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Bringing Mendel to Britain

Bringing Mendel to Britain

Steam train

Sit back, relax, and imagine you’re on a steam train travelling from Cambridge down to London’s Liverpool Street Station on the 8th of May in the year 1900, headed for a very special scientific meeting.

Our fellow traveller is William Bateson – one of the leading botanists of his time, and soon to be the founder of the Genetics Society. He’s travelling to the hallowed halls of the Royal Horticultural Society’s HQ in Westminster to present a lecture entitled ‘The Problems in Heredity as a subject for Horticultural Investigation’ for the Society’s second international conference on plant hybridisation.

The professional and amateur plant breeders of the 19th century were into hybridisation in a big way, crossing all kinds of plants together in the search for useful, bigger, more beautiful or simply weird varieties.

Frustratingly, there was no way of predicting what the outcome of any particular cross might be, so the RHS was keen to encourage research into understanding the biological laws underpinning inheritance which might help to steer plant breeders in right direction. In fact, Darwin’s ‘The Origin of the Species’ drew heavily on the results of hybridization experiments published in 'Gardeners Chronicle' – a weekly horticultural journal published in London.  

Charles Chamberlain Hurst had wowed the audience at the previous year’s meeting with his experiments on orchids, showing that certain characteristics skipped a generation. He described this strange phenomenon using the terms ‘prepotency and latency’ – which we now describe as dominant or recessive genes – so the pressure was on for Bateson to come up with something good.

Originally, Bateson had planned to deliver a lecture about what was fast becoming known as ‘Galton’s law’ – the idea that parents contributed equally to their offspring’s inherited matter. This had been put forward by Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s brilliant but massively racist cousin, who figured it out by looking at the white and yellow patches on Basset hounds. But, like any good scientist, he’d brought along a stack of scientific papers to read on the journey (otherwise he’d obviously be scrolling mindlessly through Twitter like the rest of us, I’m sure).

They had been sent as part of a collection of old papers mentioning hybridisation experiments, gathered in the wake of the previous conference. Lurking among them was a short report written in German from the journal of an obscure natural history society in Brunn. It had been published by an unknown researcher, one Gregor Mendel, and detailed the results of a number of hybridisation experiments with pea plants.

Despite the paper being more than 30 years old, Bateson found the results electrifying.

As you’ll remember from episode 5, Mendel showed that properties of the parent pea plants showed up in characteristic ratios in their baby peas, revealing the first glimpses of the underlying laws of inheritance that would come to dominate genetics for decades to come. By the time his train pulled into Liverpool Street, Bateson had completely rewritten his lecture to incorporate a presentation of Mendel’s work. His Big Idea had finally arrived.

The hushed audience at the RHS meeting in Vincent Square were the first people in Britain to hear of Mendel and his peas. Yet, confusingly for Bateson, these groundbreaking ideas met with stony silence as people tried to figure out why such old, boring work would be presented with such excitement.

Not prepared to give up, Bateson set about sharing his discovery with others in the field. He wrote to nudge Francis Galton into reading Mendel’s paper, in case he’d missed it, remarking that “Mendel’s work seems to me one of the most remarkable investigations yet made on heredity, and it is extraordinary that it should have got forgotten.”

Just like Bateson’s audience of bored horticulturalists, Galton didn’t bother replying. It was hard to see how Mendel’s pettifogging experiments with peas might hold the key to the mysteries of inheritance. Even Bateson started to doubt himself – just a few years earlier he had been convinced that the hereditary features of organisms were transmitted by mysterious vibrations, rather than physical particles of inheritance.

Even so, Bateson arranged for the RHS to publish an English translation of Mendel’s original German manuscript, which caused a bit of a stir and prompted him to write a follow-up book entitled 'Principles of Heredity: A defence' in 1902.

Gradually, more and more pieces of the puzzle of inheritance began to fall into place, and scientists started to see that actually, maybe this Mendel fellow had been right after all. By the time of the Third International Hybridization Conference, held by the RHS in 1906, Bateson was a full-blown scientific rock star.

It’s at this meeting that he invented the name for this new field of inheritance, which its disciples were struggling to describe, announcing that, ‘To meet this difficulty I suggest for the consideration of this Congress, the term Genetics’ – the first time the term had been used. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Or was it?

Bateson may have become well known as the rediscoverer of Mendel’s laws in Britain, but three European plant scientists - Austrian Erich Tschermak, German Karl Correns, and Dutchman Hugo de Vries – actually got there first, publishing their responses to Mendel’s paper before Bateson made his legendary train journey from Cambridge to London. And according to a report about Bateson’s lecture to the RHS, published a few days later in May 1900, he didn’t even mention Mendel at all, instead referring to de Vries’ work on inheritance, suggesting it might have been the Dutchman’s paper about Mendel he’d read, rather than the original.

So where did the train journey story come from? In his book, In Pursuit of the Gene, author James Schwartz points the finger at Beatrice, Bateson’s wife, who was keen to portray her husband’s great intellect to the world. And as we all known in science, it’s the person with the best PR that wins…

References and further reading:

Here be dragons

Here be dragons

The case of the missing human chromosomes

The case of the missing human chromosomes