Tag Archives: R.A. Fisher

What Did You Do This Summer (Genetics Edition)?

As the summer of 2012 starts to fade into cooler evenings, I have been wondering  – like so many summers before – just where it went and how come I did not accomplish any of the tasks I had so confidently laid out for myself back in early June. When I was a boy, on the last day of school summer would open up before me like a vast ocean of free time and then, in the blink of an eye, it was Labor Day and the seas of time had been transformed into a dripping spout of precious minutes. This got me me to thinking  about the history of genetics.  Are summer’s creative doldrums my peculiar affliction? What have other geneticists done during their summers? To satisfy my curiosity, I compiled a list of summer time achievements and events from the history of genetics, culled from my unorganized and arbitrary historical knowledge.

The most important doodle in the history of ideas in the Western world, here displayed on my iPhone cover (made by my talented daughter Emily Singh). The image is modified from the classic image in Darwin’s Notebook D, Transmutation of species (1837-1838) and is the first graphic expression of his branching species theory of evolution. Just above this doodle, Darwin wrote “I think.”

July 1, 1858: The theory of evolution was inconspicuously introduced to the world when the joint papers of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace (On the tendency of species to form varieties; and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural means of selection) were read to about 30 members of the Linnean Society in

London. By all accounts, the papers generated virtually no discussion. Not even a Tweet. Neither Darwin nor Wallace were in attendance. Wallace, who may be the only Englishman unluckier than Pete Best (who was fired as the Beatles’ drummer in the summer of 1962) was off in New Guinea seeking birds of paradise. Darwin was grieving the death of his beloved tenth child, 19 month old Charles Waring Darwin, who very well may have had Down syndrome.

September 2, 1939: German U-boats torpedoed SS Athenia, the first British ship sunk during WWII. More than one thousand survivors were plucked from the icy North Atlantic waters, including Charles Cotterman, who 10 years later would become the founding editor of The American Journal of Human Genetics and the designer of the journal’s original cover (as told in The Science of Human Perfection, my friend Nathaniel Comfort‘s soon to be published book on the history of medical genetics). Ironically, on board the rescue ship City of Flint was one James V. Neel, the great geneticist and founder of the Heredity Clinic at the University of Michigan where Neel and Cotterman collaborated during the 1940s. The summer of 1939 also saw Cuba and the US deny entry to a thousand Jewish refugees aboard the the SS St. Louis, who had escaped the Nazi horrors only to be sent back to Europe. One of the passengers on board was a teenage Arno Motulsky, who would later found the medical genetics department at the University of Washington, and author a classic human genetics textbook and numerous research papers. The story of the SS St. Louis was later told in both film and book as The Voyage of the Damned.

August, 1947Sheldon Reed succeeded Clarence Oliver as the director of the Dight Institute of Human Genetics at the University of Minnesota. The rest is genetic counseling history.

July 15, 1949: James Neel published his classic paper The Inheritance of Sickle Cell Anemia in Science (actually, the inheritance of sickle cell anemia was first reported 26 years earlier by W. H. Tallifero and J.G. Huck).

July 6, 1957; August 3, 1957; August 30, 1958: R.A. Fisher, the great statistical geneticist and one of the leading architects of the modern theory of evolution published 3 papers (in The British Medical Journal and Nature) claiming that cigarette smoking and lung cancer were genetically linked (“… an error has been made of an old kind, in arguing from correlation to causation”). Fisher’s arguments formed a key component to the tobacco industry’s strategy to deny the health risks of cigarettes. Fisher was paid a small fee to serve as a scientific consultant for the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Standing Committee.  He wrote the papers in response to a paper authored by the British Medical Research Counsel in Lancet in June of 1957 that stated that the recent increases in lung cancer could be largely attributed to cigarette smoking. Fisher strongly denied that the money he was paid could possibly influence his views. Talk about blind spots.

August 20-27, 1958: Jérôme Lejeune first reported the underlying chromosomal basis of Down syndrome at the X [tenth] International Congress of Genetics at McGill University in Montreal. The finding was published 4 months later in January, 1959.

June 26, 2000: US President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair jointly announced the completion of the first draft of the human genome.

Well, I guess I don’t have the excuse that geneticists never do anything important during their summers. Next year I will have to get more serious about pursuing my genetic exploits. But, hey, I have nine more months to ponder that.


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