Human genetics in troubled times and places

Hereditas. 2017 Aug 3:155:7. doi: 10.1186/s41065-017-0042-4. eCollection 2018.


The development of human genetics world-wide during the twentieth century, especially across Europe, has occurred against a background of repeated catastrophes, including two world wars and the ideological problems and repression posed by Nazism and Communism. The published scientific literature gives few hints of these problems and there is a danger that they will be forgotten. The First World War was largely indiscriminate in its carnage, but World War 2 and the preceding years of fascism were associated with widespread migration, especially of Jewish workers expelled from Germany, and of their children, a number of whom would become major contributors to the post-war generation of human and medical geneticists in Britain and America. In Germany itself, eminent geneticists were also involved in the abuses carried out in the name of 'eugenics' and 'race biology'. However, geneticists in America, Britain and the rest of Europe were largely responsible for the ideological foundations of these abuses. In the Soviet Union, geneticists and genetics itself became the object of persecution from the 1930s till as late as the mid 1960s, with an almost complete destruction of the field during this time; this extended also to Eastern Europe and China as part of the influence of Russian communism. Most recently, at the end of the twentieth century, China saw a renewal of government sponsored eugenics programmes, now mostly discarded. During the post-world war 2 decades, human genetics research benefited greatly from recognition of the genetic dangers posed by exposure to radiation, following the atomic bomb explosions in Japan, atmospheric testing and successive accidental nuclear disasters in Russia. Documenting and remembering these traumatic events, now largely forgotten among younger workers, is essential if we are to fully understand the history of human genetics and avoid the repetition of similar disasters in the future. The power of modern human genetic and genomic techniques now gives a greater potential for abuse as well as for beneficial use than has ever been seen in the past.

Keywords: Genetics; History; Human; Medical; Medicine; Russia; War; ethics.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Communism
  • Eugenics
  • Europe
  • Genetics, Medical / history*
  • Germany
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • National Socialism
  • Russia
  • Warfare