Uncovering a scientific life in the archives

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Leslie Barnett (1920-2002)  was a microbiologist who worked with some of the top geneticists of the 20th century to help discover important advances in gene structure and function.

Leslie Barnett, Francis Crick and Sydney Brenner

Leslie Barnett, Francis Crick and Sydney Brenner at the MRC Laboratory, Cambridge in 1986. Original photograph held by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories. Library reference no. SB/8/3/23.

Born in London as Margaret Leslie Collard she began her career in agriculture with a degree in dairying from Reading University. She went on to work as a technician at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Unit at Cambridge.

At Cambridge, she began a long and fruitful professional collaboration with Sydney Brenner, following him to the MRC Molecular Genetics Unit at Addenbrooke’s Hospital and later to his laboratory in Singapore. She co-authored papers with Brenner and Francis Crick, including one, in 1961, based on an important experiment that helped elucidate the genetic code.

During the 1970s she became a Senior Tutor at Clare Hall, Cambridge where she was so popular with colleagues and students that the college named a student residence ‘Leslie Barnett House’ in her honour.

Barnett was held in very high esteem by her colleagues. As a visiting scientist to the Molecular Biology Laboratory in 1986-1987, Eric Miller wrote:

… many of the seminal discoveries in molecular biology would not have occurred without the careful hand, watchful eye and steadfast focus that Leslie brought to the bench and experiments.

Leslie Barnett is not one of the big names of 20th century genetics, but it is possible to uncover the story behind her contribution to the science in the words and images that others left behind.

The photograph of three cheerful co-workers comes from the Sydney Brenner archive held by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories in New York, and amongst Francis Crick’s papers, held by the Wellcome Library in London, is this tribute to a friend and colleague:

Tribute to Leslie Barnett written by Francis Crick on her death.

Tribute to Leslie Barnett written by Francis Crick on her death. Wellcome Library reference: PP/CRI/J/1/8/2: Box 251.

Thanks to the Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics online resource, which brings together major genetics archives from around the world, it’s now much easier to uncover the story behind a scientific career such as Leslie Barnett’s. You can get a list of all the Codebreakers online resources about Leslie Barnett through the Wellcome Library catalogue.

Author: Lalita Kaplish is a web editor at the Wellcome Library.

Thanks to Sue Davies for uncovering the photograph of Leslie Barnett in the Brenner archive.


Lalita Kaplish

Lalita Kaplish is Web Editor at the Wellcome Library. You can also find her on LinkedIn and Twitter @LalitaKaplish.

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