Tag Archives | Women in Science

Norwich’s botanical secrets and surprises

Few people with a family in Norfolk will be unaware of the beauty, strangeness and interest of the natural history collections of the Castle Museum in Norwich. But how many also know that there is a Rare Books Room at the John Innes Centre in Norwich? Or that it houses an important collection covering natural science, horticulture and botanical art across five centuries? This blog celebrates the John Innes Centre’s unique treasure house of knowledge about our natural world, the rare botanical books in our collection, and some of the local botanical authors represented on the shelves. Norwich has had more than its fair share of celebrated botanists – you can read more here…

The oldest book in the John Innes collection was published in Venice in 1511 (during the reign of Henry VIII). Called Ortus sanitatis, this Latin text is studded with woodcut illustrations speaking to us about the early modern world view of the natural world. From the ordinary to the fabulous, the book records the plants, animals, birds, and insects that fascinated (or sometimes plagued) people. The plant section, like most early herbals, is focused on the medicinal properties of the plants, and how to prepare the roots, flowers or leaves. But there also traces of old legends if you know where to look:

Narcissus from Ortus sanitatis (1511)

Picture of the Narcissus plant generating tiny homunculi (men). From Ortus sanitatis (1511) John Innes Historical Collections.


Goat pictured in Ortus sanitatis (1511)

One of the many animals featured in our earliest rare book Ortus sanitatis (1511). John Innes Historical Collections.

Apart from individual book treasures like this one (and there are many), the John Innes collection has plenty of local interest, reflecting the fact that Norfolk botanists were at the heart and soul of British botanical science in the 18th and 19th centuries. For example, we have the 36-volume English Botany published from 1790-1814. This was the result of a fruitful collaboration between botanist James Edward Smith (1759-1828) and the publisher and celebrated illustrator James Sowerby (1757-1822).

Portrait of James Edward Smith, Norwich botanist

James Edward Smith, Norwich’s most celebrated botanist (Copyright: Public Domain).

Because Smith was born and lived in Norwich (in Surrey Street- look for the blue plaque), many of the plants included in these volumes were collected from Norfolk waysides and fields. For example, Smith remarked that the best place to find the lesser Periwinkle (Vinca minor) growing wild was Honingham Church. He also occasionally included snippets of the local Norfolk folklore of plants. When writing about Holly in 1798 he notes: ‘The branches of this tree laden with berries, and mixed with mistletoe and the spindle-tree, are used in many parts of England to ornament churches and houses at Christmas, and hence the holly is in Norfolk vulgarly called Christmas‘. Smith achieved national recognition after acquiring the entire collection of books and specimens belonging to the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. He founded the Linnean Society of London in 1788 and became its first President. For many years the Linnean collections were housed in Surrey Street and were visited by entomologists and botanists from all over Europe.

Common toadflax (Linaria vulgaris) pictured in Smith and Sowerby's English Botany.

Common toadflax (Linaria vulgaris) pictured in Smith and Sowerby’s English Botany. John Innes Historical Collections.

Colour picture of peloric Linaria vulgaris

Peloric or ‘monstrous’ form of Linaria vulgaris. This form of the wild flower puzzled both Linnaeus and Smith. The mutation that produces it was explained by JIC scientist Enrico Coen in 1999.

Smith spent the last thirty years of his life writing books and articles on botany. Many of his books are in the John Innes Rare Books library today and there is a monument commemorating his life in St Peter Mancroft church.

Another key Norwich botanist was William (later Sir William) Jackson Hooker (1785-1865). William was educated at Norwich School and took up natural history as a hobby. Smith encouraged him to specialise in botany. Hooker soon established a reputation as an excellent botanical draftsman. One of his early books is Pomona Londiniensis (1813), a collection of 49 hand-coloured aquatint engravings of rare and beautiful fruit varieties found in the markets, private gardens and nurseries of Regency London.

Cherry illustration by William Jackson Hooker

The Elton Cherry- one of the beautiful fruit illustrations by William Jackson Hooker, in Pomona Londiniensis (1813). John Innes Historical Collections.

The colour ‘Hooker’s green’ is named after him. Later William became the first Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, an important position that placed him (and his son Joseph who succeeded him as second Director) at the top of a network of botanical gardens around the Empire. Again, his books are well-represented in the John Innes Historical Collections.

