The 1948 International Congress of Genetics in Sweden: People and Politics

By Bengtsson, Bengt O.; Tunlid, Anna | Genetics, July 2010 | Go to article overview

The 1948 International Congress of Genetics in Sweden: People and Politics


Bengtsson, Bengt O., Tunlid, Anna, Genetics


ABSTRACT

The International Congresses have played an important role in the history of genetics. The Eighth International Congress, which in 1948 was held in Sweden, celebrated the conclusion of the war against Nazism and many new decisive scientific advances. It also signaled a hardening of the fight against Lysenkoism, which was growing in strength in the Soviet Union. A rare document is available from the Congress-an amateur film made by a young delegate, Nils Nybom. With its help a living description can be given of the scientific and political melees in which the delegates were involved.

The period immediately following a war is a most difficult one in which to organize an international congress. (M. Demerec, 1948, in Bonnier and Larsson 1949, p. 85)

THE Eighth International Congress of Genetics was held in 1948. After an ambitious pre-Congress visit to University of Lund and plant breeding stations in southern Sweden, the main proceedings took place in Stockholm on July 7-14. The delegates met at Medborgarhuset, a striking example of modern Swedish architecture with grandiose front steps on which the participants relaxed between talks. Excursions outside Stockholm were made to the royal mansion Drottningholm with its 18th-century opera house and to the University of Uppsala. The details of the Congress are recorded in the Proceedings that were published as a supplement to Hereditas (Bonnier and Larsson 1949).

During the Congress a young Swedish student, Nils Nybom (1925-1970), later a professor of horticultural genetics at the Swedish Agricultural University, filmed all outdoor events with his small hand-driven camera.He had a cinematographic talent, and the film that he produced (8 mm, black and white, no sound, ~25 min long) is a valuable and moving document of the Congress and its participants. The single copy of the film is owned by the Mendelian Society in Lund, and it has now been cleaned, digitalized, and re-edited. For those with internet access of sufficient quality it can be seen at http://www.mendelskasallskapet.nu. When specific participants are referred to in this text, the accompanying numbers indicate at what point in the film they can be seen.

The International Congresses of Genetics have been of great importance for the development of the discipline (Haynes 1998), and due to the centrality of genetics for all kinds of human affairs, they have often carried strong political undertones. The 1948 Congress was perhaps more political than any of the others, and to most of the participants it must have felt like a victory congress because it marked the commencement of normal scientific exchanges after the defeat of Nazi Germany and its allies in the Second World War. The ongoing growth of genetics as an academic and applied science must also have felt like an important achievement. Much had happened both internally and externally to the discipline since the preceding congress in Edinburgh in 1939, and genetics was on its way to become one of the most important sciences in the post-war world. The Congress marked, however, not only past victories but also an important coming fight, namely the fight against the Stalinist version of hereditary science, Lysenkoism. This hotchpotch of ideas in which the inheritance of acquired characteristics played an important part had been lying low since the beginning of the war but was now again raising its head. We consider the people and politics involved in these bellicose interactions and start by describing the misfortunes of the preceding International Congress of Genetics of 1939, which partly explain why Sweden was chosen to host the Congress in 1948.

THE ROAD TO STOCKHOLM

The various misfortunes of the Seventh International Congress of Genetics can be followed in its Proceedings (Punnett 1941). It should have been held 1937 in Moscow, but the local organization committee ran into problems with the Lysenkoists and the political control over science (Soyfer 2003). …

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