Lives of the fellows

John Alexander Fraser Roberts

b.8 September 1899 d.15 January 1987
CBE(1965) BSc Wales(1920) MA Cantab(1925) FRSEd(1927) DSc Edin(1933) MB ChB(1936) MD(1943) MRCP(1943) FRCP(1949) FRS(1963) FRCPsych(1971)

John Fraser Roberts, though he only qualified in medicine when he was 37, was a pioneer in medical genetics, one of the founding fathers of clinical genetics and, with a handful of others, one of the leaders in human genetics. He acquired an international reputation.

From early researches on animal genetics, where he concentrated on complex characters demonstrating a blend of inheritance and environmental effects, both of nature and nurture, he soon moved to work on similar characteristics in man. He became well known for his studies on measured intelligence, and his work on the genetic nature of hypertension ensured that his was a household name in medical circles. His studies on the relationship between blood groups and disease turned out to be equally important. His research spanned a period of almost 60 years which saw many major changes in genetics in general, and in human genetics in particular, and the practical application of genetics by the medical profession to the service of man. It found Fraser Roberts not only receptive to current advances but also eager to help in practical ways, and it was to the practical application of genetic knowledge that he dedicated much of his thinking and working time.

John Fraser Roberts was born at Fox Hall, Henllan, Trefnant, near Denbigh, in North Wales, the son of Robert Henry Roberts and his wife Elizabeth Mary Fraser, being the eldest of their three children. Henry Roberts was a dedicated farmer, and he and his wife had great hopes that their first-born would follow in his father’s footsteps and choose farming as his future career. But this was not to be. As a young boy, living on a large farm, he displayed instead a keen interest in aspects of inheritance, especially in sheep - with which local farmers were preoccupied and which were largely defeating their attempts at selective breeding for treasured characteristics. It was this that first fired his lifelong interest in two parallel directions: the study of complex traits seemingly inherited, and the application of the findings and the principle of inheritance to practical purposes. Thus, he decided upon a career in genetics which, on his own admission, represented an ‘honourable escape’ from practical farming while still being relevant to animal husbandry - so fulfilling the desires of his parents in a roundabout way.

Fraser Roberts’ brother, Robert Peter, practised at the Bar in London and, later, was dean of Corpus Christi, Cambridge. His sister, Marjorie, obtained a botany degree at Bedford College, London, and remained at the family farm to help out as her mother died of pulmonary tuberculosis at the age of 58, leaving their father to attempt to manage the farm single-handed.

John himself was educated at Denbigh County School, but for two years during his ’teens he was unable to attend school as he was ‘delicate and ill’. However, he had excellent tuition at home at this time and so began his rather unconventional ‘formal’ education and studies, which often seemed to be dictated by opportunity or chance. In the autumn of 1916 he entered the University College of North Wales at Bangor, where he studied for his BSc degree - with a break of two years on war service, 1918-19, when he served as a second lieutenant in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. In October 1920 he was admitted as an affiliated student from University College, Bangor, to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, obtaining his BA in the natural sciences tripos, followed by his MA in 1925, being first a Rhonodda student and then an exhibitioner. In 1923 the Ministry of Agriculture gave a grant to the agriculture department at University College, Bangor, - headed by R G White - for a study on the wool of Welsh mountain sheep, and John Fraser Roberts was appointed to do the work. But by the end of the year the scope of the research project had increased and the research was transferred to Edinburgh. So, while continuing to supervise experimental work at Bangor as an honorary lecturer in genetics, he was appointed research assistant in the Animal Breeding Research Department at Edinburgh (later the Institute of Animal Genetics) to work under the supervision of F A E Crew. He continued his studies there and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1927. His work on the wool of Welsh mountain sheep continued at Bangor and between 1925 and 1931 he was responsible for the joint abstracts on livestock for the Welsh Journal of Agriculture. In 1928 he was appointed head of the biology department of the Wool Industries Research Association at Leeds, a post which he held until late 1931 when he was granted a Macaulay research fellowship in human biology at the University of Edinburgh. During this period he obtained his DSc with his thesis ‘Studies on the biology of sheep’ in 1933, and immediately after this he enrolled in the faculty of medicine at Edinburgh, qualifying in 1936.

From 1942-46 he served in the RNVR as a surgeon lieutenant and later as a surgeon commander. He was a consultant in medical statistics to the Royal Navy.

In 1943 he obtained his MD for a thesis which was highly commended, ‘Blood group frequencies in south-western England and North Wales: A study in racial variation, together with a search for evidence that the blood groups possess selective value; and other contributions to human genetics.’ In the same year he obtained his membership of the College.

In 1933 Fraser Roberts had been appointed principal investigator at the Burden Mental Research Department, Stoke Park Colony, Bristol, and in 1940 he became its director, a post he held until 1957. During this time he had a chance of renewing his association with R A Fisher, whom he had met in 1924 while working with Crew, and with whom he had instantly been in tune. By then Fisher was Galton professor of eugenics at University College London and a member of the research advisory committee at the Burden. This relationship with Fisher was clearly material in refining still further John Fraser Roberts’s statistical skill and in indicating the direction of some of his researches, particularly his work on the population variation of blood group frequencies and on measured intelligence; the latter being of special importance to him in view of his own deep interest in mental handicap. By this time his dedication to medical genetics was spurring him on to putting his genetic expertise to practical use.

