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Rediscovering the ‘Father of Genetics’

October 14, 2013

The archives of William Bateson – by Simon Coleman

William Bateson (1861–1926) is often referred to as the ‘Father of Genetics’: his enormous contribution to the rediscovery and interpretation of Gregor Mendel’s work led to the foundation of the new science. One of the first scientists to cast serious doubt on Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, he was a complex and at times controversial man. His career stands on a watershed between late-19th-century Darwinist thought and the emergence of chromosome-centred genetics. Cataloguing his archive has been the main component of a 15-month Wellcome Trust-funded project at the John Innes Centre in Norwich.

The decisive step in Bateson’s career was in 1910, when he became the first Director of the John Innes Horticultural Institution (JIHI), then at Merton, Surrey. The Bateson archive contains a wealth of correspondence about the breeding experiments that he carried out at the JIHI (as well as his earlier innovative work at the University of Cambridge). These were designed to show the operation of Mendel’s theories of heredity in plants, insects and animals; the theme dominated Bateson’s scientific work until his death in 1926.

Illustration from Bateson's 'Mendel's Principles of Heredity'. Wellcome Library

Illustration from Bateson’s ‘Mendel’s Principles of Heredity’. Wellcome Library

His correspondents include key genetic scientists (such as Reginald Punnett, Thomas Hunt Morgan and Leonard Doncaster) as well as botanists, zoologists, horticulturalists and animal breeders in the UK and abroad. Among the letters are Bateson’s manuscript notes (including pedigree diagrams) and other material such as photographs of experiments and labelled flower specimens. The correspondence illustrates the recognition that his championing of Mendel brought him. His views on variation and heredity were sought by a wide variety of commercial breeders, amateur collectors and scientists in diverse fields of biology.

There is a good record of studentship applications to the JIHI during Bateson’s years and also substantial correspondence to him from some of his research students – in some cases continuing after their departure. The rapid transformation of the JIHI into an internationally recognised research centre attracted a steady influx of foreign workers and visitors. Scientists such as Morgan from the USA and Nikolai Vavilov from Moscow were among the more eminent visitors whose letters appear in the archive. Other papers directly relating to the running of the JIHI shed some light on the style of Bateson’s directorship and the distribution of work among his researchers. One such group of papers is the illuminating record of a competition, set by Bateson for his assistants, to define the term ‘variation’.

There is an extremely valuable record of Bateson’s early interest in human genetics. In 1902 he began a fruitful correspondence with Sir Archibald Garrod, who was investigating the rare human genetic disease alkaptonuria. In the six letters that survive in the archive, we see Garrod, a pioneer in biochemical genetics, asking for Bateson’s views on some of his findings. Later Garrod would pay a generous tribute to the insight Bateson brought to the matter. A far larger series of letters (1904–16) from the ophthalmologist Edward Nettleship relates to studies of various human eye diseases, especially cataract and colour blindness, and contains much detail about individual cases. On the topic of colour blindness statistics there is correspondence (1909–10) from the economist and mathematician John Maynard Keynes. Letters to Bateson (1911) from Keynes’s brother, Geoffrey, a surgeon and biographer who had been Bateson’s student friend at Cambridge, cover a variety of medical topics. In his assessment of Bateson’s career, Peter S Harper argues that he was “one of the founders of human genetics”.

The increasingly prominent issue of eugenics inevitably impinged on Bateson’s career, as it did on those of most of his contemporaries. Consistently cautious in debating the matter, he made a clear distinction between genetics and eugenics in his 1921 Galton Lecture (of the Eugenics Education Society). Mixing the two was, for him, “dangerous”. There is an important letter in the archive that he wrote to the Cambridge geneticist Michael Pease in 1925, near the end of his life. It was his reply to Pease’s request for a lecture on eugenics to undergraduates and was donated to the John Innes Centre by Pease in 1963. In it, Bateson explains his difficulties with eugenics: it is not his “job”, and “To real genetics it is a serious – increasingly serious nuisance”. Then, on a humorous note, he describes his Galton lecture as “famous claptrap” and declares his “eugenics career” closed.

The archive is rich in material that reflects the philosophical and ethical outlook that guided Bateson’s career. He thought deeply about the role of science in society and the teaching of it in schools. The clearest insights into his views on education are found in his Address to the Salt Schools, Saltaire, Shipley, in 1915. Here he delivered a damning critique of the narrowness of science teaching in the British private schools. For Bateson, education as a whole should be imbued with a nobler concept – something he termed “natural knowledge” – that would combine the natural sciences with the broad study of civilisations. Despite his unhappiness with Greek and Latin teaching, Bateson valued the Classics as means of retaining some coherence among the intellectual classes. We see this view expressed in the copy of his evidence to the Prime Minister’s Committee on Classics, in which he says that science and classics “are the two complementary halves of the intellectual achievement of mankind”.

In conclusion, the archive suggests three principal areas for future research: firstly, several aspects of Bateson’s unique role in the foundation of genetics through the record of his scientific work and interests, his interactions with leading scientists and connections with others interested in variation and heredity; secondly, the staffing, running and development of the JIHI during his Directorship; and thirdly, Bateson’s humanistic interests and more general concerns involving the role of science, education, culture and the state of society. This collection will assist researchers in the elucidation of his many-sided character, his scientific contributions during the crucial years following the rediscovery of Mendel, and some of the wider aspects of a highly original mind.

Simon Coleman was the Wellcome Trust-funded project archivist at the John Innes Centre at Norwich until June 2013. He continues to be affiliated to the project team, and would like to hear from anyone who is interested in the work of the leading geneticists William Bateson and Cyril Darlington (Simon.Coleman@nbi.ac.uk).

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