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17 March 2017

Old issues in new guises: Dame Anne McLaren and the embryo research debate

Following the birth of the world’s first baby by In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF), Louise Brown, in 1978, the research on human embryos that had made this possible became the subject of scrutiny and unease from both the public and politicians. This led the government to task Dame Mary Warnock with the chairing of a committee consisting of medics, social workers, lawyers and clerics in 1982, to set out a guideline for the legislation on IVF and embryo research in the UK. The report was enacted in the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. One of the report’s most lasting and controversial recommendations was a limit on research on human embryos in vitro beyond fourteen-days – the so-called ’fourteen-day rule’.

Detail of the letter to Anne McLaren inviting her to take part in the Warnock Committee. (1982). (Add MS 89202/8/1). Crown Copyright/estate of Anne McLaren.

This law has been in force for more than twenty-five years. For scientists, there had been no need to contest it, since scientists had not come close to culturing an embryo anywhere near to the fourteen-day limit. The equilibrium was only disrupted at the end of last year, when a research group at Cambridge University led by Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz claimed to have developed a method of culturing live human embryos for thirteen days, only stopping their experiment at this point to comply with the fourteen-day rule. This possibility has recharged the debates over the desirability of embryo research and the extent to which it should be regulated.

In the face of these reopened debates on the ethics of embryo research, it is important to understand the premises and arguments that shaped the current legislation. These arguments, at first glance, appear to be predominantly scientific.

Developmental biologist Dame Anne McLaren (1927-2007) was the only research scientist serving on the Warnock Committee, and played an important role in providing the lay-committee with a scientific understanding of the processes of embryo development that proved definitive in the committee’s efforts to convince ministers of the validity of the fourteen-day rule. McLaren made the case for the rule by arguing that the fourteenth day was a clearly distinguishable step towards individuation in the development of the embryo. Fourteen days, for example, sees the onset of gastrulation, a point at which the embryo can no longer divide into identical twins. Fourteen days also falls well before the beginnings of what will become the central nervous system, and so there is no chance that the embryo could experience pain. 

Title page of Anne McLaren’s draft for ‘Comments on the use of donated eggs fertlilized specifically for research purposes’. (c. 1982). (Add MS 89202/8/1) Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.

Yet, as Lady Warnock has stressed, fourteen days is by no means a landmark set in stone. McLaren could have made a well-substantiated scientific argument for a different cut-off point- the embryo, for example, is just as incapable of experiencing pain at twenty-eight days. As Lady Warnock stated at a 2016 Progress Educational Trust conference on the topic, it was merely important to set a time limit, to provide clarity through law, so that the public would feel reassured that research would not progress untethered. The fourteen-day rule did therefore not express a moral distinction for the human embryo based on biological facts, but emphasised a specific part of the biological process in order to make a practical compromise – as Warnock writes in the committee’s report: ‘What is legally permissible may be thought of as the minimum requirement for a tolerable society’ (1985, p.3). 

Understanding the arguments McLaren made in the 1980s will shed light on what is required of legislation today—that it should take into account the current political climate and public sentiment, perhaps before making arguments about the ethics of research based on biological facts. 

The Anne McLaren papers at the British Library consist of letters, notes, notebooks and offprints. There is currently one tranche (Add MS 83830-83981) available to readers through the British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue with a second tranche (Add MS 89202) planned for release at the end of April 2017. Additionally one of Anne McLaren’s notebooks containing material from 1953 to 1956 (Add MS 83843) is on long-term display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery. 

Anne McLaren’s scientific publications and books, along with an oral history interview conducted in February 2007, are available to readers via the British Library Explore catalogue.

 This post forms part of a series on our Science blog highlighting some of the British Library’s science collections as part of British Science Week 2017.

Posted by Marieke Bigg. Marieke is an MPhil student in sociology at the University of Cambridge and works under the supervision of Prof. Sarah Franklin. Marieke’s MPhil dissertation and PhD will both explore the contributions made by Dr Anne McLaren to the debate over human fertilisation and embryology in the 1980s.

15 March 2017

Local Heroes: John Maynard Smith: (1920-2004): A good "puzzle-solver" with an "accidental career"


John Maynard Smith c:1965. Copyright University of Sussex

Maynard Smith was born in London, though after his father’s death in 1928, the family moved to the countryside. There, Maynard Smith deepened his love for natural history – already manifest in his insistence to repeatedly visit the Zoo and Natural History Museum in London – while bird-watching and beetle-collecting during the holidays in Exmoor. His family was generally not scientifically inclined, and there were expectations for him to join his grandfather’s stockbroking firm. However, during one Sunday lunch he declared that he would not do so. What was he going to do then? Remembering a lecture on the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, he decided, rather spontaneously, to become an engineer. And so, after graduating from Eton in 1938, he went on to read engineering at Cambridge.

