- Stern at Bayfordbury, 1950, John Innes Foundation
The Antics of Various Genes
I did not realize until I was at Bayfordbury what a scientist you have become.
* Letter to Stern 19 February, 1951, John Innes Foundation
What links Highdown with a microscope, plant roots and osmium tetroxide? These are the ingredients used for Stern’s next obsession: counting chromosomes. To grow new hybrids, he knew it was vital to see inside plants and find how many chromosomes they had. The plant species with the same basic number of chromosomes are more likely to breed together. By the 1930s this was part of a plant science called cytology (cell biology).
From the 1940s, the Sterns befriended cytology scientists: E.K. Janaki Ammal, C.D. Darlington, Len La Cour and George Rowley. Janaki was the first Asian woman working in cytogenetics and co-author of ‘The Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants.’ They all worked for the John Innes Horticulture Institute based in London, later in Bayfordbury. They all visited Highdown and shared their chromosome discoveries with Stern. With advice from La Cour, by 1945, Stern made a laboratory in the wine cellar of Highdown Tower.
Stern squashed and preserved hundreds of root tips using cocktails of toxic chemicals. He became an expert in making microscope slides and had the patience to count chromosomes using a microscope. In 1947, this obsession led him to be appointed as the President of the John Innes Horticulture Institute. In one of his most important lectures, from 1952, Stern concluded: “The more one can learn of the cytological history of plants, the more valuable will be the practical application of this science to increase the yield of economic plants, which is the crying need of the world to-day.” *
Sources: Letters to Stern in Archives of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; Archives of John Innes Foundation; ‘The Handling of Chromosomes’ by Darlington and La Cour; *Masters Memorial Lectures 4 November, 1952 Cytology and Horticulture by F.C. Stern, Royal Horticultural Society.