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Medical Genetics in Britain: Laying the Foundation (1940s–1960s)

  1. Doris T Zallen

Published Online: 15 DEC 2009

DOI: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0005603.pub2



How to Cite

Zallen, D. T. 2009. Medical Genetics in Britain: Laying the Foundation (1940s–1960s). eLS. .

Author Information

  1. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia, USA

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 15 DEC 2009

This is not the most recent version of the article. View current version (16 FEB 2015)


Medical genetics refers to the use of genetic information in the healthcare setting. This includes research efforts to understand the genetic basis of human illness. It also includes clinical services that use genetic knowledge to provide an assessment of risk for the occurrence of gene-based disorders, determine an individual's actual genetic status, select treatments and develop programmes of disease prevention. In Britain, medical genetics as an area of specialty arose out of the activities begun in three separate settings during the period from mid-1940s through the 1960s: the Clinical Genetics Research Unit at the Institute of Child Health in London, the Paediatric Research Unit at Guy's Hospital in London and the Nuffield Unit of Medical Genetics at the University of Liverpool Medical School. The research and clinical commitments of these separate units and the strong links connecting them provided the foundation on which present-day medical genetics is built.

Key concepts:

  • Medical genetics, as an area of speciality, emerged late in the twentieth century in Britain largely through the efforts of physicians who, for the most part, had no formal training in genetics but who recognized its importance.

  • Activities undertaken at three separate medical units, each emphasizing different aspects of genetics (pedigree analysis, cytogenetics and genetic variation associated with common disorders), formed the foundation on which medical genetics, as an entity, developed.

  • Medical genetics was able to grow and establish itself more widely because of the many different types of close interactions among the members of the three founding groups and the support received from existing medical institutions.


  • blood group research;
  • genetic counselling;
  • cytogenetics;
  • Rh disease;
  • medical genetics