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.’

A game of two halves

Halfsider singleOne of the photographs in the Alan Greenwood collection depicts a chicken. This is hardly unusual in itself, seeing as Greenwood was director of the Poultry Research Centre. However, a closer look reveals that this is no ordinary chicken: it is coloured and shaped differently on each side: in fact, it looks more like two separate chickens stitched together. This chicken is a ‘halfsider’. Halfsiders – also called bilateral gynandromorphs –  are birds whose colour, plumage, size and even gender is different on each side. Halfsiders are most commonly encountered in budgerigars, although they can occur in other birds too, including domestic chickens.

The phenomenon which produces halfsiders is is actually part of a larger phenomenon of ‘mosaicism’. Mosaics are organisms of a ‘patchwork’ phenotype and/or genotype generally only found in domesticated species (although a wild gynandromorphic Northern Cardinal was discovered on the east coast of America in 2009). F.A.E Crew at the Institute of Animal Genetics was one of the first geneticists to write on gynandromorphy in birds, with Greenwood and colleagues continuing to study it at the Poultry Research Centre.

Halfsiders are so interesting for genetics because they contradict the  theory that sexual development in birds and mammals follows the same course, with the embryonic cells being ‘unisex’, the gender being determined at around seven weeks by signals sent by hormones. However, chicken cells apparently ‘know’ which sex they are at the time of fertilisation, and scientists have had to propose an entirely separate model for avian sexual development.

Early explanations for how halfsiders happen usually posited gene mutation or embryo damage in the early stages of cell division, or else the loss of a chromosome.. However, a study in 2010 (Zhao, McBride et al) found that halfsider chickens are in fact nearly perfect male:female chimeras comprised of normal female cells (with ZW chromosomes) on one side and normal male cells (with ZZ chromosomes) on the other side. Therefore, halfsiders appear to result from an abnormal ovum containing two pronuclei, fertilised by two sperm, which then results in both a Z and W chromosome–containing nucleus. As the cells develop, and are subject to exactly the same hormones, they respond according to their own chromosomes rather than signals being given out by the gonads, as with mammalian development. This in essence means that the two ‘halves’ develop entirely separately, at the same time.

Although the phenomenon producing halfsiders is genetic in origin, it is not heritable and so cannot be intentionally bred (in any case, gynandromorphs are nearly always sterile). It is estimated that 1 in 10,000 domestic chickens is a gynandromorph.

‘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.

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)

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!

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.

Alan William Greenwood (1897-1981)

Greenwood and two ladies in snowThe ‘Letters in the Limelight’ blog posts from the past few months have drawn from the correspondence part of the James Cossar Ewart archival collection here at Edinburgh University Library Special Collections. However I have recently moved on to catalogue the archival papers of Alan William Greenwood, who was director of the Poultry Research Centre in Edinburgh from 1947 until his retirement in 1962.

As with all of the collections being catalogued under the ‘Towards Dolly’ project, interconnecting stories are never far away. As F.A.E Crew, director of the Institute of Animal Genetics, wrote in his article ‘The Genealogy of the Poultry Research Centre’ (British Poultry Science, 121, 289-295, 1971), it was because of James Cossar Ewart that Greenwood came to Edinburgh in the first place…

Alan Greenwood was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1897. After reading Chemistry and Biology at the University of Melbourne, in 1923 he gained a scholarship to study in the UK. Greenwood’s original intention was to work on poultry genetics under Reginald Punnett (1875-1967) at the University of Cambridge, but Cossar Ewart persuaded him to come to join the Animal Breeding Research Department (later the Institute of Animal Genetics) in Edinburgh, then in its infancy under Crew. In Crew’s article, mentioned above, he also attributes Greenwood’s decision to head north to Mrs Punnett, who ‘actively discouraged her husband from enlarging his university commitments since these would interfere with their tennis and other social activities’! In any case, Edinburgh proved to be a fortunate choice: the influence of Crew, whose special interest was poultry, directed the whole course of Greenwood’s future research on the reproductive physiology of the fowl (particularly the secondary sexual characters and endocrine activity).

Greenwood was to take over as acting director of the Institute when Crew joined up for war service, and in 1947 he became director of the newly formed Poultry Research Centre. In the coming weeks the ‘Towards Dolly’ blog will be drawing on a few stories from the Greenwood archive.

The PRC was to eventually become a part of the number of bodies which formed the Roslin Institute. Now, with the establishment of a new National Avian Research Facility (NARF) in Edinburgh, in a partnership between the Roslin Institute and the Pirbright Institute, avian research is certainly still thriving in Edinburgh with Greenwood’s legacy still very much in evidence.


Letters in the Limelight: the battle for clean milk

Coll.14.23.6 Clean milk p1Cataloguing the correspondence of zoologist/animal breeder James Cossar Ewart (1851-1933), I have been intrigued by the various ‘life stories’ which emerge from the letters. Periodically I will be including some highlights in a series of posts entitled ‘letters in the limelight.’

