Nov 04 2010
gain and again in my investigations I come up against the greatness of one single man. William Clouser Boyd (1903-1983) appears to be one of those fascinating people who go on to dominate an entire area of research for a generation. It seems as if his creativity knew no bounds. In the 1940’s Boyd noticed that the protein agglutinin in lima bean would agglutinate red cells of human blood group A but not those of O or B. He had in fact discovered that many of these blood agglutinins were actually specific to one blood group or another. With Elizabeth Shapely he coined their modern-day name, lectins, which is Latin for “to pick or choose.”
Boyd was one of the first to begin using blood groups as an anthropological tool. In the years after the First World War, and in the tradition of the Hirschfelds, Boyd compiled the abundant blood group data coming from transfusion centers throughout the world. With his wife Lyle, during the 1930’s, Boyd made a worldwide survey of the distribution of blood groups. On this basis, he divided the world population into 13 geographically distinct races with different blood group genetic profiles. He also studied the blood groups of Egyptian and Amerindian mummies.
By 1950 Boyd had determined about 20 genes for outward appearance traits that are recessive for typical Asians and/or Europeans but homozygous dominant for Africans. These recessive genes include the 6 to 8 genes for light skin color, the genes for blue eyes, gray eyes, blond hair, red hair, thin lips, straight hair, sacral spot, lack of facial hair (beards), narrow nose shape, and some others.
William Boyd and Isaac Asimov put the first modern scientific approach to race forward in a simple, readable, and completely forgotten book called Races and People. Written in 1955, it is an unabashed championing of the essential value of any human being. Asimov, well known to three generations of science fiction readers, had grown up Jewish in an era when significant portions of the world found antisemitism innocuous or even virtuous. Boyd used research with blood groups to demonstrate that the superficial characteristics so many of us use to define race and determine our value vis-à-vis other human beings are utterly without scientific basis.
Publishing their book in a time when racial segregation and colonialism were still the norm and in the wake of terrible genocide, Boyd and Asimov set the pattern for all future anthropologic and genetic analysis of race. However, with the onset of those classic 1960s and 1970s liberal values we so identify with, and their effects in popular culture and academia, the pendulum began to swing the other way round. In scientific circles, race became a non-entity, possessing no significance whatsoever.
Boyd wrote some excellent science fiction (under the name Boyd Ellanby) including two well-known books, Category Phoenix in 1952 and Chain Reaction in 1956. He also authored Fundamentals of Immunology (1943) one of the first immunology textbooks for medical students.
The night before the IFHI conferences begin it is customary to have a closed dinner for the teaching staff. The 2007 Conference featured the well-known glycobiologist and lectin scientist Gerhard Uhlenbruck. My wife Martha had arranged a special gift for the speakers: by scouring Ebay she had managed for secure several first edition copies of Boyd’s Fundamentals.
When Gerhard opened up his gift I first thought he was going to faint. But then I watched him proceed to lovingly rub the spine of the book, in a manner much like one would greet an old friend. Turns out he has lent his copy to a colleague many years prior and it had never been returned.