Alan Greenwood’s ‘Mexican Misadventure’

Mexican Misadventure lowerqualMany of the scientists who feature in our collections were extremely well-travelled, and their archives abound with information about the conferences, congresses and conventions which they attended all over the world. However, it’s not often that we come across a real-life adventure story which very nearly didn’t have a happy ending…

Among the papers of Alan Greenwood (director of the Poultry Research Centre in Edinburgh from 1947 until 1962) there is a press cutting from the Poultry World & Poultry magazine, dated 13 November 1958 under the headline ‘Mexican Misadventure: Full Story of Missing Congress Delegates is Disclosed’. The article goes on to tell the harrowing experience of Alan Greenwood and his colleague, veterinary surgeon James Ebeneezer Wilson, whilst journeying to a congress on poultry in Mexico City. Writing a personal account, Greenwood paints a vivid picture of the severe floods in Mexico which hit the country after a seven-year long period of drought. Arriving at El Paso ready to cross the Rio Grande to Juarez by train, all seemed to be going swimmingly: with the Chief Customs Official at the railway station providing them with free Mexican beer. The train departed at 10.30 on 18th September carrying 1,200 passengers, but got stranded at Jiminez the next morning when the rains hit. The delay was supposed to be around 10 hours, but as Greenwood reports: ‘in reality we spent four nights and four days on that train under circumstances which were not in the least bit comfortable.’ This is an understatement: with no hot water or light, limited sanitation and an infestation of cockroaches, the enforced confinement on the train was hardly pleasant. An attempt to cross a bridge by foot was aborted when it was discovered that the bridge in question had been swept away in the floods, so the confinement continued with the food situation growing ‘desperate’. At last, Greenwood and his colleague were able to get seats on a two-coach train trying to get from Jiminez to Chihuahua, but the drama continued:

It was a nightmare journey in many ways with the raging river torrents covering the trestle bridges over which we crawled at the rate of about a yard per minute. It was raining heavily all the time, and electrical storms were continuous. At times the carriages were jumping up in the air and leaving the tracks.

Greenwood and Wilson finally arrived in Chihuahua at 1am four days after they had left El Paso. After some days of rest and recuperation, the pair began the return journey to Houston. They continued to travel throughout America before returning to Scotland, and the Greenwood archive contains a book of postcards which Greenwood collected from around Mexico and America on this trip.

We probably all have travel ‘horror stories’, but probably none quite so hair-raising as this!

Avian Genome Mapping Advances at the Roslin Institute in 1995


In 1995 David W. Burt the Chair of Comparative Genomics at the Roslin Institute, Midlothian, Scotland, wrote several articles on the successes of mapping the avian genome through the project the International Poultry Genome Mapping Project and the creation of the public database, ChickGBASE  (  that was established at the Roslin Institute to ‘provide access to a summary of chicken gene mapping data.’

IMG_4160In the article, ‘Chicken genome mapping: a new era in avian genetics’ by Burt, Bumstead, Bitgood, Ponce de Leon and Crittenden, Trends in Genetics (May 1995, Vol. 11, No. 5), they note that the ‘first linkage map of the chicken, which was also the first linkage map reported for any domestic farm animal species, was published in 1936 by Hutt’ and there were updates by other scientists over the years.

There are multiple articles by Burt and others on the progress made with avian gene mapping in the Roslin Institute’s 1995 offprint series and what’s fascinating to see is how the advances in biotechnology has aided their efforts.

IMG_4155According to Burt’s report in the Roslin Institute’s Annual Report 1994-1995, the next challenge that they faced was to ‘locate and identify the defective gene in this (talpid3) mutant’ and that ‘a “positional cloning” approach could be used in which the talpid genetic locus itself is cloned and genes within that DNA are tested.’

