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.’ 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.

William Bateson’s Books in the Roslin Collection at the University of Edinburgh

In 1908, biologist William Bateson (1861-1926) became Britain’s first professor of genetics at the University of Cambridge. He was known for his interest in studying inheritance traits and Mendel’s research and was the first to translate his works into English. With Reginald Crundall Punnett, Bateson published a series of breeding experiments that extended Mendel’s theory to animals and showed, contrary to Mendel, certain features were consistently inherited together which was termed linkage.


We are lucky enough to have seven books in the Roslin Rare Book Collection that belonged to William Bateson. They are :  Instruction sur la maniere d’elever et de perfectionner la bonne espece des betes a laine de Flandre, 1763; Browne, D J, The American Poultry Yard, 1863; Dixon, Reverend Edmund Saul, Ornamental and Domestic Poultry, 1848 (showing the title page and flyleaf with Bateson’s signature); Dickson, Walter B., Poultry: their breeding, rearing, diseases, and general management, 1847; Croad, AC, The Langshan Fowl, it’s history and characteristics, 1889; Poli, A and G Magri, Il bestiame bovino in Italia, 1884; and ; Nathusius, Hermann, Vortrage über Viehsucht,1872.



As it is apparent from this small selection of books, Bateson’s interests were fairly diverse. He went on to accept the Directorship of the John Innes Horticultural Institute at Merton, England in 1910 and many of the books in the Roslin Collection contain the library stamp from this organisation, but whether it was Bateson acquiring these books or another scientist, it is unclear.  That Bateson’s books are found in the Roslin Collection highlights thelinks between the research scientists were conducting in both Cambridge and Edinburgh in the early/mid 20th century.

Dolly, Polly, Molly, Megan and Morag

Dolly and press Murdo MacleodHere on the ‘Towards Dolly’ team we couldn’t let the 05 July go by without celebrating our namesake, who was born on this day in 1996. To most people, Dolly the sheep (1996-2003) needs no introduction. The first mammal to be cloned from adult cells, Dolly was produced at the Roslin Institute, Edinburgh as part of research into producing medicines in the milk of farm animals. The creation of Dolly met with public acclaim and outcry, fuelling the continuing debates surrounding the ethics of cloning. Most people know the basics about Dolly (including, of course, how she acquired her name), but here are a few facts that may surprise:

Dolly’s birth was kept under wraps for seven months

Dolly’s birth was announced to the world in Nature (385, 753-844) on 27 February 1997, when Dolly was already seven months old. (This time delay was so that the research could be properly prepared for presentation.) Although the journal featured ‘Dolly’ on the front cover, the ‘announcement’ was couched in somewhat muted terms: ‘Viable offspring derived from fetal and adult mammalian cells.’ It is only towards the close of the article that the phrase ‘The lamb born after nuclear transfer from a mammary gland cell is, to our knowledge, the first mammal to develop from a cell derived from an adult tissue’ suggests the importance of the event. Even so, few people at Roslin realised what the strength and duration of public interest in Dolly would be.

 Clones pre-Dolly

Of course, there are naturally occurring clones in nature, such as in bacteria. In terms of laboratory cloning, transgenic frogs, mice and cows have been available from the 1980s onwards. The difference with Dolly was that it is so much more difficult to clone from an adult cell. Dolly was the only live lamb to emerge from 277 attempts.

Ever heard of Megan and Morag?

Megan and Morag were identical twin sheep cloned from the same embryo and were the first mammals to have been successfully cloned from differentiated cells. They were born at the Roslin Institute in July 1995. Although Megan and Morag never got the same level of publicity as Dolly was to have, there was a lot more resting on their birth. Crucially, Megan and Morag demonstrated that viable sheep can be produced by nuclear transfer from cells which have been cultured in vitro. The technical breakthrough which produced them made Dolly the sheep possible.

Polly and Molly the sheep

Since Dolly, other sheep have since been cloned from adult cells, as have cats, rabbits, horses, donkeys, pigs, goats and cattle. In 1997, two ewes were born at Roslin which were the first mammals to have been successfully cloned from an adult somatic cell (like Dolly) and to be transgenic at the same time. Scientists used cells into which a new gene had been inserted so that the animals produced a therapeutic protein in their blood. Polly and Molly built on the work that had been done with Dolly to demonstrate the therapeutic potentials of recombitant DNA technology combined with animal cloning.

