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John Innes Celebrates 50 Years in Norwich 2017

2017 is a landmark year for the John Innes Centre- we have now been based in Norwich for 50 years, and as a colleague recently remarked, that is the longest time the institute has been anywhere- making Norwich our true ‘spiritual home’. But when the Director of the ‘John Innes Institute’ (as it was then) announced the planned move to Norwich in 1962, the news was not initially welcomed by the staff – far from it. This blog attempts to explain why and describes some of the consequences of the move.

Undoubtedly one of the factors behind the staff’s opposition to the move was their love of the Bayfordbury site near Hertford. It had a lake for swimming and boating, 372 acres of grounds for botanising and birdwatching, and beautiful landscaped gardens and a pinetum. The Institute’s laboratories, including those in the recently constructed Cell Biology building, were well-equipped, there were extensive glasshouse facilities and plenty of land for plant experiments. Many of the staff had already experienced one move in their working lives- from the John Innes’ original site at Merton in Surrey. There were undoubtedly loved ones and connections they’d left behind in London, and Norwich was even more remote- too far indeed for the old Alumni to be able to visit. In short, the junior and senior staff were strongly against moving again and there was a call to arms. A printing press (secret from the Director) was set up in one of the Institute’s attics to print circulars and petitions for the staff’s opposition campaign. Two small files in our archive preserve their letters of protest to MPs and the media. These also document their appeals to the top people and organisations in plant science, and the support they received from people in power. But the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) had decided that all the research institutes it supported should be located close to a University and this decision could not be overturned. After looking at a couple of options it had been decided that the John Innes Institute should be associated with the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich. Unable to accept this, most of the senior staff left for jobs at more established Universities. In the short term this meant a considerable contraction in the staff: among other losses, JI’s highly successful fungal genetics group was dispersed. Just 22 research staff in total agreed to transfer from the old site at Bayfordbury.

So why was the idea of moving to Norwich so unpalatable to John Innes staff? The ‘newness’ of Norwich’s University was one factor. Planning for the ‘University of East Anglia’ (UEA) had only begun in late September 1961. The basic nucleus of the University, its classrooms, library, laboratories and refectory opened in temporary prefabricated buildings dubbed ‘the Village’, off Earlham Road, in 1963. The first students were enrolled in the autumn of 1963. To keep on schedule the new Vice Chancellor had opted to start the new Schools in temporary accommodation, while permanent buildings were under construction on the golf course nearby – afterwards known as the ‘University Plain’. The School of Biological Sciences (BIO), with which JI was destined to be partnered, was one of the first to launch the University on its teaching career. The new undergraduates and John Innes staff would have found a University on a ‘domestic scale’, but a grand and creative future was planned for the permanent site (Thistlethwaite 2000). By the time the John Innes Institute moved up to Norwich in 1967, the greenfield golf course over the road had an uncompromisingly modern set of buildings (the Ziggurats) and soon after the University library moved over to its permanent building (1968). The initial plan was for the John Innes staff to move into buildings on what is now the Norwich Airport at Horsham St Faiths, and then move on to the University campus when permanent buildings became available.

First John Innes Institute students, Norwich, October 1969

What were the consequences of the Institute’s move to Norwich? The first challenge for the re-launched John Innes Institute in Norwich was to find a new Director. The job was offered to Dr Roy Markham, FRS, Head of the ARC’s Virus Research Unit in Cambridge- whose re-location to Norwich was also engineered by the ARC, introducing plant virology to the Institute’s scientific departments. Having settled the Directorship, the next job was to fill the vacant Head of Department posts. The John Innes Charity Trustees had agreed to fund three professorships in BIO in the new spirit of integration with UEA. New John Innes Professorships of Genetics and Applied Genetics were advertised and Dr David Hopwood and Dr D. Roy Davies appointed. Roy Markham became Professor of Cell Biology as well as Director. In return for lectures and university duties, the Professors enjoyed privileges equal to University teaching staff, and could recruit talented PhD students. But there were also limits placed on the symbiosis between the two institutions. In the early days, Gordon Cox, head of ARC, hoped that JI’s relationship with BIO would be as close as possible, and talked of them occupying the same building. But this arrangement was judged to be a potential threat to the future independence of the John Innes. It also involved a plan to physically separate the ‘pure’ from the ‘applied’ work of the Institute- which again was viewed unfavourably- potentially involving scientists in time-consuming trips to visit their field plots and glasshouses. The John Innes was still partly privately funded and consequently enjoyed much greater freedom to arrange its affairs than other ARC institutes. Roy Markham, with the support of the John Innes Charity (now John Innes Foundation) took the decision that JI would not be physically located with BIO on the University site, but would develop its own site on 29 acres of farmland at the side of Colney Lane, where it is still located today.

The first John Innes buildings were prefabs: the administration building 1967-8

The original John Innes Library, 1967-8


The building work started in June 1966, and the temporary buildings that were ready were first occupied the following March; the rest were completed in June 1967. In this first phase the staff worked from prefabs (except some of the virus research staff who were accommodated at the nearby Food Research Institute) until the permanent buildings were ready.


One member of staff recalls it wasn’t easy to do Electron Microscope work in these makeshift conditions. The prefabs were too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter and the softwood frames didn’t fit very well so that it was very difficult to keep out the dust. In fact, the windows were taped up to keep out the dust so they also suffered from poor ventilation (Wells, 2000). The permanent buildings were built between 1969 and 1971 and were designed by architect Alan Paine. Today the ‘Bateson Building’ and the John Innes ‘Rec Centre’ are the main remnants of this first permanent building phase.

The original front entrance of the John Innes Institute early 1970s.

During the construction phase not everything went according to plan: in 1969 a spectacular failure of the six plant growth cabinets was caused by the pile driving carried out to support the south end of the main building (17 piles over 50 feet deep). This caused the loss of large amounts of experimental material. More fortunately, the financial failure of the main building contractors at the beginning of 1971 happened when most of the main laboratory building was completed. Though not mentioned in the Director’s Annual Reports, the archives suggest there were some teething problems!

