ABRO – The Animal Breeding Research Organisation

While the Institute of Animal Genetics originated in the early 1900s, the Agricultural Research Council formed the National Animal Breeding and Genetics Research Organisation (NABGRO) in 1945 which housed the Institute directed by Conrad Hal Waddington. In 1946, it was renamed the Animal Breeding and Genetics Research Organisation (ABGRO) and was co-directed by Waddington (animal genetics) and Hugh P. Donald (animal breeding).  Then, in 1951, Donald was appointed Director of the renamed Animal Breeding Research Organisation (ABRO). This happened when the Agricultural Research Council decided that there was a need to fund research in the area of genetic livestock improvement and so two organisations were established at the University of Edinburgh both undertaking theoretical and experimental research in quantitative genetics relevant to livestock improvement.

ABRO’s research activities involved a combination of laboratory and field work and covered various areas from ‘breeding mice for milk production, learning by immunological and biochemical methods what “blood will tell”, and climatological studies on sheep.’ It was also very involved in researching female reproduction since that is one of the main focuses for exploitation by the livestock industry. So, a great deal of research was conducted on the ‘behaviour of mammalian eggs, on the transfer of antibodies between dam and foetus, or on birth weights and survival ‘, other aspects of maternal performance; twinning in cattle, sheep and humans, in the structure of breeding populations and in the relations between individual and progeny performance shown by a range of different animals.  In addition to their research in animal genetics and livestock improvement, the scientists at ABRO were extremely knowledgeable in various aspects of practical farming and animal breeding.

Here’s a lovely photograph from 1968 of some of the ABRO scientists with one of their sheep!  Unfortunately no one in the photograph was identified, so if anyone knows who any of them are (even the sheep), please post a reply!

Preserving the Past

When you consider archives and printed collections, you might immediately think of the information they contain, but you may not necessarily consider what surrounds this information, such as the pages or book covers. If both aspects are not cared for, all can be lost. This is why a crucial part of our job on the ‘Towards Dolly’ project is not just to catalogue the collections, but to preserve them. Some of the material we encounter is fragile, damaged and in need of careful handling, cleaning and repackaging to ensure that it is preserved in the best condition possible, for as long as possible. Many of the items are nineteenth or early twentieth century, so they are not only old but may also have previously been treated roughly or stored in unsuitable conditions.

A few weeks ago, Kristy Davis (the project’s Rare Books Cataloguer) and I received some preservation training, provided by professional conservator Caroline Scharfenberg of Books and Archive Conservation Services Ltd, who also conducts work for Edinburgh University Library. Caroline trained us on the correct procedures to handle and clean items without causing further damage to them, such as using specialist brushes to clean the covers and pages of volumes. In the picture you can see Kristy using the brushes to clean a fragile volume of offprints from the collection of early geneticist Francis Albert Eley Crew (1886-1973).

These preservation techniques seem basic, but the impact they can have is huge! Whether cataloguing these collections or performing some simple ‘TLC’, it is all part of the same thing – that is, ensuring that these important collections are made available for future generations to learn from and enjoy.


Animal Genetics and the Textile Industry

One of the most interesting things I’ve found in cataloguing the off-print articles collected by the scientists at the Roslin Institute is the variety of areas in which animal genetics can be applied. It can range from animal breeding to cloning and from food production to the textile industry among other many other things. For example, Dr. Michael L. Ryder, a biologist and textile fibre consultant who worked at Animal Breeding Research Organization, Edinburgh in the 1960s and 1970s, wrote many interesting papers on sheep and the wool and textile industry from prehistoric times up to the late 20th century. His articles, in journals ranging from Animal Production to The Journal of the Bradford Textile Society discuss findings from historical records and biological data such as techniques for identifying the animal fibres in pre-historic cloth to studies on environmental conditions on wool fleece structures. Shetland Sheep and Wool

Some particular articles of interest by Dr. Ryder are:

  •  “Sheep and wool in history”, Journal of the Bradford Textile Society, 1962-1963, p. 29-43 (GB 237 Coll-1362/1/159);
  • “A late Bronze Age find from Pyotdykes, Angus, Scotland, with associated gold, cloth, leather and wool remains”, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society Vol. XXX, 1964, p. 186-198. (GB 237 Coll-1362/1/169)
  • “Sheep and the Clearances in the Scottish Highlands : a biologist’s view” Agricultural History Review, British Agricultural History Society, Vol. 16, Part 2, 1968, p. 155-158. (GB 237 Coll-1362/1/284)

Once they’re made available to researchers, these articles will provide a fascinating insight on the history of woollen textiles!

Cover star!

We are delighted to be the cover feature of this month’s issue of the Scottish Council on Archives‘ Broadsheet newsletter! The rather serious looking gentleman in the picture is zoologist James Cossar Ewart (1851-1933), and his striped companion was one of the animals Ewart used for cross-breeding around the time of his famous Penycuik Experiments (1899). Ewart’s papers will be catalogued later on in the project – in the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for more of our project in print…

‘Towards Dolly’ also features on page 2 of the newsletter – download and read it!

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Well, while that may be a question open to debate in another forum, science fiction became fact when Roslin Institute geneticists ‘dreamt’ of cloned sheep and created ‘Dolly’ in 1996. As the Rare Books Cataloguer for the Towards Dolly project, I’m  currently cataloguing and enhancing records of ‘off-prints’, or articles, that the scientists wrote and collected in bound volumes (and some loose!) from the Animal Breeding Research Organisation (ABRO) beginning in 1947 up to the Roslin Institute in 2007 before continuing on to the book collection and glass plate slides. It’s evident from the variety of research articles in these volumes that these scientists were interested in more than just sheep! Many of these off-print article discuss ideas from breeding issues and genetic abnormalities to ways to improve the meat quality of bacon and wool growth for the textile industry. This material provides a fascinating insight into the development of genetics research over the years and I look forward to finding out how it all progresses!Image