Dame Anne Laura McLaren

Dame Anne Laura McLaren

Obituary Dame Anne Laura McLaren Developmental biologist and geneticist who influenced the science and ethics of reproduction and embryology. She was ...

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Dame Anne Laura McLaren Developmental biologist and geneticist who influenced the science and ethics of reproduction and embryology. She was born in London on April 26, 1927, and died in a motor vehicle accident on July 7, 2007, aged 80 years. Anne McLaren was one the UK’s most respected scientists, with a career that spanned five decades and encompassed fundamental discoveries in embryology, genetics, and reproduction. But according to her own characteristically modest explanation, she only went into science because the university entrance exam for English literature involved too much reading. In an interview published shortly before her death, McLaren said “I looked at all the papers and biology was easiest—you didn’t have to read so much, you could swat it all up from textbooks, as opposed to reading novels and poems.” It’s certainly true that McLaren rarely allowed literature to distract from science or her family, remembers Elizabeth Simpson, from Imperial College London. Simpson and McLaren met in 1970 at a party at the house of immunologist Peter Medawar. “My baby daughter was asleep in a carrycot in a quiet part of the house, and from our first conversation it was clear that Anne was very enthusiastic about babies, both human and murine!” McLaren once said she was interested in “everything involved in getting from one generation to the next”, a phrase that serves as an elegant summary of her prodigious career, which began in the early 1950s at University College London. There, she and her husband Donald Michie (who died in the same accident as McLaren) began studying differences in the 382

number of lumbar vertebrae in inbred mice. The questions they wanted to answer about the role of the uterine environment required better techniques for superovulation and embryo transfer, says Robin Lovell-Badge, from the National Institute for Medical Research in London, UK. “The techniques they developed then are still used by people all over the place”, he said. Later that decade, McLaren moved to the Royal Veterinary College in London, where she and John Biggers showed that early mouse embryos could be grown outside the uterus, and still develop to term once returned to the uterus. It was work that would help pave the way for the arrival of in-vitro fertilisation for human beings in the 1970s. McLaren’s degree in zoology was earned at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, and over the following decades she made a large number of important contributions to reproductive biology. “She did significant things throughout her life”, says Simpson. “There have been at least half a dozen really seminal things.” For example, she undertook important work on chimeras and germ cells during the 1960s and 1970s, as well as leading the Medical Research Council’s Mammalian Development Unit, created around her in 1982 to catalyse research into mouse genetics, embryology, and reproductive biology. In 1984, McLaren and Simpson revolutionised our understanding of the male-determining gene on the Y chromosome, disproving the prevailing theory that the H-Y transplantation antigen was the Y-dependent testis inducer. As a mentor to other scientists, McLaren had an extraordinary capacity for calm and pragmatic advice, remembers Jim Smith, Chairman of the UK’s Wellcome Trust/Cancer Research UK Gurdon Institute. Her insights were never routine, adds Lewis Wolpert, who lived across the road from McLaren for some time. “If you wanted advice on anything, she would consider it and give you the most original response”, he said. Beyond the laboratory, McLaren immersed herself in public debates over the social and ethical implications of human reproduction. She was a member of the Warnock Committee that had an important role in the passing of the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, and served for a decade on the regulatory body that it established, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. From 1991 to 1996, McLaren was Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society, the first woman officer of the society. She officially retired in 1992, but continued researching primordial germ cells at the Gurdon Institute, and was still publishing papers last year. She received many awards, including the Royal Medal of the Royal Society and the Japan Prize, and was made a Dame in 1993. She and Michie divorced in 1959, but stayed close throughout their lives. They are survived by one son and two daughters, and a son from Michie’s previous marriage.

Stephen Pincock [email protected]

www.thelancet.com Vol 370 August 4, 2007