A final local ‘celebrity’ botanist from this era is John Lindley (1799-1865), who became the first Professor of Botany at the University College London, from 1829-1860. He was born in Catton, the son of a nurseryman. It is his report on the royal gardens at Kew which is said to have led to the creation of the Royal Botanic Gardens. One of my favourite Lindley titles is his two-volume Ladies Botany, a testament to the growing market for botany books among women. He has some wise words to encourage botany teachers:  ‘We have only to begin with the beginning, and never take one step till that which precedes it is secured; afterwards the student may advance to what point he pleases. This appears to me to be the only secret in teaching Botany’.

Orchid illustrated by John Lindley

Orchid Catasetum hookeri named after William Jackson Hooker by Norwich botanist John Lindley. John Innes Historical Collections.

Altogether the John Innes Historical Collections cover plant sciences, horticulture, ornamental plants, gardening, plant breeding, entomology and agriculture. Included is a fine collection of floras with illustrations both of the native plants of Britain and Europe, and of the rare and exotic plants discovered around the world. Some of the plants brought back on long sea voyages we now take for granted, like the potato, a novelty in the 1600s. Others remain exotic and are still only seen in the hothouses of botanic gardens. Whatever their story, some traces of their history will be recorded somewhere on the shelves of this remarkable room. In this Library you can make endless unexpected discoveries when you spy the book next to the one you originally wanted, or when you open a book up and find out who used to own it, or glimpse a lost social history as you read down the list of advertisements in the end papers. There is so much more to reading books in a physical library like this than internet images of books can convey!

This special collection of rare books belongs to the John Innes Foundation and is open to the public by appointment. It is closed at weekends and for public holidays. Group visits can be booked and we also run outreach events.

To find out more about the collection explore our website; to book a visit contact sarah.wilmot@jic.ac.uk

Find out more:

James Edward Smith’s archives and specimens are preserved at the Linnean Society of London

John Lindley’s contribution to botanical science is commemorated in the Lindley Library of the Royal Horticultural Society in London. His archives are held in several major libraries and archives. To find out more about his interest in orchids (his particular passion) read my Innes Lecture blog

The archives of William Jackson Hooker and Joseph Dalton Hooker are preserved at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

The correspondence of Joseph Dalton Hooker is in the process of being conserved, digitized, transcribed and made available online. At the centre of Britain’s botanical empire, and best friends with Charles Darwin, Joseph’s letters are a fascinating window onto the world of Victorian botany.

Read more here about how in 1999 the team led by John Innes Centre’s Professor Enrico Coen unravelled Linnaeus’s 250-year old mystery of peloric or ‘monster’ flowers in toadflax (Linaria vulgaris) by showing that the abnormal toadflax flowers are caused by a naturally occurring mutation of a single gene that controls flower symmetry.



Continue Reading · Comments { 0 }

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.



Continue Reading · Comments { 0 }

‘The Unexpected’ Art Exhibition, 3rd April to 2nd May

Art on display, The Unexpected exhibition in the Rare Books Room

Students Michelle, Jayne, Cecily and Ros discussing the artwork on display in the Rare Books Room vitrines

This delightful project was the fruit of collaboration between Sarah Wilmot, Outreach Curator for the John Innes Centre and Dr Krzysztof Fijalkowski, Fine Art Lecturer at the Norwich University of the Arts. Krzysztof and Sarah met accidently in a coffee shop close to the White Cube Gallery in London. We’d individually trekked in to the metropolis for ‘The Archivist as Curator’ conference and found that we both worked in Norwich. Sarah invited Krzysztof to come and see the John Innes Historical Collections and the idea of an archive-inspired art project with Norwich University of the Arts was born. Five students from the BA Fine Art course signed up for the assignment which was to produce and exhibit work stimulated by or in dialogue with the John Innes Historical Collections. Some responded to the rare botanical books, others to the photographic archives of twentieth century plant and microbial science. The group also had to consider where to situate and how to display their work within the constraints of the display areas available. At the end of the exhibition the students had an opportunity to talk to JIC staff about their work and engage with a scientific rather than arts-based audience which was a stimulating experience for all involved.


What follows is a flavour of the exhibition, with an explanation of the artworks in the students’ own words:


Cecily Boon: textile sculptures

‘Natural Archive’

Textile art by Cecily Boon

‘Natural Archive’ by Cecily Boon

‘My current practice explores interactive, textile art, using a combination of natural and manmade materials as an examination of the senses. Focusing on the contrasts between the natural and the manmade, the artificial and the real and the cyclical process of nature- to manmade- and back to nature, has enabled decision making towards the material I have associated with my work.

Throughout my practice I have been creating small, textile, sculptures of moss, using methods such as sewing and manipulating fabrics. Throughout this development I have created my own miniature archival collection, representative of a botanical study. I believe situating my work, which represents natural objects, within the context of the JIC, questions the visual aspect of the artificial and the real, through juxtaposing re-creations of nature within an environment that examines nature itself.’


Michelle Brown: sculpture

Artwork by Michelle Brown

Book ‘sculpture’ by Michelle Brown


‘While visiting the rare books collection at the John Innes Centre I was reminded of the Voynich Manuscript, a 15th century book containing images of plants, biology and astrology. The book is similar in appearance to other books in the collection, but where they differ is interesting. Many cryptographers, both professional and amateur, including code breakers of WW1 and WW2, have attempted to de-code the text. Yet no one has been able to figure out what the book says, making it famous in cryptography. With this and the Centre in mind I have created my own version of the manuscript and hidden it in the collection’.





Chrissy Leech: sculpture and wall pieces

Artwork by Chrissy Leech

A selection of cyanotypes by Chrissy Leech

‘The English scientist Sir John Herschel discovered the cyanotype procedure in 1842. Soon after Anna Atkins, an English botanist, used the process to create a limited series of cyanotype books that documented ferns and other plant life from her extensive collection. Atkins placed specimens directly onto coated paper, allowing the action of light to create a silhouette effect. She ‘received an unusually scientific education for a woman of her time’.

Anna Atkins emulated the aims of the John Innes Centre in many areas. In her time, Atkins was a leader in plant science, taking forward new discoveries. Through her study, research and documenting she generated a knowledge of plants which she made available to society through her publications. Similarly the John Innes Centre has rare illustrated botanical publications and the archives include many original drawings of plants and insects, scientific photographs and visual documentation. My contemporary cyanotype prints, inspired by Anna Atkins and the John Innes Centre, are produced by this scientific procedure and displayed in this scientific/research setting’.


Jayne Bushell: wall piece

Art work by Jayne Bushell

Wall piece by Jayne Bushell


‘My work is a mixture of printmaking and photography. Photography gives me flexibility and the ability to record what I see at that moment in time. It is after taking the photograph that I further develop my ideas in Photoshop. Recently I have mostly worked in black and white, which gives a traditional feel. Printmaking gives a graphic feel to my images allowing more control than with photography. However, the combination of these medias permits me to experiment. I photograph images to use for my printmaking designs.

The image presented here was created using a variety of images from the archives collection that used the traditional ways of photography. By using these images I have created another image in response to my inspiration from these old photographs. I love the microscopic images that were produced in black and white forming very simple shapes, similar to the style of typography that was used in the books’.



Rosalind Hawkes: sculpture

Sculpture by Ros Hawkes

Sculpture by Ros Hawkes

‘I have been inspired by the exquisite works of Nehemiah Grew. His magnified images of dissected botanical specimens capture the complex patterns of nature that normally elude us. I am intrigued by the uniformity of these intricate cellular structures that are hidden from the naked eye.

I hope that my installation will emphasise and expose the sculptural qualities of these organic shapes by playing with scale and representing them in an abstract way. The use of 17th century oak provides a natural connection to the archives that were the inspiration for this work’.


We wish Cecily, Michelle, Chrissy, Jayne and Ros all the best with their future work. ‘The Unexpected’ exhibition was a new venture for the John Innes Centre and we think it showed that bringing art in dialogue with history of science collections can expand our appreciation of the areas common to image-making in both science and art.





Continue Reading ·

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, http://libraryblogs.is.ed.ac.uk/towardsdolly/2013/11/11/remembering-arthur-dukinfield-darbishire-1879-1916/ ). 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 http://archives.jic.ac.uk/2012/09/staffing-during-world-war-i/



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.

Continue Reading ·