Preserving Science in the Archives (Part 2)

The Bodmer archive is a valuable modern science collection, not only for its importance in documenting the history of human genetics and scientific initiatives, but also for revealing changes in laboratory methodologies and practices.

One of my favourite finds relates to chromosome analysis carried out for work on human gene mapping using mouse somatic hybrids of human-mouse cells and human leukocytes, undertaken by Walter Bodmer and the his then PhD student immunologist Marcus Nabholz. Nabholz worked and collaborated as a graduate student in Walter’s lab at Stanford University, and also later at the Genetics Laboratory in Oxford. The images below illustrate chromosome analysis, which involved taking a print of chromosomes in dividing cells, cutting them all out individually and arranging them crudely by size and shape. This work contributed to a joint publication that  appeared in 1969 edition of the jounal Nature entitled ‘Genetic Analysis with Human-Mouse Somatic Cell Hybrids’.
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This chromosome technique may appear as quite primitive laboratory practice, and such relatively crude miscroscopic images of chromosomes would not end up on paper now. The Bodmer collection perfectly illustrates how technological changes over the last 50 years have fed into scientific research, from the techniques illustrated above, to the latest cutting-edge computer analysis, which is now integral to scientific research.
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The archive contains a considerable amount of material that will enable researchers to trace the development and application of information systems and software technologies in science laboratories.

From the earlier period of the Bodmers research when laboratories entered the electronic world, computers became especially important for geneticists. Julia Bodmer in particular -with her abilities in handling and analysing large datasets- embraced the application of computers to population genetics at an early stage at Stanford University, where computing facilities were better than most. Although a novelty in science and medical research at this time, they were mostly used for data crunching in the earlier period, yet computers would play a vital function in the interpretation of serological data. Julia in fact created a computer program that facilitated the identification of the first two genes of the HLA genetic system.

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As traditional laboratory notebooks are increasingly eliminated in favour of electronic notebooks, which are often erased or deleted after publication output, the preservation of paper-based research notebooks and scientific data found in the Bodmer collection (a hybrid paper and digital collection) will be an important resource for documenting the history of genetics.

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