Daniel Fairbanks: Gregor Mendel’s Reception in the World
Gregor Mendel’s classic 1866 paper, Versuche über Pflanzenhybriden (“Experiments on Plant Hybrids”), is the foundational document for the science of genetics. His experimental results are extensive, and the interpretation he derived from them constitutes one of science’s most transformational theories. Mendel’s reception throughout the world, from the time of his experiments to the present, is a complex and extraordinary story. It consists of intermingled episodes of vigorous promotion, widespread acceptance, confirmation, expansion, resilience, controversy, political intrusion, neglect, mythmaking, tragedy, and heroism. Mendel’s theory was not entirely ignored during his lifetime, receiving praise in the local newspapers, and modest recognition in later publications. However, no one, including Mendel, recognised the breadth of its importance at the time. The rediscovery of Mendel’s experiments and theory in 1900 was “a complete revolution,” according to Bateson and Saunders, two of its leading proponents. By 1905, Mendelism had assumed the status of a new science, officially named genetics. Over the next half century, this new science rapidly expanded worldwide, supported and augmented by discoveries of the chromosomal basis of inheritance, the development of population and quantitative genetics, the modern synthesis of Mendelism and Darwinism, and ultimately elucidation of its molecular underpinnings. Yet opposition was never far below the surface. Beginning with heated disputes between Bateson and Weldon, subtle accusations of data manipulation arose in the early twentieth century, eventually expanding into the Mendel-Fisher controversy, fuelled by a mixture of legitimate statistical analysis, iconoclasm, and political motivations. Promoters of eugenics sought to exploit Mendelian and Darwinian science in a misguided effort to justify eugenic laws and some of the world’s most horrendous atrocities. The era of Lysenkoism spanned almost three decades, during which Mendel was discredited throughout much of the world, including in his homeland. This period was a time of both tragedy and heroism. Nevertheless, Mendel’s work has endured scientific opposition, political repression, and historical revision to remain as a paradigm of experimental science and one of the world’s most celebrated scientific triumphs.