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The study of human heredity got its start in insane asylums

‘Genetics in the Madhouse’ chronicles the early days of the science

8:00am, July 1, 2018
London’s Bethlem Hospital illustration

INHERIT THE DATA  King George III’s descent into madness sparked efforts to untangle the inheritance of mental illness by analyzing patient records at insane asylums (London’s Bethlem Hospital is shown in this 1735 illustration). A new book discusses how big data and statistics long dominated the study of human heredity.

Genetics in the Madhouse
Theodore M. Porter
Princeton Univ., $35

England’s King George III descended into mental chaos, or what at the time was called madness, in 1789. Physicians could not say whether he would recover or if a replacement should assume the throne. That political crisis jump-started the study of human heredity.

Using archival records, science historian Theodore M. Porter describes how the king’s deteriorating condition invigorated research at England’s insane asylums into the inheritance of madness. Well before DNA’s discovery, heredity started out as a science of record keeping and statistical calculations. In the 1800s, largely forgotten doctors in both Europe and North America meticulously collected

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