Seminar on History and Philosophy of Science
"Genetics," under that name, first surfaced about 1900 as a tribute to Gregor Mendel's results of pea hybridization. These were beguilingly neat, inspiring heroic efforts to replicate his ratios not just for crops, but also and especially for mental defects of humans. The seeming inheritance of these defects was already of great interest to doctors and legislators by 1830. The data for this work came initially from insane asylums and from special schools for the "insane" and "idiots" or "feebleminded." Investigation of the transmission of mental illness and mental defect was already a massive enterprise by 1870, and formed the basis for a tradition that framed human genetics as a data science. Since then it has been almost completely forgotten. In this talk I show how records of state institutions were reshaped as data of heredity, and what a central this data work had in the shaping of human genetics.