Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics

The Arthur Mourant papers

Blood group workers are not a social class, but I have been struck by the apparent high frequency of Rh-negatives among them – but perhaps my method of ascertainment is statistically suspect, since I am Rh-negative myself.

Arthur Mourant, from a letter to Sir Cyril Clarke (PP/AEM/K.224)

Arthur Mourant (1904-1994) extended our knowledge of the variety of human blood groups, and documented their worldwide distribution.

Mourant rhesus map
Rhesus working map showing distribution of the 'E' gene, 1967
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The papers of Arthur Mourant provide an insight into the multifaceted life of a scientist who was both intellectually engaged and personally engaging. They are interesting for their geographical as well as their historical perspectives.

Mourant made major contributions to blood typing and to the population biology of blood groups. Mapping the geography of human diversity through blood groups became his major preoccupation in the 1960s and 1970s, work that prefigured the modern concern to build maps of genetic variation that might contribute to our understanding of human evolution, and of health and disease.

The collection includes material relating to the research laboratories where he worked, and to his many publications. His files of correspondence include letters to and from a large community of international colleagues. For example, he was in regular touch with the Italian-born population geneticist Luca Cavalli-Sforza, whose work on the physical basis of race continues the line that Mourant began with his book 'The Distribution of Human Blood Groups' (1954). Mourant's papers complement those of the Medical Research Council Blood Group Unit and of Robert Race and Ruth Sanger, which are also part of the digital archive.

Mourant's strong identification with his homeland, the island of Jersey, is a consistent theme throughout his papers. The collection includes family correspondence from his first departure from the island at the age of 18. Much of this material relates to personal contacts within this small community. It includes childhood drawings by the cellist Jacqueline du Pré, who was the daughter of a family friend and knew Mourant as 'Uncle Arthur'. The German occupation of Jersey during World War II was a collective trauma that Mourant escaped as he had gone to London to train in medicine. However, the first-hand experience of his correspondents and his own engagement with their predicament is starkly outlined.

Having trained as a geologist before going into medicine, he pursued interests in the geology of the island and its stone-age monuments. The variety of his work in this area emerges from the drafts and reprints of his publications, from the material he assembled when writing his autobiography in his later years, and from the extensive correspondence he filed under the heading 'Geological'.

Originals held by...

This material is held by the Wellcome Library where originals may be consulted.

View details in the Archives and Manuscripts catalogue

Mourant as geologist
Mourant on a geological excursion in Jersey, c. 1935
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The title of Arthur Ernest Mourant's autobiography, 'Blood and Stones' (1995), succinctly conveys his two parallel scientific careers, as a geologist and as a haematologist.

Mourant was born into a Jersey farming family, and brought up as a Methodist. Academically gifted, he went up to Oxford to read chemistry. He undertook a doctorate on the Precambrian volcanic rocks of Jersey. Persuaded by a medical friend, he started the first chemical pathology laboratory on the island and ran it for five years.

In 1939 he decided to train in medicine at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London, and after qualifying joined the National Blood Transfusion Service, which stimulated his interest in haematology. He pursued research that led to his discovery of the anti-E antibody, part of the Rhesus system of blood factors, and to the development (with Robert Race and Robin Coombs) of the antiglobulin test used for cross-matching before blood transfusions. During World War II he was actively engaged in organisations for refugees from German-occupied Jersey; he was unable to contact his own family until the Channel Islands were liberated in 1945.

In 1946 he became Director of the Medical Research Council's Blood Group Reference Laboratory at the Lister Institute. He went on to document the physical anthropology of blood types, publishing books such as 'The Distribution of the Human Blood Groups' (1954) and 'The Blood Groups of the Jews' (1959). As head of the Medical Research Council's new Serological Population Genetics Laboratory, based at St Bartholomew's Hospital from 1965, he continued to research and write prolifically until he retired in 1977.

He then married his former secretary Jean Shimell and returned to Jersey. There he renewed his research into the geology and prehistoric archaeology of the island, and his inspiration subsequently led to the creation of the Jersey Heritage Trust.

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