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Famous Scientists in Genetics: William Bateson

written by: alisonc•edited by: Paul Arnold•updated: 2/4/2009

This article summarizes the career of William Bateson, one of the most famous scientists in genetics. In fact he was the person who coined the term "genetics," and carried out important work in the fields of human genetics and plant genetics.

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    Famous Scientist in Genetics

    Geneticist William Bateson (b. 1861) holds an important place in the history of genetics. He is the first person to have coined the term "genetics" to describe the study of biological inheritance and heredity. He first suggested the term "genetics" in an April,1905 letter to fellow scientist Adam Sedgwick at Cambridge in an effort to persuade him to establish a Chair in the field of heredity. He wrote: "Such a word is badly wanted, and if it were desirable to coin one, 'Genetics' might do." Bateson used the term again at the Third International Conference on Plant Hybridization in London, which took place in 1906.

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    Early Work

    Prior to coining the term "genetics," Bateson published a book in 1894 titled "Materials for the Study of Variation" which was based on his study of discontinuous variation as a research student in Cambridge. He undertook plant and animal animal breeding as a means to continue his research in heredity. In 1909, he moved from Cambridge to the John Innes Horticultural Institution to become its first director. Bateson's work was quite successful, as The John Innes Institution soon became a magnet for plant breeders across Europe. Bateson remained director at the Institution until his death in February 1926.

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    Additional Discoveries

    In 1910, Bateson co-discovered genetic linkage with geneticist Reginald Crundall Punnett, and they both continued their work together as co-founders of the Journal of Genetics. The same year, Bateson also established the term "epistasis" to explain the genetic interaction of two independent traits.

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    Mendelian Influences and Evolution

    Bateson is not considered the father of genetics, however - that distinction has been granted to Gregor Johann Mendel (1822 - 1884), an Austrian monk who studied pea plants and their inherited traits. However, Bateson is responsible for popularizing Mendel's work after its rediscovery by Carl Correns, Hugo de Vries, and Eric von Tschermak in 1900. His adherence to Mendel's work placed him in opposition to his former teacher, Walter Raphael Weldon, along with scientist Karl Pearson. The debate was based on the work of Charles Darwin. Bateson was a saltationist, an adherent of the belief that evolutionary changes are sudden and large compared to how organisms normally vary. Saltationists were in opposition to gradualists, who believed in the theory that profound evolutionary change is a slow yet continual process.

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    William Bateson: A Biologist Ahead of His Time:

Pioneers in Genetics

This articles series portrays geneticists who have made breakthrough discoveries in the fields of genetics and biotech.
  1. Famous Scientists in Genetics: Hans Eiberg
  2. Pioneers in Genetics: D. Bernard Amos and the Genetics of Individuality
  3. Famous Scientists in Genetics: William Bateson