‘Monty Paine’s Leaking Institute’. Spoof portrait of Director Roy Markham in front of the new John Innes Institute. John Innes Centre Archives.

Thanks to an excellent collection of memoirs in the John Innes Archives we can begin to imagine what the transition to Norwich had involved for the staff. They had to cope with the considerable upheaval of moving the Institute’s property and plant collections. Fruit trees had to be propagated and sent up to the new experimental fruit farm at Stanfield, near East Dereham. The garden Curator Gavin Brown and Don Smith, the farm manager, had to move trees, shrubs, seed boxes, flower pots, ladders and tractors. They purchased a second-hand McVitie’s biscuit van in Norwich, and hired a driver, and he did three trips a fortnight backwards and forwards from Bayfordbury to Norwich for 18 months to complete the removal. It was a ‘fantastic undertaking’ (Brown, 1981). Each department had its own packing challenges, in the Genetics Department, for example, Rosemary Carpenter had to move the Antirrhinum (Snapdragon) collection- mostly as seed, moving as few plants as possible. The collection had to be re-grown in Norwich, thousands of plants in outdoor plots and indoors, but the upheaval meant that the Antirrhinum work was at first ‘nothing like on the scale of Bayfordbury’. Another colleague remembered the move as ‘chaotic’: ‘things did get mislaid and things did get broken’- though it wasn’t as bad as many anticipated (Harrison 1989). There was an upside for the re-located staff though: ‘the move brought us all closer together’ (Carpenter, 2009).

At Markham’s Virus Research Unit in Cambridge, 1967 was an unsettled year, punctuated with architects’ meetings to plan the new labs. Some of the VRU staff moved in 1967, but the ‘protein group’ remained in Cambridge until the following year, starting work in Norwich in November 1968. Margaret Short remembered: ‘The move to Norwich came as a very unwelcome interruption to research, quite apart from the tedious and dirty job of packing all the chemicals and the apparatus, which [apart from the protein analyser] we had to do ourselves’ (Short, 1989). The plant virus collection had to be left in Cambridge while suitable glasshouse space could be provided in Norwich- to the credit of the Cambridge glasshouse staff none of the cultures were lost. The new Virus Department labs were occupied in February 1971, on decimalisation day.

John Innes tea room (Bateson Common Room) early 1970s. Today lab coats are not allowed in eating areas!

John Innes ‘Rec Centre’ Bar, early 1970s.










John Innes Institute Reception in 1983, before it was remodelled.

Fast forward to April 1989, the Colney site was once again occupied by earth-movers, giant cranes, delivery lorries, mud and gravel. The new Sainsbury Laboratory was near completion, and the new Library and Archives building, designed by David Luckhurst, was finished in 1990. The construction of the new ‘Institute of Plant Science Research’ laboratory was well underway. This was the new three-storey ‘Cambridge Lab’ designed to house the 90 non-privatised staff moving up to Norwich from the old Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge and their new colleagues, students and visiting scientists. The money from the PBI privatisation (£38.8M) was used to replicate the suite of special glasshouses and other facilities left behind at Cambridge, and paid for the new Library and archives (which now housed John Innes and PBI collections). It also financed new offices for the Director of IPSR (Harold Woolhouse) at which point the old Institute frontage and Reception was re-modelled and given the familiar curved shape it has today. The Germ Plasm Resources Unit (seed store) was constructed to hold PBI’s nationally important collection of seeds and JI’s Pisum collection. The PBI Trustees funded new containment glasshouses for future GM work and many other facilities- transforming the original John Innes site. And more organisations and buildings have joined the John Innes campus since then: The Nitrogen Fixation Laboratory moved up from the University of Sussex to the purpose-built Joseph Chatt building in 1995, the Conference Centre was built in the same year, and the Genome Building (now the Earlham Institute) opened in 2001. The newest addition to the Campus is the Centrum Building which opened in 2014.

In science, the last 50 years have been eventful. As one researcher recalled (VRU, Cambridge and JI, 1948-1992): ‘Being around in these years when science has changed so much has been extraordinary. My school text books were not so different from my Father’s but things are taught now that were not known when I was given my first pay’. (Plaskitt, 1995). The move to Norwich introduced the relatively new idea that a lab would consist not just of scientists and technicians but groups made up of scientists, technicians, students and post docs. Some of the highlights of their achievements over these years are captured in JI’s centenary timeline and the John Innes Foundation timeline.

There will be a Public Open Day on Saturday 16th September 2017 to celebrate the John Innes Centre’s 50 years in Norwich- do join us. Keep an eye out for news of JIC50 events on the John Innes Centre website


Further reading

Frank Thistlethwaite (2000). Origins: a personal reminiscence of UEA’s foundation (Cambridge: Frank Thistlethwaite).

Staff memoirs quoted here from the John Innes Centre Archives include:

Brian Wells, 2000; Gavin Brown, 1981; Brian Harrison, 1989; Rosemary Carpenter 2009; Margaret Short, 1989; and Kitty Plaskitt, 1995.


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Our Ancient and Diverse Brassica vegetables

On the 8th and 9th September we welcomed members of the public to join us for our annual Heritage Open Day event in the John Innes Historical Collections. Heritage Open Days represent England’s biggest heritage festival, and like venues all across Norwich and Norfolk we were joining in the celebration of our history and culture. For these special HODs events we like to not only display a new theme using our fantastic rare books and archives, but also bring in one of our John Innes Centre scientists to tell us about their research. This year we were very lucky to have Dr Judith Irwin from JIC’s Crop Genetics Department talking about ‘Our Ancient and Diverse Brassica Vegetables’- a fascinating tour of more than 2000 years of history of cultivation and study, brought up to date with Judith’s research on flowering time in broccoli.

Display of brassica images from our rare books, 17th to 20th century

Our Heritage Open Day Event for 2016. On display, brassica illustrations across four centuries. John Innes Historical Collections.

Judith began her talk with a survey of the brassicas which are part of the mustard family. The mustards are a very large family of more than 300 genera and 3,500 species. In traditional botanical classification the mustards are part of the Crucifer family (having four petals arranged in a cross). Judith told us that a good place to see the wild brassica ancestor of many of our garden brassica vegetables (Brassica oleracea subspecies oleracea) are the chalk cliffs of Dorset where you’ll see their clumps of yellow flowers. We’re not sure whether this species is genuinely native to the UK or a garden escape. Studies of the plant geography suggest an origin in the Irano-Turanian region, possibly centred on Turkey – but this has not yet been confirmed. A flora of Turkey published in 2007 listed 560 species of Brassicaceae in all.

18th century Dutch illustration of cabbage

Cabbage illlustration from J. W. Weinmann’s 4 volume Duidelyke Vertoning … (Amsterdam, 1736-1748). John Innes Historical Collections.

The origins of our cultivated brassicas were probed further by a Korean-Japanese botanist who was working in Japan called Dr U (his name Woo Jang-choon is today known by the Japanized reading of his name ‘Nagaharu  U’) who in 1935 came up with what is now known as ‘U’s triangle’- a diagram of the relationships between the different cultivated brassica species. U showed that oilseed rape and swede (Brassica napus) is a hybrid between two other species: Brassica rapus (turnip, Chinese cabbage, turnip rape) and Brassica oleracea (cabbage, sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower).

Illustrated diagram to show the relationship between cultivated Brassica species after U 1935

Diagram of ‘U’s triangle’ showing the relationship between different cultivated brassica species. Design: Judith Irwin, John Innes Centre after U, 1935.

Judith then moved on to tell us about the ancient history behind brassica vegetables, from descriptions by the Greek philosopher Theophrastus (370-285 BC) to the book on farming by Roman author Cato the Elder (234 BC to 149 BC) who stated ‘Cabbage surpasses all vegetables. Eat it either cooked or raw. If you eat it raw, dress it with vinegar. It aids digestion remarkably’. It has been suggested that our brassica vegetables originate with the Romans bringing cabbage to the British Isles (Gates 1950), and we know that the Anglo-Saxons cultivated brassicas because they actually called the month of February ‘sprout-kale’ (Wright, 1968). Brassica vegetables were cultivated extensively by medieval religious orders for food and medicine. Much of the knowledge they used probably came down to them from classical sources. Pliny the Elder (AD 23 to AD 79), for example, described a list of more than 80 cabbage-related medicines. The oldest herbals in the John Innes Historical Collections date from the 16th and 17th centuries and are full of advice on how to use brassicas for improving health and curing ailments. We displayed, for example, the popular herbal by Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) which listed many Cabbage–based remedies including: Adder bites, hoarseness of the voice, kidney stones, drunkenness, gout and many more.

Portrait of 17th century herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper

Nicolas Culpeper, author of a popular 17th century herbal that went to many editions. Our edition dates from 1819.

Judith went on to discuss which of our brassica vegetables came first. We think the first brassica crops grown here were the more primitive kales, or ‘collards’. The word ‘collard’ is a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon word ‘colewort’ – their word for cabbage plants.  In the Latin species name Brassica oleracea acephala, acephala means ‘without a head’. Kale has been grown for more than 2000 years: the Romans grew several kinds, and the Celts of central and Western Europe also grew them.

Illustrations of coleworts from John Gerard's herbal, 1636. John Innes Historical Collections

Garden ‘Coleworts’ illustrated in John Gerard’s Herbal, 1636. John Innes Historical Collections.

Kale and Cabbage varieties from 17th century herbal

More Kale and Cabbage varieties from John Gerard’s Herbal, 1636

The next brassicas to arrive were the cabbages: the species name Brassica oleracea capitata meaning ‘head’. Our common name ‘Cabbage’ is the anglicised form of the old French word caboce or caboche – also meaning ‘head’. The Celtic word ‘bresic’ for cabbage, is said to have influenced the Latin name brassica.







We know that cabbages were grown in 14th century England because we have a recipe ascribed to the chief cook to King Richard II for “caboches in potage”, this instructs the reader to take caboches and quarter them – see the original recipe here. The commercial cultivation of cabbages in England came later- probably introduced from Holland in the 16th century by Sir Anthony Ashley. By this time cabbages and turnips had also reached North America. French Navigator Jacques Cartier is thought to have brought the seeds with him on his third voyage for use by the settlement he established in Canada.

Colour illustrations of Kohl rabi from a 19th century seed catalogue, Album Benary, 1876-1893

Illustration of Kohl rabi varieties from Ernst Benary’s Album Benary, 1876-1893 – a nineteenth century seed catalogue. John Innes Historical Collections.

Next came the Kohl rabi from the German Kohl for ‘cabbage’ and Rabi for ‘turnip’ with the species name Brassica oleracea gongloydes – the ‘gongloydes’ meaning roundish or swollen, these are thought to have appeared in the 16th century. Other 16th century novelties included the cauliflowers and broccolis. Cauliflower from the Latin ‘caulis’ (cabbage) and floris (flower) – the species name Brassica oleracea botrytis is taken from the Greek meaning like a bunch of grapes. The ‘broccoli’ name refers to its branching character (‘brachium’- an arm or branch). In 1586 broccoli’s were referred to as the ‘Cyprus coleworts’, while the Latin name for them is Brassica oleracea italica (from Italy).

Kales and Brussels sprouts illustrated in Album Benary, 1876-1893

Kales and Brussels sprouts from Album Benary, 1876-1893. John Innes Historical Collections.

Finally, the Brussels sprouts arrived (Brassica oleracea gemmifera) – ‘gemmifera’ meaning ‘diamond maker’ (giving the idea perhaps that eating them made you mentally alert!). These are generally believed to have evolved in the seventeenth or eighteenth century and originated, as the name suggests, from Brussels. Judith rounded off this discussion with some slides taken from the John Innes’s collection of seed catalogues which cover the 19th and early 20th centuries.

A sample of early 20th century seed catalogues in the John Innes Historical Collections

A selection of early 20th century seed catalogues from the John Innes Historical Collections.

