Agricultural Science & Mendelian System in Britain 1880-1930


A review of Agricultural Science, Plant Breeding and the Emergence of a Mendelian System in Britain, 1880-1930, by Berris Charnley.

The history of genetics is a crowded field. Historians of science have been attracted to the emergence and success of this discipline for decades. Consequently, the historiography of genetics often reflects the evolution of history of science writ large. This provides particularly interesting challenges for those who wish to write their dissertation in this area, as much of the early history of genetics has been well documented and interpreted through a variety of theoretical lenses. Berris Charnley enters the fray as one should: with historiographical sophistication and newly uncovered material. In his dissertation, Charnley deftly navigates the various historical accounts of an early history of genetics in Britain, seeing the need for a multi-dimensional perspective in which he can integrate new historical work and help resolve the existing interpretive conflicts about the period.

Specifically, Charnley’s dissertation attempts to answer the question as to whether Mendelism had a positive effect on British agriculture during the first thirty years of the twentieth century. Success, it turns out, is difficult to measure. As Charnley shows in the introduction, there have been several divergent historical interpretations of Mendelism during this period. In essence, two camps have formed. One, exemplified by Robert Olby, assumes the Mendelian focus on experimental work influenced agricultural practices in a positive way, while the other camp, championed by Paolo Palladino, sees little influence of Mendelism in the habits and practices of farmers and breeders during this period. Charnley argues that past approaches have been too limited in their perspective, and to understand the influence of Mendelism one has to understand the science as a larger system that has variety of different components – institutional, theoretical, technological and sociological – before any claims about Mendelian success can be made. To do this, Charnley borrows from the history of technology, particularly the work of Thomas Hughes, to construct a narrative that analyzes each on of these seemingly disparate components in a way that will ultimately give the historian a better perspective of Mendelism and its influence.

In Chapter 1, Charnley discusses the various British agricultural institutions created in the late nineteenth century through the 1930s. He introduces important characters, such as William Bateson (1861-1926), Rowland Biffen (1874-1949), and Thomas Wood (1869-1929), all of whom play significant roles throughout the dissertation. These early Mendelian supporters held prominent positions of leadership in all of the major agricultural institutions and used their authority to advocate for the Mendelian system in a variety of ways. In Chapter 2, Charnley switches gears from an institutional history to discuss the theoretical dimensions of Mendelism in conjunction with the problems of agriculture. Central to the Mendelians’ theoretical claims, Charnley argues, is the practical problem of rogue plants. For Mendelians, rogue plants represented a flaw in the older breeding techniques, which could be solved with the application of proper Mendelian practices. Charnley sees the fascination of Mendelians with this problem as akin to Hughes’ notion of a reverse salient, meaning that rogues represented the part of the technological system that lagged behind the various other components. In this case, the continued presences of rogues hampered the progress of Mendelism in other areas. In seeing the problem in this light, Charnley overlays theoretical discussions of the science with the specific context in which they were employed.

In Chapter 3, Charnley moves from the theoretical to the practical: from the Mendelians trying to explain the world to the dissemination of Mendelian agricultural products. Charnley not only charts how actors like Biffen created Mendelian wheat varieties, but also how Mendelians promoted and distributed these crops to British farmers. To explain the latter, Charnley, borrowing from the classic E.P. Thompson work, articulates how the moral economy of plant breeding played a role in the way that Mendelians convinced farmers of the superiority of their varieties. Biffen did not just assume that farmers would automatically adopt his Mendelian breed, and instead participated in the established marketing practices used by traditional plant breeders. Thus, the success of Mendelian varieties was not purely dependent on the wheat being bred using Mendelian theories, but rather because it also participated in the established moral economy of the period.

In Chapter 4, Charnley extends the themes of Chapter 3 to analyze exactly how Mendelian wheat varieties were used by farmers and for what reasons. By this point in the dissertation, Charnley’s systems analysis of Mendelian components during this period begins to pay dividends. The web of institutions, people, and ideas laid out in the previous chapters lies tacitly in the background and the reader easily sees how the Mendelian system interacts with the farming community. In particular, Charnley shows the ways in which farmers co-opted Mendelian products for their own uses rather than aligning easily with Mendelian intentions. Charnley adds another layer to the equation in this chapter by discussing the larger British agricultural economy from the late 1800s through the 1930s, showing the various ways in which the Mendelian agricultural narrative maps on to the major agricultural events and cycles. In Chapter 5, Charnley extends the scope of analysis to compare the farming routines and Mendelian discussions that surrounded Cambridge – where most of his narrative takes place – to the peculiarities of Mendelian practices throughout the world. Specifically, Charnley discusses case studies in Australia, Argentina, Kenya and New Zealand, showing how these areas are connected through a global system of ideas, practices, institutions and people.

Charnley’s deployment of international networks is just one example of the way in which he adapted and extended the theoretical lens of systems to include more than Hughes originally laid out. For Hughes, systems were limited to national borders, whereas Charnley sketched a narrative in which the Mendelian system created by Biffen and others in Cambridge was connected to a global set of farming and breeding practices. Similarly, Charnley emphasizes the consumers in the Mendelian system, and draws from recent scholarship to integrate issues of intellectual property rights, aspects that never played large roles in Hughes’ work.

Overall, Charnley’s dissertation highlights how productive cross-fertilization can be in crafting new histories of familiar narratives. Charnley’s work cannot be, and should not be, pinned down to one traditional historiographical framework. Instead, Charnley artfully weaves together themes and ideas from the history of science, technology, agriculture, labor, and intellectual history to gain a multi-factorial perspective on Mendelism and its impact on British farming practices in the early part of the twentieth century. In the end, Charnley’s interpretation of Mendelism in Britain using Hughes’ technological system framework overcomes the fractured nature of past historiography on the subject by bringing together a variety of evidence and perspectives that help make sense of the complicated and messy historical problems during this period. Furthermore, Charnley’s ability to move easily between narrative and argument makes it easier for a reader to follow and come to their own conclusions as to the relevant successes of Mendelism. For those interested in the history of genetics, agricultural history, or British history in general, this dissertation is certainly not one to overlook.

Nathan Crowe
Center for Biology and Society
Arizona State University

Primary Sources

Rowland Biffen Papers. John Innes Archives, John Innes Centre, Norwich
William Bateson Letters Collection. John Innes Archives, John Innes Centre, Norwich
Ministry of Agriculture Papers. The National Archives at Kew, London
National Institute of Agricultural Botany Archives. NAIB-TAG, Cambridge.
Plant Breeding Institute Collection. John Innes Archives, John Innes Centre, Norwich

Dissertation Information

University of Leeds. 2011. 316 pp. Primary Advisor: Gregory Radick.


Image: Rowland Biffen, Director the Plant Breeding Institute (1926). Trumpington Local History Group.

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