Papers of Glasgow’s pioneers of genetics included in new Wellcome Library collection

The papers of the pioneers of modern genetics, including former Glasgow professors Guido Pontecorvo, Malcom Ferguson-Smith and James Harrison Renwick, have been collected together for the first time and made freely available in a £3.9million digitisation project by the Wellcome Library.

‘Codebreakers: makers of modern genetics’ contains over a million pages of first-hand notes, letters, sketches, lectures, photographs and essays from the circle of brilliant minds responsible for uncovering the structure of DNA that includes the likes of Francis Crick, James D. Watson, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin.

The site lays bare the personal and professional thoughts, rivalries, blind alleys and breakthroughs of the scientists whose ideas transformed our understanding of the matter of life.

Drawing on five partner archives in America, London, Cambridge, and Glasgow and the Wellcome Library’s own holdings, Codebreakers offers an unparalleled and comprehensive primary resource for researchers and curious minds across the world and is launched ahead of the 60th anniversary of Crick and Watson’s seminal Nature paper revealing the structure of DNA.

It holds the stories behind the discovery which has shaped our genetic age, from diagnosis to drug development, forensics to food production, and which lies at the heart of today’s biomedical research.

The vast collections contain both iconic documents, such as Crick’s preliminary sketches of the double helix and Franklin’s x-ray diffraction ’photo 51’, and everyday exchanges; complex research notes and personal ephemera.

The Glasgow papers within the Codebreakers project includes:

  • The Guido Pontecorvo (1907 - 1999) Collection, including research material, correspondence, lecture notes and slides, from the 1940s to the 1990s.
  • The James Harrison Renwick (1926-1994) Collection, dating chiefly from the period of Renwick’s human genetics research from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s.
  • The Malcolm Ferguson-Smith (1931-) Collection, dominated by very substantial correspondence dating from 1957 onwards.

Codebreakers sits within an entirely redesigned Wellcome Library website, and a new media player allows for the close reading, downloading and embedding of digitised files. The content is free to all, and users can log in using Library membership, facebook or twitter accounts. A timeline and essays on key individuals and research groups offer navigational aids through the records.

Codebreakers is a collaborative project, uniting collections from five internationally important centres. Working with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Churchill Archives Centre Cambridge, the University of Glasgow, King’s College London and UCL (University College London) the digitised papers of James D. Watson, Rosalind Franklin, Sydney Brenner, Lionel Penrose, J.B.S Haldane, Guido Pontecorvo, James Harrison Renwick, Malcolm Ferguson-Smith and Maurice Wilkins have been made available.

They join material from the Wellcome Library’s own holdings including the papers of Francis Crick, Fred Sanger, Arthur Ernest Mourant, Peter Medawar, Hans Grüneberg, Honor Fell and Gerard Wyatt.

Simon Chaplin, Head of the Wellcome Library says: "Codebreakers reveals the extraordinarily convoluted networks of influence, insight and inspiration which lie behind critical moments of scientific discovery. It is a project made possible by a creative partnership with five outstanding libraries and archives, sharing a goal of free and open access. Together, our collections offer an extraordinarily rich research resource documenting one of the most significant periods of scientific innovation in human history."

Codebreakers is accessible at wellcomelibrary.org/codebreakers


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