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history of medical genetics clinic

The Medical Genetics Clinic dates back to 14 October 1938, when the University Institute for Human Genetics was inaugurated with director Tage Kemp as the leader.

After the death in 1927 of the professor of plant physiology at the University of Copenhagen Wilhelm Johannsen, the professor of general pathology Oluf Thomsen (1878-1940) was assigned the task of directing a grant to educate a younger physician to later potentially to accept a chair in human genetics and eugenics under the medical faculty.

Tage Kemp (born 28 August 1896) graduated in 1921 in medicine and after a few years of education at various hospitals, he was engaged by Oluf Thomsen’s institute researching the fields of bacteriology, blood typing, tissue typing, endocrinology and heredity. In his scientific work Tage Kemp was engaged in all these subjects, and in 1927 he earned a doctorate with the thesis Studies of sex characters in foetuses. By February 1935, professor Oluf Thomsen made a proposal to the Board of Education to institute a chair in Human Genetics and Eugenics at the University of Copenhagen under the medical faculty. At the same time, he proposed the foundation of an Institute for Human Genetics and Eugenics in order to render possible research in this field. In the preceding year negotiations had been initiated between Oluf Thomsen, The University of Copenhagen, the Ministries and the Rockefeller Foundation. The result was the erection of the building at Tagensvej 14, although without the later addition of a first floor.

At this new institute the activities were genetical family- and twin investigations, genetical animal experiments and cytological examinations of the chromosomes in normal and pathological tissue of mammals and human beings. Kemp recognised the possibilities of using cultivated human tissue for chromosome studies, a method which successfully was taken up again by the breakthrough of the modern cytogenetics in the end of the 1950's. The investigations aimed to determine the chromosome number for human beings. Furthermore, the institute had accepted registration material from the Anthropological Committee in order to continue both a systematic registration of all the most important hereditary diseases in Denmark and a registration of patients suffering from feeble-mindedness or mental diseases. That was the initial position for Tage Kemp, whose salary was 10.000 DKKR per year, and an obligation to give the medical students a primary introduction to the question of heredity in the different human diseases and the disposition to them, respectively.

It was mentioned above that registration material was handed over to the institute from the Anthropological Committee. The material was collected by Dr. Søren Hansen. In addition, the institute made a registration in collaboration with hospitals and Special Relief Institutions. This was a cornerstone in an extensive consultative hereditary-hygienic activity which an earlier introduced pregnancy law (1937) had entailed. The register, comprising about 35,000 patients after only three years, was unique, and it gave the institute an exceptional international position. This particular position was further confirmed by the intensive research, which quickly developed during Tage Kemp’s inspiring leadership. Young researchers carried out comprehensive medical-genetical family- and population investigations; twenty-five theses during the first ten years! Many of very high quality - and they are still used as reference today.

In August 1956 in Copenhagen Tage Kemp hosted the first International Congress in Human Genetics. A very important research result was presented: The human being has 46 chromosomes and not as previously assumed 48.

Tage Kemp died 7 January 1964 and was succeeded by Jan Mohr (1921-2009) as professor in human genetics.

The institute continued the counselling activity in order to prevent genetical diseases and defects. A part of the counselling related to applications for abortions due to restrictive legislation before 1973, where the law about free abortion was introduced. Before 1973 an abortion was permitted when there was a risk that a foetus through inheritance would suffer from feeble-mindedness or mental disease. The organization Mothers Help administered the applications for abortion and if there could be a genetic risk, they referred to the institute. This procedure where the institute was a genetical advisor for Mothers Help had a considerable extent: about 1000 per year during a series of years. In 1949, 740 cases were distributed: 555 cases of abortus provocatus, 132 cases of sterilisation and 53 cases of counselling. The distribution of the diseases, which were the reasons for the genetic assessment, was: Bodily deformities (harelip-cleft palate, chondrodystrophia, anencephaly, osteogenesis imperfecta) 7.2%, deaf-mutism and excessive hardness of hearing 1.6%, blindness and excessive weakness of sight 2.7%, skin diseases 0.5%, diseases in internal organs 5.4%, nervous diseases 19.5%, inferiority 10.1%, feeble-mindedness 8.1%, psykoses 13.2%, psychopathy 13.7%, alcoholism and criminality 11.4%, combined indications 6.1%, different indications 0.5%. The 132 cases of sterilisation and the 53 of counselling showed similar distributions (Kemp, Acta Genet., 4, 240-47, 1953). After the introduction of the Law about abortion 1973 the referrals from Mothers help dropped off. However, in the following years there was an increase in the number of referrals from other institutions, hospitals and general practitioners.

In 1983 the institute moved to the Panum Institute. For many years the name was Arvebiologisk Institut, which became the official name (Institute of Human Genetics).The genetic counselling and the required chromosome analyses continued and new molecular DNA-investigations were introduced.

From 2007 the Institute and The Medical Genetics Clinic is part of Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine.

In 1991 professor Mohr retired and was in 1996 succeeded by professor Niels Tommerup (1948 - ).

During the period 1938-59 Tage Kemp edited an Opera series: 42 volumes comprising theses and other publications from the institute: Opera ex Domo Biologiae Hereditariae Humanae Universitas Hafniensis. Click here for a list of theses after 1960.

May 2009, Kirsten Fenger