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Gregor Mendel and Genetics - a Centenary

Chairman's Introduction to Commemorative Meeting, London, 8 May 2000

Brian J Ford

On 8 May 1900, exactly one hundred years ago today, William Bateson took the train from Cambridge to London to attend a meeting here at the Royal Horticultural Society. His paper was entitled 'Problems of heredity as a subject for Horticultural Investigation'. He had with him a copy of Mendel's paper 'Versuche über Pflanzen-hybriden' and took the chance to read it for the first time. By the time he arrived to present his lecture he had altered his script, and Mendelism and the concept of genetics entered the English language for the first time.

Dr Mike Buttolph, a founder-member of the committee of the History Network at the Institute of Biology, has organised this meeting to commemorate this singular event. It also commemorates a half-century of the Institute's own existence, which sits in an interesting juxtaposition to the current debate about genetics and genetic modification. I bring apologies from Bateson's descendant, Professor Patrick Bateson, provost of King's College, Cambridge, whom we had hoped to invite today. If I remember correctly, William was Patrick's grandfather's uncle - a great-uncle.

William Bateson read Mendel's paper in German, though his wife tells us how he regretted not knowing that language better. His widow recorded: 'Of his less complete mastery of German he was always ashamed; he had enough to read without difficulty, and as years passed and he saw more of his German friends and colleagues, he learned to converse freely. For many months in 1901 we subscribed to the periodical Die Fliegenden Blätter, which he read aloud to improve his colloquial German and to acquire a sense of their humour.

Bateson believed that differences between or within species were insurmountable and could not be bridged. In 1884 he had written: 'All men are no more equal than all animals or all plants are equal. A Russian is no more the equal of an Englishman, a negro is no more the equal of a white man, than a Kjirgizi pony is the equal of an English racer.' In his quest for evidence to confound the believers in continuous evolution, William Bateson was searching for a mechanism than provided a fixed and immutable heritable mechanism. In Mendelism he found it. Writes Mrs Bateson: 'His delight and pleasure on his first introduction to Mendel's work were greater than I can describe; we when with a very long line to hoe, one suddenly finds a great part of it already done by someone else and one is unexpectedly free to get on with other jobs.'

The copy of Mendel's paper had been sent to Bateson by Hugo de Vries, who had already published parts of the thesis. Whereas Bateson was full of praise for the Moravian monk's researches, de Vries was less forthcoming. Mendel's name appeared nowhere in his accounts of the time. In time other workers - Correns, Tschermak - tried to present Mendel's research as in support of their own weighty hypotheses. Others were less inclined to accept such ideas on genetical inheritance, no matter how notable their other research. Carl Wilhelm von Nägeli, who made detailed study of the nucleus and identified the formation of chromosomes, which he termed 'transitory cytoblasts', was certainly an admirable microscopical observer. But for all that, he maintained a belief in spontaneous generation and was opposed to developing ideas on heritable characteristics. Thus, when Gregor Mendel first sent a paper to ,von Nägeli in which his laws of inheritance were first spelled out, von Nägeli had no hesitation in rejecting it.

Today's meeting brings together an array of distinguished speakers who can illumine the disparate facets of the Mendelian revolution. First, Rosemary Harvey, formerly the Archivist of the John Innes Centre and William Bateson's biographer will enlighten us on Bateson before the rediscovery of Mendel's laws. Professor Robert Olby, Research Professor at the Department of the History & Philosophy of Science in the University of Pittsburgh and author of many works on the development of genetics will speak on the impact of Mendelism here at the Royal Horticultural Society. And then, after tea at 3.00, Jon Turney, Senior Lecturer in Science and Technology Studies at University College, London addresses us on  Continuity and change in metaphors of genetics.

I have mentioned that the Institute of Biology is also celebrating its golden jubilee, and we celebrate that too today. Mike Buttolph is one of the distinguished contributors to a book on the Institute's first fifty years, due for release at a reception in the House of Commons on 7 November this year. The Institute now has more members than at any time in its history, and it is fitting that we should join its own celebration with that of the introduction into the English language of genetics.

The genetical revolution has taken a century to launch, and will take centuries more before it is complete. What happened at this very society a hundred years ago today was rather the Mendelian revelation. Bateson himself said: 'It is not a little remarkable that Mendel's work should escaped notice, and have been so long forgotten.' And he added, with a certain prescience, 'Mendel's work will certainly play a conspicuous part in all our future discussions of evolutionary problems.'

How this began, and the climate in which genetics took root, we will discover this afternoon.

2.10 William Bateson before the rediscovery of Mendel's laws : Mrs Rosemary Harvey, formerly Archivist of the John Innes Centre, William Bateson's biographer.
2.50 Mendelism at the Royal Horticultural Society : Professor Robert Olby, Research Professor, Department of the History & Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh.
3.30 Tea.
3.50 Continuity and change in metaphors of genetics : Dr Jon Turney, Senior Lecturer in Science and Technology Studies, University College London.
4.30 Final discussion and close

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