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Reginald Ruggles Gates Collection

Reginald Ruggles Gates (1882-1962) was a plant geneticist whose notoriety arising both from his controversial views on race and his stormy marriage to the birth control pioneer Marie Stopes have somewhat overshadowed his original contributions to science.

Photograph of Ruggles Gates

The project to catalogue Reginald Ruggles Gates’s collection of books, pamphlets, journals and journal offprints was funded by the Wellcome Trust in 2010. It provided an opportunity to make this important resource available to public access.

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The collection offers probably the most complete holding of Gates’s own published work, in addition to providing an insight into his network of professional friends, colleagues and contacts in his fields of professional expertise, as many of the books and pamphlets were donated by their authors. The collection was bequeathed to King’s College London after Gates’s death by his widow, Laura; he had spent some of the most productive years of his life at King’s.

Life and influences

Reginald Ruggles Gates (1882-1962) was a plant geneticist whose notoriety arising both from his controversial views on race and his stormy marriage to the birth control pioneer Marie Stopes have somewhat overshadowed his original contributions to science.

Ruggles Gates was born to affluent parents who owned a farm and fruit plantation of 600 acres near Middleton, Nova Scotia. The Gates family was descended from Stephen Gates of Higham, Essex, who emigrated to Massachusetts in 1638.

Earlier ancestors included Sir John Gates, who was a Gentleman of the Bedchamber to Henry VIII and a member of the Privy Council of Edward VI. On his father’s side he was related to General Horatio Gates, the well-known leader during the American Revolution, who had received the surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga.

His mother was a great-great-granddaughter of Brigadier-General Timothy Ruggles, Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, whose loyalty to the Crown caused his estates to be confiscated. He was rewarded for his prominent part on the loyalist side with a grant of 10,000 acres of land in Nova Scotia. Ruggles Gates was always more enamoured of the Ruggles than the Gates side of his ancestry. When he visited England for the first time in 1928, he ‘immediately recognized [it] as his spiritual home’.

Plate 3 showing Oenothera plant, from 'The New Phytologist', Vol. XI.

Gates’s interest in natural history was awakened by both his parents: his father manufactured a herbal medicine from native roots, herbs and barks, which originated from the recipes of a travelling French physician and which had apparently cured Gates’s great-grandmother of dropsy. Gates helped his father in their manufacture and bottling and vouched for their efficacy as tonics. His mother was a teacher and botanist who educated him at home.

After receiving his tertiary education at Mount Allison University in Nova Scotia and receiving his first teaching post at McGill University, he went to the United States where he undertook research in plant genetics at the Marine Biology Station (Woods Hole, Massachusetts), the University of Chicago and the Missouri Botanical Garden at St. Louis. The University of Chicago awarded him a PhD for his work on heredity in oenothera, the evening primrose. This remained the principal focus of his work in plant genetics when he moved to King’s College London. His research in this area is explored in detail in the section on plant genetics below.

In 1910, at a scientific conference in the United States, Ruggles Gates met Marie Stopes (1880-1958), who was then active as a palaeobotanist. They married in 1911, and their marriage was annulled five years later. Ruggles Gates alleged that Stopes had been unfaithful, and that she had a relationship with their lodger, the translator and friend of Tolstoy, Aylmer Maude. However, it is apparent that other considerations also account for the breakdown of their relationship. He was out of sympathy with Stopes’s social views, and in general thought her too ‘emancipated’. He was also jealous of her professional success while he struggled to find a permanent post. She had other complaints about him. It is abundantly clear that they were never compatible. During this period Gates had temporary posts at Imperial College London, St. Thomas’s Hospital, Oxford University and the University of California. For two years from 1916 he was a gunnery instructor for the Royal Flying Corps.

Plant named Oenothera Biennis, Plate 102 from 'Rhodera', Vol. 15, March, 1913, No.171.

