Dawson, George William Percy (1927–2004), geneticist, art lover and philanthropist, was born 7 August 1927 in Alderley Edge, Cheshire, England, the only child of Percy John Fritz Stanley Dawson, fishmonger, and his wife Edith Helen (née Fildes).
Education He was educated at King's School, Macclesfield, and went up to Clare College, Cambridge, in 1945, to read for the natural sciences tripos. At Cambridge he came under the influence of two major figures in genetics: Sir Ronald Fisher, FRS, and David Catcheside, FRS. Fisher had already published extraordinary contributions to statistics (Statistical methods for research workers (1925)) and genetics (The genetical theory of natural selection (1930)). However, until 1953 (when Fisher finally succeeded in establishing a degree in genetics), the botany department (where Catcheside was introducing the latest molecular genetics from the United States) was the main centre for genetics at Cambridge. So Dawson took part II of the tripos in botany. He was therefore exposed to the two most influential strands of genetics, the mathematical (Fisher) and the molecular (Catcheside) – and was competent in both – just at the time genetics was entering a golden age, leading up to the discovery (1953) of the structure of DNA, the double helix, by James Watson and Francis Crick, who relied heavily on X-ray diffraction data from Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins.
On graduation in 1948 (he also graduated B.Sc. from London in 1947), he became an Agricultural Research Council scholar at Cambridge (1948–50), and began research on mutation in bacterial viruses under Catcheside. In 1950, on the advice of the botanist Sir Harry Godwin, fellow of Clare College, who had connections with TCD through his interest in quaternary studies and palynology, Dawson was appointed to an assistant lectureship in botany at TCD where David Webb (qv) was in charge. He arrived in Dublin in the same year that William Hayes (qv) left TCD and began his influential experiments in bacterial genetics at the Hammersmith Hospital.
Genetics at TCD There was little or no support for experimental science in Ireland at the time, which was one reason that Hayes had left for London. For the next forty years, Dawson showed an extraordinary talent for spotting important research, attracting brilliant students and finding resources to support their research. His Cambridge interest in bacterial genetics research was developed at TCD through the work of his student Stuart Glover (later professor of genetics at the University of Newcastle). In 1952 Norton Zinder and Joshua Lederberg, at the University of Wisconsin, published the key discovery that viruses could carry genes of the bacterium Salmonella typhimurium from one bacterium to another, a process called transduction. This method was quickly taken up by Milislav Demerec at the department of genetics of the Carnegie Institute of Washington at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, New York. In 1953, Dawson saw the importance of this and arranged for Glover to study the biochemical genetics of Salmonella typhimurium with Demerec. The latter was using transduction to accumulate evidence that genes coding for the enzymes of a particular biochemical pathway are closely linked and that the order of the genes on the genetic map is the same as the order of the reactions the enzymes catalyse. This conclusion contributed importantly to the proposal of the operon theory of genetic control by Francois Jacob and Jacques Monod. Glover's work on Salmonella typhimurium was continued by Edward Glanville, Peter Smith Keary, Colin Stuttard, Shahla Thompson, Gilbert Howe, Terek Schwarz, John Atkins, and others for thirty years, with support from the Medical Research Council of Ireland and later the United States army (which was sponsoring basic research in Europe). Dawson's decision to send Glover to work on bacterial genetics ensured that genetics at TCD would be focused on what was to be the most important field within genetics for the next twenty years.
Dawson published a short paper in 1955 on genetic instability in the plant Delphinium ajacis. He was familiar with similar work on Delphinium ajacis by Demerec from the 1930s and with later work by Barbara McClintock on maize, also at the Carnegie Institute. Dawson and Smith Keary interpreted some of their results from bacteria along lines suggested by McClintock. Unstable genes were not easily studied within the paradigm of Mendelian genetics and few people paid much attention to her work, but Dawson recognised its importance. He corresponded with McClintock and introduced his students to her papers (which were very difficult). She was later to receive the Nobel prize for medicine for the discovery of transposable genetic elements, latterly found in all organisms. Dawson's work did not receive much attention, though it was referred to by Hayes in his much-acclaimed book, The genetics of bacteria and their viruses (1964).
The most enduring and influential discovery of that period in TCD was made personally and independently by Atkins and Thompson, Dawson's research students. In their analysis of patterns of mutation and reversions in Salmonella typhimurium, they showed that a 'frameshift' mutation in the trpA gene could be suppressed by 'external' suppressors, deducing correctly that the genetic code is not always read in triplets. This was the first example of genetic recoding, an exception to the rules of the central dogma of Francis Crick.
Dawson in 1951 initiated a collaboration with Earle Hackett (1921–2010), the TCD haematologist. The first paper in the series was published by Dawson in Heredity in 1951 and was followed by joint and separate papers (1952–64) on the distribution of blood groups in Ireland. They found evidence of an east–west cline of allele frequencies that indicated an ancient genetic admixture between a resident ancient population and one or more invading populations. These studies were a pioneering contribution to the field later called genetic anthropology to which other TCD geneticists (Daniel Bradley and Patrick Cunningham) contributed, using DNA markers. In 1952 Dawson published a clever note with H. L. K. Whitehouse, FRS, of Cambridge on 'The use of the term gene'.
In 1956, seeking research funds in the then Irish scientific funding desert, Dawson suggested, in a private letter to R. B. Gilliland of the Guinness Research Laboratory, that it should be possible to transform yeast with pure DNA. Nothing came of this, but he was anticipating the extraordinary developments that were to come more than twenty years later in yeast genetic engineering: John Atkins, while at Edinburgh, made significant contributions and, later, Guinness sponsored research at TCD in the 1980s on yeast genetic engineering with David McConnell. In 1962 Dawson showed his facility with statistics in his elegant small book, An introduction to the cytogenetics of polyploids.
Dawson's major contribution to genetics took place in 1958 when he persuaded Lieutenant-General M. J. Costello (qv), general manager of the Irish Sugar Company, that the company should support genetics research at TCD. Costello wrote to the provost that 'the company will contribute for a period not exceeding five years, up to £3,000 per annum in respect of each of three research workers to be employed in the department on fundamental research on genetics'. This substantial grant allowed TCD to set up the department of genetics, the first and only such department in Ireland. Dawson was appointed as lecturer in charge of genetics (1959), reader (1960) and professor (1967). With minimal resources, he introduced an honors degree in genetics, taught mainly by himself and Smith Keary as the only full-time academic staff. He built a good relationship with Thomas Walsh (qv), who had just become the first director of the Agricultural Institute (An Foras Talúntais) in 1958. This friendship with Walsh allowed Dawson to appoint Vincent Connolly and Patrick Cunningham, both of the Agricultural Institute, to lecture part-time on plant breeding (Connolly) and animal breeding and quantitative genetics (Cunningham).
Dawson's undergraduate curriculum was demanding and wide-ranging, and of course it had to reflect and keep up with the rapid expansion in genetics that followed the discovery of the double helix by Watson and Crick in 1953. The department had at first poor facilities on one floor of the former St Mark's Hospital, which had been founded by Sir William Wilde (qv). But the experiment succeeded. Dawson commented: 'you must never give in to lower standards. It seems to me that the criterion of standards must always be absolute' (Irish Times, 10 April 2004). Starting with Catcheside, he chose rigorous external examiners: with one exception, in his thirty years at the helm, all were fellows of the Royal Society. Most of Dawson's early students – the first three had studied under him in botany – went on to hold lectureships and chairs in Ireland and abroad, including Glover (Newcastle), Glanville (McMaster), Smith Keary (Trinity), Jessop (Glasgow), Stuttard (Dalhousie), Howe (Bristol) and Atkins (UCC). During the 1970s the department of genetics gained four additional staff: David McConnell, Bruce Carter, Tony Kavanagh, and Peter Humphries, who extended the research of the department into molecular and medical genetics; the appointment of Paul Sharp opened up the field of molecular evolution. Cunningham was appointed to a part-time personal chair in 1974 and went on to become director of research at the Agricultural Institute, president of the World Association of Animal Production, Boyle medallist and chief scientific advisor to the government of Ireland. By 1980 members of the department had introduced genetic engineering and DNA sequencing and set up biotechnology projects with Guinness, ICI and Schering Plough. Dawson, stimulated by Thompson's work on the Ames test for the detection of mutagens, renewed his interest in mutation. With support from the EEC Environmental Research Programme, Gillian Davidson and Gary Mahon set up a system to test for chemical mutagenesis in mouse somatic tissues. In 1980 Dawson participated in the drafting of an EEC directive on the mutagenic hazards of pharmaceuticals.
Dawson was elected fellow of TCD in 1961 and MRIA in 1963. He was visiting lecturer at the universities of Groningen, Utrecht, Leiden, Wageningen and Nijmegen in 1964, and visiting fellow at the Australian National University in 1966. After a second serious illness, he retired in 1987, having been head of the department of genetics almost continuously for nearly thirty years. During this era genetics worldwide was transformed, moving from the periphery to the centre of biology. With critical support from his staff and students Dawson had succeeded in keeping Trinity genetics close to the forefront of the field. In 1992, an article in Science reported that Trinity genetics 'commands the respect of Europe's top researchers in the field'. The department moved to the Smurfit Institute of Genetics in 1998, which had been generously funded by Dr Martin Naughton, Atlantic Philanthropies, the Wellcome Trust and Dr Michael Smurfit. By 2010 the department had fifteen academic staff and about one hundred researchers from thirty countries; more than 500 students had graduated with honours degrees in genetics or human genetics, and more than 200 with higher degrees, many of whom went on to hold academic and research posts around the world. Dawson had laid the basis for what was to become 'a molecular biology department that could compete with any in the U.S. or elsewhere' (Arnold Levine, 2004). He is commemorated biannually by the award of the George Dawson Trinity College Dublin Prize in Genetics, a miniature copy of 'The double helix' by the sculptor Brian King which stands outside the department at the Lincoln Place Gate.
Visual arts Dawson, through his passion for art, made a second major contribution to academic life that extended far beyond the walls of TCD. In the 1950s, when there was little support for the visual arts in Ireland, especially modern art, he became a connoisseur, collector and promoter of modern art. He began to buy works by young Irish artists as well as limited edition lithographs by well-known international artists (notably Braque). His collections of modern art, of antique glasses and Makonde blackwood sculpture from Tanzania, grew steadily and were donated to Trinity College in the 1990s.
In 1959, prompted by a similar scheme at Cambridge, Dawson and four undergraduates initiated the College Gallery, a collection of original paintings and reproductions to be lent to students for a small fee per term. It was funded by graduates through the Trinity Trust and by the Arts Council of Ireland. The Gulbenkian Foundation made a grant of £2,530 to purchase twenty-four original Irish and international contemporary paintings which were lent to the Gallery for twenty years before being transferred to the Gulbenkian in Lisbon. Over the next fifty years, the student College Gallery committee, with advice from Dawson and other members of staff, built up a substantial collection of original art. The scheme gave many students and staff the opportunity to hang original pieces of work by great and emerging artists. As Dawson later commented: 'when I arrived in Trinity, students hung aircraft posters from Boeing on their walls … I thought we could do a little bit better than that'.
When the new Berkeley Library in TCD was being designed in the mid 1960s, Dawson noticed that a basement bookstore would not be needed for some years. He suggested to the architect, Paul Koralek, and to the college that it might be modified for temporary use as an exhibition hall. He raised funds to modify the space from the Gulbenkian Foundation, the Chester Beatty Trust, the Arts Council of Ireland and others. The hall opened in 1967 with an exhibition of the work of Henry Moore. About forty exhibitions, organised by a student committee, followed in the next ten years, including a Picasso retrospective, 'a momentous event', that attracted 40,000 visitors. Other ground-breaking exhibitions included 'Banners by American artists' (1967), the first large showing of such works in Europe, and 'Pop art: American and British' (1971). In the later 1970s, when the arts building was being planned, Dawson raised money to build what became the Douglas Hyde Gallery, which opened in 1978 (administered by the Arts Council since 1981).
Dawson was responsible for obtaining for TCD large public sculptures by Henry Moore, Arnaldo Pomodoro and Alexander Calder, and he inspired artists and benefactors to donate major works to the college (for example the set of eight in the massive Sogni series by Pomodoro, that hang in the Smurfit Institute of Genetics). A member of the Arts Council of Ireland (1970–73), he was a supporter of the Irish Exhibition of Living Art – he opened the exhibition in 1961 – and the Graphic Studio.
With funds from the Trinity Trust, Dawson was the prime mover in the establishment of an undergraduate course in the history of art, available to students reading for the BA in general studies. The popularity of this course was such that the college agreed to create a full time lectureship, to which Anne Crookshank was appointed in 1966. This appointment effectively marked the foundation of the department of the history of art. In 1974 a joint honours degree was introduced, initially in combination with Italian, subsequently in combination with a wide range of other subjects in the arts area. The department steadily expanded in both staff and student numbers, undergraduate and postgraduate. In addition, the department initiated a vibrant and wide-ranging extra-mural programme. 2003 saw the foundation of the Trinity Irish Art Research Centre (TRIARC), later housed in the ingeniously converted stables of the provost's house.
Dawson's appreciation for contemporary art pervades the campus of Trinity College through a modern art collection of 700 pieces displayed in student rooms, offices, laboratories and public spaces. His influence was acknowledged by many artists, including Pomodoro, who admired his 'strong and unusual passion for art'. Dawson was especially proud of his appointment in 1971 as an honorary associate of the National College of Art and Design.
Serving Trinity and Ireland Dawson had a deep social conscience. He was strongly, if unconventionally, Christian, generous, broadminded, unorthodox and private. He had been influenced at school by the writings of Gandhi and at Clare College by the biblical scholar Charles Moule (1908–2007). His religion was also political and practical. He promoted the idea that Trinity College chapel, a Church of Ireland foundation, should be shared with other denominations. He devised the new interdenominational chapel committee, which he chaired for many years from 1981, and set up and contributed generously to the Chaplains' Benefactions Fund.
Dawson was the first chairman (1966–70) of the TCD Academic Staff Association, and he participated in the formation of the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT), becoming its chairman in 1969. He joined in making the case that the catholic church's ban on Roman catholics attending TCD, efficiently enforced by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid (qv), should be lifted, as it eventually was in 1970.
He was active in TCD politics and was chairman of the fellows of TCD in 1967, when the majority of the academics opposed the decision of the TCD board to welcome the proposal by Donogh O'Malley (qv), minister for education, to merge Trinity College and UCD. Dawson came a narrow third in the large and distinguished field in the 1974 election for provostship, which was won by F. S. L. Lyons (qv). Moving easily in diverse high political, academic and international circles, with such a wide range of interests, and with deft political skills, Dawson was, it was said, the finest provost the twentieth century TCD never had. Though the loss in the election was a great disappointment, he was happy to serve under Lyons as registrar of the college (1976–80). Feeling at home in Ireland, he became an Irish citizen in 1978.
In the 1940s, while still at school, he began a lifelong interest in the Commonwealth of Nations and developing countries. He thought and wrote about a 'Commonwealth university system' and later corresponded with Arnold Smith, secretary general of the Commonwealth (1965–75), with Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. He personally persuaded Nyerere, who had always declined such honours, to accept an honorary degree from Trinity.
Seeing many Trinity students join the British Voluntary Service Overseas, Dawson convened a meeting in 1971 with T. K. Whitaker, then governor of the Central Bank of Ireland (1969–76), and others to discuss setting up a similar organisation in Ireland. A proposal was put to the Department of Foreign Affairs and when Garret FitzGerald (qv), a former member of IFUT, became minister in 1973, Dawson pressed the case. The outcome was the Agency for Personal Service Overseas (APSO), of which Dawson became second chairman (1977–80), succeeding Whitaker. The first director of APSO, Bill Jackson, noted in 2004 that several thousand Irish men and women were enabled by APSO to serve under the aegis of 120 different organisations in more than 100 different developing countries. Dawson was also co-founder and chairman of Higher Education for Development Co-operation (HEDCO), an Irish university agency through which universities, north and south, could take part in development projects. Through these initiatives and as a member of the Advisory Council for Development Co-operation of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Dawson played an important role in the genesis of Irish aid. He was awarded the commander's cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1983.
Dawson thought it was 'easy to teach knowledge and understanding, but very difficult to teach creativity'. Though he was not a particularly good lecturer – he tended to go into far too much detail and moreover he smoked while giving lectures and at least once mistook his cigarette for his chalk and vice versa – he was a stimulating teacher. He wanted to encourage students 'to develop an independence of mind and give them a chance to take initiatives'. He felt there was 'freedom to have diversity in Trinity' and he did much to ensure that his students and his staff could experience this freedom. He wanted students to 'spot the unusual', above all to have 'creative minds'. He used to talk of 'stretching' students' minds and advised many students, most of whom were not students of genetics, on how to develop their careers.
Dawson, a bachelor living in rooms in college, was a keen supporter of numerous student clubs and societies. He attended most of the concerts of the Dublin University Choral Society and, always happy to be useful, audited their accounts for years. As just one other example from many, he became president of the Dublin University Harriers and Athletic Club. In the 1950s Trinity and UCD could not race against each other (UCD athletics was affiliated to the GAA, TCD was not). Dawson encouraged the students from both colleges to talk, and somehow a way was found. He commissioned and paid for a trophy by Edward Delaney (1930–2009), Delaney's first commission from his own country.
Like his father, Dawson loved plants and gardening. Perhaps recalling the work of Nevill Willmer, FRS, who had re-designed the Clare College garden in Cambridge, he approached gardening with a scientist's eye. He became aware that many of the internationally important varieties of daffodils had been bred in Ireland, and he wrote to Mary Robinson, president of Ireland (1990–97), suggesting that a collection should be planted at Áras an Uachtaráin. He assembled and purchased more than one hundred Irish-bred varieties, and donated the collection for the garden at the Áras. But thinking it a pity that these daffodils might not be seen by many people, he donated a similar collection to Fota House in Co. Cork. Late in life he planted a small fuschia and aquilegia garden at the house of friends in Birr where he had an apartment.
Dawson suffered serious illnesses several times during his life and nothing epitomised him better than his courage and fortitude in the face of disability. After a horrible but professional operation on his mouth, he had to learn again how to speak. Within a year he was lecturing to 200 students, and again took up his favourite hobby, riding in the Phoenix Park. He died 25 March 2004 in a Dublin nursing home.
Assessment Dawson's contribution to genetics, to art, to Trinity College and Ireland were recognised by the award of an honorary degree in 1997 by the University of Dublin, an exceptional honour for a member of staff of Trinity College. Portraits of Dawson by Louis le Brocquy, generously responding to a commission by the department of genetics, and by Mick O'Dea, commissioned by HEDCO, are in the Trinity College collection. Brian West, later professor of pathology at Yale, commented how it was 'remarkable that one individual could achieve so much, and in such a diversity of fields. No doubt Ireland was fortunate that George Dawson adopted her as his home and nation, but I think it is equally true that he was fortunate to have come, as Trinity and Dublin, and Ireland itself, provided an environment in which he could flourish and exercise his astonishing creative talent' (Irish Times, 10 April 2004). Micheal O'Siadhail in his poem 'Code i.m. George Dawson' wrote: