The Royal Society and the growth of animal genetics in Edinburgh.

Whilst cataloguing the archives in the University of Edinburgh Library Special Collections, as part of the Wellcome Trust-funded ‘Towards Dolly’ project (which charts the development of animal genetics in Edinburgh), one thing which has struck me is how often the name of the Royal Society occurs.

When you delve a little further, this is hardly surprising. Edinburgh’s prestigious position in the history of animal genetics – from the establishment of the first Lectureship in Genetics in the UK at the University of Edinburgh (1911) to the birth of Dolly the sheep at the Roslin Institute (1996) – was largely due to the high proportion of scientists at the forefront of developments in the natural and biological sciences who came to study and work in the city. It was surely to be expected, then, that many of these high achievers should gain recognition from the Royal Society.  Right from the beginning, Edinburgh was selected as the location for animal breeding research because of esteemed figures such as James Cossar Ewart (FRS 1893), F H A Marshall (FRS 1920) and Edward Sharpey Schafer (FRS 1878). As the Department (later known as the Institute) of Animal Genetics, set up in 1921, grew and the young science of genetics grew with it, the Royal Society’s name remains a strong presence throughout the archival records.


James Cossar Ewart FRS, by Maull & Fox Photographic Studios
(Royal Society IM/Maull/001338)


The Institute of Animal Genetics began humbly enough, with not much more than a Director (Francis Albert Eley Crew, FRS 1939), a hastily-assembled laboratory space in a disused building and a handful of experimental animals (some of which were trained to walk themselves down to the cellar each night out of consideration for the neighbours). Under Crew’s charismatic leadership however, researchers were attracted from all over the world and several generous benefactions transformed the Institute into a world class centre for genetics research. It was here that Dame Honor Fell (FRS 1952) first cut her teeth before becoming Director of Strangeways Laboratory, Cambridge, and Hermann J Muller (ForMemRS 1953) came to research for some years shortly before receiving the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The social aspects of the Institute have become almost as well-known as its research outputs. Crew was keen to create a ‘club’ atmosphere, which entailed anything from working late hours and debating into the night to taking tea on the roof and engaging in out-of-hours ping-pong matches.


This picture of visitors to the Institute of Animal Genetics, taken ca.1924, demonstrates its attractiveness to many of the world’s key thinkers. Of the seven individuals pictured, four were, or would become, Fellows of the Royal Society. From left to right: Arthur Walton, D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (FRS 1916), Paul Kammerer, Lancelot Hogben (FRS 1936), Honor Fell (FRS 1952), Francis Crew (FRS 1939) and M V Cytovich.
(Photographer unknown. Image reproduced courtesy of Edinburgh University Library Special Collections, EUA IN1/ACU/A1/6/2).


One of the Institute’s largest achievements came in 1939 when it played host to the 7th International Congress of Genetics. Although the Congress was unfortunately curtailed by the outbreak of war, Crew more than fulfilled his duties as Chair by ensuring the safe departure of all foreign delegates. Crew then enlisted in the Army, signalling the abrupt end of his place at the helm of the Institute; in 1944 he took up the Chair of Public Health and Social Medicine at the University.

It was not until 1947 that Crew’s place was filled, this time by the promising developmental biologist and embryologist Conrad Hal Waddington (who became FRS a year later). Waddington’s leadership was as laissez-faire as Crew’s had been, but his approach allowed a degree of creative flexibility and intellectual risk-taking that encouraged first-class thinkers. By the year of his death in post in 1975, Waddington could (and frequently did) boast that there were, beside himself, four Royal Society Fellows amongst his staff at the Institute: Charlotte Auerbach (FRS 1957), Geoffrey Beale (FRS 1959), Alan Robertson (FRS 1964) and Douglas Falconer (FRS 1963). A fifth, Anne McLaren, was elected in 1976, after she had left the Institute. This impressive roll-call was enough to arouse the interest of The Scotsman, who published a short article ‘More Jolly Good Fellows’ (17 April 1975), doubting whether ‘any other University Department in the UK could equal this proud record.’


Royal Society Election Certificate for Charlotte Auerbach FRS
(Royal Society EC/1957/03)


Waddington’s connection with the Royal Society did not stop with his Fellowship. He also sat on the Society’s Council from 1960 to 1962, and was involved in various Society committees and working groups, including the British National Committee for Biology, the British National Committee for the International Biological Program and the Study Group on Human Biology in the Urban Environment. This active relationship is reflected in the three boxes of correspondence between the Society and Waddington in the ‘Towards Dolly’ collections, while the various Committee records are held at the Royal Society and can be viewed there.

Since then, many animal geneticists at the University of Edinburgh and related institutions have also been elected Fellows, not least Professor Sir Ian Wilmut (Principal Investigator on the project which led to the cloning of Dolly the sheep) and Professor Grahame Bulfield (Director of the Roslin Institute from 1993 to 2002), both of whose papers will be catalogued in the second phase of the ‘Dolly’ project, thanks to further Wellcome Trust funding. This continuing strand demonstrates that the relationship between the Royal Society and the development of animal genetics in Edinburgh is, happily, an ongoing story.

Clare Button, Project Archivist

‘Towards Dolly: Edinburgh, Roslin and the Birth of Modern Genetics’ is funded under the Wellcome Trust’s Research Resources in Medical History scheme. The project is based at the University of Edinburgh Library Special Collections, where it catalogues and makes available the printed and archival records relating to animal genetics. Take a look at the project blog.


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