In 1919 Ruggles Gates was appointed reader in botany at King’s College London. Two years later he became professor of botany at King’s and remained there until the beginning of the Second World War. In 1931 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. He became vice president of the Linnaean Society and the Royal Anthropological Institute, the first secretary of the Society for Experimental Biology and secretary and president of the Microscopical Society. He was a longstanding member of the Eugenics Society. In Elazar Barkan’s words, ‘By the mid-1930s he was at the core of the British scientific establishment, commanding professional consideration whether one agreed with or opposed his views.’

From 1942 until 1957 Ruggles Gates, due to his association with the physical anthropologist Earnest Hooton, who shared Ruggles Gates’s views on eugenics and race, became Research Fellow at Harvard University in Botany and Anthropology. During his last years he undertook several field trips in connection with his interest in physical anthropology. These took him to Lapland, South Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Canada and Mexico. Several of these expeditions were concerned with his interest in intermarriage among racial groups. Although his research in plant genetics continued to command respect, his views on race became very controversial after the Second World War.

Halftitle of Elwin's 'Philosophy' showing inscription to Ruggles Gates.


There is one provenance in the Ruggles Gates collection which stands out from the others. A book on indigenous peoples in North-East India was inscribed by Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964). It is not known how Jawaharlal Nehru would have made Ruggles Gates’s acquaintance. However, from 1937 onwards Gates made three important research visits to India, where he furthered both of his major research interests. He also supervised a number of Indian research students during his period at King’s College London, with whom he maintained close contact. A number of monographs in the collection are inscribed in Ruggles Gates’s own hand. The 1946 edition of James Parkes’s The Jewish problem in the modern world, which is a philosemitic text, has Ruggles Gates’s pencil inscriptions, which are definitely not.

Other notable provenances in the collection include those of the following eminent scholars:

Franz Weidenreich (1873-1948) was a German Jewish anatomist and physical anthropologist, who exposed Piltdown Man as a hoax, and who evolved his own theory of human evolution, according to which human races evolved independently of each other, while at the same time maintaining gene flow between the various populations.

Karl Sax (1892-1973) was an American botanist and geneticist, whose experiments demonstrated that radiation could induce major genetic changes. As a sideline, he wrote popular works on demography.

The American anthropologist Henry Field (1902-86) was an expert in the physical anthropology of the peoples of Western Asia. In 1941, just before America’s entry into the Second World War, Field was asked by Franklin Roosevelt to be a member of the Special Intelligence Unit of the White House to direct a secret project concerned with migration. Roosevelt wanted Field to look at under-populated areas in the Middle East and North Africa for the re-settlement of refugees caused by the dislocations of war. Over 600 studies were produced by this project.

Juan Comas (1900-79) was a Spanish-born physical anthropologist, who spent most of his life in Latin America. He undertook research in the physical anthropology of Amerindians in Latin America, and devoted much of his career to endeavouring to refute racial stereotypes about them.

There are other provenances of lesser known geneticists and physical anthropologists in the collection.

Ruggles Gates and race

No survey of Ruggles Gates’s life is complete without a consideration of his views on race. To make this statement is not to claim that he was primarily a racial theorist above all else in his work on human genetics and its social implications or to assert that he was primarily a physical anthropologist, but to point out that, for him, his work in anthropology led ineluctably to conclusions about race. In this, he was far from alone, and although he called himself a eugenicist, he was not nearly as important as others in the eugenics movement, such as Leonard Darwin and Karl Pearson.

Ruggles Gates is not mentioned in Daniel Kevles’s standard history of the intellectual eugenics movement. In the interwar period, eugenics had been embraced by many members of the European intelligentsia, and was practised by governments as far apart politically as those of Sweden and some states in the United States, long before its most notorious and extreme exploitation by Nazi Germany.

On the other hand, he is not generally regarded as being in the front rank of anthropologists. Contemporaries of Ruggles Gates who undertook research in that discipline (such as Bronislaw Malinowski and Franz Boas) were more interested in observing cultures than in measuring skulls, although Ruggles Gates decried the nineteenth century passion for craniology, and claimed that the study of other physical features was more important.

