Archive science: the remarkable life of Leonard Doncaster, geneticist of Sheffield
The study of genes, genetics and inheritance dates back
to the mid-nineteenth century.The
origins of genetics lie in the development of theories of evolution - in 1859,
Charles Darwin published ‘On the Origin of Species’ which described the process
of evolution and how natural selection occurred. He did not, however, know the
role genes had to play in this phenomenon.Around the same time Gregor Mendel’s experiments on sweet pea plants
demonstrated that the unit of heredity as a particle does not change and is
passed on to offspring (‘Mendelian inheritance’). His work forms the basis of
our understanding of the principles of genetics today.Much work was done in the early 20th
century to understand DNA and chromosomes and in 1909 the word ‘gene’ was
coined.The history of genetics is an
absorbing topic, and many eminent geneticists have playing an important role in
our modern understanding of this complex subject.One of the early pioneers in this field was
Leonard Doncaster (1877-1920), a Sheffield-born geneticist.
Leonard Doncaster was born on 31 Dec 1877 at 95 Hanover
Street, Sheffield.He was the eldest son
of Samuel Doncaster, iron merchant and steel manufacturer, and Emma Doncaster
(and grandson of Daniel Doncaster, steel manufacturer and merchant of
Sheffield).The family were living at
Wood Lane, Ecclesall Bierlow in 1881.A
note in Leonard Doncaster's 1893 diary states his address as Fernwood,
Abbeydale, Sheffield and Leighton Park School, Reading.
Leonard was a 'founder boy' at Leighton Park School
(founded on Quaker principles) in Reading, and was admitted as a scholar at
King's College, University of Cambridge in 1896.He was a Walsingham Medallist, 1902; gained
his M.A. in 1903 and Sc.D. in 1913.He
became Assistant Superintendent at the Museum of Zoology in 1902.He was a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS)
Lecturer in Zoology at Birmingham University from 1906-1910.He returned to Cambridge in 1910 to become
Superintendent of the Museum of Zoology.
The 1911 census records Leonard Doncaster (aged 33)
married to Dora Priestman Doncaster, with a child, Gertrude, at 'Whinfell',
Whirlow in Sheffield (along with his parents, siblings and five servants).
He was awarded the Trail Medal of the Linnaean Society in
During the First World War he acted as bacteriologist to
the First Eastern General Hospital, Cambridge, and afterwards joined the
Friends Ambulance Unit at Dunkirk.He
was Professor of Zoology, Liverpool University, 1919-1920.He was a prominent worker on the problem of
heredity from the cytological standpoint.He was the author of The Determination of Sex (New York: G. P. Putnam's
Throughout his life, he travelled extensively throughout
Europe and kept diaries (from the age of 13) of his observations on natural
history during his travels, which he illustrated profusely with colour-wash
drawings and photographs.These diaries
survive at Sheffield City Archives (from 1892 through to 1920) and chronicle not
only Doncaster’s early interest in the world of biology but also an interest in
the local area (with many illustrations, photographs and references to
Abbeydale, Beauchief, Whirlow and the Peak District).
He died of sarcoma on 28 May 1920; William Bateson,
biologist and geneticist, wrote his obituary in 'Nature'.
Biographical details: Cambridge University Alumni,
1261-1900; 1881 census; 1911 census.The
16 diaries, along with a manuscript essay entitled The Migration of Birds, can be
viewed at Sheffield City Archives (ref. LD2437). Images (above) reproduced from Leonard Doncaster's diaries. Many of Leonard Doncaster’s books, including
The Determination of Sex (originally published in 1914), are still in print.