Sunday, March 20, 2011

The merit of our forefathers...

The Real Doctor called me during the last day of Mic105 lab, a week ago. She was rather excited; calling from her car’s phone, which always muddies the reception, I gathered that I should call in to NPR’s Talk of the Nation Science Friday immediately. They were talking about a subject of personal relevance and expertise, so it would be good for me to contribute. It took a moment to find the number, and by the time I did it was 12:59:50—too late.

The subject was the origin of the word “clone.” This is a word which was dragged out of the Greek and attached to the meaning of “a group of plants that are propagated by the use of any form of vegetative parts such as bulbs, tubers, cuttings, grafts, buds, etc., and which are simply parts of the same individual seedling.” The person responsible for this appropriation, proposed in the October 16 1903 issue of Science, was Dr. Herbert John Webber, of the Department of Agriculture Plant Breeding Laboratory. What gave it personal relevance was that Dr. Webber was my great-grandfather.

I never met H.J. Webber, though I have an eighth of his genes. My grandfather, Dr. John Milton Webber, was also an academic horticulturalist. My mom, as has been noted, has a better garden than you and a groaning bookshelf of horticultural tomes. And then there’s me, also toiling in the vineyards of science. This brings up another term from the same 1903 paper—“transmitting power.” This is “the faculty which an individual organism has of transmitting its individual peculiarities to its progeny.” Although the word “clone” stuck—and has broadened its meaning far beyond what my great grandfather could imagine in 1903—“transmitting power” fell by the wayside, replaced in some ways by “penetrance.” However you describe it, H.J.’s biologist/academic genes had transmitting power or penetrance.

Occasionally, a name on the roster really jumps out at you. The name was “Leidy,” which in a Microbial Diversity class roster sticks out like “Saint-Saens” in a music appreciation class roster. I queried the student, and sure enough, he’s a descendant of the brother of Joseph Leidy, the pioneering American doctor / anatomist / paleontologist / microbiologist / microscopist / parasitologist. (his biography is subtitled “The Last Man who Knew Everything.”) If you want to know about amoebas, or if you just want to look at some absolutely ravishing hand-drawn illustrations by a brilliant microscopist, check out his “Fresh-water Rhizopods of North America,” available in its entirety online. So, now I can say that I’ve schooled Leidy on microbiology.

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