The Wrinkled Peapod
As Gregor, the Czech monk, took his usual daily walk through the St. Augustine Monastery gardens one morning he suddenly stopped, bent down and leaned forward slowly. He reached out and carefully plucked the rare, single white flower blossoming amongst the lilac ones and with a slightly puzzled look on his face, examined it intently.
Inspired by this finding, Gregor set about growing peas on the Monastery grounds, planting thousands of seeds – some white, some green, some smooth skinned, some wrinkled. Over the next eight years, starting in 1856, the monk hybridized peapods, cross pollinating one type to another, monitoring, measuring and documenting his findings. Of all the traits he noted – color, texture, size of the seed, pod, flower and stalk – he discovered that if he crossbred them, he could mathematically predict which trait would dominate in the next generation, and in the generation after that. A wrinkled peapod crossbred with a smooth peapod, for example, would produce a wrinkled peapod every time.
Gregor Mendel excitedly presented his horticultural findings to the scientific community in 1866 and wrote a book about them the next year. By and large, however, his observations went unnoticed, and Gregor eventually stopped his scientific research and took up administrative work in the Abbey. In 1888, shortly before he died, he told a friend that one day, someone would discover the importance of his peapod work, and that “his time would come.”
The year after the monk died, Andrew Carnegie wrote “The Gospel of Wealth“, describing in great detail his belief that it was his responsibility to not only earn a vast amount of wealth, but to ultimately give it all away. “The surplus wealth of the few,” Carnegie said, “will become, in the best sense, the property of the many, administered for the common good; and this wealth, passing through the hands of the few, can be made a much more potent force for the elevation of our race than if distributed in small sums to the people themselves.”
Over the next decade, Carnegie’s wealth skyrocketed, largely on the backs of thousands of cheap, unskilled “hunky” laborers. Carnegie cared little about the health and safety of his workers, and even less about their families and communities. The deaths of thousands in the steel mills and coal mines were simply the cost of doing business to Carnegie and the other robber barons. As the number of eastern and southern European immigrants soared, so too did American anger and resentment about the quality of these poor, dirty, uneducated people who were threatening the very Anglo Saxon foundation of the country: “race suicide”, it was called.
In 1901 Carnegie sold his vast empire for $400m, and soon after created the Carnegie Institution of Washington, a private, scientific foundation from which he would donate millions for the betterment of the people of “his race”. At about the same time, Gregor Mendel’s peapod studies were discovered, and soon scientists began to apply his findings on heredity to people. Charles Davenport, a Harvard biologist, wrote “if immigration from southeastern European countries continues, America will become darker in pigmentation, smaller in stature, more mercurial, more attached to music and art, and more attached to crimes of larceny, kidnapping, assault, rape, murder and sex-immorality.” The dominance of the inferior wrinkled peapod skin was an ominous sign of things to come, he believed.
The first order of business for the Carnegie Institution: to create the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory directed by none other than Charles Davenport. Their goal was to to ensure the superiority of the norther European race and to prove the inferiority of the others through the “Mendelian” genetic science of heredity; ultimately, it was to identify and eradicate the “defective germ plasm” in society. In a way I am sure he never imagined, even in his worst nightmares, Gregor’s time had come.
Books to read:
Hunky, by Nick Karas, copyright 2009
Heredity in Relation to Eugenics, by Charles Davenport, 1911. This book of scientific racism is dedicated to Mrs. Harriman, was published with the support of the Carnegie Institution of Washington and was the staple of college textbooks at Harvard, Cornell, Stanford, Columbia and many other universities for years.
War Against the Weak, by Edwin Black, copyright 2004. An excellent, well documented book on the eugenics movement.