These show that seed firms recommended kale to growers as a frost hardy crop that could be relied on when other greens were scarce or destroyed. Cauliflower was ‘rather tender’ and so was sown in spring for autumnal use, whereas broccoli was hardier and suitable for growing through winter for use in spring and summer. Judith drew attention to some of the varietal names for ‘Broccoli’ in the catalogues. For example, ‘Bunyard’s Early White’, ‘Bunyard’s April White’, and ‘Snow’s Winter White’ – showing that at this time (aside from the Purple Sprouting Broccoli) the headed ‘broccoli’ known to the English grower at that time was white not green. To re-inforce the point Judith showed a clip from a 1950s film showing the Spring ‘broccoli harvest’ in West Cornwall- the vegetables in the field clearly looking like cauliflowers (and on the day this was filmed 12 special trains were laid on to transport the ‘broccoli’ to London). Calabrese (what we now call the green headed broccoli in our greengrocers) appeared in our 1935 and 1949 English and American seed catalogues as a novel Italian import.

Illustration of Calabrese Broccoli from a Carter's Seeds 1939 seed catalogue

Our now familiar calabrese broccoli was considered a novelty in 1930s Britain. This illustration from Carter’s Blue Book of Gardening, 1939. John Innes Historical Collections.

The second part of Judith’s talk focused on modern brassica research. Research on brassica is first mentioned in the John Innes archives in the papers of A J Bateman who used them as part of his experiments to work out the isolation distances for seed crops (working out how far apart you needed to grow crops to keep them from intercrossing – to keep the seed ‘pure’). This research helped the seed growers reduce the land area they needed to raise crops for seed. In 1948 Bateman was also studying hybrids between different brassica species, and his records include one of the old ‘crossing tags’ that were used to mark up the experimental plants.

Illustration of archives on Brassica experiments in the John Innes Archives, from the 1940s

Items documenting brassica experiments in the 1940s from the A J Bateman archives, John Innes Historical Collections.

After that era brassicas only become a major part of JIC’s research in the late 1980s when a Brassica and Oilseeds Department was set up shortly before the closure of the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge. A lot of the work introduced by the arrival of the ex-PBI staff centred on the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana – with its simpler genome and fast life-cycle, and compact form, it is a more convenient plant to work with to study genetics than the brassica species, to which the findings can later be applied. The more complex cabbages and cauliflowers have 3 times more genes and oilseed rape 6 times more to study.

Illustration of the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana from William Curtis, Flora Londiniensis, 1835.

Arabidopsis thaliana, the ‘lab rat’ or ‘rosetta stone’ of plant genetics. Illustration from William Curtis, Flora Londiniensis, 1835. John Innes Historical Collections. Clues from this plant are helping scientists unlock the secrets of flowering time in brassicas.

Judith’s research focuses on how temperature influences flowering. Why do we want to do this? Judith explained that climate change will affect when plants flower, and it is also important for crop scheduling (having crop plants ready to harvest across the season to provide efficient harvesting and reduce waste). Judith showed some examples of how spells of extreme cold had wrecked brassica harvests in the recent past. Judith is interested in winter temperature and how plants tell the seasonal day length. Broccoli plants count the number of cold days they’re exposed to because they have a ‘vernalization requirement’ meaning they need a period of prolonged cold in order to flower. Temperature is central to any brassica you grow. The fundamental research on what controls flowering time here at JIC centres on the work of Dame Professor Caroline Dean, FRS whose work on Arabidopsis has produced so much of the ‘road map’ to understanding how flowering time in brassicas works.

Judith’s work, in collaboration with Professor Dean, plant breeders and growers, involves crossing different broccoli lines together to find the gene controlling the trait for how many days of cold (and how cold) the plant needs before it can flower. Their objective is to breed different varieties of broccoli that will be ready to harvest at different times.

Illustration of different varieties of Broccoli coming into flower at different times.

Different combinations of alleles allow us to schedule flowering across the season. New brassica varieties will need changed responses to cold as our climate changes.

The difficulty comes in the fact that the genes controlling flowering are also involved in many other plant characters (including the seeds and pods) – it is important not to adversely affect these commercial traits when producing new brassica varieties with changed responses to cold. The future challenge is to ‘climate-proof’ our crops: to produce crops with defined, predictable flowering times; uniform and shortened flowering period; more determinate flowering habit; and uniform harvest with reduced losses (by breeding for reduced cold sensitivity) for agricultural and horticultural crops and for seed and commercial production. Achieving this goal will require an integrated view across plant development as a whole, and how this is affected by the environment. Judith gave the audience an insight into some of the equipment required to take this research forward, from the state of the art controlled environment rooms at JIC (taking the weather to the plant rather than the plant to the weather) to photo-booths (at the University of Aberystwyth) used to document an individual plant’s growth and development from the start to the end of their life-cycle, a process that can then be digitally modelled.  I’m sure everyone enjoyed the talk and its fascinating insights into 2000 years of brassica history.


Further references:

Garden catalogues on display from the John Innes Centre Archives:

George Bunyard and Co. Ltd., Vegetables for Epicures n.d. [c. 1939-1945] (Maidstone, Kent)

Carter’s Tested Seeds Ltd, The Blue Book of Gardening, Catalogues 1939 and 1949 (Raynes Park, London).

S. Daniel’s & Son, Ltd. Catalogue, Spring, 1931 (Wymondham, Norfolk)

Henry A. Dreer, Dreer’s Garden Book 1935 (Philadelphia, PA, USA)

Edmunds (Milton) Ltd, Edmunds Bulbs, Seeds, and Plants Catalogue 1931 (Milton, Cambridgeshire)

Elsoms (Spalding) Ltd, Seeds of Quality Catalogue, December 1943 (Spalding, Lincolnshire)

For a brief history of cabbages:

R. Gates, ‘Wild cabbages and the effects of cultivation’, Journal of Genetics (1950) 51: 363-372

D. Mitchell, ‘The status of Brassica oleracea L. Subsp. Oleracea’ (wild cabbage) in the British Isles’, Watsonia (1976) 11: 97-103.

