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Department of Zoology


Anne McLaren's doctoral work concerned the mechanisms of virus infection of the nervous system, but she subsequently moved rapidly into what then was embryology (what we would now call developmental biology) and she became one of the subject's most distinguished practitioners. She appears in this series of biographical sketches of past members of the Department of Zoology because on her nominal retirement in 1992 she moved from London to the Wellcome Trust/Cancer Research UK Gurdon Institute as a member of the Department. She remained here, in active research, until her death in 2007.

Anne McLaren was something of a chimaera. Anne Laura Dorinthea McLaren was born in London on 26 April 1927. Her parents were Sir Henry McLaren, the 2nd Baron Aberconway, and Christabel Macnaghten. Christabel's father, Sir Melville Macnaghten, was Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, covering the period of the notorious Dr Crippen, and 'Jack the Ripper'. Christabel Aberconway was a great beauty (there is a photograph of her in her later years, taken by Lord Snowdon, in the National Portrait Gallery) and a socialite. She moved in literary and artistic circles and her friendships included most of the major figures of her day, including Somerset Maugham, H.G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, Augustus John and King George V. The chimaeric nature of Anne's personality became evident because, despite her family origins, and even though her father was a Liberal MP, Anne had leanings much further to the left. She developed strong egalitarian principles and later in her life became a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

With the outbreak of the 2nd World War, the Aberconway family moved to their estate in Bodnant, North Wales. From there, Anne went to Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford to read zoology. Aroob Khokhar, in his 2010 entry on Anne for The Embryo Project Encyclopedia, claims that during her undergraduate work, McLaren became intrigued with genetics, in part due to her tutor, E.B.Ford. She graduated in 1949, and went on to complete her D.Phil. in 1952, working on neurotropic viruses under the direction of Kingsley Sanders. Both J.B.S. Haldane and Peter Medawar were early influences. In October 1952 she married Donald Michie, a fellow student, and the pair moved to University College, London. They carried out joint research on the influence of maternal environment on lumbar vertebral counts in mice, work that began at UCL (1952-1955) and then transferred to the Royal Veterinary College. All the time, Anne was gaining expertise in the manipulation of mouse embryos. Three children were born to the couple in 1955, 1957 and 1959. In 1959 they divorced. Although they remained on friendly terms, and Donald Michie followed Anne to Edinburgh when she moved to the Institute of Animal Genetics in 1959, she had become a  1950s single parent, yet with an active and expanding research career.

A clear indication of the subsequent direction of her research was the publication, in 1958, of the paper Successful Development and Birth of Mice cultivated in vitro as Early Embryos by Anne and J.D. Biggers (Nature 182: 877–878). This work drew on previous experiments on the culture of mouse blastocysts that she had carried out with Donald Michie, and on some other pioneering experiments by C.E. Adams and W.K. Whitten. The paper begins,

Experimental embryology in mammals is hampered by the comparative inaccessibility of the mammalian embryo. The development of techniques for the cultivation in vitro of early mammalian embryos has provided one possible route for experimental interference in the course of embryonic development, through alteration in the conditions of culture and the composition of the culture medium. However, a study of the effects of such experimental interference upon later embryonic development also requires the application of techniques for transplanting early embryos to foster mothers.

From our viewpoint, over 60 years later, the profound significance of this work for later advances is obvious, and the language and style of the 1958 paper have dated very little. John Biggers, died only last year in his mid-90s. In 1959 he moved to the USA, where he became a leading worker on in vitro fertilisation, and a well-known commentator on reproductive technology. He wrote the obituary of Anne for the Guardian, under the heading, 'Geneticist resolute in addressing the techniques and ethics of fertility'. John Biggers records, 'As she put it, she was interested in "everything involved in getting from one generation to the next".'  He supplies further insights into Anne's style,

Her hospitality was renowned, and many visitors to London stayed in her house. She was an avid football fan, and when any international match was on television it was a waste of time trying to talk to her. Anne was also a great communicator. She became known as a fascinating lecturer and had many invitations to speak at meetings all over the world.  Her thoughts were always clearly presented in perfectly enunciated English, and she was a "natural" on television. She interviewed the philosopher Bertrand Russell with ease, and on another occasion when she explained that she and I had successfully cultured mouse embryos in a test tube and produced young after putting them into the uterus of surrogate mothers, she had a white mouse running up and down her arm.

