The "Plant Drosophila": E.B. Babcock, the genus "Crepis," and the evolution of a genetics research program at Berkeley, 1915-1947

Hist Stud Nat Sci. 2009 Summer;39(3):300-55. doi: 10.1525/hsns.2009.39.3.300.


This paper explores the research and administrative efforts of Ernest Brown Babcock, head of the Division of Genetics in the College of Agriculture at the University of California, Berkeley, the first academic unit so named in the United States. It explores the rationale for his choice of "model organism," the development--and transformation--of his ambitious genetics research program centering on the weedy plant genus named "Crepis" (commonly known as the hawkbeard), along with examining in detail the historical development of the understanding of genetic mechanisms of evolutionary change in plants leading to the period of the evolutionary synthesis. Chosen initially as the plant counterpart of Thomas Hunt Morgan's "Drosophila melanogaster," the genus "Crepis" instead came to serve as the counterpart of Theodosius Dobzhansky's "Drosophila pseudoobscura," leading the way in plant evolutionary genetics, and eventually providing the first comprehensive systematic treatise of any genus that was part of the movement known as biosystematics, or the "new" systematics. The paper also suggests a historical rethinking of the application of the terms model organism, research program, and experimental system in the history of biology.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Biological Evolution*
  • Biology / education
  • Biology / history
  • California / ethnology
  • Genetics* / education
  • Genetics* / history
  • History, 20th Century
  • Plants*
  • Polyploidy*
  • Research Personnel* / education
  • Research Personnel* / history
  • Research Personnel* / psychology
  • Universities* / economics
  • Universities* / history