Pin Me

Famous Scientists in Genetics Research - Conrad Hal Waddington

written by: Sonal Panse•edited by: Paul Arnold•updated: 6/28/2009

A look at the life and work of the British geneticist Conrad Hal Waddington. He carried out important research in genetics and embryology.

  • slide 1 of 4

    Conrad Hal Waddington - Personal Life and Education

    Conrad Hal Waddington was a British geneticist who is renowned for his discovery of organzisers in higher vertebrate animals, his discovery of the genetic assimilation phenomenon and his introduction of the concept of epigenetic landscape.

    Born on 8 November 1905 in Evesham, England, Waddington spent his early years on a tea plantation in South India; his parents Hal and Mary Ellen lived there and Hal worked as a tea planter. Later, as was the fashion of the day, Waddington was sent back to England and lived with his grandmother.

    He attended a Bristol-based public school, Clifton College, where he studied chemistry under E.J. Holmyard and became interested in science.

    Later he went on to study natural sciences at the Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge University, and specialized in geology. He also read philosophy, particularly the works of the philosopher A. N. Whitehead. After getting a First Class Degree at Cambridge in 1926, he took up paleontology for his PhD. He continued to read philosophy and also became interested in embryology. For one reason or another, he didn't complete his thesis until 1938.

    Waddington was married twice and had three children; C. Jake Waddington who became a Physics Professor, Dusa McDuff, who became a mathematician, and Caroline Humphrey, who became an anthropologist. He died on 26 September 1975.

  • slide 2 of 4

    Conrad Hal Waddington - Scientific Research

    After training in geology and paleontology, Waddington turned to embryological research and his work in this field then turned him towards genetics.

    Waddington was familiar with Hans Spemann's experiments with amphibian embryos. At Strangeways Laboratory, Waddington used in vitro organ culture techniques to study embryonic development of higher vertebrates. He research findings showed that, like amphibians, early embryos in higher vertebrates too had an organizer; that is, a region that could induce a second embryonic axis.

    Working with Joseph and Dorothy Needham, he next carried out research on the chemical basis of the organizer. Around this time, he visited Berlin on a Research Fellowship and met Otto Mangold, whose wife Hilde Mangold had worked with Spemann.

    He went to Caltech, USA, in 1939 to work on drosophila research, and this experience led to the book 'Organisers and Genes' in 1940. He made the following points in this book -

    • Cells reacted to an inducing signal. He called this cellular ability 'competence'.
    • Development was a series of decisions taken by cells influenced by genes.
    • The characteristics and actions of individual genes together influenced an epigenetic landscape. He explained the epigenetic landscape as a slope down which a ball rolled; the ball could take one of several pathways and the pathway the ball did take led to further choices until the ball reached the bottom. The ball stood for an embryo and the pathways it took stood for the steps in development.

    In the 1940s and 1950s, he carried out research on genetic assimilation. Genetic assimilation is the process where certain characteristics brought on by environmental effects become part of an organism's next-generational genetic make-up.

  • slide 3 of 4

    Conrad Hal Waddington - Career

    Waddington's career was a mixture of teaching positions and research fellowships. He also did stints as a writer and a scientific consultant.

    In 1929, he received a Research Fellowship to the Strangeways Laboratory in Cambridge, and he worked here as a Zoology Professor and Embryologist until 1945. He also worked with the RAF in operations research during the Second World War.

    He became the Chief Geneticist at the National Animal Breeding and Genetics Research Organization in Edinburgh in 1945, and two years later, in 1947 he became the Professor of Animal Genetics at Edinburgh University. With time off for Research Fellowships, he remained at the now-reorganized Institute of Animal Genetics for the rest of his career.

    In 1960-1961, he went on a Research Fellowship to the Center for Advanced Studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. In 1970, he went to the State University of New York at Buffalo to spend two years as the Albert Einstein Chair in Science.

  • slide 4 of 4

    Books by Conrad Hal Waddington -

    • Introduction to Modern Genetics (1939)
    • Organisers and Genes (1940)
    • The Epigenetics of Birds (1952)
    • New Patterns in Genetics and Development (1962)

    Resources -