What can we learn from studying the lives of geneticists? We learn about the successes and failures of those who preceded us. We must avoid the mistakes made in the past. Where progress has been made, we should try to understand the circumstances and how they have contributed to that success. We can evaluate the loss and missed opportunities resulting from the periods of neglect, as in the case of Mendel and Barbara McClintock, which occurred under very different circumstances. We could have made rapid progress had these lapses not occurred at all. Are there similar circumstances today that we are not able to see, but we should make every attempt to uncover?
Are we missing greater opportunities by neglecting or underutilizing the full potential of certain segments of the community, such as women and various minorities and marginal populations? We know from the lives and careers of Mendel and McClintock that their contributions were ignored for prolonged periods because of their circumstances. Mendel’s work was ignored mainly because he was not a respected academic, not a faculty member of a university, but a priest who was engaged in totally unexpected experiments in plant breeding. On the other hand, Barbara McClintock was a respected member of the academic community, possessed excellent credentials, having obtained her doctorate under the direction of Rollins Emerson at Cornell University. But her work on transposons was so far removed from the main stream of genetics that many geneticists found it hard to accept. However, when similar observations were reported by some other investigators (mostly male) in later years, her work was accepted.
Other cases of neglect involved very different circumstances. One such case is the excellent work of Archibald Garrod in human biochemical genetics. His discovery of the inheritance of inborn errors of metabolism appears to have been premature in the sense the scientific community was not sufficiently educated to understand theimplications of his work. The science of genetics itself was just rediscovered when Garrod published his paper on alkaptonuria in 1902. They were also not familiar with the metabolic basis of inherited disease that Garrod discovered. His work was ignored until Haldane drew attention to it in 1937.
Another instance of delayed recognition involved Herman J. Muller’s discovery of X-ray-induced mutagenesis, which was first reported in 1927. Although it was well recognized within the scientific community, it was not until 1946 that Muller was awarded the Nobel Prize. The reason for the 20-year delay was not due to neglect but lack of public concern regarding the harmful effects of radiation which only became apparent after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
Beyond genetics, a well-known case of neglect was the lack of interest in the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1929, which was not developed as a therapeutic drug until 1945 by Howard Florey and Ernest Chain. Increasing wartime casualties made it necessary to develop an antibiotic drug to treat the wounded soldiers.