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William Bateson


William Bateson

William Bateson

American Philosophical Society

Early Life and Education:

Born August 8, 1861 - Died February 8, 1926

William Bateson was born on August 8, 1861 in England to Anna Aikin and William Henry Bateson. His father was the head master at St. John's College in Cambridge. The oldest boy and second of six siblings, William showed an early desire to become a naturalist as he studied at Rugby School in Cambridge. He was not very impressive in school, until he attended St. John's College where he studied morphology and evolution. He graduated with a BA in natural sciences in 1883.

William soon became interested in embryology and went to the United States to work and study for a year at Johns Hopkins University from 1883-1884. He returned to Cambridge to do a fellowship at St. John's College.

Personal Life:

In 1896, William Bateson married Caroline Beatrice Durham. She was the daughter of a surgeon and very smart. Beatrice would often help Bateson with his work and even worked for income for a short time when financial burdens became a problem, which was pretty much unheard of for females at the time. Letters written by the family throughout the years often had Beatrice holding the family together in times of tragedy and William's bouts of depression.

William and Beatrice had three sons - John, Martin, and Gregory. Gregory later became a well respected anthropologist in the United States. John and Martin enrolled in the military during World War I. John battled on the front line, while Martin was a photographer in the army. John was wounded and after many months of healing, went back to the front line. He was killed in battle just a month shy of Armistice Day. Martin was very distraught due to his closeness to John. He got out of the military and began his studies in science. He did not enjoy the subject and became a poet instead. After a brief unrequited love affair, Martin committed suicide by shooting himself in the head in the middle of Piccadilly Circus.


While at St. John's College, William Bateson became interested in heredity studies. He came across a paper written by Gregor Mendel that had gotten very little attention in the scientific community up to that time. Part of the reason for the lack of accolades for the paper was the fact it was written in German. Bateson went about translating the paper in English and republishing it. The paper summed up many findings Bateson had seen in his own plant and animal experiments.

William Bateson was the first to call the new discipline "genetics". He has since come to be known as the "founder of genetics". He was a staunch supporter of Mendelian Genetics, but he also saw some differences in his own work. Most notably, in animals, he saw that some traits were indeed linked. However, he was not convinced of the idea of chromosomes and instead thought traits were linked by morphology of sex chromosomes (like the shape of pollen in pea plants).

Since genetics was such an unknown field at the time, Bateson taught very informal classes in Cambridge on the subject. In fact, from 1902-1910, he taught his new field at the Newnham College. The women assisted Bateson in his breeding experiments. The results reinforced Mendel's statistics and furthered the field of genetics.

Bateson was also in the anti-Darwin camp when it came to evolution. He opposed Darwin's view of gradualism and hypothesized that evolution actually happened in short, quick bursts in what is now called punctuated equilibrium. He published this idea in his most celebrated work Materials for the Study of Variation.

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