Given the enormous importance of both phrenology and craniology in nineteenth century thought (most notoriously in Cesare Lambroso’s studies of the skulls and personalities of criminals), Ruggles Gates’s shift in emphasis toward the study of other physical characteristics indicates the confusion not only in racial thought but in the entire nineteenth century attempt to link physical characteristics with moral character. His branch of the discipline (physical anthropology) was becoming more problematic as the nineteenth century confidence that racial groups could be delineated and classified declined.

Although the entry for Ruggles Gates in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography asserts that his book, Heredity and eugenics (1923) ‘was one of the first books to draw anthropology and genetics together in order to explain human evolution’, this work in fact looked backwards to the nineteenth century assumption that racial groups could be classified, as well as forward to the insights that genetics could bring to the study of human heredity.

Ruggles Gates conducted pioneering research concerning aspects of human heredity (for example, the inheritance of hairy ear rims, which he ascribed to the Y chromosome) and, more generally, into blood groups and racial crossing, although at times he was liable to jump to conclusions on the basis of small samples. He argued that intermarriage among peoples which had enjoyed a close ethnic and geographical relationship with each other could have beneficial effects. He was, however, convinced that only harmful consequences could ensue from intermarriage among racial groups which (or so he thought) had historically had little or nothing to do with each other:

'As regards world eugenics, then, it would appear that intermixture of unrelated races is from every point of view undesirable, at least as regards race combinations involving one primitive and one advanced race ... Even after a thousand years of intermarriage, separate racial traits may still be traceable in the modern Englishman. Although innumerable racial unions have taken place in the history of mankind, yet the elements distinguishing the original races appear, for the most part, to retain their separate identity and independent transmission in inheritance. Whether, ultimately, a real blend occurs is uncertain, but if it ever does this may be only after a thousand years or so of interbreeding within the hybrid race. In any case the racial elements of the more primitive stock will dilute and weaken the better elements of the more progressive stock, with a retarding or degrading effect on the more progressive stock as a whole. It is, therefore, clear that miscegenation between, for example, the white races and African races is wholly undesirable from either a eugenic or any other reasonable point of view. [Heredity and eugenics: pp. 231-3.]'

He contradicted himself a page later by asserting that the intelligence of African-Americans had been improved by intermarriage with whites. Ruggles Gates insisted that various human populations ought to be considered as species rather than races and his denial that a single definition, such as interfertility, is sufficient to classify species set him apart from other commentators:

'The fact that all races of mankind are fertile with each other is no longer a sufficient reason for classifying them as one species. The present generation of naturalists is describing innumerable species of plants and animals as distinct species, although they are perfectly fertile with each other. [Heredity and eugenics, p. 224].'

His knowledge of genetics led him to express some scepticism about the feasibility (though not the desirability) of eugenicist social programmes and his belief that humanity was divided into separate species led him to doubt the nineteenth century assumption that a unified Caucasian race existed. However, he held firmly to other tenets of racial theories which were then current, particularly the undesirability of racial intermarriage and the intellectual superiority of some races. To the end of his life, he protested against UNESCO statements on racial equality. This did not make him very popular among his colleagues. When news of his death was announced at a meeting of American anthropologists, there were apparently audible cheers. In general, his knowledge of genetics, and the complexity of the relationship between genes and particular mental or physical characteristics, made him sceptical of schemes which were designed to produce racial ‘perfection’ or racial ‘dominance’.

Ruggles Gates and plant genetics

Ruggles Gates’s early career and output of publications were dominated by his research in to the implications of evening primrose for Mendelian genetics. During the nineteenth century, progress in cytology (the study of the nature and development of cellular structures) had been spectacular, thanks to exploitation of the potential of much-improved microscopes. However, Mendelian genetics had developed, until the onset of the twentieth century, without the insights of cytology. Gates, along with the Dutch botanist Hugo de Vries (1848-1935), was one of the scientists who attempted to do this.

Once it was accepted, Mendelian genetics disposed of the lingering Lamarckian doctrine that plants and animals acquired characteristics in response to their environment which they then passed on to succeeding generations. The process by which generations of plants acquired characteristics which were different from their parents’ was deemed to be autonomous.

