A A A

Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics

By Lisa K Flint, on 3 April 2013

finger-printsUCL Special Collections is celebrating the launch of Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics, the pilot phase of the Wellcome Digital Library project headed by the Wellcome Trust. This online resource for the history of genetics research includes more than 80,000 digital images from UCL, as well as digitised archives and books from the Wellcome Library and four other partner institutions. Launched on Monday 4th March 2013, it allows free, online access to important material created by the pioneers of modern genetics and includes the papers of twenty scientists and organisations. Additional features include an interactive timeline which uses selected images from the archives to illustrate key events in the history of genetics from Darwin to the present day.
UCL has contributed the digitised papers of J B S Haldane (1892-1964) and Lionel Sharples Penrose (1898-1972) who both spent a large proportion of their careers at UCL. With 38,000 images, the Haldane collection is the second largest of those contributed by external partners to Codebreakers. The next stage of the project at UCL is to digitise the archive of Sir Francis Galton FRS (1822-1911). Galton was a Victorian polymath who devoted his life to the study of diverse fields, including the physical and mental characteristics in man and animals, the influence of heredity, fingerprints, photography and personal identification, and meteorology. He was preoccupied with counting and measuring, and collected a huge amount of statistical data to support his research.

Although never a UCL professor, Galton worked closely with Egyptologist Flinders Petrie, and established the Eugenics Laboratory at UCL in 1907 with his friend Karl Pearson as its first director. On his death in 1911 Galton left UCL £45,000 to found the Galton Chair of Eugenics with Pearson as its first holder. In 1963 the Chair was renamed the Galton Chair of Human Genetics and the laboratory was renamed The Galton Laboratory of the Department of Human Genetics & Biometry thanks to the efforts of Lionel Penrose. Both were subsumed into the Department of Biology in 1996.

The Galton archive has already been catalogued and includes working papers, family history records and correspondence. This diverse range of material is estimated at around 100,000 images in total, which will make UCL the biggest external contributor to the Codebreakers project.

Alphonse Bertillon was a Parisian police clerk who devised a system for recording information that could be used to identify people in police custody. This involved taking standardised photographs of the person’s face in full and in profile as well as recording various measurements and distinguishing features. These were all noted on cards known as the “Bertillon System Cards”. This card was made for Galton during his visit to Bertillon’s laboratory in 1893.

Galton is known for his work to refine the technique of composite photography – where many photographs of individuals were superimposed onto the same photographic plate to produce a composite of several faces blended together. The aim of this was to create an image of a ‘type’ of face; the item above shows criminal types made from individual portraits of inmates at Millbank Prison.

Galton is credited with pioneering the scientific methodology for using fingerprints for forensic purposes, collecting and classifying around 8,000 samples of fingerprints.