Monday, August 8, 2011

At the Conversazione

'Some of the Guests at the Conversazione' runs the title of this photograph, but what is the occasion has been captured for posterity? Who are these ladies and gentlemen, dressed impeccably in their best evening wear?

Let's zoom in a little closer, to some figures in the front row:

The gentleman with the drooping moustache - and seemingly drooping features - is William Bateson, born on this day in 1861. He's seated between his wife Beatrice and the Rev. William Wilks, Secretary of the Royal Horticultural Society.

The date is the 30th July 1906 and the occasion is the opening Conversazione of the third international conference on hybridization and plant breeding. Like the first of these Conferences in 1899, it was held in London and organised through the Royal Horticultural Society.

Our focus on Bateson is due to the Inaugural Lecture he delievered to the Conference the morning after this photograph was taken. Bateson began his Lecture by recalling the first Conference in 1899, then considering the work of Gregor Mendel which had been re-discovered in Western Europe around the turn of the century, and how this research was turning the study of hybridisation and plant-breeding into a "developed science" (indeed, Bateson was carrying out reseach along these lines in Cambridge, with the aid of ladies from Newnham College). Bateson's next paragraph, however, is worth quoting in full:

"Like other new crafts, we have been compelled to adopt a terminology, which, if somewhat deterrent to the novice, is so necessary a tool to the craftsman that it must be endured. But though these attributes of scientific activity are in evidence, the science itself is still nameless, and we can only describe our pursuit by cumbrous and often misleading periphrasis. To meet this difficulty I suggest for the consideration of this Congress the term Genetics, which sufficiently indicates that our labours are devoted to the elucidation of the phenomena of heredity and variation: in other words, to the physiology of Descent, with implied bearing on the theoretical problems of the evolutionist and the systematist, and application to the practical problems of breeders, whether of animals or plants. After more or less undirected wanderings we have thus a definite aim in view" [1].

It's fair to say then, that the term Bateson suggested to his audience succeeded in its aim. It certainly replaced the need for "cumbrous and often misleading periphrasis" - so much so that the published proceedings were titled Report of the Third International Conference on Genetics: hybridisation (the cross-breeding of genera or species), the cross-breeding of varieties, and general plant-breeding.

The next time then, you hear the word 'genetics' ponder not just the modern imagery associated with the term, nor the scientists of the twenty first century unravelling the secrets of the human body, but the term's creator William Bateson - captured by the camera, attired in the formal evening wear of Edwardian England.

[1] Report of the Third International Conference 1906 on Genetics : hybridisation (the cross-breeding of genera or species), the cross-breeding of varieties, and general plant-breeding (ed. W. Wilks), p91. Whilst Bateson had used the word 'genetics' in a personal letter in 1905, this was a public outing for his new term.

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