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Saved from a teaching post on the Czechoslovakian border


The influence of Lysenko on Czech biology
Jan Klein Scientist
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In biology it was perhaps more pronounced that in other areas how strange the ideology was trying to influence the development of the science. There was a breeder by name of Michurin who was quite capable and did many good things for the country, but was a very simple breeder, nothing else and then there was a charlatan called by the name of Lysenko. Somehow Lysenko got the ear of Stalin and Stalin became a supporter of Lysenko. Lysenko became very powerful and was telling scientists what is right and what is wrong, was telling peasants what they should grow and what they should not grow, and how should they grow and when should they grow, even they knew it much better than he did. Well in short he turned out to be a disaster in the end for the whole economy, but the young biologists in Czechoslovakia, in Russia and somewhere else, fell for Lysenko and there were many who thought that his ideas were good. For example, he believed that properties can be... acquired properties can be inherited... Lamarckism. This was disproved long time ago by many experiments but Lysenko revived it and made it a major theme of his new biology concept. He also dismissed the existence of genes. He claimed that instead of genes in the nucleus and in chromosomes the whole cell is a unit... a unit of inheritance so anything in the cell, in the cytoplasm or elsewhere, functions as a factor of inheritance. Then there was a woman called Lepeshinska who basically went back to middle ages because she claimed that cells can arise from acellular matter and was publishing papers that were apparently demonstrating that. Well, as somebody who has read something on biology... knew something about biology, I couldn't understand how this can pass, this just didn't make sense. It was against everything that was done by Mendel, Morgan and Weismann and all the others but these people were, by Lysenko and Lepeshinska, labelled as reactionary and were forbidden. Mendel was deleted from all the textbooks and where he was... the museum where he was... in the monastery where he was... where he worked, was disbanded and people who tried to continue teaching basic, classical genetics were persecuted. But in the west the Communist sympathisers took never stand against this. There was for instance JBS Haldane, geneticist, western geneticist, Mendelist, Morganist, population geneticist and yet he never publicly, because he was a member of a Communist party, he never publicly said this is nonsense, what Lysenko says. So he became a strong argument in Russia, in Soviet Union and in Czech Republic... Czechoslovakia. They were saying, see western scientists support Lysenko so it must be right. So Lysenkoism took hold of Czech science... Czech biology for a long time. But I must say, some of the Czech scientists did not accept it entirely blindly. They tried to prove it, experimentally, that it was correct. And later I will have to say more about this... some of the scientists, how they proceeded and what has happened with these experiments... they were supposedly supporting Lysenkoism.

Born in 1936, Jan Klein is a Czech-American immunologist who co-founded the modern science of immunogenetics – key to understanding illness and disease. He is the author or co-author of over 560 scientific publications and of seven books including 'Where Do We Come From?' which examines the molecular evolution of humans. He graduated from the Charles University at Prague in 1955, and received his MS in Botany from the same school in 1958. From 1977 to his retirement in 2004, he was the Director of the Max Planck Institute for Biology at Tübingen, Germany.

Listeners: Colm O'hUigin

Colm O'hUigin is a senior staff scientist at the US National Cancer Institute. He received his BA, MSc and PhD at the Genetics Department of Trinity College, Dublin where he later returned as a lecturer. He has held appointments at the Center for Population and Demographic Genetics, UT Houston, and at the University of Cambridge. As an EMBO fellow, he moved in 1990 to the Max Planck Institute for Biology in Tübingen, Germany to work with Jan Klein and lead a research group studying the evolutionary origins of immune molecules, of teeth, trypanosomes and of species.

Tags: Lamarckian inheritance, Lamarckism, Czechoslovakia, Russia, Lysenkoism, Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin, Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, Olga Lepeshinska, Gregor Johann Mendel, August Friedrich Leopold Weismann, Thomas Hunt Morgan, JBS Haldane

Duration: 6 minutes, 28 seconds

Date story recorded: August 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008