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Mendel's Legacy: The Origin of Classical Genetics

Subject Area(s):  GeneticsHistory of Science

By Elof Axel Carlson, Professor Emeritus, State University of New York at Stony Brook

View sample pages from the book here

© 2004 • 332 pp., illus., index
Hardcover •
ISBN  978-087969675-7

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This latest book by Elof Carlson (The Unfit) is a first history of classical genetics, the era in which the chromosome theory of heredity was proposed and developed. Highly illustrated and based heavily on early 20th century original sources, the book traces the roots of genetics in breeding analysis and studies of cytology, evolution, and reproductive biology that began in Europe but were synthesized in the United States through new Ph.D. programs and expanded academic funding. Carlson argues that, influenced largely by new technologies and instrumentation, the life sciences progressed though incremental change rather than paradigm shifts, and he describes how molecular biology emerged from the key ideas and model systems of classical genetics. Readable and original, this narrative will interest historians and science educators as well as today's practitioners of genetics.


Introduction: What Is Classical Genetics?
Part I: The Tributaries of Genetics
Part II: An American Amalgam: The Chromosome Theory of Heredity
Part III: Mendelism Takes Over: 1900-1910
Part IV: The Organism of Choice: Drosophila
Part V: Classical Genetics Permeates Biology
Part VI: Classical Genetics Examines Homo sapiens


review:  “Several outstanding features of this book will make it useful for specialists and non–specialists alike. One is the attempt to show how classical genetics was involved with political issues in the twentieth century, using three examples: eugenics (1883–1945), the Lysenko controversy in the Soviet Union (1930–1960), and the controversy over the genetic effects of radiation (1946–1970). Another noteworthy feature is the use of chronological tables for the whole field (at the beginning of the book), as well as for specific sub–topics, such as contributions to the chromosome theory of sex determination, or geneticists' educational background. A third valuable feature is the author's liberal use of high–quality illustrations, including photographs of many geneticists seldom pictured before, original figures from published papers, and the title pages of important papers and books. The publishers, Cold Spring Harbor Press, have produced an attractive and useful book.”

review:  “This book is a must for biology teachers in both high school and college who enjoy reading the historical background that goes into major accomplishments, and want to convey a fascinating story to their students. Besides the historical account, the author explains at the end of the book the significance of classical genetics as a case study on the history of science. He asserts that classical genetics does not constitute a ‘paradigm shift’ but is an elegant experimental science that has evolved through new technologies. Moreover, Carlson humbly states that the history of classical genetics ‘is not an anomaly in the history of science [but] accurately depicts how science is done.’ I certainly agree.”
      —The American Biology Teacher

review:  “As a richly illustrated overview of the history of classical genetics, Mendel's Legacy is an interesting and useful contribution to the history of biology.
      —Journal of the History of Biology

review:  “Opening Carlson's book is, for a teacher of genetics, something like finding a trunk filled with family memorabilia. The pictures, quotations, anecdotes—some only half–remembered, some revealed for the first time—bring to life a past that all of us share. Carlson's tale of the effort to 'win the facts' and his thumbnail biographies of the people who labored to win them provides plenty of material to whet the appetites of students. Like the family member who finds the trunk, teachers will want to share the contents of Mendel's Legacy with their kids.”
      —Cell Biology Education

review:  “This is a book that all workers in genetics will enjoy—and one could not wish for a clearer account for non-geneticists too. It is enhanced by an abundance of portraits and other illustrations and by extremely clear typography and design, for which the publishers also deserve credit. The book will be a lasting memorial to the founders of classical genetics.”
      —Human Genetics

review:  “Mendel's Legacy has many virtues. Given its span and the amount of material covered, it is very light and readable. Every chapter is organized in small sections with well–identified headings that make them self–contained units. An interesting feature of the book is the illustrations. They are abundant and interesting, beautifully woven with the text and an excellent complement to the literary account. I would say that together they are the best–published gathering of pictures of the history of genetics. Carlson has written a classic that will serve as reference and resource to historians and geneticists.”

review:  “...a welcome addition to the still small body of historical literature dealing with genetics and its implications for the life sciences.”
      —Medical History