Blood groups and the rise of human genetics in mid-twentieth century Britain

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Bangham, Jenny 

This dissertation reconstructs how blood groups were made into pre-eminent objects of human genetic research and powerful markers for producing human biological difference. By tracing the ways in which three British laboratories became international centres for blood-group genetic research, it also offers an expanded history of postwar human genetics. In early 1930s Britain a community of geneticists, including R.A. Fisher andj.B.S. Haldane, promoted blood groups as having the potential to give the study of human heredity 'a solidly objective foundation, under strict statistical control'. Fisher and colleagues at the Cambridge Galton Serum Unit- especially Robert Race and Arthur Mourant- implemented this vision, the dissertation shows, using the arrangements for large-scale blood transfusion set up early in the Second World War. In 1946, Mourant became director of the Blood Group Reference Laboratory and Race of the Blood Group Research Unit, both at London's Lister Institute. As well as standardising blood-grouping reagents and investigating serological problems for the World Health Organization, these laboratories collected, analysed and published vast quantities of genetic data, making the Lister the global centre for blood-group genetics. During this period, human genetics changed from a marginal research field to an established discipline, partly, the dissertation argues, as a result of this blood-group research. By the 1950s a third of all human genetics publications were on blood groups: as one of the few human traits with simple Mendelian inheritance, they formed the basis for linkage studies and association surveys, and underpinned innovation in theoretical population genetics. Against a backdrop of intense international discussion about the meaning and scope of race science, blood groups were also made into tools for a supposedly 'obj ective' and 'unprejudiced' anthropology. This first history of how blood groups became scientific objects follows their collection in Britain and overseas, the grouping of samples, their transformation into data, and their presentation as credible genetic knowledge. It also offers the first sustained analysis of the functions of genetic nomenclatures. I argue that mid-century human genetics was profoundly influenced by the questions and practices of physical anthropology, by clinical practice, and by international infrastructures for medical research.


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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge