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Genetics Archives Project

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Genetics Archives Project Team

Genetics Archives Project Team (left to right): Dr Tim Powell, Peter Keelan, Professor Peter Harper, Simon Coleman


Background and aims of the project

From February 2010 Cardiff is hosting this one-year project, funded by the Wellcome Trust, to preserve and catalogue the archives of some leading British genetics scientists and a principal research organisation.  The project is managed by the Director of SCOLAR and employs two archivists based at Newport Road.  Initially for one year and covering four separate archive collections, it has the potential for further funding and the inclusion of several other major collections.  Once catalogued, the archives will be deposited permanently in appropriate university libraries, thus ensuring the preservation and accessibility of key records of an area of study with profound impact on human health and scientific understanding.  

The project will be of particular significance to those interested in the history of genetics in the later twentieth century.  Areas covered will include aspects of human and medical genetics such as clinical genetics, population genetics, cytogenetics, enzyme polymorphisms and the foundations of molecular medicine.  It represents an unprecedented opportunity to record the beginnings and development of an increasingly significant field of scientific endeavour that has emerged since the 1950s and to which British-based researchers have made exceptional contributions.

The origins of the project lay in the concern that arose within the genetics science field itself to preserve historical information documenting its foundations and development.  This concern led to the establishment in 2002 of the Genetics and Medicine Historical Network by the distinguished geneticist Professor Peter S. Harper of Cardiff University.  The origins and role of the Network is described on the Genetics and Medicine Historical Network website.

A Wellcome Trust grant for the period 2006-2009 supported Professor Harper’s project ‘Preserving the History of Human and Medical Genetics’ (Wellcome Trust Grant RCUF071) which, in the process of conducting oral history interviews and building up a historical library in Cardiff, identified leading figures in UK human and medical genetics and enquiring about their archives.  At least 11 important record sets have so far been identified and include material accumulated by scientists such as Professor M.A. Ferguson-Smith (Cambridge), Professor J.H. Edwards (Oxford), Professor Sir Walter Bodmer (Oxford) and Professor Harper himself.  As a result of this survey, archives of J.H. Renwick, C.A.B. Smith and M.A. Ferguson-Smith were rescued and catalogued by the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists (NCUACS) based at Bath University.  


Focus of the project

The project will build on a number of initiatives in the history of human and medical genetics supported by the Wellcome Trust.  It will catalogue the archives of three scientists and one research unit whose contributions are summarised below:


John Hilton Edwards (1928-2007) was appointed Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Birmingham in 1971.  In 1979 he became Professor of Genetics at the University of Oxford.  Edwards worked on many aspects of human genetics including multifactorial disorders, the application of microtechniques to chromosomal analysis, and the implications and long-term consequences of applied human genetics.  He is credited with the first description, in 1960, of Edwards’ syndrome or trisomy 18.

George Robert Fraser (b. 1932) worked at the Galton Laboratory at UCL 1957-1959, studying under Lionel Penrose.  Fraser went on to hold a number of posts including appointments in the USA, Australia, The Netherlands and Canada.  In 1984-1997 he was Senior Clinical Research Fellow at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund Cancer Genetic Clinic, Churchill Hospital, Oxford, and Honorary Consultant in Clinical Genetics, Oxfordshire Health Authority.


The Medical Research Council Unit of Human Biochemical Genetics was established by Professor Harry Harris at King’s College London in 1962 to investigate the extent of genetic variation in healthy humans using family and population studies and simple screening techniques.  The Unit moved with him to University College in 1965 and continued, under his successors, to 2000.   The staff of the Unit identified over 30 new enzyme polymorphisms and made important contributions to linkage studies.  The archive will be placed in University College London Library.


Peter Stanley Harper (b. 1939) worked under the distinguished geneticist Victor McKusick before making his career at the University of Wales College of Medicine at Cardiff, in 1984 being made Professor of Medical Genetics.