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Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics

The Hans Grüneberg papers

The 'father of mouse genetics', Hans Grüneberg pioneered the laboratory mouse as a model for the study of genetic disorders in humans.

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Collection overview

Swiss mouse

Spontaneous malformation of a Swiss mouse, 1965
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Hans Grüneberg (1907-1982) did more to establish the laboratory mouse as a model to study the inheritance of human genetic disorders than any previous scientist. This collection consists of letters covering the 60 years from 1922 to 1982. Grüneberg's interest in mouse mutations led him into correspondence with amateur breeders of mice as well as scientific colleagues, including most of the principal figures in genetics research worldwide. He was also interested in feeding, housing and general care of laboratory mice. He took an active part in the discussions of the Committee for Standardized Nomenclature of Inbred Strains of Mice.

The collection also includes his correspondence with friends and family, and his dealings with the publishers of his books. Inserted among the letters are cuttings from newspapers that particularly interested him, such as an account of two rabbits that walked on their front legs due to a mutation affecting the formation of their spines.

The collection also covers his later work on snails and radiation-induced mutation, and his involvement in teaching the subject in medical schools. There is a substantial amount of material on his travels, particularly to India and Sri Lanka, on his relationships with colleagues in those countries, and on his work as external examiner in genetics at the University of Malaysia.

Grüneberg was fortunate in being invited to work in London after he lost his hospital job in Germany when the Nazis banned Jews from working in public positions. His correspondents include other successful refugee scientists such as the geneticist Charlotte Auerbach, who worked in Edinburgh on mutagenesis in fruit flies.


Mouse embryo

Mouse embryos, a single litter in uterus, 1952
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Hans Grüneberg formed part of the exodus of Jewish scientists who found work in Britain or the USA after they were ejected from their posts by the Nazis. He was born in the industrial heartland of north-west Germany, the son of a doctor. Having published a paper on fossils as a schoolboy, Grüneberg trained in medicine and genetics in Bonn and Berlin. In 1933 he was expelled from his medical post on racial grounds, but soon afterwards J B S Haldane invited him to pursue genetic research at University College London. His first wife, Elsbeth, whom he married in 1930, did not join him in London and lost her life in 1944.

Grüneberg established the field of developmental genetics, working with strains of laboratory mouse and studying the effects of mutations. He was particularly interested in mutations that led to malformations of the skeleton, such as neural tube defects of the type that resemble spina bifida in humans. His formulation of a 'pedigree of causes' was an important model for human disease.

Forced to give up lab work when UCL was evacuated during World War II, Grüneberg joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and served as a captain. He also wrote the definitive 'Genetics of the Mouse' (1943). In the course of his career he wrote several further authoritative texts on mutations and development. He spent the whole of his professional life at UCL, retiring as Emeritus Professor of Genetics in 1974.

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

View details in the Archives and Manuscripts catalogue

The day will come when human pathologists will realize the value of the inherited diseases of the mouse in solving problems of human pathology, where observation is often difficult and experimentation usually impossible.

Hans Grüneberg, 'The Genetics of the Mouse', 1943

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by H Grüneberg

In The Timeline

1943: Hans Grüneberg publishes The Genetics of the Mouse

Hans Grüneberg publishes The Genetics of the Mouse

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