James Cossar Ewart and the Origins of the Animal Breeding Research Department in Edinburgh, 1895–1920

Abstract

In 1919 the Animal Breeding Research Department was established in Edinburgh. This Department, later renamed the Institute of Animal Genetics, forged an international reputation, eventually becoming the centrepiece of a cluster of new genetics research units and institutions in Edinburgh after the Second World War. Yet despite its significance for institutionalising animal genetics research in the UK, the origins and development of the Department have not received as much scholarly attention as its importance warrants. This paper sheds new light on Edinburgh’s place in early British genetics by drawing upon recently catalogued archival sources including the papers of James Cossar Ewart, Regius Professor of Natural History at the University of Edinburgh between 1882 and 1927. Although presently a marginal figure in genetics historiography, Ewart established two sites for experimental animal breeding work between 1895 and 1911 and played a central role in the founding of Britain’s first genetics lectureship, also in 1911. These early efforts helped to secure government funding in 1913. However, a combination of the First World War, bureaucratic problems and Ewart’s personal ambitions delayed the creation of the Department and the appointment of its director by another six years. This paper charts the institutionalisation of animal breeding and genetics research in Edinburgh within the wider contexts of British genetics and agriculture in the early twentieth century.

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Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank the staff of Cambridge University Library Department of Manuscripts and University Archives, the Centre for Research Collections at the University of Edinburgh, John Innes Historical Collections, National Records of Scotland, Scotland’s Regional College Library and the Wellcome Collection, all of whom kindly facilitated access to their archives. I am indebted to those who generously gave their time to reading and discussing this paper with me: Dominic Berry, Grahame Bulfield, Jacqueline Cahif, Bill Jenkins, Dmitriy Myelnikov, Miguel Garcìa-Sancho Sanchez and Steve Sturdy. Their support and expertise have helped to strengthen this paper considerably, as did the insightful comments of two anonymous reviewers. This work was supported by a Research Bursary from the Wellcome Trust [200428/Z/15/Z], to whom thanks are also due.

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Button, C. James Cossar Ewart and the Origins of the Animal Breeding Research Department in Edinburgh, 1895–1920. J Hist Biol 51, 445–477 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10739-017-9500-0

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Keywords

  • Edinburgh
  • History of genetics
  • Biology
  • James Cossar Ewart
  • Animal breeding
  • Animal genetics
  • Agriculture