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:

Clare Button
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)

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!

Clare Button
Project Archivist

‘Lotte’: Charlotte Auerbach (1899-1994)

Charlotte Auerbach outside the Institute of Animal Genetics building, King's Buildings, Edinburgh. Date and photographer unknown.

Charlotte Auerbach, date and photographer unknown. (Coll-1266)

Recently I have been cataloguing the various papers we have concerning Charlotte Auerbach (known as ‘Lotte’ to her friends), who passed away 20 years ago this year. Mention has already been made on this blog about how Lotte arrived in Britain from Berlin in 1933, having been dismissed from her science teaching post under Hitler’s anti-Semitic legislation. She remained in the Institute of Animal Genetics for the rest of her life, receiving a Personal Chair from the University in 1967 and being made Professor Emeritus in 1969. Continue reading

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:

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:

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:

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:


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.’

‘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.