Archive | July, 2013

Forgotten book reveals a 110-year-old secret about one of Mendel’s rediscoverers

In 1985 the John Innes Centre History of Genetics Library gained a new accession, a duplicate copy of the first edition of William Bateson’s Mendel’s Principles of Heredity: A Defence, published by Cambridge University Press in 1902. No fanfare that we can find accompanied the addition of this copy to the shelves, the Accessions Register records it as being purchased from bookseller F. E. Whitehart for £55, but there is no record of who suggested the purchase. Yet this copy was special, and of much more value than the two existing copies in the Library it joined. It is almost certain that the Librarians of the day recognised the significance of this book to the story of Mendelism in Britain and that this led to the purchase being recommended, for the first page of the book clearly bears the stamp ‘Professor Dr Erich Tschermak, Wien, XIX. Hochschule für Bodencultur’(now the University of Agricultural Sciences Vienna) and the date June 1902. The work also bears Tschermak’s signature and is heavily annotated throughout.  This brief introduction and the accompanying images of the book aim to take this treasure of the John Innes Foundation Historical Collections down from the shelves and open it up to a wider audience, to explain why it is so special, and to invite readers to examine the pages for themselves.


Erich von Tschermak-Seysenegg (at this date just plain Erich Tschermak), the owner and annotator of this book, has since been dubbed ‘the father of Austrian plant breeding’. He was 30 in June 1902 (b. 15.11. 1871), nearly five years into his scientific career, a thesis on the inheritance of seed colours and shapes in pea hybrids (his ‘Habilitationschrift’, January 1900) under his belt, and his career was progressing towards an Assistant Professorship (1903) at the Hochschule where he was engaged in cereal breeding, especially the problem of combining earliness with high yielding performance. Later (in 1906) the Hochschule would create a separate Chair of plant breeding for Tschermak, making him the first Professor of Plant Breeding in Europe (Ruckenbauer 2000). But it was Tschermak’s early work and its relationship to the work of an earlier experimentalist, Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) in the monastery garden at Brno, Moravia, that had first established his reputation and made his name widely known in scientific circles.

Tschermak regarded himself, and was regarded by others in the early twentieth century, as one of the three independent ‘re-discoverers’ of Gregor Mendel’s ‘principles’ of heredity (alongside German botanist Karl Correns and Dutch botanist Hugo de Vries, all of them publishing in 1900). All three men were responding (and all in different ways) to a paper by Mendel titled ‘Versuche über Pflanzen-Hybriden’ (Experiments on Plant Hybridisation) which gave the results of eight years of crossing experiments with 22 true-breeding varieties of the garden pea, Pisum sativum L. (Mendel 1866; Fairbanks and Rytting 2001). The ‘principles’ derived from Mendel’s paper have been considered the foundation of modern genetics ever since, and the story of Mendel’s ‘rediscovery’ is one of the most popular and most debated in the history of science.

Tschermak, for his part, had not adopted all of the elements of ‘Mendelian’ understanding of heredity (Olby 1985; Harwood 2000). Nevertheless, he was lauded by his contemporaries as one of the three scientists involved in bringing Mendel’s important work before the world (and later his role was commemorated in a variety of ways, including awards of university honorary doctorates, honorary memberships of elite scientific institutions, and an editorial in the Journal of Heredity  which introduced him (in 1951) as ‘the last surviving re-discoverer of Mendel’s research in the genetics of the garden pea’, see Ruckenbauer 2000). Tschermak was also among the eminent European scientists (which incidentally included William Bateson) who travelled to Brno in 1910 to attend the unveiling of a statue to honour Mendel. On this grand occasion it was announced that Tschermak and Bateson were to be made honorary members of the Natural History Society of Brno (Iltis 1911; Cock 1982; Olby 1997).

