The unusual pioneer of the Human Genome Project
When we think about prime-movers, proposing for the first time the idea of scientifically tackling the human genome, the usual suspects come to our mind: reputed biomedical Nobel Prize winners such as James Watson, Walter Gilbert or Renato Dulbecco, who formulated their grand idea in the front pages of Science, Nature or other respected journals. However, the records of the UK National Archives reserve a surprise for the curious: chronologically speaking, the first mention to the task of “sequencing the entire human genome” comes from a rather unknown Dr Brennig James, based in The Doctor’s House in Marlow, Buckinghamshire.
In February 1981, Dr James wrote to Sir Andrew Huxley, then President of the Royal Society, and enquired whether they had given “serious consideration” to a concerted attack on the human genome. Dr James considered that medical research at that time was carried out “rather illogically by deducing cause from effect.” If instead of starting with disease symptoms, physicians could access DNA sequences representative of their “constituent genes,” diagnosis and treatment would be much simplified. Dr James admitted that proceeding in such a “systematic manner” would require “extensive organisation and facilities,” although the enterprise could be “speeded up by generous funding and working a 24 hour day” because the prospects were “so attractive.”
The first lines of the letter that Dr James wrote to the President of the Royal Society urging him to consider “the task of sequencing the entire human genome.” National Archives of the UK at Kew (South London), records of the Medical Research Council, file number FD 23/3438
One week after receiving the letter, Sir Andrew wrote to the Head of the Medical Research Council, James Gowan, to see whether “anything like a direct attack on the human genome” was “practical” or “being undertaken.” Gowan referred to a recent Science issue (vol. 211) and to the work of the Edinburgh Mammalian Genome Unit, an institution that hosted prominent biomedical researchers such as Edwin Southern, Adrian Bird and Peter Walker. The Science article, entitled ‘The complete index to man,’ described projects in the United States to characterise and catalogue large amounts of human proteins and genes, the latter leading to the National Institutes of Health Genbank database. The Edinburgh Unit, according to Gowan, was mapping a number of human genes by “systematic cloning in E. coli.”
Gowan was yet sceptical of Dr James’s proposal, because “simple collinearity of DNA and amino acid [protein] sequences may be exceptional and genes may be split between several locations.” This meant that, in Gowan’s view, connecting the whole catalogue of human genetic material to medical applications would be much trickier than Dr James had anticipated. The archive does not document any further correspondence, neither a response of Gowan or Sir Andrew to Dr James. We know from a different record that several years afterwards, in 1986, Walter Bodmer and Sydney Brenner – both of them prominent biomedical scientists – contacted the Royal Society to request its official endorsement to what would become the UK Human Genome Mapping Project. The Society’s response was equally cautious, only offering partial support in order to avoid being corporately “too closely identified with the promotion” of a “specific subject area.”
In light of the notoriety that the Human Genome Project acquired in subsequent years, Dr James may be considered a visionary, someone ahead of his time. His intriguing correspondence led me to try and find out more about Dr James’s background and the subsequent development of his life. The task was not easy, due to the absence of any further archival evidence and the apparently ordinary – even confusing – traces of his digital footprint. The Doctor’s House, where Dr James was based back in 1980, is currently a private clinic serving the NHS and renamed the Marlow Medical Group. The outcomes of Google searches after entering “Dr Brennig James” led to fields as diverse as cognitive psychology and aviation.
The mystery was eventually solved by an Internet forum of Nature Medicine. There, a moderator confessed having “a soft spot for people who are out there,” making contributions “that are frankly bizarre” and gave as an example “a man called D.B. James.” Back to the time when Nature only had a printed edition, D.B. James would post the most unusual ideas in a section called Scientific Announcements, which was located at the end of the journal, after the classifieds. The forum thread included scanned images of D.B. James’s contributions, which linked issues as disparate as natural history and the accident of the Challenger space shuttle. Another forum participant clarified that the name of the author was “Dr Brennig James” and that “from time to time,” people whose work we would not be in the journal were reduced “to taking out paid advertisements.” John Knox, a Professor at the University of Georgia, shared his sympathy for Dr James and compared him with “the scientific version of the regulars at the bar,” the last people on Earth “who actually have the time to read large portions of the research journals.”
This discovery squared the apparently random Google hits. During the 1990s, Dr James had extensively written about creativity and the learning process in journals related to cybernetics. In these articles, he described the training of aircraft pilots as an example of good practice. This detail made me realise that the search results actually related to the same person. The most prominent Internet record of Dr James was, surprisingly, related to airplanes: in the 1960s and 70s, he had become the first UK person to fly 500 miles in a motorless glider.
Dr James preparing one of his gliders. Image taken from http://www.bookergliding.co.uk/history.html, a website that documents the history of the Booker Gliding Club, that Dr James attended
The aviation connection enabled me to find a 2007 news article of The Bucks Free Press that brought the story to a closure. The journalist reported that Brennig James, an “old school doctor” who had long served the county, had died aged 81 after a short illness. While most of the text reviewed his merits as a pilot, there were two details that grasped both Dr James’s fascinating personality and the least known side of his contributions. His secretary, interviewed by the journalist, evoked how Dr James had lived in an L shaped house with floor to ceiling windows that was "ahead of its time" in terms of architecture and design. His sister described Dr James as “a bit of a loner,” especially when after retiring he moved to North Wales, where he wrote both his cybernetics papers and letters to Nature: “he kept coming up with ideas and throwing them out to people.” One of these ideas eventually became the Human Genome Project.
Miguel Garcia-Sancho, September 2017