Mendel’s Discovery Revisited: a research note by Alan Rushton

In 1900, plant breeders Hugo de Vries, Carl Correns and Erich von Tschermak published articles on their application of laws for heredity outlined by Gregor Mendel in 1865. The English biologist William Bateson allegedly read about Mendel’s work while riding on a train to London on 8 May 1900 to deliver a lecture on heredity before the Royal Horticultural Society. Detailed analysis of the publication dates for the “rediscovery” papers document that Bateson could not have learned about Mendel’s work before mid-May 1900.

Bateson presented a course on heredity and evolution at Cambridge which ended in March 1900. He made a handwritten annotation at the bottom of the course syllabus “De Vries-Correns— stress on Mendel’s law.” This suggests that he read the articles by these authors that spring and before he was aware of the paper by von Tschermak. Bateson revised his May conference remarks for publication in the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society and summarized the work of all three of the “rediscoverers.” The data imply that Bateson first heard about Mendel after the middle of May 1900, but did not publish his own interpretation of Mendel’s work until late summer of the same year.


The year 1900 was significant because four biologists became aware of an obscure 1865 study by the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel on heredity which subsequently provided the theoretical basis for modern genetics.1 Carl Correns in Germany read Mendel’s work as early as 1896 but did not appreciate it until he began to organize his own breeding studies for publication in late 1899.2 Hugo de Vries in the Netherlands studied plant hybrids and learned of Mendel’s paper in early 1900.3 The Austrian plant breeder Erich von Tschermak read Mendel’s paper in the fall of 1899 while he prepared his dissertation.4

These three “rediscoverers” published their findings in 1900. Robert Olby has outlined the probable dates of the four publications in question.5

Table 1. Publications related to Mendel

AuthorDate Submitted      Date Published        
de Vries614 March 1900c. 21 April 1900
de Vries714 March 190025 April 1900
Correns824 April 19003 May 1900
von Tschermak92 June 190024 July 1900

William Bateson of Cambridge was also an accomplished plant and animal breeder. He prepared a lecture on “Problems of Heredity” for the Royal Horticultural Society meeting of 8 May 1900. While on the train to London, he reportedly read Mendel’s original report for the first time and incorporated these laws of inheritance into his presentation.10 This account by Beatrice Bateson in 1928 does not square with historical facts, however. If he read a paper on the train, it would have been the first de Vries paper which did not mention Mendel. In fact, a contemporaneous summary of Bateson’s lecture (published 12 May 1900) only reported his discussion of the first de Vries paper. Mendel is not referenced at all.11 This suggests an approximate two-week transit time for mail from the continent to England.

Bateson revised his lecture notes for publication later in 1900 and discussed both papers by de Vries. The second cited Mendel’s work which Bateson deemed “… a marked step forward” in understanding the mechanism of heredity. Bateson also reviewed breeding work by Correns and von Tschermak that confirmed Mendel’s results with Pisum hybridization.12 The publication dates of the four cited papers indicate that Bateson could have prepared his manuscript for publication no earlier than August 1900. The Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society does not indicate when Batson’s paper was actually published.

The printed syllabus from Bateson’s course on “The Practical Study of Evolution” for the academic year 1899-1900 has recently come to hand. The Lent Term began on 8 January 1900 and ended on 27 March 1900.

Course Syllabus “The Practical Study of Evolution” 1899-1900. Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

Bateson made handwritten notes for selected lecture titles. The “Heredity” lecture reviewed the known laws of the phenomenon. His comment “Regression” refers to the statistical regression to the mean for inherited characters observed by Francis Galton.13 At the bottom of the page Bateson wrote “de Vries-Correns—stress on Mendel’s law.” This comment was not associated with any specific lecture and suggests that it was added sometime after the completion of the term. Bateson could have read the de Vries and Correns papers about Mendel as early as the middle of May 1900. As he did not mention von Tschermak, he probably was not yet familiar with that paper.

Bateson subsequently exchanged letters on the application of Mendel’s work with Galton on 9 August, and with Correns and de Vries in October 1900.14

The available data suggest that Bateson first learned about Mendel from his reading of the de Vries and Correns papers after mid-May 1900, but did not publish his own interpretation of Mendel’s work until late summer of the same year.

Alan R. Rushton taught at Princeton University and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. He practiced Pediatrics and Medical Genetics, and has a long-standing interest in the history of genetics. 


References

1. L. C. Dunn, A Short History of Genetics (Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1991), pp. 62-77. Gregor Mendel, “Versuche über Pflanzhybriden,” Verhandlungen des naturforschender Verein in Brunn, 1865, 4: 3-47.

2. H. J. Rheinberger, “When did Correns read Gregor Mendel’s paper?” Isis, 1995, 86: 612-616.

3. I. Stamhuis, O. G. Meijer and E. J. A. Zevenhuizen, “Hugo de Vries on heredity,” Isis, 1999, 90: 238-267.

4. M. Simunek, U. Hossfeld and V. Wisseman, “‘Rediscovery’ revised—The cooperation of Erich and Armin von Tschermak-Seysenegg in the context of the ‘rediscovery’ of Mendel’s laws in 1899-1901,” Plant Biology, 2011, 13: 835-841.

5. Robert C. Olby, “William Bateson’s introduction of Mendelism to England: A reassessment,” British Journal for the History of Science, 1987, 30: 399-420.

6. Hugo de Vries, “Sur la loi de disjunction des hibrides,” Compte Rendus de l’Academie Science, 1900, 130: 845-847.

7. Hugo de Vries, “Das Spaltungsgesetz der Bastarde,” Berichte der Deutscher botanischer Gesellschaft, 1900, 18: 83-90.

8. Carl Correns, “G. Mendel’s Regel über das Verhalten der Nachkommenschaft der Rassenbastarde,” Berichte der Deutscher botanischer Gesellschaft, 1900, 18: 158-168.

9. Erich von Tschermak, “Über künstliche Kreuzung bei Pisum sativum,” Berichte der Deutscher botanischer Gesellschaft, 1900, 18: 232-239.

10. Beatrice Bateson, William Bateson, F.R.S. Naturalist: His Essays and Addresses (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1928), p. 73.

11. Maxwell Masters, “Lecture,” Gardner’s Chronicle, 1900-1901, 25: 303.

12. William Bateson, “Problems of heredity as a subject for horticultural investigation,” Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, 1900-1901, 25: 54-61.

13. Francis Galton, “Typical laws of heredity,” Nature, 1877, 23: 492-95, 512-514. Francis Galton, “The average contribution of each of several ancestors to the total heritage of the offspring,” Proceedings of the Royal Society, 1897, 61: 401-413.

14. William Bateson, Letter to Francis Galton 9 August 1900 B 3201. Quoted from the Bateson Archive, John Innes Centre Library, Norwich, England. Hugo de Vries, Letter to William Bateson 18 October 1900 B 246. Quoted from the Coleman Collection, American Philosophical Society Library, Philadelphia. Carl Correns, Letter to William Bateson 21 October 1900 B 253. Quoted from the Coleman Collection, American Philosophical Society Library, Philadelphia.