Murray Llewellyn Barr

Born 1908
Died 1995

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Canadian anatomist and geneticist, born June 20, 1908, Ontario; died May 4, 1995, London.

Biography of Murray Llewellyn Barr

Murray Llewellyn Barr was educated at the University of Western Ontario, where he gained his BA in 1930, MD. in 1933, and MSc in 1938. After graduating MD he spent two years in general practice before he returned to the anatomy department in 1936, when he was appointed as an instructor. He intended to specialise in neurology, but World War II broke out and he joined up in 1939.

After the war he returned to the university of Western Ontario. In 1948 he started a project that was designed to learn whether heightened nerve cell activity produced any structural changes in these cells. Just after the details of the experiment had been worked out, Ewart George Bertram (1923–) applied for a position as a graduate student leading to the Master of Science degree, and they worked together on the project. This resulted in their joint publication in 1949 of their discovery of the sex chromatin body, now known as the Barr body.

With this discovery, Barr initiated a new era in research and diagnosis of genetic disorders. Specifically, Barr's work with sex chromatin bodies led to a greater understanding and ability to manage certain disorders that are associated with mental retardation.

Their discovery enabled Barr and his co-workers to devise a relatively simple diagnostic test for certain genetic abnormalities, in which cells rubbed from the lining of the mouth cavity (a buccal smear) were stained and examined microscopically.

Barr became professor of anatomy in 1951. His initial research was neurocytology and the morphology and distribution of synaptic endings in the spinal cord - he then concentrated on anomalies of sex chromosomes in man.

Barr was the recipient of many honours and awards, national and international. The most notable include the nomination for a Nobel Prize, the Gairdner Award of Merit, the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation International Award and one of the first appointments as an Officer of the Order of Canada. Barr died in 1995 but the legacy of his discovery and his devotion as a teacher to generations of medical graduates will live on.

Murray had an interest in medical history throughout his career, and it became his main scholarly activity from about the late 1960s until shortly before his death in 1995.

We thank John Alan Kiernan for information submitted.

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