We’re talking about the father of modern genetics, Gregor Mendel. When he was posthumously rediscovered around 1900, scientists were excited to put his laws to use - feeding millions by breeding the crops of tomorrow, and understanding this tricky thing called evolution. But that’s not all they wanted to use it for - and be warned, some of these next ideas are a little darker. Phil Sansom is talking with historian Helen Curry...
Phil - What about eugenics? What was going on there?
Helen - Eugenics is an extremely important context for also understanding what was going on around 1900. In the preceding decades, here in Britain you'd had Francis Galton put forward ideas about the inheritance of degenerate characteristics, and the overall decline of the population, and an idea that there should be controlled breeding of humans. Mendelian genetics, just as it created these frameworks for understanding plant and animal improvement, also facilitated a set of ideas about what was needed to be accomplished for human improvement.
If the underlying mechanisms of heredity were known to be the same across all living things, well, it shouldn’t be surprising that we would see people picking up these ideas and applying them similarly. I think what is sometimes surprising is how vigorously the eugenic agenda was adopted. Looking back it in some cases seems unbelievable, because the traits that people were interested in were things like feeble-mindedness which was basically a catch-all category for anything that people thought was an undesirable characteristic, and as you might imagine was much more associated with class and race than it was with any sort of recognisable, consistent characteristic.
Phil - This eugenic agenda persisted well into the 60s in the US, with the last of the sterilisation laws. It’s a nasty - and wrong - application of a science that became ubiquitous. And all of it built on the shoulders of the unsuspecting Gregor.