Jonathan Roberts, Cabbages and Kings: the Origins of Fruit and Vegetables (London: HarperCollins, 2001).

Lawrence Wright (1968). Clockwork Man London: Elek Books Ltd., p. 43. See more here

For more information about Judith Irwin’s lab and their work on brassicas at JIC follow the link.

For U’s classic paper and the now famous ‘U’s triangle’, See Nagaharu U (1935): “Genome analysis in Brassica with special reference to the experimental formation of B. napus and peculiar mode of fertilization”. Japan. Journal of Botany, 7: 389–452.



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Introducing our new archivist Mark Pitchforth

_DSC8893Mark portrait

Mark Pitchforth pictured in the John Innes Archives

My name is Mark Pitchforth and I have just taken up the post of John Innes Centre Project Archivist, funded by the Welcome Trust, based in the JIC Library and working with the wonderful historical archive collections held there.

My career working with archives has been quite varied to date. Before qualifying as an archivist I completed a year’s traineeship at Royal Holloway, University of London and subsequently gained a place at Liverpool University, completing my Masters in Archives and Records Management in 2004. Since then I have worked as an archivist at Cheshire Record Office, West Yorkshire Archives Service and most recently Hampshire Record Office based in Winchester. During my time there I was seconded to work on a part-time basis at the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu on their motoring archives. This new position at JIC offers further variety and I’m very much enjoying the process of familiarising myself with the collections and the rich history attached to them. The wealth of material held is fantastic and I am excited at the prospect of making strides towards it becoming a more secure and accessible resource.

One of the most prominent collections among our archive holdings is the William Bateson papers documenting the life and work of Britain’s founding father of genetics. The collection comprises around 10,000 items dating from around 1869 to 1926, including two boxes of notebooks and small diaries. One of these notebooks I have found particularly interesting as it contains information on the setting up of the John Innes Horticultural Institution at Merton Park with hand-drawn pencil sketches of potential room layouts as well as research notes on rogue peas and lists of plants. The notebook also demonstrates some of the good archive conservation work which has been achieved. It had previously been exposed to water damage and was in extremely poor condition but with funding from the Welcome Trust and help from conservation staff at Norfolk Record Office, the notebook has now been cleaned and repaired and placed in custom archival packaging which will help protect it from any further damage in the future.

Bateson notebook with bespoke packaging and repaired cover after conservation at Norfolk Record Office

William Bateson notebook with bespoke packaging and repaired cover after conservation at Norfolk Record Office. It was formerly known only as ‘the mouldy notebook’ and could not be handled or read.


William Bateson's notebook contains room plans for the new Institute, plant lists and details of experiments on garden peas

William Bateson’s notebook contains room plans for the new Institute, plant lists, and details of his experiments on garden peas

We also hold collections relating to a number of other former Directors of John Innes including Cyril Darlington, who oversaw the move to Bayfordbury in Hertfordshire after the Second World War and whose papers have been catalogued in detail, and Harold W Woolhouse, who was instrumental in the development of the John Innes Centre during the 1980s as it grew from around 200 staff to over 800, incorporating the Sainsbury Laboratory, the Cambridge Laboratory and the Nitrogen Fixation Laboratory. The Woolhouse family have just passed on additional documents to add to the material already held relating to, amongst other things, his involvement with the Scientific Exploration Society, specifically projects based in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) and Colombia in the 1970s. We’ve also recently received a substantial number of documents from Prof David Hopwood, Emeritus Fellow in the Department of Molecular Microbiology at JIC and a pioneer in the field of the genetics of Streptomyces coelicolor. This demonstrates that the collection of archives is a continuous process and it is important that material of potential historical significance is preserved now for future generations of researchers.

I have begun developing a collections policy and staff manual encompassing all aspects of archive care. This will include improving the condition and security of the historic material through the introduction of further archive standard packaging, identifying items within the collections like the Bateson notebook in need of professional conservation work and revisiting our procedures and provisions surrounding access and disaster planning. Also important is to encourage greater awareness of the unique and valuable collections we hold and encourage as many people as possible to make use of them. This will be achieved by improving the level of archive cataloguing, ensuring that documents can be located and produced efficiently, making greater use of the searchable Calm archive database and generally promoting the work that we are doing.

For more information about the JIC historical collections go to If you have relevant material which you think should be preserved, either now or in the future, or any other questions regarding the archives then feel free to get in touch to discuss things further. My personal e-mail is

Mark’s post, and conservation and cataloguing work on the Bateson and Darlington collections was funded by a Wellcome Trust Research Resources Grant in Medical History (Grant no. GR093741)


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Celebrating the history of peas and the International Year of the Pulse

This year (2016) has been designated the ‘International Year of Pulses’ (IYP) by the United Nations General Assembly. A quick look at the infographic on the official website tells you why: pulses are high in protein, their nutritional advantages include maintaining their quality after long storage, and they demand less water than other protein sources to produce, are economically accessible, and can also increase biodiversity and enhance soil fertility. Encouraging more pulses to be grown and eaten, and improving the protein content of the varieties under cultivation, is the goal of the international development and research communities, including the John Innes Centre. To mark this special year this blog delves a little into the history of just one of the pulses in widespread cultivation, the humble pea. Read what some of the early herbalists and botanists recorded about the pea (with illustrations from the John Innes Historical Collections). ‘Pulses’ are defined as edible dried mature seeds of leguminous crops so dried peas are the main focus of the blog, although the growth of the fresh pea market will also be touched on.

So to first briefly give some context, plant evidence points to two independent domestication events in peas. The first and largest cohort is Pisum sativum, which accounts for nearly all the cultivated peas worldwide.

Pisum sativum (syn. P. arvense) illustrated in John Sibthorpe's, Flora Graeca

Pisum sativum, which accounts for most of the cultivated peas worldwide, appears in many old botanical books as Pisum arvense (field peas). This illustration is from John Sibthorpe’s Flora Graeca (10 vols, London, 1806-40). John Innes Historical Collections.

