‘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.

Wallace on War: WWI Images in the Roslin Glass Slides Collection

WWI Ratification of Peace Treaty

In a previous post, I wrote about Professor Robert Wallace, (1853 – 1939), who taught Scientific Agriculture and Rural Economy at the University of Edinburgh and how many of the glass slides in the Roslin Collection seem to belong to him. While many of these images focused on his teaching interests, there were quite a few on World War I concerns. Professor Wallace was passionately concerned about the treatment of war prisoners and hostages in Germany and Belgium during the war and wrote to the President of the United States of America, Woodrow Wilson between 1914 and 1917 with his concerns and urging him to send American troops to Europe to fight. These letters can beound in the Centre for Research Collections, Main Library, University of Edinburgh (Reference number: GB 237 GB 237 Coll-87 / Location Gen. 554-555; Gen. 867F).

Here are a selection of images from the Roslin Glass Slides Collection featuring – animals during and after WWI and political cartoons:

War Forging Ahead in BlizzardHorses in War WWI
Will You Buy Him WWI Horse
War Demobilising Horse
WWI Political Poem



WWI Boche and the Thistles

WWI A Well Earned Meal

War Oxen Guns

Remembering Arthur Dukinfield Darbishire (1879-1915)

darbishire_portrait oxfordshire historyAs today is Remembrance Day, it seems a fitting time to commemorate an early geneticist whose achievements were cut short by war. Arthur Dukinfield Darbishire (1879-1915) was appointed to the Lectureship in Genetics at the University of Edinburgh (the first of its kind in Britain). Had he lived, it is likely that Darbishire would have been offered the post of director of the newly formed Animal Breeding Research Station (later known as the Institute of Animal Genetics) in Edinburgh; the position that in 1921 was filled by F.A.E Crew.


Darbishire was educated at Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied zoology. He soon became absorbed in problems of heredity and in the first few years of the twentieth century he began a series of breeding experiments with mice (known informally as the ‘waltzing mice’ experiments). At this point, his interests lay in the biometric rather than a Mendelian approach to heredity (ie that heredity relies on continuous rather than discontinuous variation), but when he became Demonstrator in Zoology at the University of Manchester in 1902, he began to reassess the Mendelian approach. He continued his experiments with mice in the light of his earlier biometric position, and concluded that the supposed contradiction between the two theories was due more to differences of opinion rather than inherent theoretical incompatibilities. He therefore cut himself adrift from both schools of thought, maintaining an independent and critical distance.

After a spell as Senior Demonstrator and Lecturer in Zoology at the Royal College of Science, in 1911 Darbishire accepted the newly created post of Lecturer in Genetics at Edinburgh, where he had the run of the University’s Experimental Farm at Fairslacks for breeding experiments. By 1914, Darbishire was delivering lectures at the University of Missouri, Columbia and was so successful that he was offered professorships from two American universities. However, Darbishire could not leave England after the outbreak of war. Upon returning, he was pronounced unfit for the Army (due to ‘physical delicacy’) but in July 1915 he tried a second time at a recruiting office, where he was accepted and enrolled as a private in the 14th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. His sister Helen wrote that ‘[h]e devoted himself to his duties as a soldier with the same zest and the same meticulous attention to detail that marked his work in other spheres, and he won the love and admiration of his comrades.’ However, within less than six months, Darbishire contracted cerebral meningitis whilst in military camp at Gailes. He died on Christmas Day 1915. Three days after his death, he was gazetted Second Lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery.

Page from Notebook of Arthur Darbishire (c.1902), Edinburgh University Library Special Collections, EUA 1N1/ACU/A1/3/6

Page from Notebook of Arthur Darbishire (c.1902), Edinburgh University Library Special Collections, EUA 1N1/ACU/A1/3/6

By the time that a young medic with an interest in animal breeding returned to Edinburgh after the war, he found that his two mentors at the University, Darbishire and F.H.A Marshall, were no longer there (Marshall had accepted a post in Cambridge). These two absences meant that, when it came to appointing a director of the new Animal Breeding Research Station, F.A.E Crew was ‘on the spot’ and duly appointed to the post in 1921. As we have seen, Crew made a great success of the Institute, but one wonders what differences Darbishire might have made to the development of genetics in Edinburgh. As it is, there is little concerning Darbishire in the archival and printed collections of ‘Towards Dolly’, although we do have one of his research notebooks and some of his collected offprints.

Helen Darbishire, who was later Principal of Somerville College Oxford, wrote of her brother in 1916:

All who knew him will keep in memory a personality alive and young to a rare degree, fulfilling itself in a passion for music, much laughter, a perfectly disinterested love of truth, a delight in producing delight in others, and the keenest possible interest in life itself whichever way it led him.

Helen Darbishire, Preface to An Introduction to Biology and other papers by A.D Darbishire (Cassell and Company Ltd, 1917)

ASCUS talk: Genetics in the Archives: Inspiring New Art



Another way we promote the project is by giving talks and last Wednesday we had the exciting opportunity to collaborate with both ASCUS: the Art and Science Collaborative and Dr. Mhairi Towler and Paul Harrison of Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, Dundee. Our part of the talk was to introduce the collection to a wider audience and to show the wealth of material on offer to researchers; then, the artists, Dr. Mhairi Towler and Dr. Paul Harrison spoke about their current project sand how they used some of the material from the Conrad Hal Waddington Collection in their work.


Our talk: ‘Towards Dolly: Edinburgh, Roslin and the Birth of Modern Genetics’ is based within Edinburgh University Library’s Centre for Research Collections and is generously funded by the Wellcome Trust’s Research Resources in Medical History grants scheme. The project archivist, Clare Button, and rare books cataloguer, Kristy Davis are cataloguing the archival records of the Roslin Institute, the Institute of Animal Genetics, the papers of James Cossar Ewart and Conrad Hal Waddington, glass plate slides, rare books and scientific offprints.

And Dr. Mhairi Towler and Dr. Paul Harrison of Duncan Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee spoke on their artwork based upon the C.H. Waddington collection who presented aspects of their work in progress: ‘Epigenetic Landscapes’.  This research they said ‘explores and celebrates the ideas of developmental biologist, philosopher and visual thinker, C.H. Waddington.’ http://www.designsforlifeproject.co.uk/ Afterwards there was a brief question and answer session before people left or moved on to discuss it further.


We would like to thank Dr. Mhairi Towler and Dr. Paul Harrison for speaking; ASCUS for collaborating with us to make this event possible; the Art and Science Library at Summerhall for letting us use their space and all those who braved the weather and attended the event.