Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics

The Medical Research Council Blood Group Unit archive

Sorry to be so long in writing, but we've had one of those remarkable deluges of blood, lots of interesting things all at once and exhaustion setting in.

Ruth Sanger, 1977 (SA/BGU/F.20/9)

Blood groups are one of the most scientifically accessible examples of human genetic variability. The Medical Research Council Blood Group Unit was the earliest to systematically explore the inheritance of blood types.

Robert Race

Robert Race with a blood donor, c. 1940
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The organisational records of the Medical Research Council Blood Group Unit (BGU) cover the period 1927-93, although most date from the late 1940s to the 1970s, when Robert Race and subsequently Ruth Sanger were in charge. The records include general correspondence with colleagues worldwide, early research papers by Race on human genetic markers, files on blood grouping investigations, and a comprehensive collection of photographs of BGU staff at work and at play. Since Race and Sanger were avid letter writers who maintained close friendships with many of their international colleagues, the files also give a strong impression of their personalities. Because of the sensitive nature of the content of some of the research files, there are some restrictions on access.

The organisational records of the BGU complement the personal papers of Race and Sanger, which have also been digitised. Between them, these collections offer a substantial insight into blood group research in the second half of the 20th century.

Originals held by...

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

View details in the Archives and Manuscripts catalogue

Ruth Sanger

Ruth Sanger in the lab
Credit: Ballard and Jarrett
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The Blood Group Unit (BGU) had its origins in the Galton Laboratory Serum Unit, set up in 1935 under the direction of R A Fisher, and financed through the Medical Research Council (MRC) by the Rockefeller Foundation. The Serum Unit was based at University College London, but relocated to Cambridge at the outbreak of World War II, as part of the National Blood Transfusion Service. After the War, it did not return to UCL but became part of the MRC Blood Research Unit at the Lister Institute for Preventive Medicine in London. Its director was Robert Race, who had joined the Serum Unit in 1937 as assistant serologist and followed it to Cambridge. A complementary MRC Blood Group Reference Laboratory, under Arthur Mourant, was established at the Lister Institute soon afterwards.

The need for safe transfusion therapy intensified blood group research in the run-up to World War II. In 1941 Karl Landsteiner and Alexander Wiener in New York published their discovery of the Rhesus factor. From 1946 the BGU acquired an international reputation in the highly specialised field of haematology, completing the identification of the antigens that make up the Rhesus system. From 1965 this work was extended into the genetics of blood groups.

Under the direction of Ruth Sanger from 1973, the BGU continued to make a unique contribution to the identification of blood groups, and to the applications of the blood group systems to the problems of human genetics. One major discovery was that in about 8 per cent of cases, non-identical twins have mixed (chimeric) blood groups, resulting from an exchange of blood between the twin fetuses in the placenta.

The BGU returned from the Lister Institute to UCL in 1975. It was disbanded in 1995, although its work continues in other research centres.

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