He was appointed a consultant in medical genetics to the Royal Eastern Counties Hospital, Colchester, in 1946, where he started genetic counselling clinics which he continued until 1981, and he was director of research there until 1957. That same year, 1946, he had started a genetic counselling clinic at the Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street; the first ever recognized clinic in the British Isles, and the second or third in the world. Later, he started another at the Children’s Hospital, Bristol. He was also appointed lecturer in medical genetics at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. In 1957 the Medical Research Council established a clinical genetics research unit at the Institute of Child Health, Great Ormond Street, and Fraser Roberts was appointed director, a position he held until his retirement in 1964. The unit’s major contribution was the execution of a whole series of important family studies carefully carried out and relevant to medical genetics both in theory and practice, especially directed at unravelling some of the genetic factors underlying abnormal development. After his retirement from the Institute he was appointed geneticist to the newly established paediatric research unit at Guy’s Hospital medical school, and honorary consultant in medical genetics to the Hospital, where he continued with research and took an active part in the establishment of a model, comprehensive, population-based genetic service backed up by laboratory and genetic research facilities and general services; the first of its kind.

In 1949 he was elected a Fellow of the College. Through his work on blood groups he became president of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 1957-1958, and his statistical skills led to his election as president of the Biometric Society 1960-1962. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1963, and received his CBE in 1965. In 1971, in recognition of his work on intelligence, mental abnormality and mental illness, he was elected a founder fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. And for 37 years he was associated with the Eugenic Society, both as a member of council and of its various committees. From 1959-1970 he was adviser to Oxford University Press and series editor for the Oxford monographs on medical genetics, a function he shared with C O Carter (q.v.) from 1975.

His book An Introduction to medical genetics, London, Oxford University Press, 1940, deserves special mention because of its seminal influence derived from its timeliness, its approach, its style and content, all of which contributed to its popularity. It was more successful than any of its predecessors or successors which were written in a different vein and were not, as one physician said of them, ‘bedside genetics’, which Fraser Roberts’ book clearly managed to be; therein lay the secret of its success. Originally conceived one summer evening in 1935 after his friend, Duncan Duthie, then a medical student in his final year, asked him to explain ‘...this genetics business...’, it ran into eight editions; Marcus Pembrey being co-author of the last two books. Some 19 years later, with the confidence born out of experience, he was outlining clearly nine main pillars on which to rest professional genetic counselling, such as the importance of accurate diagnosis, knowledge of the literature, explanation in terms of odds, the use of empirical chances and the assessment of the size of risk against reasonable yardsticks.

During the second world war he served in the RNVR, first as a surgeon lieutenant and later as a surgeon commander. He was a consultant in medical statistics to the Royal Navy and concerned, among other matters, with the analysis of sickness statistics. Between the two wars he held a commission in the Territorial Army.

In 1941 John Fraser Roberts had married the actress Doris Hare, by whom he had two daughters. They were a remarkable couple, ostensibly very different; Doris Hare’s ebullient personality, wit, gift for mimicry, quick turn of phrase and brilliant miming, contrasted vividly with Fraser Roberts’ incisive but shy approach, spare gesturing and controlled neatness. He was always pleased with his wife’s jests and perfectly at ease with her ability to entertain and amuse the most solemn crowd of scientists. It was sad when the marriage broke up, but he was fortunate in his second wife, Margaret Ralph, whom he married in 1975. She had been his assistant since 1948, from the days of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Having helped him in his work for so many years, she helped him in his final retirement with unfailing devotion.

By temperament John Fraser Roberts was mild and gentle, quiet and courteous, and - like the style of his book - somewhat Edwardian in his manners and beliefs. He was extremely precise both in the investigation of facts and the study of data, and also in the wording he used to describe his findings. He was also charming and helpful, sympathetic and attentive, and an excellent listener. He could not fail, given his wide knowledge and expertise, to be a model genetic counsellor, always ready to advise but never desirous of pushing his own views. But it must be said that for all his sympathetic stance and courtesy when it came to work he was very determined and held strong views, and he could be stubborn once he had made up his mind.

His principal recreation was walking, especially in the hills of his native land. Although always active physically and mentally, he found relaxation in his passion for computing on everything: the stock market, elections and by-elections, and anything else that came to hand. He was a religious man, brought up by his mother in a strict Scottish Presbyterian manner. As a scientist he had some doubts but, especially in later life and with failing health, he found comfort and relief in religion.

As a young man he had been treated for tuberculous lymphodentitis of the neck. In 1974 he suffered from an attack of ulcerative colitis which was successfully treated. By 1982 he had become practically blind from a progressive macular degeneration and a year later his heart had given occasion for anxiety, but with treatment he was able to continue with his favourite recreation, walking, right up to the end, which came suddenly and quietly while he was taking an afternoon nap.

PE Polani

[Brit.med.J., 1987,294,379; Lancet, 1987,1,341-2; The Times, 19 Jan 1987; Guy's Hosp. Gaz., 1976,90]

(Volume VIII, page 416)

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