Genetics Rediscovered

Gregor Mendel (1822–1884), Hugo de Vries (1848–1935),William Bateson (1861–1926), Carl Correns (1864–1933), Erich von Tschermak (1871–1962)


In 1866, Gregor Mendel, an obscure Augustinian monk, published the paper “Experiments on Plant Hybrids,” in German, in an obscure journal. As the paper’s title denoted, it dealt with plant hybridization, not heredity or inheritance. It provided evidence that inherited traits were not passed to successive generations by blending or being the average of the traits from the two parents, as was commonly believed; rather, traits were independently transmitted, and the dominant trait was expressed in the outward appearance of the progeny. (The scientific world, including Mendel, was unaware that such traits were transmitted by genes.) Mendel’s paper did not proclaim, nor even hint, that these findings were revolutionary.

Many have speculated why this paper remained unnoticed for one-third of a century, but Mendel was an unknown amateur scientist, with no connections or scholarly affiliations, working in a humble monastery—not a distinguished laboratory or university. As such, his paper failed to arouse scientific interest until 1900. In that year, Hugo de Vries, Erich von Tschermak (whose grandfather was Mendel’s botany professor), and Carl Correns—Dutch, Austrian, and German, respectively—working with three different plant hybrids, independently concluded studies similar to those of Mendel. They each found his paper only in the final stages of their research while preparing their own findings for publication. De Vries was the first to publish and relegated mention of Mendel to a footnote; it remains problematic whether his conclusions were independently derived or “borrowed” from Mendel. Von Tschermak had little apparent understanding of Mendel’s results. Only Correns fully acknowledged Mendel’s earlier findings and their significance. It has been advanced that Mendel’s paper achieved fame because of the public dispute amongst the three for “rediscovering” the paper and the science of genetics.

The English botanist William Bateson read Mendel’s paper and was so enthralled that he translated it into English. Widely publicizing its findings to the scientific world, he was the first to refer to the science of heredity and biological inheritance as genetics in 1905.

SEE ALSO: Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection (1859), Mendelian Inheritance (1866), Genes on Chromosomes (1910), Evolutionary Genetics (1937), The Double Helix (1953).

Around 1900, Carl Correns used the Mirabilis jalapa (four o’clock flower) as a model plant to rediscover Mendelian genetics. The plant was exported from the Peruvian Andes in 1540.