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Papers of Conrad Hal Waddington

Fonds Summary

Reference Code
GB 237 Coll-41
Shelfmark or location
CLX-A-1016- CLX-A-1082
Papers of Conrad Hal Waddington
Extent and medium of the unit of description
57 boxes (8 m).
Existence/Location of Originals

This material is original.

Name of creator
Administrative / Biographical History

Conrad Hal Waddington was born in Evesham, 8 November 1905. The son of a tea planter, he spent the first three years of his life in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu (South India). At the age of four he returned to England to live with an aunt and uncle on a farm in Sedgeberrow. After tuition from a governess, Waddington attended Aymestrey House Preparatory School in Malvern Link from the age of nine. A scholarship to Clifton College followed, and a move to Weybridge, living with his grandmother, who encouraged his early interests in natural history, geology and archaeology. After Clifton, Waddington gained a scholarship to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where he took the Natural Sciences Tripos, gaining First Class in both parts in 1926. Early postgraduate years included studies in palaeontology (on a junior research grant of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research), philosophy, geology, and embryology. He held the Arnold Gerstenberg Studentship in Philosophy in 1929. In 1932 and 1938 Waddington held a Travelling Fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation and in 1938 he gained is DSc degree.

Between 1934 and 1945, Waddington was Embryologist and Lecturer in Zoology at Strangeways Research Laboratory, Cambridge and was made Honorary Embryologist of the Strangeways Laboratory in 1936. In 1935 he gained the first award of the Brachet Prize of the Royal Academy of Science of Belgium ('for the best work in embryology published in the previous five years in English, French, German or Italian') for his work on chick embryos. He was a Fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge from 1933-1945. During the Second World War, Waddington worked on photographic reconnaissance and with anti-shipping strikes (Operational Research in Coastal Command, R.A.F, 1942-1945 and Scientific Adviser to the Commander-in-Chief, 1944-45).

In 1945 came an offer of a chair of genetics at Edinburgh University, but Waddington declined, feeling his future lay with the new National Animal Breeding and Genetics Research Organisation (NABGRO), established by the Agricultural Research Council to boost post-war food production and originally mooted for an Oxford location. When it was suggested however, that NABGRO (renamed ABGRO, then ABRO) might be found a permanent headquarters in Edinburgh, with Waddington combining the position of chief geneticist at the Organisation, under the directorship of R.G White, with the Chair of Animal Genetics at the University, he agreed. NABGRO took up residence in the Institute of Animal Genetics building on the King's Buildings site to the west of Edinburgh. The Institute, which opened in 1930, was associated with the University, although it still retained some independence. However, the arrangement at the Institute was not to prove straightforward. Conflicts of aspirations and personalities - not to mention an unusual communal staff living arrangement at the nearby Mortonhall House - led to a division forming between the academically-oriented geneticists and the animal breeders. This split was to become consolidated in 1951, when the 'genetics section' became the officially separate ARC Unit of Animal Genetics under Waddington's directorship, located in the Institute. Meanwhile, the animal breeders moved to a mansion to the south of Edinburgh before becoming eventually installed on the King's Buildings site, opposite the Institute.

Into the 1950s, the Institute grew into the largest genetics department in the UK and one of the largest in the world, establishing Edinburgh's reputation as a world-class centre for genetics research. Waddington's laissez-faire directorship facilitated a great amount of research in many areas, particularly in quantitative inheritance. Waddington's own chief research interests were in developmental biology, and he gave widespread currency to the concept of canalisation (whereby the course of developmental processes is preserved from disturbance by a variety of more or less dynamic adjustments), particularly with his experiments with Drosophila wings. By the end of the 1950s though, the research institute had become more and more compartmentalised, with Waddington himself becoming occupied with the setting up of an Epigenetics Laboratory. He also played a major role in the expansion of the biological faculty of Edinburgh University.

