Category Archives: Scientific musings


[Article 2  on theme of Eugenics]

Promotional letter purportedly written by
James Murray of New York to Rev Baptist Boyd of Aughnacloy – 1737

Reverend Baptist Boyd,
Read this Letter, and look, and tell aw the poor Folk of your Place, that God has open’d a Door for their Deliverance; for here is ne Scant of Breed here, and if your Sons Samuel and James Boyd was but come here, they wad get mere Money in ane Year for teechin a Letin Skulle . . . .
The young Foke in Ereland are aw but a Pack of Couards, for I will tell ye in short, this is a bonny Country, and aw Things grows here that ever I did see grow in Ereland . . .

A few years ago my wife and I decided that where possible we should centre our summer holiday on some cultural event. Accordingly we have visited Vancouver at the time of their Fringe Theatre Festival and Chicago for the Blues Festival. For me however the highlight was our visit to Wilksboro, North Carolina for the Merlefest. This has become an annual event in commemoration of Merle, son of Doc Watson, who tragically died in an accident a couple of decades ago and feeds into our liking for American Folk and Blue Grass music.

It was probably only in my twenties or even later that I became aware of how lacking my south Ulster Presbyterian upbringing was in respect of indigenous culture.  Perhaps I caught a hint of the culture of my Scottish ancestors on the BBC around Hogmanay or Burns night but no more. The family home was well stocked with books but very little music apart from some rather dull church music.
Now I know where my culture went. The Presbyterian emigrants seem to have taken it with them when they left in the eighteenth century. They also took their religion. Wilksboro is a small town with as many different churches as Aughnacloy (where my McWilliam ancestors originated) would have had whisky houses in the 1830s.

Apart from my paternal grandmother,  born in Dublin to Ulster parents, all the ancestors that I know of back to 1800 were born in south Ulster on either side of a line stretching from Newry (in Counties Down & Armagh) to Ballyshannon (in Co Donegal).
Accordingly, although I was aware of Presbyterian emigration to America in the eighteenth century and the more widespread and general emigration from Ireland throughout the nineteenth century, I had never considered emigration as part of the family story.  The results of my DNA test radically changed my perception of this. The test identified over 1,000 genetic cousins of varying degrees. Most people who have taken a DNA test are American  with a few Canadians and Australians so the vast majority of my new cousins are emigrants.

When I examine my genealogy back before 1800 some of the lines simply drop out from lack of information; many of the rest are still in south Ulster. There is however one line that originated further north.  This line first appear in the records when Samuel Murrell leased land in Ballyquin townland, Balteagh parish near Newtownlimavady in Co Londonderry from William Conolly in 1700.

Emigration is recorded from there early in the 18th century and one of the most famous emigrants from the area was Samuel Hamilton, John Steinbeck’s maternal grandfather, who is memorably described in the latter’s novel, ‘East of Eden’. This emigration and John Steinbeck’s search for the birth place of Samuel Hamilton is described by Bobby Forrest in the second post on the linked message board.

My understanding is that East of Eden was originally intended as a family memoir but that Steinbeck subsequently incorporated a fictional element into it.  The book is about two families – the Trasks and the Hamiltons. While the former are fictional the Hamiltons are closely based on Steinbeck’s maternal relations. Two of the books themes’ speak very directly to my interests.  At its heart it is a modern day reworking of the biblical story of Cain and Able with an interesting linguistic analysis of the story. As someone who grew up in a Presbyterian family where the bible was ever present this approach felt familiar. However as a genealogist, it was Steinbeck’s beautiful description of his grandfather, Samuel Hamilton, that most captivated me.

Samuel Hamilton was born in Co Derry about 1830 to a Presbyterian family.  My (3x) great grandfather of mine, Rev James Morell, was born 50 years earlier, in a neighbouring parish. If I adapt the words of Christie Moore in ‘Brendan the Navigator’ – “Is it right or left for Gibraltar?” – Samuel Hamilton in the late 1840s turned right and landing in New York kept going till he reached California while James Morell just before 1800 turned left and landed in Ballybay, Co Monaghan and was ordained a Presbyterian minister. He and many of his descendants remained in this area until quite recently.

There is a scene in East of Eden where Samuel has received an invitation from his daughter, Molly, – Steinbeck’s mother – to come and visit. Hamilton accepts that this visit will be one of a sequence through his family, that he is leaving for ever the farm where he raised his family and that the invitation, in practice, signals the end of his active life. The invitation is not, of course, couched in those terms. Molly has booked tickets for upcoming events in Salinas – Billy Sunday – a noted evangelist – is going to wrestle with the devil while William Jennings Bryan is going to give his ‘Cross of Gold’ speech on the Chautauqua circuit. Hamilton remarks that
“it’s an old fool of a speech but they say he gives it in a way to break your heart”.
At the time I read the book – as a teenager – I’d never heard of Bryan or the Cross of Gold speech but the detail was tucked away in a corner. Recently during an idle moment on the internet I googled it.

Bryan, also a Presbyterian and known as the ‘Great Commoner’, was a three time contender for the American presidency for the Democratic party – in 1896, 1900 & 1908 although he was unsuccessful each time. The main plank of his first candidacy was to go off the gold standard. He believed that this measure would loosen up credit and make money available to farmers and businesses in the mid-west. The measure was opposed by the bankers & financiers in the major eastern cities who profited from the tight money supply and of course characterised Bryan as a mad populist who would wreck the economy.

In the speech he said;
“There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.”

William Jennings Bryan was a professional politician not an expert in economics; neither am I!  In 1896 I would have voted for Jennings, not on the basis of his economic expertise, but rather because he best reflects my political, social & economic biases.

As a former  professional geneticist I am perfectly aware that there are other issues on which I would disagree sharply with Bryan.



During my undergraduate course in genetics in the early 1970s, I don’t recall eugenics ever being mentioned. It was the ‘subject that dares not speak its name’. At the time I assumed that it had been a Nazi aberration. It was only more recently that I realised that during the 1901s and 1920s the subject was mainstream. Virtually all geneticists were eugenicists. It was widely commented on by the mainstream media and its influence spread to economics and politics. There were close ties between American eugenicists & philanthropists and scientists in Germany.
In the following series of posts I want to combine my knowledge of genetics with the perspective of a genealogist to illustrate some aspects of the subject from a personal and family perspective.


[Article 1 on the theme of Eugenics]

I have some records kept by my father, starting in the 1930s.  The first entry in his fishing diary was in March 1932, while it appears that he started keeping records of his shooting from October, 1931.  The shooting appears to have stopped around 1940 but he continued to make systematic entries into the fishing diary right up till his death in 1989.  He also kept a personal diary intermittently from 1931 to 1936.  Together these documents give the impression of a fresh start being made.

Photo of James McWilliam practicing golfThe first entry in the personal diary reads “Started golf again after exactly two years”.  These words conceal what must have been a deeply traumatic period for himself and his family.  As I understand it he had contracted TB which resulted in him developing curvature of the spine.  This was treated with a bone graft from his hip. I believe it was the first operation of its kind in the country.  Certainly during the course of his final illness he reported with relish his consultant inviting his team to examine the scar and speculate on the cause.  I presume he avoided a more serious infection of the lungs and made virtually a complete recovery.  Fortunately he was virtually ambidextrous because subsequently he had to play tennis and badminton left handed.  It doesn’t appear to have affected his golf and he was able to fish with either hand – a useful skill in the small, tree lined rivers of Monaghan.  Less usefully during his recovery, which necessitated a period of six months lying on his back, he claimed to have learned to knit – a skill which I never saw him display.

Photo of James McWilliam fishingFor me the story was something that had happened but which I didn’t think much about.  By my childhood antibiotics had rendered TB relatively treatable.  It was only when I started researching the family history that the true impact became clear.  Throughout the nineteenth century the genealogical records show the toll the disease exacted on young adults in my immediate family.

Death cert of Hessie McWilliam

The death certificate of my father’s grandmother, Hessie Morell/McWilliam, shows that she died, aged 32, of phthisis – an old name for TB of the lungs.

Hessie Morell

The death certificates of two brothers of her husband, William McWilliam, show that they died of the same disease at about the same age.
Perhaps most poignantly Thomas, the writer of the letter quoted in my previous post, is the first name on the McWilliam gravestone in Coolshannagh graveyard in Monaghan. He died in 1881 aged 30.
In this letter he gives acute pen-pictures of his siblings including the two brothers who had recently died. However in keeping with his age about half the letter is devoted to affairs of the heart.

Letter from Thomas to John McWilliams

At least two of Hessie’s sisters and her brother died young, possibly from the same cause.  In the Morell family in the previous generation there were also several deaths of young adults and in a diary kept by Hessie’s grandfather, Rev James Morell, he describes one of his sons, Edward as coughing blood.  My father’s diagnosis must have been a hammer blow for his parents.  Perhaps fortunately his grandfather, William, had died two years previously, saving him from contemplating the possible death of his eldest grandson.

From the point of view of our family this was a story with a happy ending. TB, in the circles we move in has largely been eradicated. It is perhaps fortunate that the family was of a certain class and living in a Catholic country at the time. Others with a similar medical history but in a different place and social class were not so fortunate.