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Falconer, Douglas Scott (professor of genetics, University of Edinburgh and director of the Agricultural Research Council, Unit of Animal Genetics)



  • Existence: 1913-2004

Douglas Scott Falconer was born on 10 March 1913 in Old Meldrum, Aberdeenshire, and attended school in Edinburgh. While at the Edinburgh Academy, he first encountered science and found he had an aptitude for physics and chemistry. Biology was not taught, so Falconer developed his knowledge from his personal reading of works like Wells and Huxley's 'Science of Life' (1931), and, later some early genetics texts.
After leaving school, Falconer contracted tuberculosis, and spent five years recuperating. He spent much of this time teaching himself about botany and continuing his reading in genetics and biology.
In 1936, at the age of 23, Falconer began at St Andrew's University to read Zoology, and gained class medals in all subjects save chemistry. D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson was one of his lecturers, and he was so impressed with Falconer that he recommended he be awarded a degree without taking an examination. Falconer did ultimately sit an exam, and gained his degree with first-class honours.
Having been passed over for military service for health reasons, Falconer gained a scholarship to attend Cambridge University in 1940, and began to study for a doctorate under James Gray. His thesis topic was on the agricultural pest the wireworm, and formed part of Grey's research for the war effort. Falconer was instructed by his examiners to rewrite his thesis, and this hard lesson instilled in him the commitment to clarity of writing and expression for which he became well known.
After leaving Cambridge, Falconer became a temporary lecturer in Zoology at Queen Margaret College, University of London, where he also taught a course on genetics. In 1945 he was approached by the Agricultural Research Council who were looking to form a body of scientists to staff the Genetics Section of the newly formed Animal Breeding and Genetics Research Organisation (ABGRO) in Edinburgh. Before taking up this appointment, Falconer went to work wth R.A. Fisher to further develop his genetics knowledge. Here he worked on the mouse, specifically on the location of mutant genes and the inheritance of milk yield. This work laid the foundations for Falconer's later work on the mouse, gene mapping and the quantitative study of traits controlled by single or many genes.
In 1947, Falconer moved up to Edinburgh to take up his appointment at ABGRO, housed within the University's Institute of Animal Genetics. Here Falconer found himself surrounded with an energetic group of notable scientists who between them covered the entire field of genetics research at that time. Falconer was tasked with conducting quantitative research which would lead to the improvement of livestock and food production, an important national priority following the war. Laboratory animals such as mice, rabbits and Drosophila were used as cost-effective models to test theories of what might be achieved with livestock breeding. Falconer carried out various selection experiments for different traits (for example, body weight), and examined the impact of different environments on selection.
Falconer also conducted much important work on the genetics of the mouse, about which relatively little was known at this time. In 1952 he discovered the first sex-linked mutation in the mouse. Falconer's mouse mutants were used to produce the first workable linkage maps, which his colleague Toby Carter used to estimate the length of the genetics map of the mouse - an estimate which was found to be nearly accurate when proof was finally achieved through genome sequencing in 2002.
Another important area of Falconer's research was on human genetics; specifically on the inheritance of liability to disease. Falconer used the measurement of incidence of a disease in a population and in groups of known relatives to estimate the inheritance of liability.
In addition to his research, Falconer taught in all four years of the University of Edinburgh's undergraduate Biology course, and designed a three-year course on quantitative genetics. These lectures gave rise to the textbook for which he is best known, 'Introduction to Quantitative Genetics'. This was first published in 1960 and ran through a further four editions and numerous translations. It remains a standard textbook on the subject.
In 1957 Falconer was appointed deputy director of the ARC Unit of Animal Genetics (formerly the Genetics Section of ABGRO). In 1968 he took over from C.H. Waddington as the director and transferred to a personal chair in the University's genetics department. He became head of department in 1969, a post he held until 1977, when John Fincham became Buchanan Chair of Animal Genetics. Falconer officially retired in 1980 when the ARC Unit was closed down, although he continued to write and research in the department for many years.
Among Falconer's many awards and honours were a Sc.D. from the University of Cambridge in 1969, election as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1972, and as a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1973.
Douglas Falconer married fellow Cambridge student Margaret Duke in 1942, and they had two sons. He died on 23 February 2004.

Found in 13 Collections and/or Records:

Correspondence between Beatty and various colleagues, 1971-1974

Identifier: Coll-1364/7/3/2
Scope and Contents Correspondence chiefly concerns applications to the Ford Foundation and the Medical Research Council. Key correspondents are A.S Duncan, Anne McLaren, D.S Falconer, F.W.H Elsley and Min-chueh Chang.
Dates: 1971-1974

Departmental file from the Institute of Animal Genetics concerning Charlotte Auerbach, 1947-1975

 File — Box: CLX-A-1536, Box: data_value_missing_06abe55177c3fcb0576df214ca73fadb, Box: data_value_missing_94e17fde71d219a899f620a7d1d2bdf5
Identifier: Coll-1266/4/5
Scope and Contents Contains papers concerning Auerbach's work at the Institute of Animal Genetics, including: a report of the Mutagenesis Unit; a typescript of a talk given by Auerbach at the Genetics Congress at the Hague in 1963 titled 'Past achievements and future tasks of research in chemical mutagenesis'; a typescript report on Auerbach's Agricultural Research Council-funded mutation work during 1950-1951; and a typescript 'Interim report on the work done by Dr H. Moser since April 1949.' Also...
Dates: 1947-1975

Group photograph from the Poultry Breeders' Roundtable, Chicago, 1955, 1955

Identifier: EUA IN1/ACU/A1/8/5
Scope and Contents The photograph features Gordon Dickerson, Douglas Falconer, Jay Lush, Alan Robertson and Forbes Robertson. The photograph enclosure is inscribed 'Dr Falconer we have thoroughly enjoyed your talk' by Gordon D. Rapp, Poultry Breeders Roundtable and signed March 1955.
Dates: 1955

Group photograph of Institute staff and visitors, with related correspondence, 1924

Identifier: EUA IN1/ACU/A1/8/2
Scope and Contents Contains two negatives and four copies of the photograph, in two sizes, including one mounted on card (with names written underneath), and a letter from Ronald Birse to Douglas Falconer about the appearance of the picture in Birse's Science at the University of Edinburgh 1583-1993 (Edinburgh, 1994).

The photograph depicts (from left to right): Arthur Walton, D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, Paul Kammerer, Lancelot Hogben, Honor Fell, F.A.E Crew and M.V Cytovich.
Dates: 1924

Institute staff particulars, 1946-1950

 File — Box: EUA-A-65, Box: data_value_missing_e71748c0669dc4d524625c2a610ed07c, Box: data_value_missing_e726ec138d29fc94b541da6493930bdc
Identifier: EUA IN1/ACU/A1/6/2
Scope and Contents Contains completed staff particular forms of various Institute scientific and technical staff members, including: Charlotte Auerbach, Geoffrey Beale, Richard Alan Beatty, Thomas Carter, Douglas Falconer, Eric Reeve, J.M Rendel, Alan Robertson, Forbes Robertson and James Sang.
Dates: 1946-1950

Material relating to the reorganisation of the Genetics Laboratory, 1957 - c1967

Identifier: Coll-41/8/12
Scope and Contents Contains: various photocopies of floorplans of the laboratories with handwritten annotations and some notes, apparently in Waddington's hand, and a rough draft of a typed 'comments on Douglas' letter' [presumably Douglas Falconer] and a draft letter to 'Henry' [probably Henrik Kacser] (July 1967), responding to complaints about the new accommodation and office arrangements; various papers relating to the financial support of the Laboratory, including typescript reports 'The Development of...
Dates: 1957 - c1967

Papers relating to sex ratio research, including reprints and lectures, 1979-1982

Identifier: Coll-1364/1/10
Scope and Contents Includes: notes and data relating to rabbit sex control experiments; two handwritten drafts of lectures, 'Sex Ratio Control - what are the prospects?' (noted 'BCBC 13 Jan 1981 Cambridge') and 'The Perplexing History of Attempts to Control the Mammalian Sex Ratio' (marked 'Newcastle 14/10/82'); various article reprints by Beatty, Anne McLaren and Douglas Falconer and a typed first draft of 'An attempt to influence the sex-ratio in rabbits using immunological methods' by Beatty.
Dates: 1979-1982

Photocopied letter from the Agricultural Research Council to Douglas Falconer regarding the 'achievements of the ARC', 15 June 1976

Identifier: Coll-1364/5/58
Scope and Contents From the Series: Contains: reports on visits to other institutions, such as Cambridge University and the Royal Veterinary College, University of London; report on Beatty's attendance at various conferences and congresses, including correspondence with the Agricultural Research Council; progress reports on research carried out by Beatty's colleagues and students; notes relating...
Dates: 15 June 1976

Photograph album presented to Waddington by Institute staff on his 50th birthday, November 1955

 Item — Box: EUA IN1/ACU/A1/6/4
Identifier: EUA IN1/ACU/A1/6/4
Scope and Contents The volume contains various group and individual photographs of the Institute staff, as well as original paintings and drawings of Waddington in the mock-styles of various artists by Ruth Clayton and E.D Roberts. Some of the individuals feaured in the photographs are: Charlotte Auerbach, Boris Balinsky, Geoffrey Beale, Richard Alan Beatty, Alick Buchanan-Smith, George and Ruth Clayton, Hugh Donald, Douglas Falconer, Alan Greenwood, Henry Kacser, Mary Lyon, Eric Lucey, Margaret Perry, Alan...
Dates: November 1955