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Our History - Timeline


Key events include:

  • The John Innes Horticultural Institution opened. Bateson’s directorship started on 1 January 1910 and the Bateson family moved into the Manor House at Merton Park in August.
  • Bateson and Reginald Crundall Punnett founded the Journal of Genetics
  • World War I interrupted the work of JIHI as staff leave to serve in the armed forces or in munitions work. Space not required for experiments was re-allocated to growing seedling vegetables which were distributed free to local allotment-holders

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Merton Manor HouseTwo acres of John Innes’ estate at Merton Park, his Manor House and conservatories, become the John Innes Horticultural Institution.

William Bateson’s directorship starts on 1 January 1910 and the Bateson family move into the Manor House in August. Most of Bateson’s researchers move from Cambridge with him making the John Innes Horticultural Institution the centre of British genetics. The Trustees purchase additional land and increase the original site to 6 acres. Work begins in two small laboratories and four glasshouses.

Signed portait of BatesonThe Journal of Genetics, published by Cambridge University Press and edited by Bateson and R. C. Punnett, was launched as a quarterly periodical ‘for the publication of original research in Heredity, Variation and allied subjects’.

Bateson used the Journal to promote his particular view of what the subject of genetics should include. In the early years this meant that most papers were reports of Mendelian hybridisation experiments and Bateson used his influence to actively discourage research on chromosome theory. However, in line with his view that genetics was the study of the ‘physiology of descent’, the journal also included papers on the physiology of sex determination.

The Journal was an important focus for British geneticists who faced powerful opposition from E. W. Macbride, Professor of Zoology at Imperial College, London, and a member of the governing body of John Innes (from 1913), and Karl Pearson, Professor of Applied Mathematics and Mechanics at University College. ’They stood at the entrance of the Royal Society like the leographs which guard the portals of a Burmese Buddhist temple’ (Crew, 1969).

See: F.A. E. Crew, ‘Recollections of the early days of the genetical society’, pp. 9-15 in The Genetical Society- the first fifty years edited by John Jinks. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1969.


Thomas Hunt Morgan and his group at Columbia University, New York select the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model organism to study genetics. Their experiments show that the flies can be easily kept in stoppered wide-necked milk bottles and fed on slabs of fermenting banana. Drosophila has only four pairs of chromosomes that differ markedly in size and shape from each other. In the salivary glands of the larvae the chromosomes are relatively enormous. A mated pair produces scores of offspring in a 10-day cycle. All of these advantages make Drosophila good potential material for studying the effect of chromosomes on heredity. However, the wild flies lack clearly visible characteristics. It is not until Morgan’s team start to breed flies that the laboratory stocks of Drosophila develop well-marked and unusual characteristics. By selecting and breeding flies with visible mutations they turn Drosophila into a laboratory tool for studying inheritance. Morgan’s group includes Alfred Sturtevant, Hermann Muller and Calvin Bridges.

Morgan publishes two papers on chromosomes: the first expresses his view that Mendelian factors could not possibly be carried by the chromosomes. Before this appears in print Morgan’s second paper is published, this provides convincing evidence that the factors for sex-linked characters are definitely carried in the X chromosome.

Morley Benjamin CraneUnder the Scheme of the Charity Commissioners the Institution was directed to provide a certain amount of direct horticultural training. To meet this requirement six student gardeners (prior to 1930 called ‘exhibitioners’) are taken on to work in the gardens and glasshouses and attend lecture courses on horticultural topics prepared by members of staff. Students are encouraged to attend additional evening classes in Wimbledon and London. To be eligible for the two-year grants applicants need four years practical gardening experience. One of the first intake of student gardeners is Morley Benjamin Crane.

Bateson requires high standards from his garden staff. Unlike practical gardening where it is possible to scrap 20 to 50 per cent of seedlings at pricking-out time, genetics experiments need every seedling that can be got to live.

Muriel Wheldale is appointed to one of the first scientific studentships at the Institution. Wheldale had worked with Bateson as an undergraduate at Cambridge and continued to collaborate with him on the inheritance of plant pigments, especially in Antirrhinum. Wheldale proves to be a talented biochemical geneticist and in 1916 publishes The Anthocyanin pigments of plants.

On the advice of Suttons, a firm of nurserymen at Reading, Berkshire, JIHI staff work to produce rogue-free strains of peas in three commercial varieties. The first rogue-free strain is grown in bulk in 1915 and is bought by Suttons

Using fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) Morgan and his students show that ‘factors’ (genes) are arrayed on linear chromosomes. They develop gene theory, including the idea that some genes are linked together on the sex chromosomes. Their first examples are the genes for white eyes, yellow body, and miniature wings in Drosophila. Morgan proposes that these genes are linked together on the X chromosome.

A J Balfour offers William Bateson the new professorship: ‘To you, more than to anybody else, is owed the impulse which started the Mendelian school at Cambridge, and, through that school, the foundation of the new Chair. Would you be prepared to resume your investigations as its occupant? If you would, I think it would be a great gain, both to Cambridge and to science…’

Bateson declines the offer preferring to remain as Director of John Innes. Bateson recommends his friend and colleague R C Punnett for the Cambridge post.

