Roberts | John Alexander Fraser | 1900-1987 | geneticist

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

Fraser Roberts studied the science of genetics in its application to inheritance in humans. His interest focused on the application of laboratory and statistical knowledge in the field, and ultimately he became a pioneer of genetic counselling. He was the eldest child of a Welsh farmer and a Scots mother. Early in life he showed an interest in the attempts of local farmers to improve their sheep flocks by selective breeding - even then, as later in life, he loved collecting data, plotting it onto graphs and in statistics.

He had achieved university entrance qualification by the age of 15, and in 1916 he went to University College, South Wales to study agriculture. In 1920 he moved to Cambridge where he first undertook research into sheep. This brought him into contact with Professor F.A.E. Crew (1886-1973) at the Institute of Animal Breeding at the University of Edinburgh, and he went to Edinburgh in 1923. Whilst there his genetical research was leading him more towards human work, and Crew suggested that he study medicine. Thus he became a medical graduate of the University of Edinburgh in 1936.

During World War II he served as a surgeon-commander in the RNVR and assisted the Admiralty with the collation of statistical material. After the war he returned to Edinburgh and qualified M.D. in 1943 for his thesis on the distribution of blood groups between the people of North Wales and southern England. Since 1933 he had been involved in the Burden Mental Health Research Department at the Stoke Park Colony, Bristol. His early work there involved the assessment of intelligence and by 1946 this interest had developed into pioneering work in genetic counselling. He founded the first genetic counselling clinic in Europe at the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormand Street in 1946, and was the first Director of the Clinical Genetics Research Unit there from 1957 until he retired in 1964.

The research he carried out at that time provided much-needed data derived from systematic laboratory and family studies on the incidence and frequency of inherited disease. This information enabled counsellors to provide a coherent picture to their clients of the risks of inherited disease in their families. In addition to his work on intelligence he also examined the relationship between blood group and inherited disease, and the genetical causes of high blood pressure and diseases of the nervous system. The precision and clarity that he brought to his research is evident in his book, An Introduction to Medical Genetics, the first student text on genetics. It is still highly regarded and went into eight editions from 1940-1985.


He collaborated with R.A. Fisher (1890-1962), from 1924, and with E.O. Lewis on the genetics of intelligence and mental handicap.

Other Significant Information

Fraser Darling published numerous papers in scientific journals, and over 21 monographs. Notable publications:

The Story of Scotland , ( 1942)

The Care of Farm Animals , ( 1943)

Crofting Agriculture , ( 1945)

Alaska: An Ecological Reconnaissance , ( 1953)

An Ecological Renaissance of the Mara Plains in Kenya Colony , ( 1960)

Wild life in an African territory: a study made for the Game and Tsetse Control Dept. of Northern Rhodesia 1960)

Impacts of Man on the Biosphere 1969)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

Held numerous appointments and honours amongst these are:

1927: Elected Fellow, Royal Society of Edinburgh

1928-1931: Appointed Head, Biology Department, Wool Industries Research Association, Leeds

1931: Graduated DSc, University of Edinburgh

1933: Appointed Macaulay Research Fellow in Human Biology, University of Edinburgh

1940-1957: Appointed Director, Stoke Hospital, Bristol

1949: Elected Fellow, Royal College of Physicians, London

1952: Appointed Galton Lecturer, Eugenics Society

1957-1959: Elected President, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

1960-1962: Elected President, Biometric Society

1963: Elected Fellow, Royal Society

1965: Awarded Commander of the Order of the British Empire

1971: Founder Fellow, Royal College of Psychiatrists

1976: Awarded Ballantyne Prize, Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh


List of sources for the biographical information:

Polani, P.E.Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, vol. 38, ( London, 1988)

Who's Who 1978, ( Great Britain, A and C Black Ltd, 1978)