Bateson, William, 1861-1926

Alternative names
Birth 1861-08-08
Death 1926-02-08
English, German

Biographical notes:

William Bateson was a British biologist and geneticist.

From the description of Papers, ca. 1875-1924. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122347511

From the description of Letters, 1902-1921. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122464674

From the guide to the William Bateson papers, ca. 1875-1924, Circa 1875-1924, (American Philosophical Society)

William Bateson (1861-1926), biologist, was the son of William Henry Bateson and brother of the historian Mary Bateson. He was educated at Rugby and St John's College, Cambridge, where he was also a Fellow from 1885 to 1910. Bateson studied embryology and in 1894 published Materials for the study of variation, in which he argued that discontinuous variation was the main source of evolutionary changes. In 1900 he discovered Gregor Mendel's Versuche über Pflanzen-Hybriden . Over the next four years he championed Mendel's findings and put forward his own argument for a new doctrine of heredity. This led to the publication of Mendel's principles of heredity - a defence in 1902. Bateson termed his study of heredity and variation 'genetics'. In 1908 he became professor of biology at Cambridge, before becoming director of the John Innes Horticultural Institution, Merton, where he worked from 1910 to 1926. He married Beatrice, daughter of Arthur Durham, senior surgeon at Guy's Hospital, in 1896.

From the guide to the William Bateson: Scientific Correspondence and Papers, 19th - 20th century, (Cambridge University Library, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives)

Epithet: Professor of Biology at Cambridge University

British Library Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue : Person : Description : ark:/81055/vdc_100000000410.0x00034c

One of the principle figures of turn of the century anti-Darwinian evolutionism, and an early and ardent advocate of Mendelian genetics, William Bateson (1861-1926) was professor at Cambridge University and the John Innes Horticultural Institute. The second of six children born to Anna Aikin and William Henry Bateson, William was raised in an unorthodox and intellectually challenging environment. Like his father, the reformist master of St. Johns College at Cambridge University, the children developed academic tendencies, and each of the Bateson children inherited their parents' habits of independent thought matched with a headstrong and disputatious nature. As a boy, William harbored an interest in natural history quickened by an early exposure to the new theories of Charles Darwin. Although he met with little encouragement at Rugby School, where his academic performance veered from indifferent to unprofitable, William's matriculation at Saint Johns in 1879 provided a wealth of new opportunities. Under the influence of the embryologist Francis Maitland Balfour, Bateson excelled in zoology, and as a postgraduate, he spent two years in the United States studying the embryology and phylogeny of an obscure "worm," Balanoglossus . The choice of projects was propitious. In a painstaking analysis, Bateson identified a host of ontogenetic and anatomical affinities between Balanoglossus and vertebrates, instantaneously rewriting the evolutionary history of the class and gaining a measure of recognition sufficient to earn him election as a fellow at St. Johns in 1885.

After two years of scientific travel in the Russian Steppes and Egypt, Bateson returned to Cambridge in 1887 to absorb himself in the central problems of Darwinian theory: the nature of variation and the mechanism of heredity. For much of a decade, he accumulated data on variation in natural populations, and by the early 1890s, he had begun to situate himself with the ranks of anti-Darwinian evolutionists, emphasizing the discontinuities between species rather than the continuities predicted by Darwinian orthodoxy. Variation, Bateson suggested, could be expressed as a rhythmic or "vibratory" phenomenon analogous to natural phenomena such as ripples, zebra stripes, or morphological segmentation, clearly bounded by natural breaks, with the implication that the evolutionary process was radically different than the gradual incrementalism espoused by Darwin. Bateson's most thorough statement of his evolutionary theories at the time, Materials for the Study of Evolution (1894), was typically exhaustive and forcefully argued, and while it won few converts to either the vibratory theory or discontinuity, it established its author as one the leading anti-Darwinians on the period. Self-confident, intemperate, skeptical, and highly critical of work that he considered shoddy, Bateson was unphased by the lack of response, and continued to toil away at his underpaid position in Cambridge. Moving increasing into experimental studies of evolution, by 1899 he was offering undergraduate courses on "the practical study of evolution."

The last year of the nineteenth century was a watershed in Bateson's career. In April 1900, the Dutch biologist Hugo de Vries sent a copy of an overlooked article that he had recently rediscovered in the Proceedings of the Natural History Society of Brunn for 1866. Written by the Bohemian monk Gregor Mendel, the paper outlined a theory of heredity that Bateson immediately grasped could provide a means to account for the discontinuities in organismal variation. In typically pugnacious style, Bateson took up the Mendelian cause against the Galtonians associated with the journal Biometrika and, much later, he continued its defense against the chromosomal theory of heredity advocated by the T. H. Morgan group at Columbia. At the annual meeting of the British Association in 1904, Bateson's ringing defense of Mendel was an important moment in turning aside the biometricians, and his books Mendel's Principles of Heredity: A Defence (1902) and Mendel's Principles of Heredity (1909) were widely read and enormously influential. At Cambridge, he attracted a core of young biologists to his laboratory and left his mark on the field as well by coining much of the terminology associated with modern Mendelian genetics, from allele and zygote to the term genetics itself.

Although his efforts were rewarded with an appointment to a new chair in biology in 1909, Bateson tired of the low pay at Cambridge and departed in 1910 to become the first director of the John Innes Horticultural Institution in Merton, Surrey. Presented with a blank slate, he built the Innes into a formidable center for the study of plant breeding and genetics, devoting his own research time to investigating exceptions to Mendel's laws. He was awarded the Darwin Medal in 1904 and the Royal Medal in 1920, was elected as president of the British Association in 1924, and was Fullerian Professor of Physiology at the Royal Institution. After a brief illness, he died at his home in Merton on February 8, 1926.

From the guide to the William Bateson Collection, 1902-1921, 1902-1921, (American Philosophical Society)


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