Reputation, however, is a malleable thing, and from the 1960s Tschermak’s relationship to Mendelism began to be re-examined (Dunn 1965; Allen 1975): some historians argued that Tschermak should be dropped from the realm of Mendel heroes (Stern & Sherwood 1966, 1978; Olby 1985; Corcos and Monaghan 1986a, b, 1990; Bowler 1989) on the grounds that he misunderstood fundamentals of Mendel’s arguments and interpreted Mendelian phenomena within a pre-Mendelian concept of heredity (Olby 1985, p. 114). Tschermak held ambivalent positions on the Biometrician-Mendelian disputes (see below), and his theoretical approach shared some common ground with an earlier Galtonian science of heredity, a science concerned with the regularly decreasing hereditary contribution of ancestors (see Simunek et al. 2012, pp. 247-248). More recently historians have fore-grounded Tschermak’s career as a plant breeder to explain why his views on hybridisation as presented in 1900 differed from those of scientists working within traditions of experimental botany. Tschermak did not explain 3-to-1 ratios in the F2 generation in terms of segregation but in terms of unequal hereditary strength or influence; he was initially reluctant to adopt Mendel’s combinatorial conception of heredity, and his core interest as a plant breeder was the ‘potency’ or strength of each plant trait of commercial value. Such knowledge could be used by breeders, indicating whether a trait would breed true following the F2 generation, and if not, how long a hybrid would need to be inbred before the trait became stable (see Harwood 2000).

Portrait of Armin von Tschermak as a young man, Courtesy of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Archives

Portrait of Armin von Tschermak as a young man, Courtesy of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Archives

In 2011-12 scholarship added yet another layer of complexity to the story of Erich Tschermak when Simunek et al. published the results of their study of the letters preserved in the Tschermak family archives (14 pieces of correspondence between 1898 and 1901), and of a significant collection of Tschermak letters catalogued and opened to researchers for the first time in the summer of 2009 in the Archives of the Austrian Academy of Sciences of Vienna. These new sources revealed something that had remained a secret for more than 110 years: the extent of the involvement of Erich’s older brother Armin in the development of his theoretical ideas on heredity (Simunek et al. 2011; 2012). Their detailed work on the relationship between these two siblings suggests that perhaps we should acknowledge Armin as a ‘fourth’ re-discoverer of Mendel. Armin was one year older than Erich and already a successful physiologist (from 1906 holding a university professorship in Vienna). The archives reveal how Armin mentored Erich in his career choices from very early days. Step by step Armin guided Erich into an academic position, providing advice on research topics, recommending reading and, most importantly, discussing Mendel, de Vries and Correns with him. Armin also steered Erich’s published contributions, counselling him on how to present his work for maximum impact (Simunek et al. 2011). Our book is further evidence of the close collaboration between the two Tschermak brothers.

The annotations have been identified by an expert on the Tschermaks’ handwriting (M. Simunek in 2009) as belonging to both Erich and Armin, but Armin’s commentary is the one that remains clear on the pages while Erich’s notes are mostly erased or illegible.

Through the annotations we find the Tschermak’s privately engaging with William Bateson’s polemical defence of Mendel published in March 1902. Cambridge zoologist turned experimental botanist William Bateson (1861-1926) was the key scientist in Britain guiding what would soon be called ‘genetics’, the fledgling science started by the re-publication and re-interpretation of Mendel’s paper. Bateson first publicly introduced Mendel’s work (a digest of an account of it he’d read in a paper by Hugo de Vries) in an address to the Royal Horticultural Society on May 8th 1900, and it was in the RHS Journal that Bateson provided the first English translation of Mendel’s 1865 paper from the original German with an introductory note (Bateson 1901; the intial translation was prepared by C. T. Druery, see Cock 1980). Bateson’s need to ‘defend’ Mendel with this short follow-up book in 1902 originates from his very public squabble over the territory of heredity with British zoologist and former Cambridge friend W F R (Raphael) Weldon, a bitter controversy that has become another set piece in the history of science and is known as the ‘Mendelian-Biometrician dispute’ (Roll-Hansen 1980; Olby 1988; MacKenzie 2000; Punnett 1950). At stake were the rival scientific tools and methods scientists used to approach the study of heredity and behind these, divergent theories about the biological processes driving evolution. It is a good example of historian Jan Sapp’s wider argument that Mendel became for the twentieth century ‘a cultural resource to assert the truth about what it means, not just to be a good scientist, a geneticist, but what Mendelian genetics implies’ (Sapp 1990). Bateson’s Mendel was ‘clearly coloured by his strong opposition to the scientific credentials of late nineteenth century Darwinian research’ (Olby 1997, p. 12).

