Blood Groups and the Rise of Human Genetics in the Mid-Twentieth Century

Blood Groups and the Rise of Human Genetics in the Mid-Twentieth Century

Jenny Bangham


Calculations scribbled in Robert Race’s hand showing his use of two different nomenclatures for different kinds of calculation (top of page, and bottom of page). From Race, ‘Blood Group Research Unit papers,’ 7 February 1947, SA/BGU/C.1, Wellcome Library.

This project offered a new postwar history of human genetics, by examining how, in mid-twentieth century Britain, blood groups were made into objects for investigations into human heredity and diversity. It followed the collection of blood groups from communities around the world, the grouping of samples, their transformation into data, and their presentation as credible genetic knowledge. Archival sources, interviews, and published sources reveal the institutional infrastructures and community interactions through which geneticists acquired and exploited resources for research. Films, newspaper reports, pamphlets, and books for broader audiences revealed the careful management of popular understanding of genetic research.

In early 1930s Britain a community of geneticists, including RA Fisher and JBS 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 project shows, using the arrangements for large-scale blood transfusion set up early in World War II. After the war, Mourant became director of the Blood Group Reference Laboratory and Robert Race of the Blood Group Research Unit, both at the Lister Institute of public health in London. As well as standardizing antisera and investigating blood-grouping problems for the World Health Organization, these laboratories collected, analyzed, and published vast quantities of genetic data, making the Lister the global centre for blood-group genetics.

Against a backdrop of intense international discussion about the meaning and scope of race science, many researchers including Mourant made blood group genetics exemplify a modern, ethically neutral, and "scientific" study of race. The project explored the ways in which blood groups were mobilized in political discourses both within the disciplines of genetics, anthropology, and geography, but also in relation to international efforts to reform the study of race.
Robert Race’s Blood Group Research Unit made use of its contacts with blood banks and hospitals around the world to obtain specimens of rare blood types and turned them into precious resources for the discovery and elucidation of rare new blood groups. Considering the value and uses of rare blood also brought into view the work done to annotate blood groups, antibodies, genes, and alleles, with individual, family, and racial identities.
This project also offered the first sustained analysis of the functions of nomenclatures in genetic research. For over a decade Robert Race and his colleagues were embroiled in a fierce dispute over the most appropriate nomenclatures used to denote the Rhesus blood groups. Doctors, pathologists, geneticists, and anthropologists around the world joined the debate. Jenny Bangham used this controversy—which is not fully resolved to this day—to think about the ways in which geneticists visualized and negotiated their objects of research, and how they communicated and collaborated with workers in other settings. Extending recent studies of relations between different media, she considered the material forms of nomenclatures, as they were jotted in notebooks, printed in journals, scribbled on blackboards, and spoken out loud.