Thursday, November 23, 2017

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 1915.

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 sons, 1914).

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.