Maynard Smith is known for not having liked his time at boarding school very much – the atmosphere, he felt, was ‘really anti-intellectual’, ‘snobbish’ and ‘arrogant’ – but he credited Eton with teaching him mathematics and giving him the freedom to explore the natural sciences on his own, mostly by reading popular science books. Cambridge, in a way, did less for him academically than Eton. ‘This time, however, the fault was partly mine and partly Hitler’s. It was hard, in 1938, to take either academic work, or one’s own future, seriously.’ He joined the Communist Party, influenced by a visit of Nazi Germany in the summer of 1938 from which he returned ‘in a state of complete confusion, convinced that my pacifism was wrong’. Communists were those ‘saying we have got to unite and oppose Fascism’, and he spent more time being politically active than studying. Soon after joining, Maynard Smith met Sheila Matthew, his future wife, at a Communist Camp. They were to marry in 1941, making Maynard Smith one of the first married undergraduate students at Trinity College. Their first son, Anthony, would be born in 1944, their daughter Carol in 1946, and their youngest, Julian, in 1949.

In 1941, Maynard Smith graduated with a second-class honours degree in mechanical engineering. After graduation, he worked as an aircraft stressman which, importantly, ‘taught him to trust models, a lesson that would become fundamental in his work as a scientist.’ Moreover, ‘and for obvious reasons, Maynard Smith formed the valuable habit of not making mistakes in computations.’ However, when the war was over, he began to reconsider his career choices. He decided to return to his first love and started a second degree in zoology at University College London. Maynard Smith knew JBS Haldane was teaching there, whose work he had sought out already at Eton because several teachers seemed to particularly hate this man – so he couldn’t be ‘all bad’.

During his years as an undergraduate at UCL Maynard Smith became less and less active politically. He was much more involved in his studies than he ever was at Cambridge. In addition, Lysenkoism reached its peak in 1948. Trofim Lysenko was a Soviet biologist and Lamarckist supported by the Soviet government. Maynard Smith was not so much averse to Lysenkoism as ‘disgusted’ by the comrades who were ignorant of genetics but who were nonetheless telling him what to believe. He lost faith in the Communist Party, became disillusioned with communist politics and – though to a lesser extent – with Marxist philosophy. In 1956, after the Soviet Invasion of Hungary, he finally left the Party yet retained his leftist political outlook.

John Maynard Smith c:1984. Copyright University of Sussex

In the year before his death, Animal Signals, his last book, co-written with David Harper, was published. The book was one of several; Maynard Smith published both textbooks and popular science – his ‘little Penguin’, The Theory of Evolution, was published as early as 1958. Indeed, he was convinced that science is a social activity: he had a ‘desire to embed discoveries in the discourse of a community as broad as possible.’ So next to writing books, reviews, and essays he also appeared on both radio and television.

The John Maynard Smith Archive at the British Library documents over half a century of John Maynard Smith's work as an evolutionary biologist, covering the years 1948 to 2004 (with an emphasis on the 1970s to 1990s). It contains letters, notes, computer printouts, draft manuscripts, lecture notes and offprints as well as artefacts and digital files. The archive is available to readers through the British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue (Add MS 86569-86840), excepting the digital material which is in the process of being catalogued.

Maynard Smith's books and scientific papers, along with two interviews (one on camera), can be found via the British Library Explore catalogue.

This post forms part of a series on our Science and Untold Lives blogs highlighting some of the British Library’s science collections as part of British Science Week 2017.


Sources and Further Reading:

Charlesworth, B. and Harvey, P. (2005). John Maynard Smith. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 51, 254-265.

Kohn, M. (2004). A Reason for Everything: Natural Selection and the English Imagination. London: Faber and Faber, esp. pp.197-255.

‘Making it formal.’ (1988). In: Wolpert, L. and Richards, A. (eds.). A Passion for Science (pp.122-137). Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press.

Maynard Smith, J. (1985). In Haldane's Footsteps. In: Dewsbury, D.A. (ed.). Leaders in the Study of Animal Behavior: Autobiographical Perspectives (pp.347-354). Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press.

Posted by Helen Piel. Helen Piel is a PhD student at the University of Leeds and the British Library. She is part of the AHRC's Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme and working on the John Maynard Smith Archive, exploring the working life of a British evolutionary biologist in the post-war period.

13 March 2017

Elsevier Postgraduate Science Workshop for Staff and Readers

Elsevier PM 150317

Colleagues and readers are invited to this Elsevier publisher-led training event exploring the SCOPUS database, Science Direct e-books and journals to enhance their research sources and learn about effective search techniques to find what researchers need.

This afternoon training session is an opportunity for scientists and engineers to learn more about searching the numerical index on the Engineering Village database platform which allows searching for ranges of values crucial to a variety of engineering applications.

Date: Wed 15 March 2017, at 14.00 - 17.00

Venue: British Library, Social Science Seminar Room, Social Science Reading Room, Floor 1 science 1

 Afternoon Programme:

SCOPUS for Scientists                         14.00-15.00

Q&A session                                        15.30 – 16.00

Science Direct                                      16.00 – 16.30

Engineering Village

and numerical index searching:  16.30 – 17.00

Booking via email: