Papers of Guido Pellegrino Arrigo Pontecorvo, geneticist, Professor of Genetics, University of Glasgow, Scotland

  • Pontecorvo, Guido Pellegrino Arrigo, 1907-1999, geneticist
UGC 198
  • Archives and manuscripts

About this work



Biographical material, including copies of school records; certificates and correspondence relating to honorary degrees; fellowships and prizes; obituaries and biographies; and material relating to Pontefest, a celebration of Pontecorvo's life and scientific achievements;

Career and appointments, including correspondence relating to the Department of Genetics at the University of Glasgow, and correspondence concerning posts held by Pontecorvo and posts that he applied for at universities and academic institutions in the UK and abroad;

Genetics research correspondence, including correspondence about the development of Pontecorvo's ideas on recombination and somatic cell genetics, and the use of Aspergillus as a genetics tool, as well as correspondence relating to patents filed for his discovery of the Parasexual cycle;

Alpine research correspondence;

Material relating to Pontecorvo's research trips abroad, including correspondence and papers relating to trips to Iran, India, Sri Lanka, China and Italy;

Research slides, including genetics slides used in lectures; slides taken during Pontecorvo's research trips abroad; and an extensive selection of slides of alpine plants and their habitats taken by Pontecorvo during his visits to the Alps and other mountainous regions in the USA, Iran, China and India;

Publications, including printed bibliographies; a set of Pontecorvo's papers and reprints; correspondence relating to his contributions to books and journals; and a copy of Jim Watson's 'Honest Jim' manuscript, sent to Pontecorvo for his comments;

Lectures and broadcasts, including draft copies of notes for lectures and seminars given in the UK; at conferences and meetings; and on research trips abroad;

Personal and family material, including personal correspondence; the Pontecorvo household guestbook signed by friends and colleagues; Pontecorvo household account books; and Leni Pontecorvo's diaries and memoirs;

Personal and family photographs and negatives, including a photograph album containing photographs of Pontecorvo's friends and colleagues, many of which were notable geneticists or Nobel Prize winners; a photograph album compiled for Pontecorvo's 80th birthday including photographs of colleagues in the Department of Genetics at the University of Glasgow; and loose bundles of personal photographs of family occasions and trips to Pontecorvo's chalet in St Luc, Switzerland.

Wellcome Collection does not hold a digitised copy of all items in this collection. Items not digitised can be viewed in the searchroom at Archive Services, University of Glasgow. Please visit the Glasgow University Archive Services website or see the complete catalogue for full details.



Physical description

5.0 metres


The archive has been divided into the following sections, each with its own separate description:
UGC 198/1, biographical material;
UGC 198/2, career and appointments;
UGC 198/3, genetics research correspondence;
UGC 198/4, alpine research correspondence;
UGC 198/5, material relating to research trips abroad;
UGC 198/6, research slides;
UGC 198/7, publications;
UGC 198/8, lectures and broadcasts;
UGC 198/9, personal and family material;
UGC 198/10, personal photographs and slides.

Acquisition note

Permanent loan : Jacqui Penrose : Oct 2009 : ACCN 3402

Biographical note

Guido Pellegrino Arrigo Pontecorvo, who liked to be known as "Ponte", was born in Pisa, Italy on 29th November 1907. He was the eldest of eight children born to non-observant Jewish Italian parents, Massimo and Maria Maroni Pontecorvo. Massimo, was a wealthy businessman who inherited his father Pellegrino Pontecorvo's successful textile company when he died in 1918. The company was said to have employed around 1500 workers and by 1920 was one of the largest textile companies in Italy. Pontecorvo’s brother Bruno (1913-1993) was an Italian-born nuclear physicist, an early assistant of Enrico Fermi and the author of numerous studies in high energy physics. He is known for defecting to the Soviet Union in 1950. When asked if he knew where his brother was Guido Pontecorvo responded, "I am not my brother's keeper". His other brother, Gillo Pontecorvo (1919-2006), was a filmmaker and his best known films include La battaglia di Algeri (1966) and Burn (1969) starring Marlon Brando.

Stimulated by a high-school teacher, Pontecorvo took a degree at the University of Pisa's Faculty of Agriculture and graduated in 1928 as a Doctor of Agricultural Science. He followed this with two postgraduate courses in silkworm breeding and agrarian studies in Milan and Pisa between 1929 and 1930. After his postgraduate studies, and two years of compulsory military service, Pontecorvo worked with E Avanzi, (a plant geneticist from the Faculty of Agriculture in the University of Pisa) who was now director of an experimental agricultural institute in Trento. He soon moved to Florence to lead the cattle breeding program of the Tuscan Ispettorato Compartimentale Agrario. Here, for eight years, he organized the recording and use of weight gain and draught ability data in a successful selective breeding program applied to the Chiana and Maremmana breeds.

In 1937-38 he toured animal breeding centres, ending in Edinburgh, the venue of the 1938 International Congress of Genetics. After this he intended to go to Peru to take up an animal breeding Government contract but the contract was cancelled when war broke out and Pontecorvo was stranded in Scotland. At the same time Pontecorvo received a letter of dismissal from his Tuscan post as Italy adopted Nazi racial laws limiting the employment of persons of Jewish ancestry.

Being stranded in Edinburgh proved fortuitous because there Pontecorvo met and fell under the influence of Hermann Joseph Muller, which led to him abandoning the application of genetics for study of its fundamentals. With help from local animal breeding scientists Alick Buchanan-Smith and Alan William Greenwood he received refugee support from the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning and enrolled as Muller's student, graduating PhD in the Faculty of Science, University of Edinburgh in April 1941 with a thesis that showed that he had learned much from Muller about the exploitation of Drosophila genetics and biology. In Edinburgh on the 8th September 1939, a few days after the outbreak of World War II, he married his longstanding Swiss fiancée, Leonore (Leni) Freyenmuth and they were happily married until her death in September 1986.

In 1940 Italy declared war and, as a result, Pontecorvo was interned on the Isle of Man with other "enemy" aliens, while his Swiss wife, Leni, was advised to move to the west coast of Scotland as she was regarded as an enemy alien by marriage. Leni moved to Glasgow and received hospitality from the wife of Edward Hindle, Professor of Zoology at the University of Glasgow, who also arranged some research space for Pontecorvo when he was released in January 1941. He worked with Hindle in the Zoology Department from 1941-1943. After a year as a Carnegie Research Fellow in Glasgow and one as a lecturer in Edinburgh he received his first tenured post as lecturer in Genetics in Glasgow (1945), where he rose rapidly to be Head of the newly founded Department of Genetics becoming, in 1955, both Professor and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He became a Naturalized British citizen in 1947. Under Pontecorvo's direction Glasgow became a world famous centre for genetics research and it is clear that he was determined to make a difference and to inspire his team to make significant advances in this field. He left Glasgow in 1968 to become a research scientist at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund Laboratories, London, before retiring in 1975.

Pontecorvo made significant contributions to cattle breeding in Tuscany where he organized a wide-ranging programme of recording and selective breeding for milk yield and draught ability in two regional cattle breeds. In Edinburgh, under the influence of Hermann Joseph Muller, he abandoned the application of genetics for more fundamental studies of the nature of the gene gaining, as Muller’s student, valuable experience of complex techniques in classical genetics such as radiation-induced chromosome loss and the exploitation of hybrid sterility. After "war-work" in Glasgow investigating meiosis in the hamster and louse, Pontecorvo started working on the genetics and heterokaryosis of Penicillium, and also started to explore the possibilities for genetic analysis in bacteria (at a time when many thought that bacteria lacked heredity).

He sought, and found in Aspergillus nidulans, a microorganism in which "fine genetic analysis" would make it possible to explore genetically Muller's insight into mutation and recombination as alternative ways to understand the internal structure of the gene. Clear thinking about the roles of nuclear fusion and chromosome segregation in genetics, coupled with the discovery of Aspergillus diploids, haploidization and mitotic recombination (the Parasexual cycle), led Pontecorvo to propose that such "alternatives to sex" applied to cells in culture would provide the needed way ahead in human and medical genetics. These were far-seeing ideas that after many years achieved fruition as "somatic cells genetics".

Pontecorvo and Leni's warm and hospitable natures were widely appreciated as can be seen in their home visitors' book which was signed by friends and colleagues who visited and stayed with them at their various homes in Glasgow and London over the years. Pontecorvo was loved and admired by his large network of genetics friends and colleagues and the research and personal correspondence in this collection highlights his life long friendships with notable geneticists from all over the world.

Aside from genetics Pontecorvo's life long passion was alpine plant photography and ecology. He set aside each summer for pursuits to some of the world’s most spectacular alpine regions, and his collection contains thousands of slides of alpine flowers and their habitats which he was using to research a book on plants at high altitudes (sadly this was never finished). He visited various mountains and national parks in the USA in the 1950s and 1960s, in the 1970s he travelled to Iran to study the flora of the Fars region and Mt Elburz. He explored the Himalayas in India and the Tien Shan and Kunlun mountains in China in the 1980s. These trips were organized with the help of The Royal Society or at the invitation of local academies and were often combined with lecture tours and courses. Ponte often made excursions to mountains a precondition for accepting invitations.

He was the founder of the genetics of Aspergillus nidulans, a relative of Penicillium, and his research on haploids and recombination led to his discovery of the Parasexual cycle. He was the first person to file a patent for a biological process

Pontecorvo also spent a significant amount of time researching alpine plants in his Swiss chalet in St Luc and it was here that he died in 1999 after a fall when he was out foraging for mushrooms. His life and academic achievements were celebrated at Pontefest, an event organised by his daughter Lisa Pontecorvo and the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, for friends and colleagues to reminisce and celebrate his contributions to science and the influence he had on their lives.

This biography was compiled from Pontecorvo's 1964 CV and his biographical notes for the Royal Society, and from biographical pieces on Pontecorvo including:
'Pontecorvo "Ponte" 1907-1999,' by Bernard L Cohen in Genetics,Vol 154, pp 497-501, February 2000
Biographical Sketch of Pontecorvo by Professor Obaid Siddiqi published at the beginning of "Topics in Genetic Analysis: selected papers of G Pontecorvo, Raman Professor, 1982-1983," (Indian Academy of Sciences, 1985).

Related material

GB 0248 GEN, University of Glasgow, Institute of Genetics, including correspondence about the new building for the Institute of Genetics, student records, lectures, teaching slides, and Department guestbook. Information on the genetics collections held at Glasgow University Archive Services can be found here.Some photographs from the Pontecorvo collection have been digitised and can be found on the Glasgow University Library Flickr account

Copyright note

Applications for permission to quote should be sent to: Duty Archivist, Archive Services, University of Glasgow, 13 Thurso Street, Glasgow, G11 6PE, or email

Terms of use

Most files are open and available at Glasgow University Archive Services. Some files in this collection are restricted. However, they may be made accessible to bona fide researchers and academics. Please contact the Duty Archivist for advice on how to apply for access to these files. Contact details are as follows: Duty Archivist, Archive Services, University of Glasgow, 13 Thurso Street, Glasgow, G11 6PE, or email

Appraisal note

This material has been appraised in line with standard GB 0248 procedures. Duplicates, administrative documents, receipts and financial documents, and reprints which were deemed to have no historical interest were removed from the collection and destroyed.

Location of duplicates

A digitised copy is held by the Wellcome Library as part of Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics. Not all series within this collection have been digitised.

Ownership note

The archive was lovingly cared for and managed by Lisa Pontecorvo, Guido's daughter until her tragic death in 2008. The collection was then passed on to a relative on Pontecorvo's mother's side of the family, Jacqui Penrose, before being deposited in Glasgow University Archives in 2008.

Where to find it

Location of original

The original material is held at Glasgow University Archive Services. This catalogue is held by the Wellcome Library as part of Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics.
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