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UCL Division of Biosciences

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History

The Department of Genetics, Environment and Evolution was formed during the recent reorganisation of the Faculty of Life Sciences that brought together scientists with shared interests in biology, genetics, environmental and evolutionary biology who had previously been scattered among a variety of distinct departments. It traces its origins to the now extinct Department of Comparative Anatomy, founded in 1826, and the first in Britain to offer a Zoology degree.

Robert E Grant was appointed Professor of Comparative Anatomy when UCL first opened and remained in this post until his death in 1874, 46 years later. Throughout this period he gave five lectures a week and was believed never to have missed one. Imposing if eccentric in appearance, he invariably wore full evening dress. 

An Edinburgh graduate, Grant had done important research prior to coming to UCL, particularly on sponges (a genus of sponge is named after Grant). Among his Edinburgh pupils was Charles Darwin, who was arguably deeply influenced by his ideas and lived next door to UCL in the early 1840s.

Grant was known to give his students breakfast in his house near Euston and took favoured ones on continental walking tours. Grant bequeathed his extensive zoological collection to the university which formed the basis of today’s Grant Museum of Zoology, named in his honour.

John Lindley was the first professor of Botany at UCL, a founding chair of the college. Lindley, the son of a Norfolk horticulturalist, was not himself a graduate. Lindley's greatest contribution to the subject derived from the success of his efforts to preserve the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew in the late 1830s.

His Vegetable Kingdom and Introduction to Botany both enjoyed a long period as standard works. In 1839 The Naturalist noted the contrast between Lindley's own appearance, fresh, ruddy and hale-looking at that of his pallid students. Lindley was also an accomplished illustrator. 

The Research Department of Genetics, Environment and Evolution also incorporates the Galton Laboratory, the first institution in the world to study human genetics as a science and previously named Departments of Biology, Botany, Genetics & Biometry, Microbiology and Zoology.

Some great figures of the past have been associated with the Department - whose main building stands on the site of Charles Darwin's home, on Gower Street. Sir Francis Galton was Darwin's cousin, and the founder of the modern study of human genetics and - less creditably - of eugenics, whose legacy helped establish the Galton Laboratory

                                                                                                        

Its early members included

  • Karl Pearson and R A Fisher - jointly the founders of modern statistical science
     
  • J B S Haldane - the eccentric genius who worked on submarine escape methods and helped to place the theory of evolution on a mathematical basis
     
  • F R Weldon, who carried out the earliest experimental studies on natural selection in action.

Later, the Nobel Prize winner, Sir Peter Medawar, who worked out the genetics of tissue recognition and was central to the development of organ transplantation.

Other eminent members include

  • Embryologist Sir Gavin de Beer who helped found what became today’s evolutionary developmental biology or “evo-devo” 
     
  • Alex Comfort, a pioneer in the study of the biology of ageing (albeit perhaps better known for his book The Joy of Sex)
     
    Alex Comfort
  • Hans Gruneberg, the first to use mutations in mice to understand the basis of human developmental abnormalities 

  • Harry Harris revealed the massive extent of human genetic diversity 

  • Kenneth Kermack, the discoverer of one of the earliest pre-mammalian fossils 
     
  • Marine biologist Sir Ray Lankester, who became Director of the Natural History Museum
     

E. Ray Lankester was only 27 when he became the Chair of Botany at UCL in 1874. He was a huge man with a massive frame, a mobile, expressive face, a booming voice and an impetuous temperament. Lankester was a dominating figure in his subject, editing the major zoological journal of the period for 50 years and writing prolifically on a wide range of subjects. He also introduced practical work into his Zoology courses, a major innovation for a British university. 

  • Lionel Penrose, one of the first to work on the genetics of mental retardation 

  • Sir Edward Salisbury, a pioneer in plant ecology who became Director of Kew Gardens
     
  • Francis Wall Oliver established the first ecological research centre in the UK at Blakeney Point, Norfolk, which is still being used by our students today

  • D M S Watson who played an important part in early work on plant and lizard fossils.

More recently, several luminaries have contributed fundamental insights to evolutionary biology 

  • John Maynard Smith pioneered the use of game theory in understanding the evolution of animal behaviour and famously posed the enigmatic two-fold cost of sex

  • W D Hamilton set out his ideas about inclusive fitness and the evolution of altruism 

  • George Price developed his interpretation of Fisher’s fundamental theory of natural selection now known as the Price equation 

  • Anne McLaren was a leading figure in reproductive biology who helped establish the principles that led to in vitro fertilisation

  • Avrion Mitchison was instrumental in disentangling the complexities of the human immune system.
     
  • Robert Race and Ruth Sanger made the first maps of the distribution of the human blood groups and elucidated the genetics and biochemistry of the Rhesus groups 

  • Cedric Smith invented some of the mathematical methods used to map human genes.
     
  • Georgina Mace revolutionised how we measure ongoing rapid diversity loss

Today, our department is home to many whom we believe will be among this generation's most disruptive thinkers in genetics, the environment and evolution.

Meet our current Disruptive Thinkers on our Youtube Channel.

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