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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 sarah.wilmot@jic.ac.uk). 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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Mendel and the culture of commemoration

Last month (February 8th) was the 150th anniversary of Gregor Mendel reading the first part of his paper ‘Experiments on plant hybrids’ to the natural history society in Brünn, now Brno in the Czech Republic. Next Sunday (March 8th) will be the anniversary of Mendel reading the concluding part of his paper, an account of a long series of crossing experiments on garden peas.  The big commemorative celebrations will take place from 7th-10th September 2015 when international scientists gather at the Mendel Museum of Masaryk University in Brno for lectures and speeches on ‘Mendel’s legacy: 150 years of the genius of genetics’. In addition, the occasion will be marked by two linked exhibitions in the Mendel Museum: the already launched ‘Unseen for many years’ exhibition (8th February to 5th April) showcases Mendel’s original documents which have been brought home to Brno from the University of Illinois where they now belong. The second exhibition will feature the life of Mendel’s first biographer Hugo Iltis (1st October to 31st December). In between these there will be a display celebrating Mendel at the State Darwin Museum in Moscow titled ‘The Construction Set of Life’ (April 18th to May 31st). These events all affirm Mendel as the founding father of modern genetics.


This seems then to be a good moment to reflect on the ‘culture of commemoration’- how history of science is re-told and why ‘discovery narratives’ of the kind that surround Mendel are promoted. The lionisation of Mendel in England began soon after the ‘rediscovery’ of his paper around 1900 by three European botanists: de Vries in Holland, Correns in Germany, and Tschermak in Austria. Cambridge University zoologist William Bateson organized the first English translation of Mendel’s paper for the Royal Horticultural Society in 1901, and he arranged for the translation to be reprinted with modifications on several occasions. Bateson also published one of the earliest biographical notices of Mendel in a preface to his book Mendel’s Principles of Heredity: A defence (1909), from material he had collected on a pilgrimage to Brno in 1904. Bateson’s narrative included many aspects of the history we’re now familiar with – the theme of neglected genius, the sensational rediscovery and confirmation of Mendel’s experiments, and the idea that if Darwin had been able to read Mendel the development of evolutionary science would have been very different. Versions of this story (without any historically informed reflection on the relationship between Darwin and Mendel) appear in the biology textbooks we offer to today’s schoolchildren and students.

Images of Mendel's garden were popular with early geneticists.

Images of Mendel’s garden were popular with early geneticists and were able to stand alone as icons of the Mendel discovery story. This one collected by William Bateson in 1910 was used by @JohnInnesCentre recently to commemorate Mendel’s paper.

For Bateson, commemoration was about bringing Mendel into general recognition. It was a calculated move in a battle he was engaged in with the English biometricians and other biological schools about the methods of biology and the causes of evolution. Bateson built his reputation and career with the authority of Mendel behind him. This relationship is nowhere better expressed than in the portrait of Bateson (below) taken at the Darwin Museum in Moscow in 1925. We know the saying ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ but in this photograph, the bust of Mendel is tellingly perched above William Bateson’s shoulders, with rows of domestic chickens and guinea pigs, the stock-in-trade of contemporary genetics experiments, arranged attractively in display cases behind him. Little would we suspect from this image that at this point in his career Bateson had told his son Gregory (named after Mendel) that his life-long devotion to Mendelism had been a mistake, ‘a blind alley which would not throw any light on the differentiation of species, nor on evolution in general’ (Cock, 1980).

William Bateson with a bust of Gregor Mendel in the Darwin Museum, Moscow, 1925

William Bateson pictured beneath a bust of Mendel, Darwin Museum, Moscow, 1925

Commemoration is a collective endeavour that scientists engage in to build and sustain scientific disciplines (Haddad, 1999). Historians of science sometimes reinforce and at other times work against the discovery narratives that the act of commemoration produces. Revisionist accounts of the history of Mendelism have revealed how much of the complexity of early twentieth century biology gets forgotten in celebratory narratives. For example, we forget that Mendel’s three ‘re-discoverers’ had serious doubts about how widely Mendel’s laws applied; that within a year de Vries had turned away from Mendelian heredity; and that Tschermak’s interpretation of ‘Mendel’s principles’ differed significantly from Bateson’s. When re-reading Mendel’s paper we should also be mindful of Ronald Fisher’s (not dis-interested) conclusion that ‘Each generation, perhaps, found only in Mendel’s paper what it expected to find … [and] … ignored what did not confirm its own expectations’ (Fisher, 1936).