Anne McLaren remained at the Institute of Animal Genetics in Edinburgh until 1974, when she returned to London, as Director of the Medical Research Council's Mammalian Development Unit (the 'MDU'), and she was to remain here until her formal 'retirement' and move to Cambridge in 1992. She had become a member of Christ's College in 1991, and also became an Honorary Fellow of King's College (1992-95). In 1975, shortly after arrival as MDU Director she was made FRS, and in later years became Foreign Secretary of The Royal Society (1991-1996) and The Society's Vice-President (1992-1996).  Martin Johnson in his obituary sketch for Christ's College notes that she was the first female officer in the 330-year history of the Royal Society. The years at the MDU were highly productive, and many of those who worked there under her Directorship are currently well-known names in developmental biology. The obituary of Anne published in Cell, for example, was written by Patrick Tam and Robin Lovell-Badge, who were both members of the MDU. They note that they, have fond memories of Anne and her style of management. Anne's office was also her personal lab, where she could be found working at her microscope, surrounded, indeed often hidden, by piles of papers, books, and shopping bags each holding the documents of a specific committee. This clutter was not reflected in her mind.

Although Anne did not take to undergraduate teaching, for some years she taught on the annual Mouse Embryology Course at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, and her encouragement of young workers in the field of reproductive biology has been acknowledged many times over.

In 1976 she published her book Mammalian Chimaeras in the Cambridge University Press series Developmental and Cell Biology. It had recently become possible to combine together two embryos at a very early stage of development so that they developed as a single individual. Anne suggests in her Preface that the book is on a very specialized topic. She then proceeds amply to demonstrate why interest should be more general.  Azim Surani, in his obituary for the Gurdon Institute web site emphasises that at the MDU Anne McLaren also developed her enduring interest in the development and differentiation of mammalian primordial germ cells. As a result, her book on Germ Cells and Soma: A New Look at an Old Problem, was published in 1981. Both books are regarded as classics of developmental biology.

Quite recently (2003), Patrick P. L. Tam and Janet Rossant published their 'PRIMER' on Mouse embryonic chimeras: tools for studying mammalian development in the journal Development. In their Summary they state that embryonic chimeras of the mouse are well-established tools for studying cell lineage and cell potential. More recently (2016) in Cell Stem Cell, Victoria L. Mascetti and Roger A. Pedersen in their article, Contributions of Mammalian Chimeras to Pluripotent Stem Cell Research begin their Abstract,

Chimeras are widely acknowledged as the gold standard for assessing stem cell pluripotency, based on their capacity to test donor cell lineage potential in the context of an organized, normally developing tissue. Experimental chimeras provide key insights into mammalian developmental mechanisms and offer a resource for interrogating the fate potential of various pluripotent stem cell states.

Another recent (2017) endorsement of Anne McLaren's pioneering work is the review Lessons from Interspecies Mammalian Chimeras by Fabian Suchy and Hiromitsu Nakauchi in Annual Review of Cell and Developmental Biology. The names of all these authors will be familiar to developmental biologists, an illustration that chimaeras are still delivering insights.

As described by Patrick Tam and Robin Lovell-Badge, in their Cell obituary, in her 15 years in Cambridge Anne pursued three of her long-standing interests in particular: sex determination, germ cells, and genomic imprinting. Tam and Lovell-Badge describe how she would arrive early in the morning at the MRC's National Institute of Medical Research in London to dissect material from mice held by Paul Burgoyne (who was a former member of Anne's MDU) and then would drive up to Cambridge where she and members of her small lab would continue the experiments. As might be expected, Anne was involved in the establishment of the Stem Cell Institute in Cambridge.