The problem which interested Ruggles Gates and other plant geneticists was this: at what point did the genetic variations which Mendel had explained become new species? This issue was not only of scientific concern but had urgent practical application to agriculture. The first decades of the twentieth century, after the period of depression and stagnation during the late nineteenth century, were very productive, particularly in the area of research. Farmers wanted to develop new strains of crops. This is the scientific and economic context without which it is difficult to understand why Ruggles Gates devoted so much time to research in the genetics of the evening primrose.

'Gates on Oenothera', detail showing cells drawn by Gates, from 'Botanical Gazette', XLIII, Plate IV.

Hugo de Vries had demonstrated that new genetic mutations of evening primrose (or oenothera ) could spontaneously mutate into new genetic types, a finding which he was able to replicate in experiments. At the same time, he found that these variants could not cross-breed. De Vries thought at the time that he had come across an experimental method of proving evolution through the existence of discontinuous events of ‘mutation periods.’ Ruggles Gates, however, was able to demonstrate through his cytological research that evening primrose did not show a pattern which other varieties could follow, and which could explain the otherwise perplexing genetics of evening primrose.

Gates discovered that one mutant species, rubrinervis, has chromosomes which form rings instead of aligning in pairs during meiosis (cell division in which the chromosome complement of the two daughter cells is half that of the parent cell). This phenomenon can lead to an unequal division of chromosomes. Other mutant species of oenothera had similarly larger numbers of chromosomes than the parent species of oenothera: lamarckiana. Ruggles Gates claimed that he had discovered what geneticists term aneuploidy (abnormalities in chromosome numbers). However, he could not explain his findings. This task was performed later by Calvin Blackman Bridges (1889-1938) who related his findings to the genetic material carried by the chromosomes. Ruggles Gates’s research was not insignificant in the history of plant genetics, and future scientists could use his insights productively.

Ruggles Gates’s papers are held in the Archives of King’s College London. The catalogue to the papers of Professor Reginald Ruggles Gates (1882-1962) can be viewed online

Plate 7 showing four plants, from Journal of Genetics, Vol. XXXVI, No.2.


Elazar Barkan. The retreat of scientific racism: changing concepts of race in Britain and the United States between the wars. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992 [Maughan Library: GN269 BAR]

Elof Axel Carlson. Mendel’s legacy: the origin of classical genetics. New York: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2004

Ruth Schwartz Cowan. ‘Reginald Ruggles Gates’ in Charles Coulston Gillispie (ed.) Dictionary of Scientific Biography . (vol. 5). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972 [Maughan Library: Q141 D56]

Reginald Ruggles Gates. Heredity and eugenics. London: Constable, 1923 [Ruggles Gates: QH431 GAT 1923]

Reginald Ruggles Gates. Heredity in man. London: Constable, 1929 [Ruggles Gates: QH431 GAT]

Ruth Hall. Marie Stopes: a biography. London: Andre Deutsch, 1977 [New Hunt’s House Store: WZ100 STO]

Daniel Kevles. In the name of eugenics: genetics and the uses of human heredity. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1995 [Maughan Library: HQ751 KEV]

Marek Kohn. The race gallery: the return of racial science. London: Jonathan Cape, 1995

A. Fraser Roberts, Reginald Ruggles Gates, 1882-1962.(From: Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of theRoyal Society, Volume 10, November 1964) [Ruggles Gates/College History Collection: PAMPH. BOX QH31.G2 ROB]

June Rose. Marie Stopes and the sexual revolution. London: Faber and Faber, 1992

Alan R. Rushton, ‘Reginald Ruggles Gates 1882-1962’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. (accessed June 2011).

Colin Tudge. In Mendel’s footnotes: an introduction to the science and technologies of genes and genetics from the nineteenth century to the twenty-second. London: Jonathan Cape, 2000 [New Hunt’s House: QH437 TUD]

Note: Every effort was made to trace copyright holders for the images reproduced in this article.

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