Digitising the archive of geneticist Hans Grüneberg

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By | From the Collections

Photograph from press cutting dated 15 November 1947 File ref: PP/GRU/57

Photograph from press cutting dated 15 November 1947 File ref: PP/GRU/57


The Wellcome Library is host to numerous scientists who are famed for discovering important aspects of genetics, many of whose papers are being digitised as part of a major on-going project. While Arthur Mourant was the so-called ‘father of serology’, Hans Grüneberg was believed to be the ‘father of mouse genetics’ (Lewis and Hunt, Biographical Memoirs of Members of the Royal Society, 1984, vol. 30, p.239).

His papers were recently catalogued (see our earlier post) and these papers are now in the process of being digitised. A gifted Jewish scientist, Grüneberg was plucked from Germany in 1933, to work on the genetics of the mouse at University College London, alongside another distinguished geneticist, J. B. S. Haldane. According to Lewis and Hunt, Gruneberg’s “…great strength was his singleness of purpose … reinforced when he saw the mouse as a model for the understanding of inherited defects in man”.

Grüneberg’s personal papers contain numerous lab notes, correspondence and research on the genetic make-up and defects of the ‘house mouse’, including press cuttings retained by Grüneberg for their relevance to his work. But it wasn’t just mice Grüneberg paid attention to as we see in a cutting dated 15 November 1947, headed ‘’British Rabbits. They like to walk on two feet” which shows two rabbits (see image above) apparently suffering from a genetic spinal defect: 

On a table top in Reginald Freeman’s butcher shop in Barking outside of London, England, two young rabbits named Junior and Mr. Walker padded back and forth on their forefeet before an admiring crowd. Mr Freeman, used to his rabbits’ habits, took a seat in the corner. To people who wondered why the rabbits walked this way, he explained that the rabbits simply like to. Both have been doing it since they were born. Mr. Walker the elder rabbit, started right off walking on his forefeet. Junior, a female, at first experimented with the more conventional four-legged method but after watching Mr. Walker for a while switched to his two-legged style. Mr. Freeman asked a veterinarian about all this and was told the rabbits’ spinal muscles were underdeveloped and they walked on two legs because it was easier.

 X-ray of normal and transgenic mice. Wellcome Images No. B0003657.

X-ray of normal and transgenic mice. Wellcome Images No. B0003657.

The study of spinal cord neural tube defects, which would have probably been the cause of the rabbits’ deformity was one of the areas that Grüneberg researched in embryonic and new born (specifically ‘curly-tail’) mice for their striking similarity to the situation in humans. For information on his research in this field, see ‘Genetical studies of the skeleton of the mouse VIII. curly-tail’ in Journal of Genetics 52 (1954), The pathology of development : a study of inherited skeletal disorders in animals / by Hans Grüneberg, Oxford, Blackwell, 1963 and file ref: PP/GRU/80)

Image refs: Photograph from press cutting dated 15 November 1947 File ref: PP/GRU/57. X-ray of normal (left) and transgenic (right) mice, B0003657, Wellcome Images.

Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse

Julia Nurse is Collections Researcher at the Wellcome Library. With a background in art history, she has previously worked as Assistant Curator of the Iconographic Collections, and more recently co-curated the content within the refurbished Reading Room.

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