Friday, March 21, 2008

Bussey Institute - Part II

It took a while, but I'm finally getting back to this second and final entry on the Bussey Institute. The first entry - here - included an article written in 1899 extolling the virtues of the agricultural and horticultural program at the Institute. Just nine years later, the undergraduate program described in the Globe article was shut down, and the Institute was reorganized as a graduate school that would focus on scientific research.

The new research institute featured two men who would become leaders in the effort to understand the mechanisms of inheritance. William Castle worked with mammals and Edward Murray East with plants at a time when the nature of inheritance was still very much a mystery. The work of Austrian monk Gregor Mendel in the mid-1800s had done much to unlock the mystery, but it was not recognized at the time. It wasn't until the turn of the century that multiple researchers came upon the same results Mendel did, and proper genetic research could begin. Thus, the new Bussey graduate program was begun just as a new science took hold, with faculty and students capable of playing a major role in new discoveries. Among the students who came to the Bussey Institute in its early days (1912-1915) was Sewall Wright, who became, with Englishmen R.A. Fisher and J.B.S. Haldane, one of the founding fathers of population genetics as it applies to evolutionary biology. A later student, and one better known to the general public - though not for his Bussey work - was Alfred Kinsey (1916-1919), who made an exacting study of gall wasps for his Ph.D.

The actual work done by the Bussey faculty and students is beyond the scope of this site, and would no doubt sit unread if I bothered typing it up. Suffice it to say that the Bussey evolved from a quaint agricultural school to a modern research institute in the early 1900s. As such, it would probably have disappeared from sight for the residents of Jamaica Plain. News of work done at the Institute would be carried by scientific journals and institutional publications, not newspapers, and they would only be read by other scientists in the same field.

By 1936, the program was closed, and the staff transferred to Cambridge. During the 20th century, the state purchased Bussey land for vaccine production and diagnostic testing laboratories, and in 1963 the entire grounds were purchased from Harvard, ending their connection to the land. A new hulking monstrosity was built in 1969, and the main building of the Institute was torn down in the early 1970s. Today, the Institute is probably remembered in more detail by students of the history of science than it is by Jamaica Plain residents.

Sources: Records of the Bussey Institution, Kinsey biography, Sewell Wright and Evolutionary Biology, by William B. Provine.

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