Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics

The James Renwick papers

Recent months have brought about some striking advances in human chromosome mapping.

James Renwick, from a draft of his paper 'Progress in Mapping Human Autosomes', 1969

James Renwick pioneered the use of statistical techniques and genetic markers to map human disease genes, and was among the first to use computers to locate genetic disorders.

Jim Renwick (1926-1994) worked in several key centres of research, and his papers help to provide a bridge between early 20th-century research on the role of heredity in disease and later medical genetics based on physical investigation of the chromosomes. He trained in genetics during the mid-1950s with J B S Haldane, Lionel Penrose and the statistician Cedric Smith at University College London. He then spent a year with the medical genetics pioneer Victor McKusick at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore (1958-59), before moving to the Department of Genetics at the University of Glasgow under Guido Pontecorvo. Malcolm Ferguson-Smith, who had followed him to Johns Hopkins, also became a colleague at Glasgow. He moved to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in 1968.

Heterogenity program, data input test

Data input test as part of a heterogeneity program
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The development of a mathematical concept known as the LOD (logarithm of odds) score in the mid-1950s put the mapping of disease genes on a quantitative basis. LOD is a measure of the likelihood that two characteristics will be inherited together and therefore lie close together on the same chromosome. Renwick collaborated extensively with others in collecting large pedigrees of people with inherited conditions, and calculating the LOD scores. He helped to bring into being the first generalised computer program to automate this process, acting as a link between statistical methods developed at UCL and the advanced (for the time) computer facilities at Johns Hopkins.

Renwick's research materials include correspondence, research notes and details of family pedigrees. Other sections in this collection are biographical material including obituaries, material relating to his engagement with organisations such as the Medical Research Council and the Genetical (later Genetics) Society, and a series of correspondence with scientific colleagues including Robert Race and Ruth Sanger (like his Glasgow colleagues, also subjects of this digital archive). However, most of his scientific correspondence - far more extensive than that included here - is filed with his research materials. Some of his most significant correspondents included Cedric Smith, Lionel Penrose, Malcolm Ferguson-Smith and Victor McKusick.

Originals held by... 

 This material has been provided by Glasgow University Archive Services where originals may be consulted.

James Harrison Renwick was born in Otley, Yorkshire. After qualifying in medicine at St Andrews University, he did his national service between 1951 and 1953 with the Royal Army Medical Corps in South-east Asia. During this period he was seconded to the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in Japan, an experience that stimulated him to train in genetics. This decision brought him to the Galton Laboratory at University College London, home to J B S Haldane and other distinguished geneticists. With Sylvia Lawler, he was able to show in 1955 that nail-patella syndrome, a genetic abnormality affecting the fingernails and joints, was linked to the ABO blood group system.

Progress in mapping human autosomes

Material regarding 'Progress in mapping human autosomes'
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Renwick's academic career flourished at the University of Glasgow and subsequently at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. As well as developing statistical approaches to gene mapping, he was among the first to use the genetic markers that became available in the 1960s and 1970s to map human disease genes.

In 1972, he changed his research direction. Instead of focusing on genetics, he broadened his interest in birth defects to include a statistical approach to a variety of possible causes. He developed a theory that neural tube defects (spina bifida and anencephaly) were caused by the mother's exposure to toxins in potatoes. While he eventually accepted that the theory could not be supported, the renewed research that developed in response to his proposal helped to demonstrate the importance of folic acid in the diet of pregnant women.

After he died of a brain tumour - a condition he had diagnosed himself - an obituary in the 'Independent' described him as "challenging, mischievous, stubborn for the truth, honest to a fault, and generous".

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