Naturally much of Ewart’s correspondence in the collection is concerned with both the commercial and the purely scientific aspects of animal breeding. However, Ewart was also involved periodically with issues surrounding human health and its relation to agricultural industries. This week’s letter is from a man called William Burgess (although his signature is unclear), who writes from Highwood Hill, Mill Hill, London on 11 July 1917. Burgess writes that he has read Ewart’s article ‘The Saving of Child Life’, which appeared in The Nineteenth Century and After (Vol. 82, Part 1, 1917), and which dealt with the issue of infant mortality arising from the consumption of raw (that is, unpasteurised) milk.

From the 1880s onwards it became known that diseases such as bovine tuberculosis could be spread to humans from cattle through milk, and that children were particularly susceptible to infection. Even though pasteurisation had been discovered in the 1860s, the idea was slow in being put into practice, and the battle for clean milk was a lengthy one. It was 1934 before milk pasteurisation and compulsory tuberculin skin testing of cattle was adopted in the UK (in the 1930s, it was thought that around 40% of dairy cows were infected with TB). However, pasteurisation of milk is still not compulsory in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, although it was made compulsory in Scotland in 1983. Ewart was clearly carrying out practical research into methods for milk cleanliness in preparation for his article; another letter in the collection from February of that year is from John Robertson, Medical Officer of Health in the Birmingham Public Health and Housing Department. Robertson recommends that Ewart visit a certain farm near Basingstoke to see a particular method of cleansing in action.

Burgess writes that the advice Ewart’s article contains would be invaluable if it was ‘boiled down’ into a tract and made comprehensible to ‘ordinary people’, both the farmers who produce milk and the parents who purchase it. He writes that he himself has a small dairy and sells milk to his neighbours, so he will ask the district nurse to keep a watch on new babies. If such a popular tract were written however, Burgess advises Ewart against using such overly ‘scientific’ words as ‘pre-natal’, ‘biometricians’ and ‘heredity’!

This letter demonstrates something of the breadth of applications to which Ewart put his animal breeding work. From investigations into hereditary characteristics to the prehistoric origins of domestic animals to improvements in the wool industry, Ewart was always interested in the wider applications of the natural sciences. The relationship between ‘pure’ biological science, its commercial applications and its implications for human health is something which endures to the present day.

Man’s Best Friend – a Study on Dogs, Breeding and Disease from 1852

Roslin_S_13This week from the Roslin rare book collection I’ll be featuring William Youatt’s The Dog from 1852. An early study of the various dog breeds, diseases, welfare and even some poetry by Henry Hallam on Walter Scott and his dogs!

Roslin_S_13_7The evolution of the genetics of dogs is fascinating and one of the interesting features of this book are the illustrations of the various breeds of dogs as they looked in the mid-19th century. Comparing these early illustrations to present day photographs of similar breeds shows how they’ve developed over time and what’s changed and what has stayed the same.








Youatt also, discusses the characteristics of the dog breeds, diseases found in canines, social, cultural and animal welfare issues such as domestication, dog fighting pits and trafficking.

This text is discusses breeding and characteristics in a more general way rather than in purely scientific terminology and analysis of the genetics of the canine. However, many articles have been written over the years on the development and changes in the dog and a couple of recent articles are:  The canine genome by Elaine A Ostrander and Robert K Wayne in Genome Research. 2005. 15: 1706-1716 and from the Roslin Institute in April 2013: Population structure and genetic heterogeneity in popular dog breeds in the UK by Richard J Mellanby, Rob Ogden, Dylan N Clements, Anne T French, Adam G Gow, Roger Powell, Brendan Corcoran, Johan P Schoeman, Kim M Summers in  Veterinary Journal Vol: 196 Pages: 92-97

James Cossar Ewart medal collection

St Hilaire medal rectoWe’re taking a break from ‘Letters in the Limelight’ this week to take a look at another type of item in the James Cossar Ewart collection. There are 19 medals in the collection, which were awarded to Ewart over the period 1866 (a school medal from Penicuik Free Church School) to 1931 (British Association Centenary commemorative medal). Most of them are for Ewart’s achievements in science and animal breeding: there is a bronze Life Fellow’s Token from the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, a gold medal from the Worshipful Company of Woolmen awarded for Ewart’s research into wool and numerous medals from the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland for various animal breeding competitions.

Sometimes the medals complement other items in the collection, as with the medal featured in the picture. This handsome silver medal from the Société Nationale D’Acclimatation de France (National Acclimatisation Society of France) shows the embossed head of the French zoologist Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1805-1861), who founded the Society in 1855. The medallist and engraver was Albert Désiré Barre. A programme which also survives in the collection tells us that Ewart was awarded the medal at the 26th Public Meeting of the Société Nationale D’Acclimatation on the 25 June 1899. The award was given for Ewart’s cross-breeding work with the Burchell’s zebra, which you can read more about here.

Cataloguing medals is not something an archivist gets to do very often, so it was an enjoyable new experience to explore how to catalogue the physical characteristics of objects rather than thinking about the intellectual content and context of documents. The medals are an interesting part of the Ewart collection, as they give a tangible idea of Ewart’s work, achievements and the number of societies and organisations with which he was involved.