Alfred Sturtevant, an undergraduate working with Morgan at Columbia, provides the experimental basis for the linkage concept in Drosophila and devises a visual representation or map to show the links

Nikolai Vavilov, a recent graduate of the Moscow Agricultural Institute, and on an official tour of the main biological laboratories of Western Europe, arrives at the JIHI with an established interest in plant selection and the work of Gregor Mendel. He is deeply impressed with Bateson, both as a scientist and as a democratic administrator who allowed his staff great freedom to pursue their individual scientific ideas and experiments. Vavilov completes his postgraduate thesis at JIHI which entitles him to become a professor on his return to Russia. In 1917 he became a professor at Saratov University, south-east of Moscow and in 1921 moved to head the Applied Biology Branch at Petrograd (St Petersburg). From these beginnings he built up the All-Union Institute of Plant Breeding, one of the world’s most distinguished centres of research in plant selection and genetics.

Bateson leaves for Australia in June to preside over the British Association meeting; he returns in November. Extracts of Bateson’s lectures on the mechanisms of inheritance and on eugenic themes at the Melbourne and Sydney meetings are published in The Times and in the American press where they arouse interest and opposition. Bateson continues to deny chromosome theory. T H Morgan responds ‘We ourselves are going to get after you soon in a small book we are writing on ‘The Mechanism of Mendelian Heredity’

The war of 1914-1918 curtails the work of the Institution. By September 1915 Bateson has already lost from his scientific staff G. O. Sherrard (self-sterility in fruit trees); J. W. Lesley (potato breeding); M.A. Bailey (plant pathology); C. B. Williams (entomology), and C. W. Richardson (strawberry breeding) to the war effort. Many of the garden staff have also left for the army or for munitions work. Those that remain are having difficulty making ends meet as inflation spirals; they successfully agitate for an increase in wages. By 1916 the Board of Agriculture is encouraging the Institution to use space not required for experiments to grow vegetables. About 20,000 seedling vegetables are raised and distributed free to local allotment-holders. In 1917 only three research workers remain. Many do not return: the workers not lost to the war are lost to the Empire.

After the war Bateson recruits new staff and enlarges the premises by adding two larger laboratories and a library.

Morgan’s team offer a comprehensive chromosomal interpretation of heredity. They teach that the determiners of the hereditary characters are the genes which are resident in the chromosomes, each gene having its own particular place or locus in a particular chromosome

Herbert OsterstockAfter Muriel Wheldale’s resignation in 1914 Bateson searched for someone who, like her, could ‘draw a flower’. Scientific recording of flowers at this time involved painting or hand-coloured photography.

Herbert Osterstock, congenitally deaf and dumb, a gifted artist and photographer, was appointed to fill this niche.

In 1925 Osterstock was appointed official artist to JIHI.

Bateson delivers a lecture on the history of Mendelian genetics at the Royal Institution in London

The JIHI receives complaints that the ‘Institution appears to … have been devoted for the last eight years principally to research and postgraduate work, in total disregard to local claims- the few local employees, such as they were, being employed in “barrow” work’. Representatives of the Boroughs of Merton and Morden wanted the John Innes bequest to be used to found a technical or industrial institute or secondary school for large numbers of local students. The arguments that ensue become known as ‘The Rumpus’.

The Garden Superintendent E. J. Allard, who Bateson had brought with him from Cambridge, dies in the influenza epidemic in October. He is replaced by Albert Hosking from the Glasgow and West of Scotland Agricultural College. Reginald Gregory, volunteer worker 1910-18, and William Courthope, Trustee, die in the same epidemic.

A Daniel Hall of the Development Commission writes to Bateson asking him to draw up an ideal programme of research and development for JIHI over the next ten years. The JIHI had not so far made any call on the Board of Agriculture for funding. Bateson responds with detailed plans for the expansion of the scientific staff, and ideas for creating links with other Institutes, especially the ‘Cambridge Svalöf’.

Bateson is nevertheless reluctant to tie the Institution down to government lines of research and feared the loss of independence. He writes: ‘… the drag in the economic direction is likely to prove too strong to be successfully resisted. It becomes therefore the more desirable that at least one Institution should retain its financial independence complete, although prepared to co-operate with the state-aided Institutions in all possible ways…. proper provision must be made for the purely scientific side of the work, neglect of which has rendered much of the labours of the American Stations trivial and unfruitful’.

On 25 June 1919 William Bateson and E. R. Saunders convene a meeting in the Linnaean Society’s rooms at Burlington House, London to discuss the proposed foundation of a Genetical Society. William Bateson takes the Chair and the proposal is approved unanimously.A. J. Balfour is proposed as the first President; William Bateson, E. R. Saunders and A. W. Sutton as Vice-Presidents, and C. Pellew and R. C. Punnett as Secretaries. The first meeting of the Society is held in Cambridge on 12 July 1919. Thirty-four members attend and are treated to demonstrations on experiments with stocks, by Saunders, on sweet peas by R. C. Punnett, on cereals by R. H. Biffen, on colour inheritance in rats by J.B.S. Haldane, and on the genetics of hen-feathered cocks by R. C. Punnett. In the early years John Innes staff form a high proportion of the membership.