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Human Genetics Historical Library: Origins of a 20th Century Science

Genetics and medicine in the 19th century

Although Mendel worked on plants, the problems of human inherited diseases were at the forefront of 19th century thought on heredity. Charles Darwin was keenly interested in human genetic disorders (see the example here), while his cousin Francis Galton laid the foundations of quantitative inheritance through studies of human characteristics. The 1965 centenary of Mendel’s work created great interest in the early history of the field.

William Bateson, Mendel’s Principles of Heredity, 1913

William Bateson, Mendel’s Principles of Heredity, 1913

 

Rediscovering Mendel through inherited disorders

The 1900 rediscovery of Mendel’s work made scientists realise that the abundant material on human genetic conditions gave evidence to support Mendel that was as important as experiments on other species. William Bateson was the key promoter of Mendel and his links with physicians such as Archibald Garrod gave the first sound evidence for human Mendelian inheritance.

The monumental Treasury of Human Inheritance (1909-1958) attempted to collect all the known material on human inheritance and this knowledge was incorporated in the first textbooks

Julia Bell, Treasury of Human Inheritance, 1912

Julia Bell, Treasury of Human Inheritance, 1912

 

Popular books on Genetics

Many notable scientists wrote books for the general public to explain genetics, including human and medical genetics: a notable writer in this category was J.B.S. Haldane, many of whose books were collections of articles originally published in the Daily Worker. The tradition of popular books continues to the present.

Prof. H. J. Muller, Out of the Night: A Biologist's View of the Future, 1936

Prof. H. J. Muller, Out of the Night: A Biologist's View of the Future, 1936

 

Catastrophy and abuse

Despite rapid international progress, genetics in the 1930s and 1940s saw disasters in Russia and Germany. In Russia, where the world’s first Medical Genetics Institute had been created in 1934, the entire field was banned and destroyed by Stalin and his protégé Lysenko.

In Germany the Nazis introduced ‘eugenic’ laws that led to mass murder, and were supported by many of the most eminent German scientists in the field.

T. D. Lysenko, Heredity and its Variability, 1949

T. D. Lysenko, Heredity and its Variability, 1949

 

 

Prof. F. G. Levit (ed.), Proceedings of the Maxim Gorky Medico-Biological Research Institute Moscow, 1934

Prof. F. G. Levit (ed.), Proceedings of the Maxim Gorky Medico-Biological Research Institute Moscow, 1934

 

The molecules of life  

One of the greatest achievements of British post-war research was the discovery of the structure of DNA and of the genetic code, much done at the Cambridge Laboratory for Molecular Biology, involving Francis Crick, James Watson, Rosalind Franklin and Max Perutz. Disorders of haemoglobin, whose structure was worked out by Perutz,  are the commonest genetic conditions world-wide.
  
Alongside these basic discoveries, modern human genetics was starting to evolve and to become a scientific discipline over a wide front of research.

DNA helix

DNA helix

 

Genetics as part of medicine, and documenting its history

Over the past 50 years Medical Genetics has become a major medical speciality and also increasingly is part of medicine as a whole. Genetic counselling, diagnosis and tests based on chromosomes and DNA have now helped many thousands of families; Wales has been a pioneer in this field of medicine.

Now the first generation of workers in medical genetics is retiring and the history of this field urgently needs preserving – including its books. Cardiff is the world focus for these initiatives.