History of the GfG

Scientists from all areas of genetics have been meeting annually to exchange ideas since 1968, when the Gesellschaft für Genetik e.V. München was founded by Gerhard Röbbelen, Hannes Laven, Fritz Kaudewitz, Hans-Joachim Becker, Fritz Anders, Hans-Peter Hofschneider and Walter Klingmüller (see also: “From the beginnings”). In fact, it was a new foundation after the German Genetic Society, which represented the prospering genetic science in Germany before the war, no longer existed. At that time, genetics had already assumed a central role within biology and was also closely intertwined with a number of other scientific disciplines.

In 1908, a few years after the rediscovery of Mendel's laws of inheritance in 1900, the “Zeitschrift für induktive Abstammungs- und Vererbungslehre” was founded and the genetics books by Erwin Baur, Richard Goldschmidt and Valentin Haecker appeared shortly afterwards. An international genetics congress in Berlin two decades later reflected the upswing in genetics in Europe and the USA. Misguided developments during the Nazi regime had a particularly negative impact on the development of genetics in Germany after the war. The founding of the Society for Genetics was therefore an important step towards a new beginning with the aim of promoting the development of this important discipline in the Federal Republic of Germany through an intensive exchange of information.

From the beginnings (by Prof. Gerhard Röbbelen, Göttingen)

The scientific theory of heredity began, as is generally known, with the two lectures given by Johann Gregor Mendel on February 8 and March 8, 1865 in Brno on his “Experiments on Plant Hybrids”. The rediscovery of this publication in 1900 also took place in the German-speaking world. Of the three rediscoverers, Tschermak mainly pursued what he had found for practical breeding purposes, while de Vries, as can be seen from his two volumes on “Mutation Theory” published in Leipzig in 1901 and 1903, was more interested in the variability of hereditary traits than, like Mendel, in their constancy. It was therefore above all Carl Correns who gave the scientific theory of heredity its first face. But his publications were so esoterically German that they were only discussed among specialists. And the first comprehensive terminology developed by him was also not very catchy and only comprehensible to Germans at best. The public was thus made aware of the new field of research by others, the first being the Englishman William Bateson. His enthusiastic lectures met with great interest worldwide, both in America and Australia. It was his terminology that quickly became naturalized and replaced Correns' terms.

The count of international congresses for hereditary science begins with the “International Conference on Hybridization and Plant Breeding” in London in 1899. This was organized by the Royal Horticultural Society at a time when the science of heredity did not actually exist. The second conference, which was held in New York in 1902 at the invitation of the Horticultural Society of New York, was not much different and Mendel's findings were still too new to have been widely accepted by breeders. In 1906, the Royal Horticultural Society once again hosted an “International Conference on Hybridization and Plant Breeding” in London. This time, too, lectures on new flower varieties dominated, and the conference report is full of illustrations of pretty orchids and carnations, magnificent gladioli and roses, primroses and daffodils. But William Bateson, as president, was able to point out in his welcoming address that the program of this horticultural congress included lectures on inheritance experiments on mice, rabbits and chickens for the first time. He emphasized that in the meantime a completely new science had begun to develop, for which he proposed the term “genetics” for the first time (“which sufficiently indicates that our labours are devoted to the elucidation of the phenomena of heredity and variation”). The “IVe Conférence de Génétique” in Paris in 1911 then became the first real congress for genetics. It was also under the patronage of the Société Nationale d'Horticulture de France. However, the program hardly contained any lectures from the field of pure horticulture, and the hereditary analysis of experimental plants had been joined by animals as objects and humans as a new object.

The meeting in Paris was to be followed by an international congress in Berlin in 1916. The First World War put paid to this plan and it was 16 years before a new congress was held. This was organized by the German Society for Hereditary Science at the instigation of Erwin Baur and under his chairmanship in Berlin in 1927. In the meantime, genetics was firmly established worldwide, so that the “V. International Congress for Hereditary Science” (sic!), as can be seen from the two supplementary volumes with the “Verhandlungen” in the Zeitschrift für induktive Abstammungs- und Vererbungslehre, was able to make a number of epoch-making discoveries public in its program: Genetics of Datura (Blakeslee), Über nichtmendelnde Vererbung (Correns), The problem of genetic modification (H.J. Muller, CLB Drosophila) or Geographische Genenzentren unserer Kulturpflanzen (Vavilov). On the other hand, looking back, the lecture by A. Thomsen, Professor of Criminal Law in Münster/Westphalia, on “The Formation of Genetic Germs to Preserve and Increase Valuable Hereditary Traits” was already frighteningly clear. Obviously, such views on human genetics were not only rampant in Germany at the time, even though racism was brought to satanic perfection here after 1933.

In the first half of the 20th century, genetics had a fairly narrow institutional base in Germany. The genetic research results of the scientists working in this field were largely presented and discussed within the framework of the German Botanical Society and the German Zoological Society. Only the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Biology, founded in Berlin in 1915 (first director Carl Correns, other department heads Fritz von Wettstein, Richard Goldschmidt and Max Hartmann) and the KWI for Breeding Research, founded by Erwin Baur in 1928, were specifically designated for hereditary research. Educational and research institutions at German universities only developed to the extent that a professor with a scientific background as a botanist or zoologist was also interested in genetic issues and included these in his teaching duties. After 1933, chairs for racial hygiene (and human heredity) were established at almost all universities in Germany, but not a single new institute for genetics was founded. Ultimately, the German Society for Hereditary Science inevitably went under with the “Third Reich”.

Even today, it is hard to imagine the ruthlessness with which genetics was widely exploited for political purposes during the Nazi era. The attitude of colleagues abroad was correspondingly critical after the end of the war. Friedrich Oehlkers told me about his experiences at the International Genetics Congress in Stockholm in 1948, where he and the few German participants were separated from the other participants at numerous events and visits in a separate group. All the more remarkable for me is the fact that the International Genetics Federation, under the presidency of Richard Goldschmidt, commissioned Hans Nachtsheim and Oehlkers at the 9th Congress in Bellagio, Italy, to organize the upcoming 10th Genetics Congress in Germany in 1958, which speaks for the high reputation of the classical early days of genetics in Germany and certainly also of some German geneticists who were unencumbered by Nazi ideology. But, as I know from Oehlkers, after only a few months of preparatory work, both representatives had already accumulated two “thick folders full of dirty laundry”, so that they returned the commission to the Federation. The congress then took place in Montreal, Canada, in 1958.

The first attempt to found a new society for genetics in Germany took place in 1952 at the Max Planck Institutes in Tübingen. It was chaired by Max Hartmann and Wolfhard Weidel, with Georg Melchers as deputy. The activities were mainly limited to lecture events at this location. But as early as 1964, this association fell asleep again (due to personnel changes?).

In 1967, the annual meeting of the German Botanical Society took place in Göttingen. As a newly appointed Scientific Councillor and Professor and Head of the Department of Cytogenetics at the Institute of Plant Cultivation and Plant Breeding (Dir.: Prof. Arnold Scheibe) in Göttingen, I took this opportunity to invite the genetically interested conference participants I knew to a discussion on September 6 in the small lecture hall of the Botanical Institutes. Many of those present were young people working in the field of plant breeding. Georg Melchers was also present and encouraged us with his advice. It was unanimously agreed that a new generation of geneticists had grown up in Germany and that it was time to make a fresh start.

Finally, together with Mr. Fritz Anders, Giessen, I was commissioned to prepare the new foundation. Unfortunately, in the weeks that followed, a folder of unhelpful content filled up in my office, and Mr. Anders and I soon agreed that a different procedure was needed. We drafted a constitution that met with the approval of four colleagues in Munich whom we approached, and on May 31, 1968 we went to the registration court of the Munich district court with the required minimum number of seven people: Becker, Hofschneider, Kaudewitz (secretary) and Klingmüller from Munich, as well as Anders, Giessen (board), Laven, Mainz (second chair) and Röbbelen, Göttingen (first chair). At the first general meeting in Mainz in 1969, we were severely reprimanded for this high-handedness. But in the end, the articles of association were adopted almost unchanged and the number of members continued to grow strongly.

The general meeting in Mainz also elected the first board of the society with Carsten Bresch, Freiburg (1st chair), Karl Esser, Bochum (2nd chair), Fritz Anders, Giessen (secretary) and Wolfgang Lueken, Giessen (treasurer). These names were associated with the intention of considering genetics in its entirety in the new society. Initially, about half of the members were breeding researchers or botanists, but Bresch brought a larger number of members from his Freiburg school who were involved with microorganisms. In this way, the members' range of expertise quickly diversified further. The new approach was also reflected in the topics of the first annual meetings: The role of genetics in cultural policy and science (Mainz 1969), genetics of antibiotic resistance (Mainz 1970), plant genetics, new techniques and breeding methodology (Göttingen/Duderstadt 1971) and early diagnosis of human diseases (Freiburg 1972). The Society's conference topics, which were strongly public-oriented under Bresch, were appropriately broadened under the subsequent chairmen Hofschneider, Munich (1972-1977), Röbbelen (1977-1979), Bautz, Freiburg (1979-1981) and Abel, Hamburg (from 1981) to cover the entire spectrum that genetics, as a central biological science, has increasingly successfully provided to this day.