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Behind the picture(s): A blood research double act

To mark World Blood Donor Day (14 June) Katherine Nightingale looks back on a couple whose decades-long joint career made blood transfusions safer by discovering blood groups and studying their inheritance.

Robert Race and Ruth Sanger working together (Image credit: Wellcome Library)

Robert Race and Ruth Sanger working together (Image copyright: Wellcome Library)

This picture, taken around 1950, shows Robert Race and Ruth Sanger ― a couple in both science and life ― at work in the MRC Blood Group Research Unit. The unit had been established in 1946 (the same year as the National Blood Service) at the Lister Institute in Chelsea, London.

Your blood group is determined by the genes you inherit from your parents for proteins and sugars on the surface of your red blood cells. There are 35 blood group systems, each of which refers to different proteins or sugars. If you receive blood from a donor with different proteins or sugars, you may have an immune response against the donor blood, rendering the donation useless and risking serious or fatal complications. And blood groups are not only important in transfusion: blood group antibodies produced in a pregnant woman have the potential to harm or even kill her unborn baby.

The unit, with Race as director, was set up in post-war recognition of the need to improve blood transfusions. The discovery of the most well-known blood group system ― ABO ― in the early 1900s had made blood transfusions possible, but there were still many other systems to study.

Race, together with the geneticist RA Fisher, worked out the complexities of how the Rh (rhesus) blood group system is inherited in the 1940s. Race and Sanger, who joined the unit permanently in 1950, then went on to discover or contribute to knowledge on a further 17 blood group systems.

Race and Sanger were serologists, meaning that their daily work involved analysing the proteins in the blood samples received from all over the world. Much of this was about following their noses ― finding unusual proteins and studying families to work out their inheritance. This often went beyond understanding blood groups ― one of the systems they discovered, called Xg, is determined by a gene on the X chromosome, and led them into efforts to map the X chromosome in the 1960s.

Together they wrote six editions of Blood Groups in Man, “the blood groupers’ bible”. Married in 1956, they were an equal partnership, co-publishing their scientific work. When Race retired from the directorship of the MRC unit in 1973, Sanger took over for a decade until her own retirement in 1983.

Cartoon of Ruth Sanger (Image credit: Wellcome Library)

Cartoon of Ruth Sanger (Image credit: Wellcome Library)

This no-doubt affectionate, though anonymous, sketch from Sanger’s personal archive appears to downplay her many scientific achievements in favour of highlighting characteristics outside the scientific realm (the book into which she writes says “Xg and other rubbish…”).

The Aussie-English phrasebook on the shelf next to Blood Groups in Man refers to her Australian heritage ― she was born in Queensland in 1918, studied at the University of Sydney, and worked for the Red Cross Blood Transfusion Service in Sydney early in her career.

Both Race and Sanger were smokers and drinkers, and had a habit of working and entertaining visiting researchers in the pub. “When they were based at the Lister Institute in Chelsea Bridge Road, they almost always went to the Rising Sun for lunch, where they drank beer and carried on working,” says Geoff Daniels, Head of Diagnostics at the International Blood Group Reference Laboratory in Bristol, who worked for Sanger in the 1970s and early 1980s.

“The modern view probably disapproves of that, but it was normal at the time. Both Rob and Ruth were friendly and warm people. Ruth was Australian and typically informal. She was a delight to work for.”

Katherine Nightingale

More information about the MRC Blood Group Research Unit can be found in the Wellcome Library’s digital archive.

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