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A Timeline for Medical Genetics

Modern medical genetics as a well defined field of medicine has developed so rapidly since its beginnings half a century ago, that it is often forgotten how far back in time its roots and origins go.

It can be reasonably argued that genetics overall was based in considerable measure on problems of human inheritance and inherited disease, and studies of this extend back long before the 20th century acceptance of Mendelism. Thus medical genetics, when thought of in the widest sense, is perhaps the oldest area of genetics, and certainly not the recent addition that it is sometimes portrayed as.

This ‘timeline’ gives some of what I consider to be the main landmarks along this lengthy course. Not all of these can be considered to be directly part of ‘medical genetics’, even on the broadest definition, but they are all relevant to it in one way or another. I have also included some more general ‘world events’ that have particularly impacted on the development of the field.

The rapid pace of developments in the field gives urgency to preserving the primary records that will be essential if future historians are to be able to make a detailed and unbiased analysis of how medical genetics has developed. These include the personal scientific records and correspondence of key workers across the world, both clinical and scientific; laboratory notebooks; published books; and recorded interviews. Everyone working in the field can contribute to ensuring that our history is fully documented.

For fuller accounts of the history of medical genetics, readers may consult Victor McKusick’s masterly chapter in print editions of Emery and Rimoins "Priniciples and Practice of Medical Genetics" or ‘A Short History of Medical Genetics’, Harper PS (2008). OUP.