William Bateson and Erich von Tschermak at the IVth International Conference on Genetics, Paris, 1911 (from William Bateson’s library, John Innes Foundation Historical Collections). This was probably their fourth meeting: Bateson met Tschermak in Vienna while on holiday in 1904, in London at the International Conference on Hybridisation and Plant Breeding in 1906, and at the MendelFest in Brno in 1910.

Erich von Tschermak (left) and William Bateson (second from left) at the IVth International Conference on Genetics, Paris, 1911 (from William Bateson’s library, John Innes Foundation Historical Collections). This was probably their fourth meeting: Bateson met Tschermak in Vienna while on holiday in 1904, in London at the International Conference on Hybridisation and Plant Breeding in 1906, and at the MendelFest in Brno in 1910.


The fundamental point Bateson took from Mendel was the ‘“purity of the germ cells” and the combinatorial processes that ensued’ (Olby, op.cit). This contrasts markedly with Tschermak, who as we’ve seen, did not initially adopt this combinatorial concept of heredity. We know from other evidence that the Tschermaks disliked the polemical way William Bateson conducted his debate with the biometricians, and that Erich Tschermak found himself between the quarrelling parties, with Weldon and his ally Karl Pearson as well as Bateson corresponding with him in 1902 (Simunek et al. 2012). The book inscription indicates that Erich had acquired a copy of Bateson’s Defence before Pearson wrote to ask him to review Bateson’s publications on July 11th 1902, especially his Defence. Pearson originally wanted to publish Tschermak’s review in Biometrica, but it never appeared in that journal (perhaps being considered too neutral or pro-Mendelian). Simunek et al. speculate that Tschermak’s manuscript was used in his later published studies (Tschermak 1902, 1905, 1906). His surviving correspondence with Bateson begins with a letter from Bateson dated 2 September 1902, and Bateson clearly regarded Tschermak as a supporter (and one of the re-discoverers of Mendel, see Simunek et al. 2012, p. 248; Bateson 1907). They exchanged occasional and friendly letters until 1925.

Armin\Erich’s annotations on Bateson’s Defence provide a fascinating additional insight into how the Tschermak’s read Bateson and responded to the debates on heredity that were taking place in England at that time. Most of their attention focused on the two parts dealing with ‘The problems of Heredity and Their Solution’ (pp. 1-39) and ‘A Defence of Mendel’s Principles of Heredity’ (pp. 104-208). By studying their engagement with the text we can gain information on where they fundamentally disagreed with Bateson and glimpse their own developing theory of ‘cryptometry’ (see Simunek 2012, pp. 249-250). We hope this unique book in the John Innes Historical Collections will prove of interest to historians of Mendelism and early 20th century theories of heredity around the world.


Further Reading

Bateson, W (1901). ‘Problems of heredity as a subject for horticultural investigation’, J. Royal Horticultural Society, 25: 54-61 [Read 8 May 1900]

Bateson, W. (1907). Discussion, p. 283 in Wilks, W. (ed) Report of the third international conference on genetics [1906]. London: Royal Horticultural Society

Bowler, P (1989). The Mendelian revolution. John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore

Bowler, P (2000). ‘The rediscovery of Mendelism’, pp. 1-14 in Peel, R and Timson, J (eds), A century of Mendelism. The Galton Institute: London

Cock, A (1980). ‘William Bateson’s pilgrimages to Brno’, Folia Mendeliana, 15: 243-250

Cock, A (1982). ‘Bateson’s impressions of the unveiling of the Mendel monument at Brno in 1910’, Folia Mendeliana, 17: 217-223

Cock, A and Forsdyke, D (2008). Treasure your exceptions: the science and life of William Bateson. Springer: New York

Corcos, A, Monaghan F (1986a). ‘Tschermak: a non-discoverer of Mendelism I: a historical note’, JH, 77: 468-469

Corcos, A, Monaghan F (1986b). ‘Tschermak: a non-discoverer of Mendelism II: A critique’, JH, 78: 208-210

Corcos, A, Monaghan F (1990). ‘Mendel’s work and its rediscovery: a new perspective’, Plant Science, 9: 197-212

Dunn, L (1965). A short history of genetics: The development of some of the main lines of thought: 1964-1939. McGraw-Hill: New York

Fairbanks, D and Rytting, B (2001). ‘Mendelian controversies: a botanical and historical review’, American Journal of Botany, 88: 737-752

Harvey, R (2000). William Bateson and the emergence of genetics, a biography in five volumes. Unpublished; John Innes Centre Library, Norwich

