MRC Human Genetics Unit
Medical Research Council Human Genetics Unit

Professor John Evans

MRC Clinical Population and Cytogenetics Unit and MRC Human Genetics Unit Director 1969 - 1994

Professor John Evans
Professor John Evans CBE PhD DSc (Hon) FRSE

During his long and highly productive career he contributed hugely to the field of genetics through his work on mutagens and chromosomes and as an MRC Unit director. Born in Llanelli, South Wales, John attended Llanelli Grammar School and went onto the University College of Wales at Aberystwyth, where he received his BSc and PhD degrees.

In 1955 he joined the MRC Radio biological Research Unit at Harwell and set to work analysing the effects of radiation and other mutagens on chromosome structure and function in plants and fungi. He quickly made a number of significant advances five of his first six publications were in Nature and was promoted to Head of Cell Biology. Following this early success, John was appointed at the young age of 34 to the Chair of Genetics at the University of Aberdeen where his research began to reflect a growing interest in human genetics. In 1969 he became Director of the MRC Clinical Population and Cytogenetics Unit, Edinburgh,which had opened two years earlier with the remit of monitoring chromosomal variation on a large scale indifferent sub populations. Arriving after the untimely death of the inaugural director, Michael Court-Brown, John continued to support many of the large projects in progress.Work led by Patricia Jacobs, a life-long friend, continued for years after her departure. Longitudinal surveys of boys with sex chromosome anomalies revealed the detailed effects of an extra

X or Y chromosome on physical health and behaviour.

It is easy to forget that there was a time when there were no systematic methods for mapping and cloning human genes. Back in the 1970s, naturally occurring chromosomal anomalies were one of the few reliable sources of information about the human genome and under John's directorship the Unit became a centre of excellence for the use of cytogenetic approaches to human genetics. Chromosome analysis of more than 10,000 consecutive newborns led to several long-term follow-up studies. One key family with a translocations egregating with severe psychiatric illness was followed with his continuing encouragement, even after his retirement, eventually leading to the identification of the now well-established gene DISC1 (Disrupted in schizophrenia 1). With colleagues he contributed to the development of early banding techniques, allowing the unambiguous identification of each human chromosome and thus helping to open up the era of gene mapping. These banding methods were used with radioactive in situ hybridisation to map satellite DNAs and with iso enzymestudies to make some of the earliest chromosomal gene assignments.

John worked tirelessly to support and encourage the staff at CAPCU: technicians were trained in-house and through day-release to gain qualifications, while PhD students and postdocs were recruited worldwide. He was an enthusiastic and practical supporter of women scientists,making part time work possible even in the 1970s. He also nurtured emerging early-day technologies: prototype automatic karyo typing was developed under Denis Rutovitz, and home made fluorescence-activated cell sorting equipment was available before commercial machines appeared.

In 1979 the Unit hosted the Fifth International Human Gene Mapping Workshop and soon afterwards John recruited some excellent scientists to take the Unit into the molecular epoch of genome mapping and genomics, particularly Nick Hastie who eventually succeeded him as Director.

Throughout his time at the Unit, John continued to work on the effects of occupational and environmental exposure to mutagens. He served on numerous national and international bodies assessing the effects of radiation and setting acceptable standards for occupational exposure. He was also on the scientific advisory boards of a number of prestigious research organisations, several dealing with aspects of cancer diagnosis and therapy. In addition, he was founding governor and chair of the Caledonian Research Foundation, a charity established to support researchin Scotland through fellowships and studentships.

Professor John Evans (left) and Sir Michael Woodruff
Professor John Evans (left) and Sir Michael Woodruff who pioneered the Kidney transplant Unit at the Western General Hospital

By the time he retired in 1994, the Unit housed around 250 staff and its work was internationally renowned.Chromosome biology is still a major field of research and cytogenetics-based methods continue to be used routinely to identify disease genes.Towards the end of his Directorship, John supported the establishment of the University of Edinburgh Centre for Molecular Medicine and the Edinburgh Cancer Research Centre, both of which joined with the Human Genetics Unit  to form the new Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine, now the Institute of Genetics and Cancer.

During his career John was awarded numerous fellowships and prizes, culminating in a CBE in 1997 in recognition of his outstanding contribution to science. Despite these many accolades he was always friendly and approachable,with a fine sense of humour. John will always be remembered by friends and colleagues and his many achievements will stand as testament to a fruitful and successful life.