The Papers of Guido Pellegrino Arrigo Pontecorvo

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By | The Researcher’s View

In the second of our series introducing the digitised archive collections in the Codebreakers: makers of modern genetics resource, Dr Sam Maddra, archivist at the Glasgow Universtiy Archive Services  introduces the Pontecorvo papers.  The original papers are located at The University of Glasgow.

Geneticist Guido Pontecorvo

Pontecorvo in his laboratory

Guido Pellegrino Arrigo Pontecorvo (1907-1999), who liked to be known by his nickname, Ponte, was Professor of Genetics at the University of Glasgow from 1955 to 1968, and has been described as “one of the founding fathers of modern genetics”. Born and educated in Pisa, Pontecorvo was forced to leave Italy in 1938 and settled in Scotland.  He was appointed a lecturer in Genetics at the University’s Zoology Department in 1945, and a new department was set up in the Anatomy laboratories of the Anderson College building soon afterwards.  He became a Reader in 1952, three years before his appointment to the new Chair.  He left Glasgow in 1968 to take a post at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund’s laboratories in London.

Pontecorvo was one of the leading figures of his day in the study of cell genetics.  He was the founder of the genetics of Aspergillus nidulans, a relative of Penicillium, and originated genetical studies in many other fungi. The development of the ascomycete fungus Aspergillus nidulans as a convenient genetical tool led to the discovery in 1950 with Alan Roper of asexual reproduction, the parasexual cycle, in fungi. The consequences are similar to what happens in sexual reproduction, crossing over and recombination of genes. Pontecorvo realised that this phenomenon could be used to figure out the arrangement of genes on chromosomes. The parasexual cycle was successfully patented in 1954 and was the first patent to be issued in any jurisdiction for a natural biological process.

The Papers of Guido Pontecorvo capture his role as the father of genetics at the University of Glasgow, and detail his genetic research, including the afore mentioned patents.  However, the collection goes far beyond his professional life and offers many insights into Ponte the man.

Leni and Guido Pontecorvo

Leni and Guido Pontecorvo c.1939.

Despite coming from a large family where he was the eldest of 5 brothers and 3 sisters, Guido Pontecorvo’s immediate family consisted of his wife Lenore and his daughter Lisa.  Ponte described his marriage to Leni, a Swiss art-historian, in November 1939 as “the best thing I ever did”, and the two shared a long and happy marriage until Leni’s untimely death in 1986.

In the summer of 1940, when Italy entered the war, Pontecorvo was arrested as an enemy alien and interned on the Isle of Man for six months. The detainees, a mixed group of Italians and a few others, were lodged in a row of seaside rooms surrounded by barbed wire. As Pontecorvo recalled later “it was not bad, although a bit cramped”.  After six months a magistrate examined Ponte, questioning him about his attitudes, and released him.

Leni, in the meantime, having lost her Swiss neutrality for marrying an enemy alien, had to move to Glasgow where she was supporting herself by giving language lessons.  Ponte took a train to Glasgow in early June 1941. There was a blackout and he had no money for a taxi so he walked to the lodgings where Leni was living and knocked at the door. Glasgow became his home for the next 27 years.

The Pontecorvo collection holds a variety of records relating to Ponte’s personal and family life, such as photographs, household account books, love letters, Leni’s diaries and memoirs (which reveal what life was like as the wife of a professor living and working in Glasgow in the 1950s and 1960s), and the Pontecorvo household guestbook (which records signatures of academics, friends and family who visited the Pontecorvos over the years).

Page from Pontecorvo guestbook

Pontecorvo guestbook (1939-2007). These pages include signatures of Hermann Muller, who stopped by on his way home from picking up his Nobel Prize; J B S Haldane, who affectionately addressed Ponte as ‘Crawbrigg’; and Ponte’s brother Bruno, the nuclear physicist who defected to the USSR in 1950 (UGC198/9/2/1)

For over 40 years Leni kept a daily log of everything the family purchased, how much it cost and who paid for it. Every penny spent was accounted for (including Ponte’s daily newspapers) and a weekly balance showing income and expenditure was logged.  As well as providing an insight into the less than frivolous lifestyle of the Pontecorvos, the account books are also a valuable source of information for social historians. They hold information relating to diet and food availability, the change to decimal currency in 1971, and rising costs in all areas of life.

In 1944 Leni gave birth to their daughter Lisa. Lisa Pontecorvo adored her father and took great pride in his archive after his death. She was determined to find a good home for it and we are very grateful that it ended up at Glasgow University Archive Services along with collections of other notable geneticists who worked in Pontecorvo’s department, such as James Renwick and Malcolm Ferguson-Smith.

The digitised Pontecorvo papers are free to access as part of the Codebreakers: makers of modern genetics online resource. To read the papers online, you will need a Wellcome Library member login, or you can login with a Twitter, Facebook, Google or OpenID account. The login screen will appear when you open a digitised item from the catalogue or another webpage.


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