Margaret (Peggy) Anne Wilson Thompson, CM, human geneticist (born 7 January 1920 on the Isle of Man, England; died 3 November 2014 in Toronto, ON). Thompson contributed to human genetics through research on a variety of genetic disorders, particularly muscular dystrophy. She also cowrote Genetics in Medicine, a widely used text. While celebrated among her peers for her gifts as a scientist, mentor and teacher, she left a controversial legacy for her participation in eugenics in the early 1960s.
Education and Early Career
Margaret Thompson obtained a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1943 from the University of Saskatchewan and a PhD in 1948 from the University of Toronto, where she studied under the pioneering human geneticist Norma Ford Walker. In her early career, she taught at the University of Western Ontario (1948–50) and the University of Alberta (1950–63). She founded a genetic counselling service at the University of Alberta Hospital in 1956.
Alberta Eugenics Board
From 1960 to 1962, Margaret Thompson was a member of the Alberta Eugenics Board, which approved the sterilization of people that it judged “mentally defective,” largely without their consent, to prevent the transmission of their “disability” to potential children. The board had been established in 1928 by Alberta’s Sexual Sterilization Act, which was not repealed until 1972. By that time, eugenics was widely viewed as a pseudo-science and human rights abuse. Even in the 1990s, however, Thompson defended her work with the board, as she believed that, at the time, eugenics was a reasonable response to a serious problem. (See also Eugenics: Pseudo-Science Based on Crude Conceptions of Heredity.)
In 1963, Margaret Thompson joined the staff of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. She practised there until 1988, establishing its genetic analysis and genetic counselling services. She was also part of the faculty of the University of Toronto from 1963 to 1985, where she taught genetics to medical students and supervised many graduate students.
Thompson is best known for her work on muscular dystrophy. As the director of genetics at the Hospital for Sick Children, she worked with the muscular dystrophy clinic to document the disease’s symptoms and trace its heredity. When her colleague Ronald Worton identified the gene that causes the Duchenne and Becker variants of muscular dystrophy, the data Thompson collected served as a crucial resource. Together, Thompson and Worton offered the world’s first prenatal diagnosis of muscular dystrophy. In this case, they successfully determined that a baby with a family history of the disease would not be born with the genetic mutation.
Did you know?
While there are several types of muscular dystrophy, the Duchenne and Becker variants are among the most common. They are caused by a genetic mutation on the X chromosome. Only women can carry the mutation and pass the disease on to their children. Carriers rarely experience symptoms of the disease, which most commonly affects males.
In addition to numerous scientific articles, Thompson co-wrote a widely used text, Genetics in Medicine (1966), with her husband, James Scott Thompson (1919–82). The book’s eighth edition, titled Thompson & Thompson Genetics in Medicine and co-authored by R. L. Nussbaum, R. R. McInnes and H. F. Willard, was published in 2016.
In her retirement, Thompson was a professor emeritus with the University of Toronto and an honorary consultant with the Hospital for Sick Children.
Honours and Awards
Margaret Thompson was named a Member of the Order of Canada in 1988. She received the Founders Award from the Canadian College of Medical Geneticists (1992), having served as president of the organization from 1983 to 1985. Thompson received the first Award for Excellence in Medical Genetics Education (1995), given by the American Society of Human Genetics. The University of Saskatchewan granted her an Honorary Doctor of Laws in 2001.