The second domestication event took place in the Ethiopian highlands (‘Abyssinian peas’), a group that has proved difficult to classify. It is now classed as Pisum sativum sub-species abyssinicum, although molecular evidence shows it has more in common with two wild taxa, Pisum fulvum and Pisum elatius (P. sativum ssp elatius) than with sativum types. These peas had a more localised distribution in Africa.

Pisum fulvum illustrated in John Sibthorp's Flora Graeca

Pisum fulvum, one of the wild progenitors of Pisum abyssinicum. Illustration from John Sibthorp’s Flora Graeca (10 vols, London, 1806-40). John Innes Historical Collections.

Domesticated Pisum sativum, originated in the Near East around 8000 BCE, spread to Europe, Africa and Asia with Neolithic agriculture, fed Greek philosophers and Roman legionaries, and as ‘pease pottage’ (a gruel or thick soup), became a staple of medieval and early modern kitchens, keeping famine at bay.

Two illustrations of PIsum, from Ortus Sanitatis, 1511 and Hieronymus Bock, Kreuterbuch, 1560

Two early but unmistakable representations of Pisum from Ortus sanitatis, 1511 and from Hieronymus Bock, Kreuterbuch, 1560 (right). John Innes Historical Collections.

Pisum illustrated in Bock, Kreuterbuch, 1560




By the seventeenth century Pisum sativum had reached the Americas; peas are naturally packaged perfectly for expeditions, and the Pilgrim Fathers took dried peas with them on the Mayflower as part of their ration for the 65 day trip across the Atlantic. By this time European authors were beginning to discriminate between different pea varieties, and dividing ‘field’ from ‘garden’ peas.

17th century illustrations of peas, John Gerard's Herbal, 1597

Some of the different cultivated pea varieties available in the 17th century. Gerard noted that both field and garden peas were considered domesticated forms. John Gerard’s Herbal, 1597. John Innes Historical Collections.


Scottish or 'tufted' pea illustrated in John Gerard's Herbal, 1597

The Scottish or ‘tufted pea’ is a distinctive pea variety expressing apical fasciation. Heritage varieties of this form are still preserved in the Germplasm Resources Unit at the John Innes Centre today. Source: John Gerard, Herbal, 1597.

In the modern era, the creation and marketing of pea varieties proceeded apace with the development of plant breeding and the rise of horticultural companies like Suttons Seeds of Reading (founded 1806) or Carter’s Seeds of London (founded 1863). Today the John Innes Germplasm Resources Unit holds over 3,620 different ‘accessions’ of peas, from wild and domesticated peas collected on expeditions around the world, to ‘heritage’ peas from Great Britain (the oldest in the collection is the ‘Mummy Pea’ introduced in 1788), to an important collection of pea variants arising from mutations discovered or generated by scientists and breeders around the world. The development of new forms of peas in the 1970s by researchers at John Innes (the ‘leafless’ and ‘semi-leafless’ pea varieties), was based on mutant lines held in the collection. Today semi-leafless accounts for almost all dried pea varieties grown in the UK.

Eating peas fresh and green (rather than starting your dish with soaked dried peas) is a relatively modern luxury. Little dishes of garden peas were once presented for the enjoyment of Kings, Queens and Cardinals. By the time John Parkinson was writing his Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris (2nd ed. 1656) green peas were eaten by rich and poor. He records that the ‘fairest’, sweetest, youngest and earliest peas were eaten by the rich, whereas the later, ‘meaner’ and lower priced peas were eaten by the poor or ‘serve to boyl into a kind of broth or pottage’ flavoured with Thyme, Mints, Savory ‘or some other such hot herbs to give it better relish’. Peas, he notes were especially consumed ‘in Town and Country in the Lent-time, especially of the poorer sort of people’. Mariners were another group relying on peas to sustain them ‘It is much used likewise at Sea for them that go on long voyages, and is for change, because it is fresh, a welcome diet to most persons therein’. As for the health benefits of including peas in the diet, 17th century authors rather sat on the fence, they were neither bad nor good!

Comments on the dietary value of peas from John Gerard's Herbal, 1636

Today peas are a taken-for-granted vegetable, and partly because food cultures have continued to evolve in the industrial age and new uses for peas have developed. Canned and frozen peas transformed the ‘fresh’ pea market. Dried peas found a new lease of life as ‘mushy peas’ (made from marrowfat peas). These will accompany your pie on a night out or at a football match in the north of England, and are also served alone as a snack in parts of the Midlands and North. A permanent stall in Norwich Market devoted to mushy peas has traded daily (except Sundays) since 1969. As an accompaniment to ‘traditional’ fish and chips mushy peas are an innovation of the 1970s. The dried pea remains central to many food cultures around the world including India, the Middle East, the Far East, Europe, and North and South America. Eating pea soup on Thursdays is a weekly tradition in Sweden and Finland and has been so ever since the Middle Ages. And in the Netherlands pea soup is traditionally served on New Year’s Day. Yet in the UK the pulse acreage in general has been in decline since 2001, falling from 319,000 hectares to 157,000 hectares in 2012. Combinable peas (for the dried pea market) have suffered the greatest decline, a 70% fall in the same period, though the acreage of vining (fresh) peas has been more stable it is also in gradual decline. The introduction of the three crop rule in 2015 as part of the Common Agricultural Policy reform (aimed at increasing diversification and ensuring that farming practices benefit the environment) has provided a significant stimulus to pulse growers but their expansion is still highly dependent on the size of the market and the commodity value.

The observation that peas and beans have root nodules (where nitrogen-fixing micro-organisms live in symbiosis with these plants) was made by plant anatomists in the seventeenth century. The role of legumes in restoring fertility to arable land was also well-known by the early nineteenth century, even if the nitrogen-fixing process itself remained largely a mystery. The famous ‘Norfolk four-course rotation’, popularised by the Holkham Estate in north Norfolk, was based on the clover crop for nitrogen fixing in a field rotation of wheat, barley, turnips and clover. In modern crop rotations peas take the place of clover as so few arable farms now have grazing livestock. Today’s CAP three-crop rule is a move to bring the benefits of pulses and their nitrogen fixation back onto more farms. To read more about the peas grown in the UK and their future prospects follow the link to the recent Anderson Report (2015) commissioned by JIC.

