Codebreakers: makers of modern genetics

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heredity charts

Heredity Charts I-VI: published for the Eugenics Society

Back in 2010 we began a long term project to digitise our collections. Our aim was (and is) to put 30 million pages online by 2020. Today we’re taking a major step towards that goal. Codebreakers: the makers of modern genetics contains over a million pages of books and archives relating to the history of genetics. Another half million pages will be added over the next few months. Much of this material is from the Wellcome Library, but we’ve also worked with five partners – Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Library, King’s College London, University College London, Glasgow University and the Churchill Archives Centre – who have digitised some of their collections to place alongside ours.

So what do we have? Well, we have digitised or are digitising twenty archive collections. They include the papers of Francis Crick, James Watson, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin – the four individuals most closely associated with the discovery of the ‘double helix’ structure of DNA in 1953.

We also have collections that help place their work in a broader context. From the first half of the 20th century we have the archive of the Eugenics Society, made available by kind permission of the Council of the Galton Institute, and the papers of J B S Haldane, a leading figure in pre-war British science and the first Professor of Genetics at University College London. From the post-war period we have, amongst others, the collections of Guido Pontecorvo and his students Malcolm Ferguson-Smith and James Renwick, who helped make Glasgow a leading centre for the study of medical genetics. We’ve also digitised over a thousand books covering the science, history and social and cultural aspects of genetics and related disciplines, mostly from the 20th century.

You can find these collections by searching our catalogue, just as you would if you were visiting the library (which means you can also find other relevant material that we haven’t yet digitised). Digital content can be viewed in our new player (see notes from the Crick archive below).

If you want to browse the digitised collections by subject, discover the background to the individuals and organisations, or find out more about the history of modern genetics we’ve provided a range of resources in the Codebreakers section of our website. We’ve also added an interactive timeline that includes links to selected items from the archives to provide an alternative way in to the subject.

Together, we hope these collections will be a useful resource for researchers. Our aim has been to digitise as much as we can, rather than just the highlights of the collection. There is some material that we haven’t been able to put online because of sensitivity or copyright issues. You’ll discover too that when you try to look at a lot of the digitised archives you need to log in. We’ve tried to make this as painless as possible: you don’t need to be a card-carrying library member, for example. But you do need to accept our conditions of use, which helps us fulfil our responsibilities as custodians of archives containing personal data.

As always, we welcome your feedback, which will help us not only improve Codebreakers, but also shape our next big digitisation project on the theme of mental health and neuroscience, which will begin in May 2013. Over the course of the next three years we will also release other smaller, but still significant batches of digitised content, starting in summer 2013 with over seven thousand reports published by Medical Officers of Health in London between the 1840s and 1970s, followed by the complete run of the trade journal Chemist and Druggist, due for release in Autumn 2013.

Simon Chaplin

Simon Chaplin is Director of Culture & Society at the Wellcome Library.

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