Read more about Dolly and the work of the Roslin Institute here:

Over the next two years, I will be cataloguing the papers of Professor Sir Ian Wilmut (part of the team who cloned Dolly), Professor Grahame Bulfield (former Director of Roslin) and the Roslin Institute itself as part of the second phase of our Wellcome Trust-funded project. I look forward to discovering more about Dolly the sheep as well as the work of the Roslin Institute from its inception in 1993 until the early 21st century.

 Photograph reproduced with kind permission of Murdo Macleod.

A New Arrival

The ‘Towards Dolly’ team are rather excited about a recent acquisition by Edinburgh University Library Special Collections: a collection of original artwork by acclaimed artist and designer Yolanda Sonnabend (1935-) created to illustrate developmental biologist Conrad Hal Waddington’s book Tools for Thought (London, 1977). The collection consists of around 250 watercolours, black inkwork drawings, tracings, collages and material sourced for collage-work. Although not officially part of the ‘Towards Dolly’ project, Sonnabend’s artwork and papers relating to her collaboration with Waddington forms a timely and fascinating complement to the Waddington papers which have been catalogued as part of the project.

As we have seen from earlier posts on this blog, Waddington (Director of the Institute of Animal Genetics in Edinburgh from 1947 until his death in 1975) held a lifelong interest in art, particularly in how it can be used to illuminate and represent scientific concepts. This interest culminated in his 1969 book Behind Appearance, a comparative study of science and painting in the twentieth century. Tools for Thought: How to understand and apply the latest scientific techniques of problem solving was Waddington’s last completed work (published posthumously) and presented approaches such as systems and catastrophe theory, cybernetics and futures research as tools for facing the world’s economic, social and ecological problems. Yolanda Sonnabend’s boldly confident illustrations are a perfect partner to Waddington’s imaginative cross-disciplinary thinking. Here is a slideshow showing a few examples from the collection:

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Born in Rhodesia, Sonnabend studied painting and stage design at the Slade School of Fine Arts. As well as being an accomplished portraitist, she is probably best known for her work as a designer for theatre and ballet, having worked for the Royal Opera House, the Royal Ballet, Sadler’s Wells and the Stuttgart Ballet company. We are delighted to have this unique collection of her artwork at Edinburgh University Library Special Collections.

You can see more examples of Sonnabend’s work here on the BBC’s website:

All images appear here with kind permission from Yolanda Sonnabend.

Letters in the Limelight: Rowland Ward, taxidermist

Coll14.9.10.71 Rowland Ward billCataloguing 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’ .

For anyone seriously interested in studying the various physical and biological characteristics of animals in James Cossar Ewart’s time, taxidermy played an important role. Ewart’s correspondence reveal that he travelled extensively around the world observing or seeking out various breeds of animals (for instance in 1905 he went to Mexico to study mustangs). He was also able to acquire various breeds or hybrids at his home in Penicuik (most usually sheep, ponies and his famous zebra/horse hybrids). We also know that his correspondents sent him photographs or glass slides depicting various interesting specimens. However, sometimes travel or photography was not possible, or a particular animal Ewart wished to inspect died before he could visit, or he wanted to preserve one of his own animals for future research use, such as examining colouration or markings. This is where taxidermy came into its own. The picture shows a bill from the renowned taxidermist Rowland Ward. Dated 4 July 1904, it summarises the services Ewart had received since 1902, including ‘skinning Przewalski’s horse [a species of wild horse], preserving and dressing skin, making artificial skull’, ‘preserving and macerating skeleton’ and ‘skinning zebra hybrid.’ During the course of his research, Ewart amassed quite a collection of zebra and horse skins, skulls and bones, which allowed him to compare variations in markings, bone structure and other characteristics.

Born in London in 1847, Rowland Ward left school at 14 to begin work at his father Henry Ward’s taxidermy studio. His gift for taxidermy and sculpture soon became clear, and his hard work and entrepreneurship soon made him established. His final premises, The Jungle, was situated in London’s fashionable Piccadilly district and largely catered for wealthy sportsmen and game hunters, as well as naturalists like Ewart. He became widely known for his hugely detailed dioramas, often used at large exhibitions, depicting, for example, scenes of jungle life, as well as fashionable ‘animal furniture’. However, he also pioneered techniques in taxidermy which are still employed today, and his books on taxidermy and extensive compilation of horn measurements are still consulted. The business continued to flourish after Ward’s death in 1912, its subsidiary company finally closing in 1983.

You can see examples of Rowland Ward’s work here: