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Revisiting the Mendelian revolution

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Much research into heredity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries took place in such applied contexts as seed production, breeding yeast and cereals for large-scale beer making, mass-manufacture of vaccines, efforts to further public health, administration of psychiatric hospitals and eugenic programmes. In these areas increasing division of labour and more bureaucratic control promoted a culture of expertise and scientificity. We need to understand this if we want to explain the effect on the life sciences of the so-called rediscovery of Mendel’s laws in 1900. Mendelism was not taken up as a theory, but as a set of important methods for realizing scientific values such as analyticity, exactitude, calculability and predictability. Breeders and eugenicists, in particular, shared a combinatorial approach that promised the transparent and reliable production of effects from one generation to the next. Synthetic chemistry, not physics, provided the model science. Framed in this way, the origin of genetics appears as much less of a revolutionary break. The concepts and procedures of early Mendelians fitted rather well into a world that had already been thoroughly shaped by medical and agro-industrial concerns with the production of stable varieties.

This talk is part of the Wellcome Lecture in the History of Medicine series.

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