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Lionel Penrose: a man of many talents

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By | The Researcher’s View

Katy Makin reveals some insights into the personality of the multi-talented geneticist Lionel Penrose from his personal papers, which have been digitised as part of the Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics online resource.

Lionel Sharples Penrose (1898-1974) is best known for his work on the causes of Down’s syndrome and other congenital disorders. He was one of the first to prove a link between maternal age and Down’s syndrome and his 1938 report A Clinical and Genetic Study of 1280 Cases of Mental Defect (aka the Colchester Survey) was the first serious attempt to study the genetic factors affecting learning disabilities.

He was appointed to the Galton Chair of Eugenics at University College London in 1945 and ran the Galton Laboratory for the next twenty years. However, he disliked the term ‘eugenics’ and sought to distance his department from its ideals, successfully lobbying to have his post renamed the Galton Chair of Human Genetics in 1963. He had a wide range of professional and personal interests, which are reflected in his archive.

The Penrose Triangle

The Penrose Triangle, a mathematical puzzle developed by Penrose and his son, the mathematician Roger Penrose in the 1950s. Puzzles were one of Penrose’s many interests. Library reference Penrose/1/7/3.

Something of an individual’s personality can be gleaned in subtle ways through their archive, particularly in the way they write. For example, Penrose and his friend and colleague J B S Haldane (whose papers are also available in Codebreakers) couldn’t be more different. Whereas Haldane had a reputation for being brusque and short-tempered, by all accounts Penrose was universally well-liked. Haldane’s letters, are informative but blunt. Penrose’s papers suggest a more congenial personality.

Personal diaries

The archive contains various types of records, from letters and photographs to research notes and personal diaries. There are three diaries in particular which illustrate different aspects of his life and character.

L S Penrose was born in 1898 into a Quaker family. The artist Sir Roland Algernon Penrose was one of his younger brothers, and Lionel also developed an artistic ability. One of the archive items from his childhood is his ‘Natural History Diary’ from about 1910, which contains records of plants and animals that Penrose observed on nature walks, and includes drawings and samples of leaves, feathers, and insects that have been stuck into the book. The organic material makes the item too fragile to be handled repeatedly, but it has been digitised for the Codebreakers project.

Page from Penrose's Nature Notebook.

Page from Penrose’s Nature Notebook. Library reference Penrose/1/3/2/1.

During World War I Penrose served in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit in France, a voluntary service founded in 1914 by members of the British Religious Society of Friends. Penrose was attached to an ambulance train and although his diary entries are rather sparse, mainly recording the location and activity of the train each day, they are accompanied by drawings and hand-drawn maps showing his routes across northern France.

Drawing of an ambulance train in Penrose's war diary

Drawing of an ambulance train in Penrose’s war diary, 1918. Library reference: Penrose/1/4/1/2.

His longest entry is from the 11th November 1918 when he happened to be in Paris, where he describes scenes of ‘debauched’ celebration following the armistice:

“…Flags of the allies magically sprout from every window. Chiefly French and American. Old ladies – French officers – Yanks – girls – old workmen – children form small processions in the streets and rush up to one another and kiss or shake hands… My curiosity goads me to wander for miles through dense intoxicated crowds until I too am utterly sick with the smell of spirits, the crushed flags, the broken glasses, the glistening eyes of the crowd, the hideous laughter and shouts – men and women turned into lunatics – this is Peace.” [Penrose/1/4/1/1]

Attitude to awards

Many years later, Penrose kept a diary of his trip to the USA to receive the 1964 International Award from the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation. He preferred to be out of the spotlight and was uncomfortable with award ceremonies generally, as he recalls on the morning of the day he received the Kennedy Foundation award: “This was the day and I was secretly planning to vanish somehow but could not work out a feasible scheme quickly enough”.

After the ceremony he was still anxious to keep his large silver and glass trophy out of sight: “I tried to get mine into my pocket but the combination of a bulging contraption of this kind with a white carnation glued to the button-hole made me an object of some curiosity for the hotel residents in the lobby and the elevator” [Penrose/1/20/2/4]. Given the size of the award, pictured below, this isn’t surprising.

Penrose (right) receiving the award

Penrose (left) receiving the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation Award from Lyndon B Johnson, 1964. Library reference: Penrose/1/20/2.

Penrose received many awards for his work over the course of his career and put the monetary prizes to good use, most notably by establishing a clinic for the study of genetic diseases at Harperbury Hospital. Characteristically, his USA trip diary notes that he was anxious about meeting Mary Woodard Lasker at an event after the ceremony, having given his 1960 Lasker award statue to Oxfam.

The original Penrose archive is held by UCL Archives.

Author: Katy Makin is Project Archivist at UCL Library Services.

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