Institutional Representative Board Member, University of Glasgow
My research project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and examines the history of prenatal diagnostic testing between 1950 and 1990, with a particular emphasis on how the field developed in the West of Scotland. During this time period there were major social and cultural changes occurring, including a decline in religious adherence and advances in many scientific disciplines. The field of genetics was amongst those where technical progress was occurring rapidly, with a key development being the advent of prenatal diagnostic testing, which enabled identification of specific genetic conditions during pregnancy. The nature of research into the detection of genetic abnormality, enabling elective termination of affected pregnancies, raised ethical issues which challenged the views of a number of religious organisations. This project examines how prenatal diagnostics has advanced within the social, religious and ethical background of its time, using the case-study of a Glaswegian geneticist, Malcolm Ferguson-Smith, who is widely regarded as one of the most eminent British geneticists of recent decades. Ferguson-Smith played a major part in the development and use of diagnostic testing techniques, including helping to establish prenatal tests for spina bifida, and was the founder of the Duncan Guthrie Institute in Glasgow, one of the first specialised diagnostic and genetic counselling services in the UK. Despite the importance of his work no detailed description of his career and impact on twentieth-century genetics currently exists, and this research aims to highlight his contribution and place it in a wider social context. It will consider the scientific and clinical advances which occurred in the prenatal testing field, and examine the reactions of society, and particularly religious organisations, to these developments. It will utilise a variety of sources to achieve this including archival documents and oral history interviews with medical, scientific and religious figures. (Project is based at the University of Glasgow. Supervisors: Professor Malcolm Nicolson, Professor Kevin O’Dell and Professor Callum Brown).