ewart, who was Professor of Natural History at the University of Edinburgh from 1882-1927, is best known for his work cross-breeding zebras and horses and for being instrumental in establishing the UK’s first lectureship in Genetics in 1911. The creation of this post was to lead to a bright future for genetics and associated sciences in Edinburgh.

On this day in 1931, Professor F.A.E Crew, then director of what became known as the Institute of Animal Genetics, wrote this heartfelt letter to Ewart, expressing his admiration in no uncertain terms:

Dear Professor Cossar Ewart,

The 80th anniversary of your birthday surely warrants my writing to you my congratulations and to express my sincere hope that you may enjoy many more of these festive days.

I confess I envy you, to live for a long time means very little in itself but to have lived profitably: to have carved one’s name on the rolls of history of a science: to sow the seeds of a new science and to live to see the harvest gathered: these are things well worth the doing.

Happiness and a certain sense of contentment should be yours. It is the wish of those, who like myself are your disciples, that you shall enjoy the knowledge that you have, in a certain sense, achieved immortality. As long as biology exists, so long will your name be quoted.

On this day I send to you my homage and my affectionate regards.

Yours sincerely,

F.A.E Crew

Ewart died in his native home of Penicuik on New Year’s Eve, 1933. His two homes, the Bungalow and Craigybield House, can still be seen today in Penicuik, although both are now hotels.