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Animal research pioneer Dr Gerald Wiener dies at 97

Professor John Woolliams and Dr Andy Wiener reflect on the life and career of leading animal scientist and former ABRO Deputy Director.

Dr Gerald Wiener, a former Deputy Director of the Animal Breeding Research Organisation (ABRO), which later became the Roslin Institute, died peacefully at home on 28 September, aged 97.

He had arrived In the UK from Germany in 1939, as a 12-year-old unaccompanied child, in the Kindertransport of Jewish children.

He went on to become a leading animal scientist whose work inspired many and whose legacy continues today.

Showing promise

Gerald Wiener was born on 25 April 1926 into a German Jewish family in what was then Küstrin in Germany, now Kostrzyn in Poland.

He spent his early childhood in Berlin against the background of rising Nazi persecution of the Jews.

He was one of 10,000 children rescued from the Nazis by the Kindertransport initiative, which was funded by private citizens after the UK Government changed the immigration laws.

Although his mother arrived in the UK a few months later on a work visa, he was brought up by a series of foster families in Oxford.

He was fortunate to be introduced to Ruth and Rosemary Spooner, cousins who lived in Oxford, who recognised his abilities as a scholar and set him on the path to academic achievement.

Early career

After spells in the Home Guard, and working as a farm hand at the University of Cambridge farm, he graduated in 1947 with a degree in agriculture from the University of Edinburgh.

He was one of the first young scientists to be employed at the fledgling Animal Breeding Research Organisation (ABRO) set up in Edinburgh in the years following the Second World War.

His PhD identified the pyramid structure of livestock populations, whereby genes flowed from a relatively small subset of influential herds or flocks to the wider population.

He mapped out how this structure could be used for breed improvement – an idea that has been fundamental in modern breeding.

Further long-term experiments followed, concerned with quantifying nature and nurture, evaluating the genetic effects such as hybrid vigour and inbreeding, maternal effects and other influences on livestock such as nutrition or management.

Genetics insights

Dr Wiener opened new areas for genetics following a chance observation that deaths from swayback, a disease of young lambs deficient in dietary copper, was heavily influenced by breed.

This led him to the discovery that genetics strongly influenced the absorption of copper between and within breeds.

These ideas coalesced in the realisation that better predictions of genetic merit could come from understanding the physiology of important metabolic pathways rather than relying solely on physical characteristics, such as body weight or volume of milk produced.

These ideas may seem commonplace in today’s world, but at that time, reading the genome sequence of DNA was still fully 30 years in the future.

During this time, Dr Wiener was a leading member of the British Society of Animal Science, and in 1959 became the first Senior Editor of its journal, Animal Production, a role he maintained for over 15 years.

Growing influence

In recognition of his scientific achievements, he became the Head of Physiological Genetics in ABRO, a department which included young scientists of note such as animal geneticist Roger Land and embryologist Ian Wilmut, and he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1970.

The ideas pursued in Dr Wiener’s department were an important foundation for rebuilding ABRO after the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) announced cuts to ABRO funding, and its potential closure, in 1981.

The ARC was concerned with the direction of ABRO’s scientific programme and, as a senior scientist, Dr Wiener played a major role in winning the arguments that ensured its survival.

ARC asked him to become Director of the reshaped institute, but instead he recommended Dr Land as better fitted to the role. Dr Wiener became Deputy Director and supported the Director in reorienting and establishing a programme that was ultimately to lead to many significant achievements – not least Dolly the Sheep.

Yak expertise

After retirement, Dr Wiener continued to be in demand as an international consultant and did extensive development work for the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, particularly in Asia.

One outcome of this is that he became a world-leading expert on the breeding and husbandry of yak, an animal that forms the cornerstone of cultures across vast areas of central Asia.

These consultancies led him to write textbooks on yak, and on tropical animal breeding. The latter, when translated into Chinese, became the world’s most widely read book on breeding. His work is recognised in China as forming the foundation for current breeding and husbandry of yak.

Dr Wiener’s interest in science never waned and in his final years he was determined to write the early history of ABRO, which had been such a big part of his life. He wanted to show a more complete picture of ABRO’s work, as so much of what had been published focused on the crisis of 1981, and the successes that followed.

This history of ABRO, completed in 2021, can now be found in the archives of the University of Edinburgh.

Home life

Throughout his adult life Dr Wiener was a committed Christian. His contributions to the community were many and varied. Some related to his Christian faith, such as helping to establish the Eric Liddell Centre at Holy Corner in Edinburgh, while others arose from his growing concerns for the natural world, such as establishing a community woodland close to his home in Biggar.

Dr Wiener’s first marriage ended in divorce. He found great happiness in his second marriage to Margaret Russell, who he met in his 50s. Margaret became an author, with the pen name of Margaret Dunlop, and published a biography of her husband, ‘Goodbye Berlin’, in 2016.

They moved to Inverness in 2008 to be closer to her family, and they spent 12 happy years there until she died in 2020.

Dr Wiener is survived by a son, a daughter, four grandchildren, and a great-grandson from his first marriage and by his second wife’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who had become a very close part of his own extended family.

This obituary first appeared in The Scotsman and is adapted by kind permission.