Stefan Kopeć in the Alan Greenwood archive

Stefan Kopec 2

Stefan and Maria Kopec

The Alan Greenwood archive contains a variety of material, from degree certificates and correspondence to copies of lectures and scientific papers. However, one of the most fascinating parts of the archive is a collection of photographs which not only contains some nineteenth-century portraits of Greenwood’s ancestors, but also visually documents the work done at the Institute of Animal Genetics Poultry Research Centre from the period Greenwood was director (1947-1962), as well as some earlier photographs from the Institute of Animal Genetics, where Greenwood worked from 1923. The photographs have been mounted on around 100 pages of paper which look to have at one time been fixed inside a folder or album, and are annotated in Greenwood’s hand. The photographs consist mainly of official portraits and photographs taken for publicity and press purposes, informal snaps of conferences and social events and also more personal, intimate pictures of scientists and members of their family. The first page of photographs in the collection is from the latter category, and depicts Polish biologist Stefan Kopeć (1888-1941) and his daughter Maria. When I first came across these pictures whilst cataloguing, I was struck by the intimacy of the shots: Kopeć sits, his spectacles lying on one side, looking frankly at the camera. The second picture shows Maria tenderly embracing her father. I thought these pictures were remarkably domestic and personal for a collection which mainly consists of pictures of scientists ‘at work’, and it piqued my interest in finding out more about Kopeć and his daughter.

It proved to be quite a story. Stefan Kopeć was a pioneering insect endocrinologist, publishing papers in academic journals in Polish, English and German. After receiving his PhD at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków in 1912, he joined the Pulawy Agricultural Research Station in Poland and was made director there in 1929. His most important contribution to science was his discovery of the role of the insect brain in the production of hormones, and this study laid the groundwork for what is now called neuroendocrinology. As for Kopeć’s connection with Alan Greenwood, I was aware that they had published a joint paper, ‘The Effects of Yolk Injections on the Plumage of an Ovariotomised Brown Leghorn Hen’ (Development Genes and Evolution, 121:1-2, 87-95) in 1929-1930, so it seemed likely that Kopeć visited the Animal Breeding Research Organisation (ABRO) at some point around this time. Records in the Institute of Animal Genetics (as the department became known) collection are scanty from this period, but I was delighted to come across a message from Kopeć in the Institute’s visitors’ book dated January 4th 1928, along with another photograph. Kopec writes:

Stefan Kopec IAG photo guestbookThe seven months I spent in the ABRO have been most profitable for me. I gained there some valuable methods and many important suggestions. I was very sorry to have to leave the place where I also got many good friends. Ladies and gentlemen! (both from the laboratories and poultry houses and from the office!) Please accept many thanks for all your kindness, all advice and help and be sure of my gratitude. Do not miss any opportunity to visit me in Pulawy. In the name of myself and my colleagues, of my wife and my F1-generation (♂ and ♀), of my rabbits, mice, fowls and other laboratory creatures I assure you of a very warm welcome…

The rest of the story, however, is not so positive. In 1940, Kopeć was arrested and imprisoned in Poland by the Gestapo along with his daughter Maria and son Stanislaw for their involvement in a Polish underground university. In 1941, Stefan and Stanislaw were executed at Palmiry, near Warsaw, in reprisal against an action of the Polish underground army.

Stefan’s daughter Maria however, went on to be a distinguished radiation scientist, receiving the prestigious Maria Skłodowska-Curie Medal in 1983, while Stefan Kopeć ‘s name lives on in the annual International Conference on Anthropods the Stefan Kopeć  Memorial Conference at the University of Wroclaw.

Photographs like these can have enormous power in the ability to open up individual life stories. Kopeć’s story demonstrates the interrelationship between different collections in the ‘Towards Dolly’ project and reflects the sometimes complex but always fascinating story of animal genetics in Edinburgh.

From gene to trait: opening the black box

As I’ve been cataloguing the Rosin Institute’s offprints, I came across a very interesting item by Dr. Grahame Bulfield, the former director and chief executive of the Roslin Institute and vice-principal, University of Edinburgh and who is also consulting with and providing us with his considerable knowledge and insight of genetics in Edinburgh on the Towards Dolly project.  This brief abstract of the paper, ‘From gene to trait: opening the black box’ found in the Journal of Endocrinology, Volume 140, Supplement, Abstract S18, 1994 (GB 237 Coll-1362/4/329):

Bulfied Gene to Trait


Or here:

As you can see, he mentions that while there was little success in 1994 of manipulating ‘commercially important traits’ of various animals there was the increasing potential for success by using the research gathered from the Human Genome Mapping Project to establish similar projects for various animals. There are many other papers in the Roslin Institute offprints that discuss various aspects of research on transgenic animals that I’ve catalogued and you’ll be able to search for them once the online catalogue is available in the near future.