In addition to his research and publications, Waddington was involved in many societies and organisations, and spent a lot of time travelling the world attending various conferences and events. Many of the organisations of which he was a member were concerned with the environment, bioethics and future planning. Waddington was a great believer in the power of science to educate and inform a better future, and his 'systems thinking' approach led him to use biological and evolutionary reference models as a way of analysing issues concerning human population and settlement, as well as the environment. It was partly this thinking which led him to establish the School of the Man Made Future in 1972, part of the Centre for Human Ecology at the University of Edinburgh. He also had a lifelong interest in art and architecture, and in 1969 he published a lavishly illustrated work on art and its relationship with the natural sciences, Behind Appearance.

In 1970, he accepted an invitation from the State University of New York to spend two years in Buffalo occupying the Albert Einstein Chair in Science. Douglas Falconer took over the running of the Department in Edinburgh as de facto acting head from 1969 onwards. While in Buffalo, and shortly before his return to Edinburgh in 1973, Waddington suffered a heart attack. A second heart attack outside his home two years later proved fatal, and he died on 26 September 1975.

Waddington had been awarded the CBE in 1958, and had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1948. He became a foreign member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1959 and of the Finnish Academy in 1957. In 1974 he was elected a Fellow of the Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina. Waddington held honorary degrees from Aberdeen, Dublin, Geneva, Montreal and Prague. He had a long record of publication, from 1929 to the 1975, including authorship or editorship of 27 books. Waddington had two daughters, Dusa and Caroline, by his second wife, architect Justin Blanco White, and a son, Jake, by his first wife, Elizabeth Lascelles.

This biography was compiled from various sources including:

  • 'Quantitative Genetics in Edinburgh: 1947-1980' by Douglas Falconer, in Perspectives: Anecdotal, Historical and Critical Commentaries on Genetics, ed.s James F. Crow and William F. Dove (Genetics Society of America, 1983)
  • Conrad Hal Waddington 1905 - 1975 by Alan Robertson F.R.S (Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, vol. 23, December 1977)
  • 'Genetics' by Forbes W. Robertson, Two Hundred Years of the Biological Sciences in Scotland: Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 84B, (Edinburgh, 1983), pp 211-229
  • Programme of C.H. Waddington: Centennial Lectures and Reception held on 12 September 2005 at the College of Science and Engineering, The University of Edinburgh

Scope and content


  • laboratory notebooks and bundles of research notes, including many from Waddington's early years of research in Cambridge in the 1930s;
  • manuscripts, typescripts and related correspondence, including draft manuscripts of New Patterns in Genetics and Development and Principes of Development and Differentiation, and correspondence concerning Waddington's work in Operational Research;
  • material relating to Waddingtons' lectures, including the Ballard Matthews and Gifford Lectures;
  • figures and plates for publications, including the Epigenetics of Birds, Principles of Embryology and New Patterns in Genetics and Development;
  • correspondence chiefly concerning Waddington's writing with various publishers, journals and also concerning various research questions;
  • material relating to a variety of societies and organisations worldwide, including International Council of Scientific Unions, the International Biological Program. Pugwash and UNESCO;
  • material relating to conferences, meetings and visits, including the 10th-12th International Congress of Genetics, the 1959 Darwin Centennial Conference and various foreign visits and travel;
  • files relating to the University of Edinburgh;
  • personal and departmental papers, covering a variety of departmental and research matters;
  • subject files in A-Z order reflecting the variety and breadth of Waddington's research interests, covering environmental and technological issues, Waddington's BBC radio and television appearances and correspondence concerning the Trend Report.

Conditions Governing Access

The collection contains some personal or sensitive information which has been restricted and removed, pending a future review. Other material may require the reader to complete a Data Protection undertaking form.

Finding Aids

Handlist (H41) which was compiled in 1993 by an unknown library cataloguer. It lists the material by 'MS' (box) number. Occasionally the handlist records contextual information which is not found on the material itself, so, where relevant, I have noted this information in the 'Scope and Content', although the provenance and accuracy of this information is not known.

Related Units of Description

See EUA IN1/ACU/A1/5 for Waddington's departmental files in the Institute of Animal Genetics papers. There are also two photographs of Waddington at Acc 98/33.

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