Harwood, J (2000). ‘The rediscovery of Mendelism in agricultural context: Erich von Tschermak as plant breeder’. C. R. Acad. Sci. Paris. Life Sciences. 323: 1061-1067

Iltis, H (1911). ‘Vom Mendel denkmal und von seiner Enthüllung, Verhandlungen des naturforschenden Vereines in Brünn, 49: 335-363

Mendel, G. (1866). Versuche über Pflanzen-Hybriden. Verhandlungen des Naturforschenden Vereines in Brünn. 3: 3-47. [Read 8 Feb and 8 March 1865] Translated in Stern and Sherwood (1966), see below.

Punnett, R C (1950). ‘Early days of genetics’. Heredity, 4: 1-10

Olby, R (1985). Origins of Mendelism, 2nd edn. University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Olby, R (1988). ‘The dimensions of scientific controversy: the biometrician-Mendelian debate’, BJHS, 22: 299-320

Olby, R. (1997). ‘Mendel, Mendelism and Genetics’, at Mendelweb:

Roll-Hansen, N (1980). ‘The controversy between biometricians and Mendelians: a test case for sociology of scientific knowledge’, Soc Sci Inf, 19: 501-517

Ruckenbauer, P (2000). ‘E. von Tschermak-Seysenegg and the Austrian contribution to plant breeding’, Vorträge f Pflanzenzücht, 48: 31-46

Sapp, J (1990). ‘The nine lives of Gregor Mendel’, pp. 137-166 in H. E. Le Grand (ed), Experimental Inquiries. Kluwer Academic: Dordrecht. Available on Mendelweb:

Simunek, M, Hossfeld, U, Wisseman, V (2011). ‘”Rediscovery” revised – the cooperation of Erich and Armin von Tschermak-Seysenegg in the contect of “rediscovery” of Mendel’s laws in 1899-1901, Plant Biology. Stuttg. 13: 835-41

Simunek, M, Hossfeld, U, Breidbach O (2012). ‘”Further development” of Mendel’s legacy? Erich von Tschermak-Seysenegg in the context of Mendelian-biometry controversy, 1901-1906’, Theory in Biosciences, 131: 243-252

Stern, C and Sherwood, E (eds) (1966). The origins of genetics: a Mendel source book. W.H. Freeman, San Francisco

Stern, C and Sherwood, E (1978). ‘A note on the “three rediscoverers”’, Folia Mendeliana 13: 237-40

von Tschermak-Seysenegg, E (1902). ‘Der gegenwärtige Stand der Mendel’schen Lehre und die Arbeit von W. Bateson’, Ztschr.f.d. landwirt. Versuchsw in Österreich, 5: 1365-1392

von Tschermak-Seysenegg, E (1905). ‘Die Mendel’sche Lehre und die Galton’sche Theorie der Ahnenerbe’. ARGB, 2: 663-672

von Tschermak-Seysenegg, E (1906). ‘Ueber die Bedeutung des Hybridismus für die Deszendenzlehre’. Biol Zentralbl, 26: 881-888

Bateson-Tschermak correspondence

There are no original letters between William Bateson and Erich von Tschermak-Seysenegg in the John Innes Historical Collections. We hold photocopies of 3 letters, part of the Bateson collection in Cambridge University Library (all from ETS): 26 April 1910; 6 Sept 1910; 14 September 1910. The John Innes reprint collection includes a significant collection of presentation copies of ETS reprints, 1900-1926, eleven of these are lightly annotated by Bateson. Third party correspondence with mentions of ETS in our Bateson Letters Collection may be located using the William Bateson Letters Database type ‘Tschermak’ in the subject field

There are 17 letters from William Bateson to Erich von Tschermak-Seysenegg in the Archive of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna: 2 Sept 1902; 1 Jan 1903; 19 Dec 1903; 7 Dec 1904; 6 Jan 1905; 15 Feb 1905; 30 March 1905; 4 Jan 1906; 11 Oct 1906; 30 Oct 1906; 8 Jan 1907; 30 Dec 1909; [18 Sept 1910?]; 1 Nov 1910; 26 Feb 1922; [? 1900s, incomplete]; [July-December] 1925.

If anyone knows of any more surviving Bateson-Tschermak correspondence, please get in touch!


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