Three Black Chickens, One White Chicken

William Bateson, Naturalist, His Essays and Addresses Together with a Short Account of His Life, by Beatrice BatesonThere was a very good programme on BBC 4 on Tuesday night (and what is this nonsense about the channel being cut – why don’t they cut BBC 3, which nobody, least of all the yoof to whom it is supposed to appeal, ever watches?). The third of a series of three about the science of botany, it was presented by the Horti Praefectus of the Oxford University Botanic Garden – who seemed to attract wet weather at whatever location he appeared – and it was about plant genetics.

Peering through the raindrops, I became aware that he was not now in Oxford, but in Cambridge – outside Great St Mary’s to be precise – and what is more, he was talking about William Bateson. There followed in quick succession interior shots of Newnham College and of a church (which I haven’t yet been able to identify), and some fascinating information about Bateson’s early career and the experiments in plant and animal breeding which established the science of genetics – a word which Bateson himself coined.

To my shame, I had not got around to reading William Bateson, Naturalist, written by his wife, or his own Mendel’s Principles of Heredity of 1902, both of which we reissued in the ‘First 475’ in July 2009. I was startled to learn from the BBC programme that for many years Bateson had no university post at Cambridge, and that he augmented his slender income by doing ‘college catering’: though further investigation revealed that he was in fact Steward (i.e. the don who supervised the wine, gardens and kitchen) at St John’s College, of which his father was the Master – so not quite doing silver service at High Table to make ends meet, then. But the lack of a university post meant that he had no access to laboratory facilities and staff – hence the shots of Newnham, from which he recruited volunteer lab workers (being women, the likelihood of their getting paid employment in a ‘real’ laboratory was limited) and of the church (which one?), in which he apparently kept chickens, pigeons, mice, etc., which he and his helpers bred to observe the transmission of hereditary traits.

Gregor Mendel was a monk who grew peas and noticed that some of them turned out differently from others. (Or rather he was a graduate in philosophy who also studied physics and meteorology, and who was asked, when he entered the monastery of St Thomas at Brno, to perform a scientific investigation of variation in plants.) This is sufficiently the stuff of children’s pictorial science books that it is disconcerting to remember that Mendel’s published findings were completely ignored in 1866, and that Bateson, their great proponent and champion, remained shunned by the zoological establishment of his day precisely because of his support of a theory which his own experimentation demonstrated was correct, but which ran counter to the conventional scientific wisdom. Eppur si muove …

In 1910, a research institution for plant breeding and genetics was set up in Merton (then rural, now Greater London) at the home of, and with money bequeathed by, John Innes, a property developer and philanthropist. (The institute survives, of course, and is now based in Norwich.) William Bateson was the first director, and remained in the post until his death in 1926, the major part of his work there being research into compatibility (and hence possibilities for breeding new varieties) among fruit trees. (The legendary composts were developed by the Institution in the 1930s.)

And while on the subject of heredity – Bateson had three sisters, two of them educated at Newnham. Anna was a botanist who had made her name in the wider scientific world before her brother, and was one of the ‘Cambridge Mendelians’ who (literally) did the spade-work for his research. (Another was Nora Darwin, grand-daughter of Charles and later the Nora Barlow after who the well-known double aquilegia is named.) See this link for a fascinating article on the Mendelians, including sound advice on the unfortunate consequences of getting mildly tipsy at your own engagement party. Mary was a distinguished medievalist, who (inter alia) edited Grace Book B, but died tragically young. Margaret (who studied at Heidelberg) was a professional journalist and (like her mother and sisters) a suffrage campaigner, who married the classical scholar W.E. Heitland, the author of Agricola, a comprehensive survey of agricultural labour and farming practice in antiquity. Earth to earth, compost to compost.


This entry was posted in Cambridge, Classics, History, Life Science, Printing and Publishing History, Women's Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Three Black Chickens, One White Chicken

  1. Barry Mendel Cohen says:

    This is an excellent critique of a BBC4 broadcast and web posting on the history of Botany, Dr. Jeremy Cherfas has included it on entry and video clip. Viewers of Ms. Caroline’s fine review might find this blog devoted to the work of Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov(a pupil of Bateson) of some interest. Barry Mendel Cohen

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