Belling, John, 1866-

Alternative names
Birth 1866
Death 1933

Biographical notes:

John Belling was a botanist at the Florida Agricultural Experiment Station in the early twentieth century.

From the guide to the John Belling Papers, 1910-1916, (Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida)

John Belling was a botanist at the Florida Agricultural Experiment Station in the early part of the twentieth century.

From the description of Papers, 1910-1916. (University of Florida). WorldCat record id: 23524690

The cytologist John Belling struggled through a life that saw his career repeatedly delayed and interrupted by severe depression and hospitalization. Born in Aldershot Camp, England, on October 7, 1866, the son of a Army schoolmaster, Belling was employed as a teacher of science in secondary schools from the age of 16. An excellent student, he learned botany and zoology through coursework at the workingmen's Birkbeck Institute in London before entering Mason College at the University of Birmingham in 1892, and earning his BSc (Honors) from the University College, London, two years later. Belling's attempts to craft an academic career for himself began well, when he was appointed resident lectuer at the Horticultural College in Swanley, however by the end of the decade, with further advancement stalled, he returned to teaching in secondary schools.

In 1901, Belling fairly literally changed course, taking a position with the Imperial Department of Agriculture in the West Indies, and emigrating to the United States six years later to work as an assistant botanist with the Florida Experimental Station. His research on plant hybridization and patterns of inheritance resulted in several well-regarded publications in the Bulletin of the Florida Experiment Station, using, in part, his talents for preparing stained slides of chromosomes. The promise of this work was curtailed in 1916, when Belling was forced to resign due to ill health, attributed publicly to the Florida climate. In actuality, though, Belling suffered from a severe depression that required hospitalization.

With the assistance of Paul Popenoe, Belling came to Washington in 1918 or 1919, but Belling's erratic behavior soon resulted in another period of hospitalization. Sewall Wright, who come to know Belling, arranged to have the ailing cytologist come live with his parents, who had recently moved to Maryland, and in 1919, Belling met and, in short order, married Wright's Aunt Hannah. By the fall, he had recovered enough to search for a new position, landing an unpaid research post under Albert Blakeslee at Cold Spring Harbor.

Belling's success in his first year at the Laboratory encouraged Blakeslee to commute him to the payroll as assistant cytologist in the Department of Genetics, where he was initially assigned to work on the relationship between chromosomal abnormalities and hyrbid sterility. A fine microscopist and master technician, Belling developed an iron acetocarmine stain for chromosomes that soon paid huge dividends in the form of a series of important papers in the cytogenetics of Datura, most co-authored with Blakeslee. Using acetocarmine, Belling provided accurate counts of chromosomal numbers in a variety of angiosperm genera and more importantly, he and Blakeslee became the first to demonstrate the interchange of segments between non-homologous chromosomes. His work on crossing over gained wide recognition in the early 1930s, when both his staining technique and findings were taken up and furthered by his friend, Barbara McClintock. Belling was recognized with an honorary DSc. from the University of Maine in 1922.

But as his career was gaining steam, Belling once again ground to a halt. He was forced to suspend his research in December 1924 having spiraled downward yet again into what Charles Davenport described as "a severe and somewhat prolonged depression in spirits." For three years, Belling was confined in the King's Park State Hospital, an asylum for the mentally ill, continuing his botanical research only sporadically. When Hannah died in 1926, he lost a colleague as well as partner, spinning him deeper into depression and leaving him, as his brother later wrote, alone apart from the benevolent care of the Carnegie Institution.

Feeling that a change of scenery would be of benefit, and with Belling stewing over what he pereceived to be Blakeslee's exploitation of his talents, Belling's friends arranged for him to leave King's Park in October 1927 to take up an offer from E. B. Babcock at the University of California. Babcock had worked with Belling and Blakeslee since at least 1924, and in concert with Davenport, agreed to arrange laboratory space for Belling to continue his research out west, while still under the employ of Cold Spring Harbor.

Belling's superlative technical skills helped him once again to return to productive work, now focused on the cytogenetics of hyacinths and lilies. He gained a measure of recognition for his claim in 1928 to having observed the actual, physical genes on chromosomes. Chromomeres, he suggested, small condensations along the length of chromosomes, were in fact genes, and on this basis he made the relatively accurate estimate of several thousand genes in a typical angiosperm.

A productive author when he was well, Belling wrote several papers and small monographs on plant chromosomes and cytology, a popular text on microscopy, and two slender books of poetry, Life (San Francisco, 1928) and The Life World: Poems of Science (San Francisco, 1930). Yet as his career appeared once again to be gaining momentum, fate stepped in. Belling died unexpectedly on February 28, 1933, of unstated causes. His major monograph on the current state of research on chromosomes was left incomplete.

From the guide to the John Belling Collection, 1928-1933, (American Philosophical Society)


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Ark ID:


  • Cytology
  • Hybridization, Vegetable
  • Plant genetics
  • Plant hybridization


  • Botanists


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