Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 39, Issue 4, pp 707–735 | Cite as

Mice and the Reactor: The “Genetics Experiment” in 1950s Britain



The postwar investments by several governments into the development of atomic energy for military and peaceful uses fuelled the fears not only of the exposure to acute doses of radiation as could be expected from nuclear accidents or atomic warfare but also of the long-term effects of low-dose exposure to radiation. Following similar studies pursued under the aegis of the Manhattan Project in the United States, the “genetics experiment” discussed by scientists and government officials in Britain soon after the war, consisted in large-scale low-dose irradiation experiments of laboratory animals to assess the effects of such exposures on humans. The essay deals with the history of that project and its impact on postwar genetics. It argues that radiobiological concerns driven by atomic politics lay at the heart of much genetics research after the war and that the atomic links are crucial to understand how genetics became an overriding concern in the late 20th century.


atomic age atomic fallout low-dose radiation debate mice experiments postwar genetics radiation biology 


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I thank Professor Dudley Goodhead for a first introduction to the history of the MRC Unit at Harwell, Mary Lyons for sharing her memories of the early mouse work in the unit, Peter Glenister for introducing me to the history of the mouse mutant and the frozen embryo and sperm collection, Maureen Bulman at the MRC library at Harwell for her invaluable help in locating relevant material and Adrian Ford, Kevin Glover and Steve Thomas of Imaging Service MRC Harwell for supplying scans. Earlier drafts of the paper were presented at seminars and conferences in London, Vienna, Manchester, Princeton, Harvard and Berlin. I thank the participants and especially John Beatty, David Cantor, Jenny Marie, Hans-Jörg Rheinberger and Alexander von Schwerin as well as Angela Creager and Maria Santesmases for many insightful comments and suggestions. Special thanks to Skuli Sigurdssen for careful reading and many stimulating discussions.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of History and Philosophy of ScienceUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK

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