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he science of heritage is quite a big scientific sector that actually focuses on many branches of human behavior and human evolution. Historians state that the research of heredity was started in the early centuries AD, but due to the lack of advanced knowledge or technological advancements, the field was in a slow evolution and obtained only vague results based on many assumptions that would fill the many missing gaps.

Today we can read the DNA of a person to determine their heritage, but back in the day, before the knowledge of DNA, this science was based very much on registries and statistics. In other words, researchers would look in different archives for a person’s heredity and compose the data into statistics that would best represent the heritage of that person.

As I always say, the best way to understand a certain event or field is to look at where things started, or in this case where heredity science started to actually become interesting and more promising.

Mental asylums could be the answer

Theodore M. Porter, a historian, and researcher in this field has stated that the deteriorating mental health of King George III led to the study of heritage being carried out in mental asylums during the beginning of the 18th century. This is because the registry system in mental asylums was the best at the time due to all the patients being registered with every piece of information available. This meant that mental asylums, prisons, or even correction schools had the largest archives which would have given contemporary researchers a better chance at actually making some connections.

King George III of England (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Due to the development of psychiatry, many criminals were actually ending up in mental asylums and not prisons as judges would define their crimes based on psychopathic behavior which needed to be treated, not confined. This meant that the registry would grow exponentially during the 18th century in West Europe. From this, researchers also discovered a reason for the increased number of patients that were suffering from mental illnesses: the increased complexities of ordinary life which also came with more stress.

However, at the time, many researchers believed that mental illnesses were actually hereditary and this is because they appeared when they made certain connections in the heritage of patients. Some of the patients were found because a previous generation in their heritage had also ended up in a mental asylum. Therefore, the directors of asylums within West Europe were told to modify their registry so that they would keep track of the siblings of each patient that would become patients in the future.

This led to some drastic interventions within the families who seemed to have mental illnesses passed on from generation to generation. These families were discouraged from reproducing in order to stop the spread of mental illnesses. A drastic solution, but even they knew that their lack of scientific knowledge in correlation with the lack of technological advancement did not allow them to come up with better solutions for stopping the spread of mental illnesses.

The evolution of hereditary studies

Another interesting fact from Porter’s latest book, Genetics in the Madhouse, is that at the beginning of the 19th century scientists in this field had a burning desire to standardize the data gathered by mental asylums. Mainly to offer them a constant flow of information as well as to make data easier to analyze. This is where the information which was used in Ludvig Dahl’s Pedigrees of Mental Illnesses came from

Frederik Holst, M.D., Beretning, Betankning og Indstilling fra en til at undersøge de Sindsvages Kaar i Norge (1828), table of causes by disease form, from a census. (Source: Theodore M. Porter UCLA Department of History)

Such studies were seen as the pillars of statistics which were recognized by scholars such as Francis Galton who launched the eugenics paradigm in 1900. Another great scientist in the field by the name of Gregor Mendel tried to experiment with the transmission of hereditary characteristics within different plants. This study really showed potential as many people thought that this ideology could be applied to people with mental illnesses, however, this theory was rejected by many contemporary scientists on the basis that the theory was too simplistic.

What followed in the early 20th century, before molecular genetics, was Nazi scientists that really looked into the eugenics field to accomplish some tremendous research (although suspiciously unethical). Since the discovery of molecular genetics, most of the research done by these Nazi scientists was disregarded.

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