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Rosa Beddington

  • @jferg66

In 1996, the year of Dolly the sheep, Rosa Beddington wrote an essay, “Cloning”, that is still in common Internet currency, writes James Fergusson.

She explains in gentle terms for the layman what cloning is and isn't, enouncing that it is not of itself unnatural. She details the difference between cloning and transgenesis - the practice of what we now ordinarily call genetic modification. Human cloning, she says, is probably not impossible and, if it were to happen, not a threat, scientifically speaking, to the human weal. Whether scientists should proceed down that path is not for them, qua scientists, to say.

The essay, as with all Beddington's writing, is lucid and to the point. "Novelists and film-makers have not been slow to exploit the imagery afforded by cloning," she reflects:

Clones traverse the cinema screen as crowds of dehumanised humans destined for monotonous drudgery, as invincible armies of look-alikes from outer space, as replicas of living megalomaniacs and, in the ultimate fantasy, as the resurrected dead - troupes of little Hitlers and herds of rampaging dinosaurs. Of course, this is science fiction.

For science fact, she summons as evidence cows, corals, Crufts and chrysanthemums. "The toothless mammal the armadillo," she writes,

gives birth not to identical twins but to genetically identical octuplets: every litter a batch of eight clones. There is nothing a priori unnatural about cloning.

Rosa Beddington was a supremely literate scientist. Long before it became modish to promote science as "literature", she would berate her conventionally literate friends for their scientific illiteracy. It always seemed an unfair argument. There is one common language for English literature - English - but there are hundreds of dialects and subdialects and remote idiolects for the sciences. Even if you have A levels in old physics or chemistry or biology, you may be utterly baffled by explication of new developments. Science, to generalise, is all about new work; literature is all about old tricks.

But one knew what she meant. We who read arts subjects at university were usually conditioned to give up when the linguistic going got difficult, the concepts hard to grasp; while those who read science subjects, even if they could be guilty of confusing one with their own deft opacities, could cross the road easily to discuss pictures or poems or films or the new long novel.

Rosa not only discussed them, she could draw pictures and write poems; she was a prodigious reader; and she had a particular artistic talent, whether designing a doll's house for her niece, doodling computer graphics of her mice for godchildren, sitting her husband for a portrait or painting a huge mural in her house in Edinburgh.

Her artistic talent was clearly inherited. "Our genes dictate to a large extent," she writes in that same 3,000-word essay, published in Mill Hill Essays (1997), "what we look like, how we behave and what we can and cannot do." What she looked like, how she behaved and what she determined to do are in the lines of her family history.

Rosa was the daughter of Roy Beddington, an artist-fisherman and author of the minor fishing classic (illustrated by himself) To Be a Fisherman (1955). The Beddingtons are a distinguished Anglo-Jewish family whose energies have been generously diffused. The writer Ada Leverson, Oscar Wilde's "Sphinx", was a Beddington, while Jack Beddington, as publicity director of Shell in the Thirties, was one-man patron to a generation of English artists.

Rosa's mother, born Anna Griffith, also artistically gifted, was an Olympic- standard horsewoman, a show-jumper and eventer who competed at Helsinki in 1952. She was the daughter of a soldier who married his best friend's First World War widow - Rosa's favourite grandparent and a daughter of the Wingfield Digbys of Sherborne Castle, in Dorset.

Venetia Griffith was to assume an important role in Rosa's life, for her parents divorced when she was three. She and her sister Pippa, three years her elder, moved with their mother from Hurstbourne Tarrant in Hampshire to West Challow, outside Wantage, in Oxfordshire. Rosa was 11 and at Oxford High School when her mother committed suicide.

Rosa and Pippa went to live not with their father but with their first cousin Venetia Peake and her husband, John, who had just bought a pre- Reformation monastic farm, at Corscombe in Dorset, which had once served Sherborne Abbey. The Peakes, kind, easy and less than 20 years their senior, became the children's surrogate parents. Rosa, kind but never easy, privately complicated, took on the role of farmer's daughter, and was passionate about riding.

Her life had already established a pattern: a tension between the driven and the domestic. She excelled at Sherborne School for Girls. "I believe she took a rational decision not to be good at Latin," remembers the writer Candia McWilliam, her exact contemporary:

Almost everything else she did at school she did very well without losing her air of faint outlaw mystery: she excelled of course at science, but also at drawing,

hockey, fencing, tennis, dancing. She could do things like sail, sew, ride, herd sheep, and she could do them all with a cigarette in her hand. It was an elegant habit, hardly looked greedy.

Few of her fellow students at Oxford, or her many non-scientific friends later, would have suspected there lurked beneath her air of English accomplishment that strength of will which led her finally, at the age of 43, to be elected to the Royal Society. Rosa's determination to succeed - perhaps to prove herself to that absent father - rose over and above social life and friends. With girlishly long hair defining a face of grave beauty, she had a masculine ability to tease and astonishing stamina. She smoked a rare cigarette called an International Sobranie, and drank with the worst of us.

She was "without meaning it", says McWilliam, a femme fatale. "She emanated separateness and this conveyed itself, in company with her beauty, as mystery." Men besieged her. They look on paper rather grand now - these active or future captains of industry, these great conservators, the carbon dater, the bank chief, the newspaper editor, the peer, the decorator, the popular historian, the television production king: her many suitors or wooers, the variously bewitched. (I fell in love with her when she was still at school, before she went to Kenya to teach in her "gap".)

One characteristic was that they got older and older. Rosa liked older men - except for her father, with whom she fought; to the end of her life, rightly or wrongly, she blamed him for the loss of her mother, for all her own disjunctions. With other men, it was as though she wanted to annex the wisdom of their years. When her dark hair went entirely grey by the age of 30, it was as though she wanted to ape their appearance too.

Then she went and married one of them - 30 years her senior, and not even the oldest. Her friends were genuinely startled. Most of them had never met him. Robin Denniston was a cousin of John Peake's and proposed to her almost on first meeting, on the squash court. He was Oxford Publisher at the Oxford University Press and a recently ordained priest of the Church of England. Rosa a vicar's wife! How we laughed.

Robin, as single-minded as Rosa, a deep and, he might admit, sometimes difficult man (she liked difficult men, too), became her rock, his family her family. He took on the non-stipendiary ministry of the parish of Great Tew, in Oxfordshire, then left it when they moved for her work to Edinburgh, and then left Edinburgh for London when she moved to Mill Hill. Finally he was invited to return to the vicarage at Great Tew (that most old-fashioned and English of vicarages - a large pile of a house that the Church tried to dispose of, until they found it was not theirs to sell); and Rosa, in between international conferences, took up a new role, sitting with her cat Pawpaw on her lap, giving tea to parishioners.

A year after her essay "Cloning" was published, cancer that had long been seen to (she had had a double mastectomy in the early 1990s) returned, this time in her head. Rosa had an awkward, drawn-out ending of it, the sometime researcher for the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, the new FRS with one last thing to prove. She retreated to Great Tew and, when she could no longer paint, instead sewed carpet-sized portraits of flowers in gros point: peonies, fritillaries, auriculas, hellebores, all on black, images of the garden she had always wished to grow.

Dolly the Finn Dorset sheep meanwhile was sent to foot-and-mouth purdah, while her clone "cousin" Morag was stuffed and put on display in the Royal Museum, Edinburgh. Rosa would have had something funny to say about that.

Rosa Beddington: Embryologist