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Reginald Crundall Punnett (1875-1967): geneticist and morphologist

Punnett, like Bateson, took the Natural Sciences Tripos at Cambridge University. He specialised in zoology and graduated in 1898 with a first class. After a period working in the Department of Natural History at St Andrew’s University, Punnett returned to Cambridge in 1902 as a demonstrator in morphology in the Department of Zoology. As a morphologist he researched nemertine (ribbon) worms and had two species of marine worms named after him. He became interested in experimental biology and wrote to Bateson who was leading an informal group of researchers at Cambridge to investigate Mendelian inheritance through hybridization experiments.

Between 1904 and 1910 he collaborated with Bateson to confirm Mendel’s theories of inheritance and demonstrate how genetic traits are inherited. Together they experimented on poultry and sweet peas. Their research established phenomena such as factor interaction, reversion, and complementary factors. Punnett was appointed Superintendent of the Museum of Zoology, Cambridge in 1909 and succeeded Bateson as Professor of Biology in 1910. In 1912 Punnett was appointed the first Balfour Professor of Genetics, a position he held until his retirement in 1940.

His contributions, recognised by his election as FRS in 1912, were on the genetics of poultry, ducks, rabbits, sweet peas, and humans. During the First World War Punnett developed a technique for separating male and female chicks using sex-linked plumage to help the poultry industry select the more useful female chicks. He was a founding member of the Genetical Society and created and edited the Journal of Genetics with Bateson. 

After Bateson’s death in 1926 Punnett continued as editor of the Journal until 1946. His major publications include Mendelism (1905), the first published textbook on genetics, Mimicry in Butterflies (1915), and Heredity in Poultry (1923). Today he is probably best remembered for developing the ‘Punnett Square’, a graphical method for representing hybrid crosses.

For biographies of Punnett, see:

For Punnett on ‘Mendelism in Great Britain’ (1914):

For a history of Punnett’s collaboration with Bateson see:

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