Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics

The Robert Race and Ruth Sanger papers

Our work is primarily concerned with research into human blood groups, which is of the utmost importance in the practical problems of blood transfusion and certain blood diseases of the newborn.

Robert Race, in a letter seeking volunteer blood donors, 1950 (SA/BGU/G.3/2/1)

Robert Race and Ruth Sanger were a husband-and-wife team who advanced the science of blood groups and were pioneers in the mapping of human genetic variation.

The collection documents the working life of this remarkable couple, both of whom were known for their cheerful, friendly, outgoing natures. This did not prevent them from falling into a sometimes acrimonious dispute with Alexander S Wiener over the theory of Rhesus blood types (Wiener was co-discoverer, with Karl Landsteiner, of the Rhesus blood group system). The correspondence and papers provide an interesting study of a scientific conflict that would not be fully resolved until most of the participants were dead. Race and Sanger diplomatically covered both theories and their associated notation in their book 'Blood Groups in Man'.

Sanger and Race

Ruth Sanger and Robert Race, 1947
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Robert Race (1907-1984) began his work as a serologist in the later 1930s at the Galton Laboratory in London. In 1946 he was appointed head of the new Medical Research Council Blood Group Research Unit (the records of which, held by the Wellcome Library, have also been digitised and provide much of the institutional history that complements Race and Sanger's papers). His assistant, Ruth Sanger (1918-2001), whom he married in 1956, succeeded him as director in 1973.

Race and Sanger published their scientific work jointly and were mostly recognised as having made equal contributions. They received many honours and awards, including the Karl Landsteiner Memorial Award and the Gairdner Award, in their joint names. In addition to scientific correspondence, over a hundred lectures delivered over almost 40 years, and many scientific publications, the collection includes personal papers and correspondence that provide much insight into their personalities.

Originals held by...

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

View details in the Archives and Manuscripts catalogue

Robert Russell Race was born in Hull and trained at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London. After qualifying he joined the Galton Laboratory, at University College London, where the statistician R A Fisher, one of the founding fathers of British genetics, was establishing a small blood-typing department. When Landsteiner and Wiener published their discovery of Rhesus blood groups in the USA in 1941, Race and Arthur Mourant began to tease out the complexities of the family of Rh antigens.

Ruth Sanger

Ruth Sanger in gale on Tasman Sea
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Ruth Ann Sanger was born in Australia in 1918 and trained as a serologist in the Red Cross blood transfusion service in Sydney. In 1946 she moved to London as assistant to Race and to work on her PhD. She was in her element in the MRC Unit, where blood samples arrived from all over the world containing antibodies to be identified. After the death of Race's first wife (with whom he had three daughters), Sanger married him. Together they published 'Blood Groups in Man', the definitive textbook on human blood groups, in 1950; in the early 1960s they discovered the first X-linked blood group antigen, Xg.

They went on to work together on the mapping of the X chromosome, a project that was a pathfinder for the Human Genome Mapping Project that began in the mid-1980s. Sanger succeeded Race as director of the Unit on his retirement in 1973, but they continued to work together until his death, sharing a delight in science and a robust sense of humour.

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