It is now 100 years since a 25-year-old graduate student formulated a landmark biological hypothesis that set the stage for modern molecular biology. Through the careful observation of grasshopper germ-cells (Brachystola magna), Walter Stanborough Sutton was able to propose in 1902 and 1903 that the chromosomes carry the units of inheritance and that the manner of chromosome division during meiosis may form the physical basis of Mendel's laws of heredity (Sutton, 1902; Sutton, 1903). The acceleration in decoding the chromosome's genes in many species over the last decade have made this singular achievement of Sutton's of increasing historical importance. Walter Sutton's bringing together cytology and heredity was a turning point in biology and placed genetics on a firm scientific foundation.
It would seem unlikely that a young man raised and educated in Kansas, far removed from the Eastern centers of research and teaching, could propose a hypothesis that had evaded those who had spent careers in the field. The answer to this riddle is found in the unusual abilities of Walter Sutton, in the close support of his family and in his gifted, generous mentors at the University of Kansas and Columbia University.
EARLY YEARS ON THE RUTGER'S RANCH, RUSSELL, KS
Walter Stanborough Sutton was born in Utica, NY in 1877and at the age of 10 moved with his parents and 4 brothers to a ranch near Russell, Kansas. Prior to moving west, Walter Sutton's father, William Bell Sutton, was a successful lawyer and judge in Utica, NY. Judge Sutton was born in Indiana, PA on February 12, 1849 of English decent. He was descended from William, founder of the family in America, who was born in Warwickshire, England in 1641and came to Massachusetts colony about 1660 and settled in Eastham. James, son of Thomas and father of Judge Sutton, was born in Indiana, PA in 1812 and died there in 1870. Judge Sutton was descended from the Stanborough family on his maternal side, which was of Welsh origin and founded in America early in 17th Century by Josiah Stanborough who came from England and settled in Southampton, Long Island where he died in 1661. Judge Sutton was 8th in descent from Josiah. Sarah Cook Stanborough, the mother of Judge Sutton was born May 27, 1816 and died Feb 28, 1899 (Pixton, 1998).
Judge Sutton graduated in 1868 from Washington and Jefferson College, Cannonsburg, PA and married Miss Agnes Black June 8, 1868. She was the daughter of John E. Black, banker of Cannonsburg and treasurer of Washington and Jefferson College. They moved to Utica, NY in 1869 where Judge Sutton practiced law and was elected County Judge of Oneida County, NY in 1880 for a six-year term. At the end of this term he looked west to buy a ranch and stock it with the best breeds of livestock (Wilson 1901). Judge Sutton's brother, Thomas Sutton, also was interested in purchasing land and in 1886 Thomas, his wife and Charles, 17-year-old son of Judge Sutton, came to Russell, KS to view available land. From this survey, Judge Sutton purchased the Rutger's ranch, 725 acres a mile northwest of Russell, Kansas, and moved to this location with his family in 1887. This was hilly land most suited for cattle grazing but 325 acres were tillable and rye, barley, oats and potatoes were raised. In 1895, the year before Walter started college there were 10 horses, 2 mules and 8 milk cows on the ranch (Russel County Historical Museum). Thomas Sutton bought land north of the Rutger's ranch; near the present town of Paradise that became know locally as the Sutton ranch.
A few years after moving to Russell, Judge Sutton resumed his law practice and because of his ability as a public speaker he was in demand for political campaigns. In 1894 he was elected to Legislature and served on several state boards and in 1897 moved to Kansas City, KS to devote full time to the practice of law. His older sons, Charles and James, remained on the ranch. Later, James attended college at Kansas State at Manhattan, KS and was in business in Harper, KS. Charles moved to Lawrence, KS and later, to Denver, CO. Walter and his brother, Will, were at the University of Kansas at the same time. After graduating from the University of Kansas in 1899, Will went on to law school at the university and later went into partnership with his father in Kansas City, KS. He left the partnership to become counsel for the Prairie Oil and Gas Co. in Eastland, TX. Everett (Buzz) was the youngest son and was born in Russell in 1889. He moved with his parents to Kansas City, KS where he went to high school. He attended the University of Kansas and was involved in the oil business in Independence, KS before moving to California.
Walter Sutton was a sensitive, respectful son who, at an early age, demonstrated considerable mechanical skill in the operation and maintenance of the farm machinery that pointed him to a career in engineering. This family picture taken in 1896 shows Walter with his five brothers and his parents by the ranch house. A seventh son, William Marshall, born in 1873 died after 5 months. James and Will were both in the 1890 graduating class of Russell High School. Walter was in the class of 1894 and enrolled in the school of engineering at the University of Kansas in 1896.
The William B. Sutton Family, 1896, on the Rutger's ranch near Russell, Kansas. Back row: Charles E., John Marshall, William Bell Sutton (father), and James. Front row: Walter Stanborough, Everett (Buzz), Agnes Black Sutton (mother) and William B. Jr., (Will). (Courtesy of Clendening History of Medicine Library, University of Kansas Medical Center.)
He changed from engineering to biology and a premedical curriculum in the fall of 1897after a summer of caring for his family, sick with typhoid fever. His younger brother, John Marshall age 17, died of the illness and his acceptance to the Naval Academy arrived the day of his burial in Russell. The years training in engineering were not wasted. He put what he learned into good use as mechanical innovations were a consistent theme throughout his life.