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William Bateson

8 August 1861
8 February 1926 (age 64)

William Bateson was an influential British geneticist, most famous for championing Mendelian genetics after Darwin published his theory of evolution. While Darwin had shed light on the process of evolution, the mechanisms of it, DNA and genetics, were still a mystery. He also coined many familiar terms in genetics, including allele, zygote, heterozygous, homozygous and even the term genetics itself.

Bateson popularised the ideas of Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk whose studies into pea plants shed light on the idea of genes and the dominant/recessive nature of alleles. His work, published between 1865 and 1866, caused a fierce controversy when it was rediscovered in 1900.

Genetics was split between ‘Mendelians’ like Bateson and biometricians like Karl Pearson. The split revolved around two very different ways at looking at variation, a keystone of natural selection. Bateson saw genetics as the study of genes and how they combined and recombined to produce different characteristics. By contrast, biometricians more or less rejected Mendel, insisting that all variation was continuous and that children were essentially just a ‘mix’ of their parents. Ultimately, there was some truth in both camps. Ronald Fisher tied them together in 1916 by postulating that continuous variation was the result of multiple genes being at play as well as environmental factors. 

The best title would, I think, be 'The Quick Professorship of the study of Heredity.' No single word in common use quite gives this meaning. Such a word is badly wanted, and if it were desirable to coin one, 'Genetics' might do.

William Bateson, in a letter to Adam Sedgewick in 1905.

Another contribution of Bateson to science was his research into Balanoglossus, a hemichordate and therefore a missing link between vertebrates and invertebrates. As a fervent Darwinist, all his work lent itself towards the theory of evolution, which was still developing into its modern form.

The John Innes Horticultural Institution, now the John Innes Centre, was formed under Bateson’s directorship in 1910. His work on genetics was later taken forward by C D Darlington.

Bateson also played a role in advancing women in academia, with his research group mostly drawn from the all-female Newnham College in Cambridge. As director of the Horticultural Society, he pushed for grants to be awarded to female students who would otherwise have been unable to study.

This profile was written by a Biology: Changing the World volunteer.