In Genetics in the Madhouse: The Unknown History of Human Heredity
(Princeton University Press, 2018), Theodore Porter
uncovers the unfamiliar origins of human genetics in the asylums of Europe and North America. Rather than beginning his story with Gregor Mendel or 1909, the date when Wilhelm Johannsen coined the term “gene,” Porter takes us back to King George III. After a political and medical crisis, doctors and researchers began to record and collect data on the causes of mental illness. In so doing, they increasingly investigated and theorized phenotypic heredity. Using paper technologies and demographic research, from asylum admissions records to census cards, largely unknown individuals helped establish the study of human inheritance. Excavating these figures’ contributions to the history of heredity, Porter sheds new light on the work of Karl Pearson and Charles Davenport.