Mendel commemoration, of course, is not just for scientists or historians of science, it has had many other uses as well. Bateson attended the first international gathering to memorialise Mendel in Brno in 1910; he was present at the unveiling of the Mendel statue and gave one of the speeches. He witnessed the ceremonies being used to express German political power and commented that Mendel’s own Augustinian monastery and the Czechs were given a very minor role. The Abbot was the only one present at the celebrations who had known Mendel personally but he was not included in the speeches; the pre-celebration meeting and exhibition of Mendel documents took place in the ‘German House’ not the monastery, and the inscription on the monument was in German alone (Cock, 1982). Mendel’s story has also been used to promote science, or at least ‘free thinking’, over religion, notwithstanding his position as a friar and later Abbot within a monastic community. The photograph of Mendel in the Darwin Museum in Moscow records a time when it was possible for Mendel to represent the glories of science, within a state cultural modernisation programme that had its museum sculptors busy replacing religious icons with statues of scientists. When genetics later fell out of favour in Russia, Mendel’s clerical position made him doubly suspect.

To me the most surprising history of Mendel commemoration is the one recently unearthed by Ronald Numbers (Numbers, 2015). He documents that for almost a century Mendel and Bateson have been celebrated as creationist heroes. Mendel was embraced with enthusiasm by antievolutionists after Canadian-born school teacher George McCready Price began promoting Bateson’s statements against evolutionary theory to Christian fundamentalists. Though Bateson’s earlier books had said little about the relationship between Darwin and Mendel, his presidential address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Melbourne, Australia in 1914 began what became a long-standing creationist interest in Mendel. Price (bolstered with quotations from Bateson’s lecture) credited Mendelism with undermining Darwinism. If Mendelism allowed only for the varied re-assortment of hereditary characters already present there was no room for evolution. Later Bateson tried in vain to express his faith in evolution, to neutralise the coverage of his lectures that had provided fodder to the creationist camp. He failed, for Numbers shows that Mendel continues to be commemorated as a ‘creationist hero’ into the 21st century.

All of this shows that neither Mendel nor Bateson had control over the way their images or writings were represented. To borrow an insight from the Spanish author Javier Marίas, no one achieves silence, not even after death! It follows that studying the history of science is more than the interpretation of ‘landmark’ texts but must involve following ideas in circulation- studying both the people speaking on behalf of the dead scientists and the consumers of that information.


Postscript: A date for your diary

The John Innes Centre will have its own commemoration of Mendel when we launch our new annual history of science lecture (the Innes Lecture) within the Friends of John Innes Centre lecture series in April. We’re very pleased that the inaugural Innes Lecture will be given by Professor Greg Radick from University of Leeds. Greg, who teaches history and philosophy of science, has titled his lecture ‘Mendel the Fraud? A Social History of Truth in Genetics’.  This event will take place in the John Innes Conference Centre, on April 20th 2015 from 18.30 to 21.30.

To book a place at the Innes Lecture please email dawn.rivett@nbi.ac.uk


To find out more about the 2015 Mendel celebrations: http://www.mendelgenius.com/  [More events may get added to the current list over the coming months so watch this space!]

Further Reading: This is just a small selection, there’s so much more available on the web – get exploring!  A great resource is to start with is http://www.mendelweb.org/

Alan G. Cock (1980), ‘William Bateson’s Pilgrimages to Brno’, Brno Acta Musei Moraviae, Folia Mendeliana, 65: 243-250.

Alan G. Cock (1982), ‘Bateson’s impressions at the unveiling of the Mendel monument at Brno in 1910’, Brno Acta Musei Moraviae, Folia Mendeliana,  67: 217-223.

Ronald A. Fisher (1936), ‘Has Mendel’s work been rediscovered?’ Annals of Science, 1: 115-137.

George E. Haddad (1999), ‘Medicine and the culture of commemoration: representing Robert Koch’s discovery of the tubercle bacillus’, Osiris, 14: 118-37. [This classic paper has inspired historians of science and medicine to critically re-examine commemorative events. See also the other papers in this volume on the politics of collective memory].

Javier Marίas (2006), Your Face Tomorrow. 1. Fever and Spear. Translated by M. J. Costa, London: Vintage Books, p. 4.

Ronald L. Numbers (2015), ‘Gregor Mendel: Creationist Hero’, Science and Education, 24: 115-23.

Robert C. Olby (1979), ‘Mendel No Mendelian’, History of Science, 17: 53–72.

Robert C. Olby (2000), ‘Horticulture: the font for the baptism of genetics’, Nature Reviews, Genetics, 1: 65-70. [A good summary of revisionist work on the early history of Mendel’s paper and the groups who were not receptive to Mendelism].

Marsha L. Richmond (2006), ‘The 1909 Darwin Celebration. Re-examining Evolution in the Light of Mendel, Mutation and Meiosis’, Isis, 97: 447-484. [A behind-the-scenes look at how this Darwin commemorative event was stage managed, with valuable insights on contemporary attitudes to Mendel, Bateson, Mendelism and evolution].

