Cyril Darlington - Study of Chromosomes

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Cyril Darlington was a British cytogeneticist who is known as “the man who invented the chromosome.” He did not, of course, invent the chromosome, but he did carry out some very important studies on chromosomal evolution and the mechanics of chromosomal recombination.

Early Life and Education

Born in 1903 in Chorney in Lancashire, Cyril Darlington was the second, younger son of an unsuccessful school teacher. His father, William Darlington, later became private secretary to the German chemist K.E. Merkell, but the family life appears to have been marked with a constant struggle against poverty and a general lack of warmth.

After completing his schooling at Mercer’s School in Holborn (1912-1917) and at St. Paul’s School (1917-1920), Cyril Darlington attended the South Eastern Agricultural College at Wye in Ashford from 1920 to 1923. His school sojourn was not a distinguished one—he was interested in neither studies nor sports—and his career ambitions did not extend beyond wanting to become a farmer in Australia.

He was a voracious reader, however, and, while at Wye, he became interested in Mendelian genetics and was profoundly impressed by Thomas Hunt Morgan’s ‘The Physical Basis of Heredity’. When his farming application was rejected in 1923, he decided to apply for admission to the John Innes Horticultural Institution in Merton. The Innes was then the UK’s foremost research institute in genetics in that period. William Bateson, the man who coined the word “genetics,” was one of the directors at the Innes and Darlington duly wrote to him.

Darlington’s application was rejected, but he was persistent and asked for and got an unpaid position as a research technician. This was the start of his thirty year association with the Innes.

Scientific Career

Initially, Darlington worked under the Innes’ new cytologist Frank Newton, and then began feeling his own way around. His first scientific paper was on the tetraploidy of the sour cherry. It was well-received and he was made a permanent employee.

The arrival of J.B.S. Haldane at the Innes proved crucial to Darlington’s career advancement. The two formed a close friendship and, with Haldane’s encouragement, Darlington grew in confidence as a scientist. He traveled to Persia, the Near East and Russia on specimen gathering expeditions.

He studied the chromosomal behavior in different plant species. He worked on trying to understand why meiosis happened. He was particularly interested in discovering exactly how the processes of chiasma formation (during meoisis, this is when a chromatid pair comes into contact) and chromosome segregation (when chromosomal pairs exchange a chromosome during meiosis and split up genes for gamete formation) took place.

He detailed his observations in his book “Recent Advances in Cytology”. The book was published in 1932 and found wide success. He became one of the most renowned geneticists of the period. More successes followed -

  • 1937 - Directorship of the Innes Cytology Department
  • 1939 - Directorship of the John Innes Institute
  • 1941 - Royal Society Fellowship
  • 1941 - Recipient of the Darwin Medal
  • 1941 - Presidentship of the Genetical Society

Together with Ronald Fisher, in 1947, Darlington started a science journal called “Heredity: An International Journal of Genetics.” The journal published his writings as well as those of other leading geneticists of the period, and was immensely successful.

Darlington’s sojourn at Innes ended in 1953 and he moved to the University of Oxford as the Sherardian Professor of Botany. In this capacity, he was the Keeper of the Oxford Botanic Garden and responsible for teaching genetics at the University. He retired in 1971. He continued to live and work in Oxford until his death in 1981.

Political Career

Darlington was an independent-minded individual, with a strong anti-authoritarian streak and a certain penchant for creating controversies. He became involved in social, political and governmental issues in relation to science.

  • He opposed Stalin’s persecution of Russian geneticists, and criticized Trofim Lysenko’s pseudo-scientific theories.
  • He was outspoken in his belief that governments should not control or interfere in scientific research.
  • He did not sign the UNESCO Statement of Race. His views on race were controversial and would be considered politically incorrect in the present age.
  • He took the view that genetic differences between different races led to differences in physical constitution and susceptibility to disease as well as in intelligence and emotional levels.
  • Regarding the nurture over nature debate, he considered that, given the strong human influence on environments, heredity remained the foremost decisive factor.
  • In his books, he tried to explain human history from a genetic viewpoint.

Some books by Cyril Darlington

  • Recent Advances in Cytology (1932)
  • Man: Genetics and Man (1953)
  • Darwin’s Place in History (1959)
  • Genetics and Man (1964)
  • The Evolution of Man and Society (1969)
  • The Little Universe of Man (1977)