17th century illustration of root nodules on a pea plant, Malpighi, Anatome Plantarum, 1675

Root nodules can clearly be seen on the top left hand pea plant in this seventeenth century illustration. From Marcello Malpighi, Anatome plantarum (London, 1675). John Innes Historical Collections.

Given the number of byways a history of the pea could lead you down it’s surprising this crop hasn’t attracted more attention from historians (if you know of a good source for peas do let me know on Twitter @JIChistory or email I know of nothing to parallel Redcliffe Salaman’s The History and Social Influence of the Potato (1949) for example, or the delightful assemblage that is the virtual ‘World Carrot Museum’ founded and curated by John Stolarczyk from Skipton in North Yorkshire. A starting point might be Mike Ambrose’s 2008 chapter on the plant breeding history of the garden pea. In addition, and apparently well worth a visit, there are the Grade II listed ‘Pea Rooms’ at Heckington, Lincolnshire (post code NG34 9JH) where pea history is preserved in photos on the wall (if anyone has visited and has photos please get in touch). Peas also assume an important role, if still not quite centre stage, in the history of genetics, thanks to the focus on Gregor Mendel’s pea hybridisation experiments (published in 1866) and the attention paid them since their ‘rediscovery’ around 1900 (see earlier blogs for a flavour of the controversies around Mendel and his British defender, William Bateson, the first Director of the John Innes). The 2016 anniversary of Mendel’s publication will bring historians of science together for a new round of commemoration, new Mendel exhibitions, and some exciting new historical interpretations. The British Society for the History of Science (BSHS) is about to launch an educational initiative in partnership with the Brno Mendel Museum and the Royal Society to celebrate the contribution of Mendelian genetics to modern science and highlight the contributions made by Cambridge women scientists in the early twentieth century.

Caroline Pellew, one of the early pea geneticists at John Innes, illustrated by Dorothy Cayley.

Caroline Pellew working in the plots at the John Innes Horticultural Institution in the 1910s. Caroline was one of the Institute’s first pea geneticists, working alongside William Bateson. Bateson had encouraged women researchers to take up genetics both at Cambridge and at the John Innes. Caroline’s route into plant science was University College Reading’s two-year Diploma in Horticulture though, not the University of Cambridge. Illustration by Dorothy Cayley, John Innes Historical Collections.

The celebrations will coincide with the publication by the BSHS of a new edited English translation of Mendel’s work (surprisingly the one relied on currently is still the one commissioned by Bateson in the early 1900s), and will be followed up by educational web-based material. Meanwhile a helpful textbook edited by Denise Phillips and Sharon Kingsland, New Perspectives on the History of Life Sciences and Agriculture (Springer, 2015; available in the John Innes History of Genetics Library) includes chapters by Sanders Gliboff and Jonathan Harwood re-assessing the literature surrounding the ‘Mendelian revolution’ and looking again at Mendel’s impact on plant breeding (and its wider ramifications for debates about human breeding). At Leeds, Greg Radick is working on a biography (due out in 2018) of W F R Weldon, Bateson’s arch rival and critic of Mendelian genetics in Britain.  Provisionally titled Disputed Inheritance: The Battle over Mendelism and the Future of Biology, you can expect some challenging new insights on the controversy caused by Mendel’s peas. For a flavour of what’s to come listen to the Mendel discussion hosted by the Royal Society last summer.



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What did the John Innes do during the First World War?

This year’s excellent media coverage of the events and experiences of the First World War got me thinking about the John Innes and how the War had affected the men and women working here. We can’t really tell that story in photographs (how can you record an absence?), but Beatrice Bateson’s William Bateson: Naturalist (1928) was helpful in setting the scene and giving an entry into thoughts and feelings at that time, and there’s enough in the Annual Reports, staff records, letters, and other archives to tell a story.

Britain’s scientists contributed to the war effort in a number of ways from weapons development to food and medical research. The John Innes was a very young institute (it opened in 1910) and unlike in World War Two, had little to offer the government by way of plant research directly useful to the war effort. The John Innes story in 1914-18 is more about hearts and minds, the often overlooked impacts of the war on science and learning, and the sacrifice of individual careers and sometimes lives.

When War broke out William Bateson, the director of the John Innes Horticultural Institution was far away in Australia, presiding over a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Getting home involved a long sea voyage and William, his wife Beatrice and colleague Rebecca Saunders did not return to England until November 1914.


W Bateson in Australia 1914

Happier times: William and Beatrice Bateson and Rebecca Saunders on a railway platform in Australia

By this time Bateson found that the John Innes had already started to disperse. His dream of building a world leading institute for research in genetics was stalled, and he had to face the prospect of making do with meagre resources again. The young men who worked in the gardens and labs had started to go off to war, and the visiting scientists had also returned to their home countries. For example, Nikolai Vavilov, who had come to study cereal genetics with Bateson in 1913, had already packed up his rust-resistant wheat samples and rushed back to Russia by train. The books and botanical specimens he sent on by sea never reached him; the ship carrying them was sunk by a German mine. Dr Malinowski of Warsaw, who had only just arrived, also returned home a few days after the declaration of war.

William Bateson and Nikolai Vavilov

Nikolai Vavilov pictured with William Bateson

How should scientists respond to war? This is something Bateson gave quite a lot of thought to. He was amazed and shocked to find his contemporary scientists taken over by national prejudices. At first he didn’t expect international scientific relations to be affected. He regarded war as a commercial matter, perhaps mixed up with national feeling, but a lot of it ‘commerce in disguise’. He assumed that fellow scientists would feel the same; that they would bond together and rise above the international conflict.