Jan Sapp (1990), ‘The Nine Lives of Gregor Mendel’, pp. 137-166 in ed. H. E. Le Grand, Experimental Enquiries (Kluwer Press: Netherlands). [An excellent survey of all the different ways Mendel has been portrayed and also available at Mendelweb].




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Harvest Moon and the Wheat Wizard


Harvest Moon 05

Statue of Sir Rowland Biffen with some historic wheat varieties from the Germ Plasm Resources Unit, John Innes Centre

In September the John Innes Centre celebrated the life and work of plant breeder Rowland Biffen, one of the key figures documented in the Plant Breeding Institute archives which were transferred to JIC archives after the Institute was privatised in 1987. The celebration was planned around a huge wooden desk ‘Biffen’s Desk’ which has stood in our Conference Centre at Norwich since its transfer from the old Plant Breeding Institute site in Trumpington, Cambridge. We recruited an intern to design an innovative exhibition around this artefact, tapping into the University of East Anglia’s internship scheme (a scheme to give paid work experience opportunities to recent UEA graduates). This blog is based on our intern Megan Penney’s work.

_DSC9288 Rowland Biffen Lantern slide: wheat ears

Wheat ears from Rowland Biffen’s collection of glass lantern slides, John Innes Archives


Megan began by exploring the archive which included exploiting some uncatalogued glass lantern slides that belonged to Biffen for projection onto walls and poster displays. These images were combined with examples of historic wheat plants sourced from JIC’s Germ Plasm Resource Unit, and Biffen artefacts from the archives, to bring Biffen’s history alive. Megan was also able to cleverly integrate JIC’s modern time-lapse photography of a growing wheat field into the exhibition. By up-ending a couple of the old and stained desk drawers and projecting the film into them she cleverly ‘antiqued’ the moving images.

Harvest Moon 42 Nikolai Adamski talks about wheat

JIC crop scientist Nikolai Adamski explaining how today’s wheat geneticists are unlocking wheat’s natural diversity





The exhibition was presented to the Friends of John Innes on the 8th September in an event titled ‘Harvest Moon and the Wheat Wizard’ and the evening also featured informal talks from our present and future wheat wizards, Philippa Borrill and Nikolai Adamski. Christine and David Hill gave the farmers’ perspective on the challenges of wheat farming today.



Rowland Biffen at his desk with giant wheat ear

Rowland Biffen examines a giant ear of wheat staged by Cambridge University Agriculture students to playfully convey aspirations for the future of wheat breeding

So why celebrate Biffen? Biffen more than anyone else is associated with the establishment of modern plant breeding in Britain. Some of the principal organisations for crop improvement, especially the Plant Breeding Institute and the National Institute for Agricultural Botany at Cambridge, were established to accommodate his plant breeding and genetics. His two wheat varieties Little Joss (1910) and Yeoman (1916) were popular with farmers and his work on yellow rust resistance opened up the exciting prospect of uniting genetics with plant pathology. Though at the beginning Biffen had to contend with some teasing about his introduction of ‘bread studies’ to an ancient University, he ended up being dubbed the ‘wheat wizard’ and his standing with contemporaries secured him a knighthood. His Institute afterwards went on to establish the genetic basis of key traits and identify sources of variation to breed better crops, while also contributing to advances in crop science and plant breeding methods. His legacy continues in JIC’s Biffen Building today.


_DSC9279 Lab interior, where bread making qualities were studied

‘Bread studies’: bread making qualities were studied in the lab


More info:

For a brief sketch of Rowland Biffen and Plant Breeding Institute history, see http://www.trumpingtonlocalhistorygroup.org/subjects_PBIhistory.html

And the JIC Centenary timeline: https://www.jic.ac.uk/centenary/history-timeline.htm (entries for 1912, 1967, 1987, 1990, 1994).

Harvest Moon 21

Two recent University of Leeds PhD theses take a deeper look at the development of plant breeding in Britain, including Biffen’s role:

Berris Charnley PhD (2011)


Dominic Berry PhD (2014)



For more information about the JIC seed bank (Germ Plasm Resources Unit) from which Megan sourced her historic wheat samples, see https://www.jic.ac.uk/research/germplasm-resources-unit/


For more information on today’s Wheat Improvement programme (a collaboration between five UK research institutes), see https://www.jic.ac.uk/research/wheat-improvement/our-science/

The John Innes Centre is responsible for the Landrace pillar of research.


A selection of the exhibition materials Megan designed can be seen permanently on display around Biffen’s desk in the JIC Conference Centre. We plan to re-use the portable elements in this exhibit in future JIC events.




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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: http://www.mendelweb.org/MWolby.html

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: http://www.mendelweb.org/MWsapp.html

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 http://data.jic.ac.uk/batesonletters/ 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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