The Walter and Julia Bodmer archives project

Sir Walter Bodmer

In March the Bodleian Library initiated a project to sort, arrange and boxlist the papers of the distinguished geneticists Sir Walter Bodmer (b 1936) and Julia, Lady Bodmer (1934-2001). The work is supported by the Wellcome Trust’s Research Resources in Medical History programme.

Walter Bodmer was born in 1936 in Germany, coming to Britain with his family at a young age. At Cambridge he studied mathematics, becoming particularly interested in genetics, taught by R.A. Fisher as part of the course. After postgraduate research with Fisher on population genetics, in 1961 Bodmer went to work with Joshua Lederberg at Stanford University. He returned to the UK in 1970 as Professor of Genetics at Oxford University (1970-1979). He was then successively Director of Research (1979-1991) and Director-General (1991-1996) of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (later part of Cancer Research UK). On retirement from the ICRF he returned to Oxford as Principal of Hertford College. He is now Head of the Cancer and Immunogenetics Laboratory in the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine in Oxford.

Julia Bodmer, his wife, was a distinguished researcher in her own right as well as an important research collaborator with her husband, contributing in particular to the discovery and definition of the HLA system of inherited differences between individuals.
Chris Fletcher, Head of Western Manuscripts, leads the project and the work is being undertaken by two archivists with considerable experience in contemporary scientific and biomedical records, Tim Powell and Adrian Nardone.

Physically the archive is huge, filling 60 filing cabinets, 10 metal cupboards and over 450 boxes and boxfiles, stored on the upper floor of a warehouse in Cowley.

In the warehouse

All of Sir Walter’s career is represented in the papers, from his undergraduate days onwards. Well represented aspects include correspondence and papers relating to his periods as Director of Research and Director-General of the ICRF, a voluminous scientific correspondence; material relating to his publications, teaching and public lectures, documentation of the many societies and organisations with which he was associated and conference material. The archive includes, as a significant part of the whole, correspondence, papers and research notebooks of Julia Bodmer, and notebooks of other researchers at the ICRF’s Tissue Antigen Laboratory which Julia Bodmer headed.

The archive is of great importance for the history of genetics and the history of medicine more generally, but its interest will be enhanced by the many connections that can be made with other archives of human and medical geneticists recently processed, including Bodmer’s successor as Professor of Genetics at Oxford, John Hilton Edwards.

This project will thus contribute significantly towards the ongoing documentation of a crucial field of scientific endeavour that has emerged since the 1950s and to which British researchers have made great contributions.