But science was caught up in the hostilities. One of the immediate effects was the closing off of normal channels of information. Bateson found getting German scientific publications, which some regarded as ‘trading with the enemy’, suddenly difficult. He was furious that scientific reference libraries, which had stopped taking German journals, neglected to continue their sets even after the Armistice. Nor did he approve of the Government’s decision to shut the British museums to the public after 1st March 1916. Later he wrote angrily that this action had ‘gravely injured the cause of science and learning, and advertised to the world the contempt in which such Institutions are held in this country’. What, Bateson asked, would science do with the ‘succession in learning’ broken throughout Europe? Journals could eventually be replaced, but how many of the younger generation of potential or upcoming geneticists were tragically lost? (like Edinburgh University’s A. D. Darbishire, ). Only a damaged eye prevented Vavilov from being called to active service in Russia and suffering the same fate.


The John Innes Annual Reports record the destinations of Bateson’s staff after they joined up. Mr G. O. Sherrard, who had just begun a Board of Agriculture research studentship on wheat in 1914, resigned in August and returned to military service as a Captain in the Royal Garrison Artillery. James Lesley (researching gooseberries and potatoes) went into the 5th (Reserve) Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment; laboratory attendant Alfred Emarton enlisted in the Garrison Artillery where he was soon promoted to Bombardier, then Corporal. Two of the student gardeners, D. Orchard and George Butler, enlisted in the 5th Surrey. Maurice Bailey left in 1915, resigning his research studentship to accept a Commission in R.F.A. It was impossible to fill the studentships vacated, and only one male researcher returned to John Innes after the War. You can read about Bateson’s plea to the Board of Agriculture to keep one of the last members of his scientific staff (E.J. Collins) in Simon Coleman’s blog



The John Innes Garden staff  in 1912

The John Innes garden staff in 1912. M B Crane is in the middle row and J Holloway in the back row

Most of the garden staff of military age had also left by 1915. The two sub-foremen, Morley Benjamin Crane and Edward Allen, and the two remaining student gardeners (A B Thorn and A H Powell) left in the spring to enter munitions works. J. Holloway enlisted in the 1st Life Guards. By the end of the year Crane had enlisted in the Flying Corps and Thorn joined the Hampshire Regiment. Only one student gardener returned to complete his time as an ‘Exhibitioner’, after being rejected for military service on medical grounds. Bateson reported soberly ‘the work of the Institution had to be seriously cut down’. It was not only the loss of gardeners that hampered the experimental work. The Institute’s land had to be give over to vegetable growing; some of the produce was sold, but thousands of seedling vegetables were distributed free to local allotment holders.

Bateson’s women staff members were also doing their bit for the war effort. His sister-in-law Florence Durham started laboratory work at a military hospital at the end of the summer of 1915, beginning a new career with the Medical Research Committee (later Council); Miss Mitchell left to become an overseer in a munitions works. Dorothy Cayley resigned her studentship in 1916 to become a tool-setter at Vickers’ aeroplane factory. She did varied war work, including cutting bracken in Savernake Forest for Army horse bedding, and assisting with Royal Army Medical investigations on Tetanus at the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine. The women who stayed behind kept the John Innes running. After the male workforce had left on war service there were four women to every male on the depleted staff.  Women like Hilda Killby came to work in the experimental plots, so many ‘gardeners having gone off to make munitions’. By 1918 running the institute was increasingly difficult, with a scarcity of labour and materials of every kind.

The John Innes also had to manage for short periods without a Director. Bateson travelled to Rouen in France at Christmas 1916 under a scheme promoted by the Universities and the YMCA. The idea was to provide lectures to the troops to try to ‘ease their dreary lot’. Bateson’s first lecture, an introduction to the science of heredity, was not a success. Picture a long narrow room with no lighting except the lantern slide projector, Bateson wrote ‘I could never light up and see my audience … many crept away under cover of the darkness’. His later lectures went better, with a good proportion of interested hearers. He became ‘Rather sick of Preliminary Mendel’ which he regularly repeated, and looked forward to changing to Heredity of Sex, a lecture that apparently had his audience entranced and forgetting their supper! Ill-health cut Bateson’s stay in France short, but he went out again in January 1918. Though happy to contribute to raising troop morale (however odd it might be to think of genetics lectures as morale-boosting now), Bateson would not agree to the Ministry of Information’s request that he write propaganda about what Britain had been doing in genetics during the War. The idea was to counteract an impression abroad that scientific work was at a standstill in Britain. Bateson thought such chauvinism ‘incompatible with the spirit of science’.

So what happened to the John Innes staff members who had gone off to the front? Lt. Bailey and Capt. Lesley were awarded the Military Cross in 1916; Lesley was later reported as wounded and missing, but was finally located as a prisoner of war at Bad-Colberg in Germany. Lesley survived the war and returned to scientific research, but not to the John Innes. Gardeners D. Orchard and A. Lane were killed in action. Happily Sherrard, Emarton, Butler, Holloway and Crane came back safely after war ended. There was one death that was not announced in the John Innes Annual Report for 1918. To add to this year of sadness William and Beatrice’s eldest son John, age 20, was killed in October 1918, just 14 days before the Armistice. ‘He was a brave, good boy’ as Bateson wrote to a friend.

Bateson gave a public lecture on ‘Science and Nationality’ during the dark period of his grief, making his rhetorical question ‘is there a house where there is not one dead?’ especially poignant.  For him the lesson of biology was that ‘struggle and competition’ was the natural state of life, and that the vision of a war free world in the future ‘is an illusion’. He said he never doubted that it was the Government’s duty to go to war in 1914, and he accepted that in time of war ‘truth must be suppressed or garbled; history rewritten; the standards of candour and generosity suspended’. But he remained an idealist about academe: ‘We speak sometimes about science, art and letters as an international domain. More truly we should think of it as extra-national’. The full fascinating 27-page typescript of this lecture is preserved in the John Innes Historical Collections; a transcript was published by Beatrice Bateson’s book (pp. 356-370). An edited version of the address, which was given at the inaugural meeting of the Yorkshire Science Association, was published in the Edinburgh Review in 1919.

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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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