The birth of genetics

14 August 2019

Interview with 

Helen Curry, University of Cambridge

WHEAT

Ears of wheat

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Everything changes at the turn of the 20th Century. This is when biologist William Bateson first coins the word “genetics”, the start of what becomes a whole new discipline of science. If Gregor Mendel really is the father of modern genetics, then around 1900 is when it was finally born - overdue by three decades. It’s a confusing time, filled with hype about this new experimental biology. Here in Cambridge where Naked Genetics is based, this was one place where that hype translated into cold, hard funding. Helen Curry is a historian of genetics here, and she took Phil Sansom out onto the streets to show him something...

Phil - You’ve brought me out here to 44 Storey’s Way. Why are we here?

Helen - 44 Storey’s Way is the site of the first Department of Genetics at the University of Cambridge. And I think it's a really important place for stopping to think about what genetics was in the early part of the twentieth century. Because the reason the Department of Genetics was sited here was so that it could be nearby to the university’s farm site.

Phil - So genetics when it was first starting out was really, really tied to agriculture?

Helen - Yeah, that's absolutely right. A lot of the early enthusiasm for Mendelian ideas, Mendelian laws, had to do with the fact that it promised a more scientific, more predictable approach to creating new kinds of crops and new kinds of agricultural animals.
Around 1900 there were two different contexts that were operating in related ways but distinct from one another. One was an area of experimental evolution. And then there was also a world of crop development. And what happened in 1900 was that three different researchers independently claim to have come across the work of Gregor Mendel: Hugo de Vries, a Dutch botanist; Carl Correns, who was a German botanist; and Erich von Tschermak, an Austrian agronomist.

Phil - Think about that. Three people independently discovered - or rediscovered - these principles of inheritance at the same time. Who should take the credit? Maybe the easiest thing is to point to a dead monk who’d already done the work, and give him credit instead. No more conflict. Mendel becomes a legend. In any case, it’s biologist William Bateson in Cambridge who becomes the real champion of this work. Bateson coins the word “genetics” and he starts spreading the good news of Gregor Mendel far and wide.

Helen - By 1912 he'd managed to convince enough people in Britain that resources were put forward to establish the first ever chair in genetics...

Phil - And why agriculture? Why was that the big thing that people were using this for?

Helen - At the end of the nineteenth century when these changes in biological understanding were happening, there were also significant changes going on in agriculture. So the establishment of institutions, state institutions governing agricultural production, also governing agricultural research; rising industrialisation; you have changes in mechanisation and farming; there's a whole lot of interest in making farming better.

Phil - Why?

Helen - In order to feed people. To feed armies. To drive economic growth.

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