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Poultry Notebooks


Presented here is a set of laboratory notebooks recording Bateson and Punnett’s genetic experiments in poultry breeding. The notebooks are essentially a laboratory record, which follow a set pattern. The general format of the records is that each chick is given its own page. At the top of the page the parents are noted in an abbreviated form, e.g.  D 48 x L-K indicates a cross between chicken D 48 and one of Lister-Kay’s birds.

Most of the records include the date eggs were laid and date hatched, followed by records of the visible characteristics scored (feather colour, comb shape, colour of legs and beak, other physical characteristics, e.g. straight or crooked toes, extra digits, abnormalities, health, etc.). Some pages include sketches of heads of birds, combs, or feet, etc. where there was some variation of interest. The sex of the bird is also recorded at a later date (it was difficult to sex day-old chicks) and any other observations made on the bird until its death or disposal. Sex is recorded as the astrological symbols for Venus and Mars. Peak hatching times were March-June in each year, but records of individual birds can run from the hatch date through to much later in the year. 

The numbers on the books correspond to years, so the notebook marked ‘98’ records work carried out in 1898. The first notebook carries a list of the original birds used for breeding. These were the founding birds of many of the breeding lines which form the substance of the poultry notebooks. It is thought that Bateson acquired these birds from other breeders such as Boys-Smith (abbreviated in the notebook to B-S), Smith and Asbee, and Rev. C.T. Bromwich, and that these birds showed phenotypic variation, which was the subject of Bateson’s research. From these stocks there seem to be four breeding lines labelled A, B, C and D, with individual progeny from each line given a number e.g. D 48. The books at MS Add.10161/1/1/1- MS Add.10161/1/1/4 contain notes on these breeding lines to 1899. 

As the breeding programme progressed, the need to keep records of individual birds and their lineage means that the format of the records changes in the later books. Beginning in notebook MS Add.10161/1/1/4, chicks are numbered W 1-999, often across three or four books, but after 999 a new series generally begins again at 1. The numbering sequence might be due to the way they labelled the birds (perhaps with metal leg rings) to identify them; the label numbers may have only run to 999. 

The first W 1-999 series covers chickens hatched from June 1899 to May 1902 (across notebooks MS Add.10161/1/1/4- MS Add.10161/1/1/10); the next runs from May 1902 - June 1903 (notebooks MS Add.10161/1/1/10- MS Add.10161/1/1/16). Some years were particularly busy: for 1903, for example, there are five books covering birds which hatched between January and June 1903. There are no books numbered ‘05’ in this series, although some records for January to March 1905 are to be found at the end of notebook ‘04 II’ (MS Add.10161/1/1/18). There is one book for 1906, and two for 1907. From this one would infer that less time was being devoted to poultry and more to sweet peas; it may be however, that the book(s) for 1905 are missing. 

1910 was a year where relatively few crosses were performed, and this coincides with Bateson moving from Cambridge to be director of the John Innes Institute in Merton in Surrey. It was also the year in which Bateson and Punnett founded the Journal of Genetics.  Such activities would inevitably have affected the research programme.