Alan Robertson

Alan Robertson FRS was an English population geneticist. Originally a chemist, he was recruited after the Second World War to work on animal genetics on behalf of the British government, and continued in this sphere until his retirement in 1985. He was a major influence in the widespread adoption of artificial insemination of cattle.

In addition to his work on agricultural genetics, Robertson undertook extensive studies
of other branches of genetics, developing an influential secondary theorem of natural selection. He acquired an international reputation, receiving state and academic honours from Europe, America and Asia.

Early years

Robertson was born in Preston, Lancashire, the second and only surviving child of John Mouat Robertson, an employee of the Post Office, and his wife Annie, née Grace, who was the younger sister of the Cambridge
University of Cambridge
The University of Cambridge is a public research university located in Cambridge, United Kingdom. It is the second-oldest university in both the United Kingdom and the English-speaking world , and the seventh-oldest globally...

 mathematician John Hilton Grace
John Hilton Grace
John Hilton Grace was a British mathematician.-Early life:He was born in Halewood, near Liverpool, the eldest of the six children of a farmer. He was educated at the village school and the Liverpool Institute...

. Annie Robertson died within days of giving birth to her second child, who was brought up by his aunt Bessie Grace on the family farm at Halewood
Halewood is in Merseyside, England and is located in the Metropolitan Borough of Knowsley. The district lies near Liverpool's southeastern boundary, bordered by the suburbs of Hunts Cross and Woolton....

, near Liverpool. He was educated at Halewood village school from where he won a scholarship to the Liverpool Institute High School in 1930. He distinguished himself there in languages and in science under the tutelage of the chemistry master L. A. Naylor. In 1938 he won a scholarship to Caius College, Cambridge
Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge
Gonville and Caius College is a constituent college of the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, England. The college is often referred to simply as "Caius" , after its second founder, John Keys, who fashionably latinised the spelling of his name after studying in Italy.- Outline :Gonville and...

 to read chemistry. He graduated in 1941 with an upper second class degree, and became a research student in the Department of Colloidal Science at Cambridge.

During the Second World War Robertson served in the Operational Research Section of Coastal Command. The head of the unit was C. H. Waddington
Conrad Hal Waddington
Conrad Hal Waddington CBE FRS FRSE was a developmental biologist, paleontologist, geneticist, embryologist and philosopher who laid the foundations for systems biology...

, who after the war invited Robertson to join him in a new research body, the National Animal Breeding and Genetics Research Organisation (NABGRO). In an obituary study of Robertson, W. G. Hill
William G. Hill
William George "Bill" Hill, OBE, FRS, FRSE is a British geneticist and statistician. He is professor emeritus at Edinburgh University since his retirement in 2002. He was elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1979, Royal Society of London in 1985 and appointed OBE in 2004.- External links...

 wrote, "At this stage Alan could have had no more than a passing acquaintance with genetics, but he did have a firm understanding of practical farming. … Waddington wanted to apply operational research methods to animal breeding and recognized Alan's mathematical talents and ability in operational research."


In January 1947, Robertson married Margaret Bernheim, a NABGRO colleague, with whom he had two sons and a daughter. After spending nine months in the U.S. receiving training in genetics and animal breeding with Sewall Wright
Sewall Wright
Sewall Green Wright was an American geneticist known for his influential work on evolutionary theory and also for his work on path analysis. With R. A. Fisher and J.B.S. Haldane, he was a founder of theoretical population genetics. He is the discoverer of the inbreeding coefficient and of...

 and Jay Laurence Lush, Robertson took up his work at NABGRO, based in Edinburgh. The organisation was split into two parts, and Robertson became a member of the Unit of Animal Genetics, where he spent the rest of his career. At first he worked on improving dairy cattle using mathematical and statistical methods to devise the most effective breeding programmes. Away from the everyday work of the Unit, Robertson also worked on evolutionary biology, studying how variation is maintained in populations, and particularly the roles of mutation and of stabilising selection. Hill writes that Robertson made "original contributions to the theory of genetic change in small populations and introduced a theory of limits to artificial selection … a combination of mathematical insight, quantitative genetic principles, and practical context, of which only he was capable."

Robertson continued to work on dairy-related research and wider theoretical studies. He did much to introduce widespread use of artificial insemination in dairy cattle, and worked for many years on estimating genetic effects that influence quantitative traits, and he developed what became known as the "secondary theorem of natural selection." He held the post of Deputy Chief Scientific Officer of his Unit, and kept away from administrative duties. Hill recalled that Robertson "remained informal, approachable, and 'Alan' to all. His influence was through his papers, as a scientific referee, by personal contact (particularly in his famous morning coffee group), as a conference speaker and organizer, and as an example of efficient (if not organized) hard work."

In 1964, Robertson was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society
Royal Society
The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, known simply as the Royal Society, is a learned society for science, and is possibly the oldest such society in existence. Founded in November 1660, it was granted a Royal Charter by King Charles II as the "Royal Society of London"...

. Two years later he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh
Royal Society of Edinburgh
The Royal Society of Edinburgh is Scotland's national academy of science and letters. It is a registered charity, operating on a wholly independent and non-party-political basis and providing public benefit throughout Scotland...

. He was appointed Honorary Professor of Edinburgh University (1967), and received honorary degrees and memberships of the United States National Academy of Sciences (1979), the University of Hohenheim (1968), the Agricultural University of Norway (1984), the Danish Agricultural University (1986), the University of Liège (1986), and the Genetics Society of Japan. He was appointed OBE
Order of the British Empire
The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire is an order of chivalry established on 4 June 1917 by George V of the United Kingdom. The Order comprises five classes in civil and military divisions...

in 1965, and received the Gold Medal of the Royal Agricultural Society (1958) and the Order of Isabel la Católica (1974).

Robertson retired in 1985, and died in Edinburgh in 1989, aged 69.

See also

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