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Genetics Unzipped – When ‘Becky’ met Bateson: Edith Rebecca Saunders, the mother of British plant genetics

Posted by , on 24 October 2019

Biscutella laevigata
Biscutella laevigata – the subject of many of Saunders’ important plant breeding experiments. Photo: Atriplexmedia CC-BY-SA 3.0

The history of genetics has a few famous partnerships – such as James Watson and Francis Crick or Francois Jacob and Jacques Monod. But there’s one pair without whom this podcast wouldn’t exist at all, and that’s Edith Rebecca Saunders and William Bateson, who founded The Genetics Society one hundred years ago.

But while Bateson tends to get the glory, particularly for his popularisation of Gregor Mendel’s ideas about heredity, much less is heard about Saunders – the ‘mother of British plant genetics’, as she was referred to by JBS Haldane.

She was one of the first women to pursue a scientific education and research career at Cambridge University in an era when women were excluded from formal lectures and prevented from graduating. Rather than being a research assistant, Saunders was an equal colleague of Bateson. 

She was a formidable teacher and researcher, eventually becoming director of the Balfour Biological Laboratory for Women in Cambridge, and made important contributions to genetics through her meticulous plant-breeding experiments. Saunders was also a key member of many scientific societies, and co-founded The Genetics Society together with Bateson in 1919. 

Learn about her remarkable story in the latest episode of Genetics Unzipped.

Find out more in this series of posters prepared by Christine Alexander, former librarian at the Cambridge University Department of Genetics.

If you enjoy the show, please do rate and review and spread the word. And you can always send feedback and suggestions for future episodes and guests to Follow us on Twitter – @geneticsunzip
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Categories: Outreach, Podcast, Resources, Societies

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