Anne received many honours. Her Fellowship and offices in The Royal Society have been mentioned above. She also received the Royal Medal of The Royal Society in 1990, the March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology (as joint recipient in 2007 ), the Japan Prize (2002, as the only female recipient). Other awards included the Scientific Medal of the Zoological Society of London (1967) and the Pioneer Award of the International Fertility Society (1988, with Donald Michie). She served as President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1993-94), the Association for Women in Science and Engineering, the Society for the Study of Fertility, and the Society of Developmental Biology. She was the Fullerian Professor of Physiology at the Royal Institution (1990-95). In 1989 she presented the Ellison-Cliffe Lecture at the Royal Society of Medicine, and she became a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences in 1998. She was also a Fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (1986). Anne was deeply involved in consideration of the ethical issues raised by her field of research. She was a member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics from 1991 to 2000, and a member of the Warnock Committee, the deliberations of which led to the 1987 Family Law Reform Act and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act in 1990. She served on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (the HFEA) for 10 years. Azim Surani, in his obituary, notes that Anne was also a co-founder of the Frozen Ark Project, which aims to collect the DNA and cells of endangered animals before they become extinct.  In 1993 she was made DBE, and so became Dame Anne. In a tribute, Marilyn Renfree and Roger Short record that this was, a title she disliked because it sounded “frumpy” and not as dashing as the men’s title of “Sir”, so to our group she became known as “Sir Anne”!

This is a biographical sketch of Anne McLaren, but there must be at least a mention of the man who, in various guises and episodes, was her longtime companion, Donald Michie. Donald was a distinguished scientist in his own right, working in what we now recognise as the field of artificial intelligence. He had been at Bletchley Park during World War Two working with Alan Turing, but received his Oxford D.Phil. in 1953 in mammalian genetics. He co-authored a textbook on molecular biology, but on the establishment of the Experimental Programming Unit at the University of Edinburgh in 1965 (subsequently the Department of Machine Intelligence and Perception) he became its Director. He remained at Edinburgh until he left to found The Turing Institute in Glasgow in 1985. Like Anne, Donald Michie continued working until his death. And like Anne he was a member of the Communist Party, serving for years, as the couple's son-in-law Andrew Murray records in the Guardian, as the science correspondent of the Daily Worker. Andrew Murray also contributed a touching, politically-engaged account of the couple for the Morning Star. Both Anne and Donald must have provided the intelligence community with many happy hours. Anne continued until the end of her life as a regular helper at the frequent book sales organised by the South Camden Morning Star Supporters Group.

Anne and Donald had formally reunited in 2005. Very sadly they died together in a car accident while travelling from Cambridge to London on 7 July 2007. Their several and joint achievements meant that there were many obituaries, and on 19 July that year a Celebration of their lives was held at the Zoological Society of London (of which Anne had been a Vice-President), chaired by Pat Bateson (who had been Professor in the Department of Zoology and was then President of the Zoological Society). There were contributions from many members of the couple's family, and from colleagues including Anne's colleague Ann Clarke and Jim Smith, then Chairman of the Gurdon Institute. The web address for the pdf of texts of the contributions is,

A final quotation taken from Jim Smith's tribute to Anne at the Zoological Society Celebration, I remember one Sunday morning in spring 1978, when we met in the overnight queue for tickets to see Bob Dylan; and I saw her later that same day in Camden Lock market, selling a socialist magazine.


 A large portrait photograph of Anne, in the company of other notable scientists associated with the Department of Zoology hangs in the Balfour Library. If you are in there, pay her a visit.

In assembling this short biographical sketch, I have drawn on the many obituaries quoted in the text, and on material from institutional web sites and from Anne's own publications. Until there is a Royal Society Biographical Memoir of Anne, the most comprehensive single account of her life and career is the obituary by Sarah Franklin in the journal Regenerative Medicine vol. 2 no. 5 (October 2007). The account is based partly on an interview with Anne conducted by Sarah Franklin and Martin Johnson in February 2007. The link is,

Those interested in a recent statement of Anne's role in the general area of reproductive ethics (including the '14-day rule') might consult the British Library Science blog entry (March 2017) by Marieke Bigg. The British Library holds a collection of Anne McLaren's papers. The link is,

And from the British Library web site, 'Additionally one of Anne McLaren’s notebooks containing material from 1953 to 1956 (Add MS 83843) is on long-term display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery.'