Short Biography of Hugo de Vries

A portrait of Hugo de Vries.
Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Hugo Marie de Vries was born on February 16, 1848, to Maria Everardina Reuvens and Djur Gerrit de Vries in Haarlem, The Netherlands. His father was a lawyer who later went on to serve as the Prime Minister of The Netherlands in the 1870s.

As a young child, Hugo quickly found a love of plants and even won several awards for his botany projects while he attended school in Haarlem and The Hauge. de Vries decided to pursue a degree in botany from Leiden University. While studying at the college, Hugo became intrigued by experimental botany and Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution and Natural Selection. He graduated in 1870 from Leiden University with a Doctorate in botany.

He taught for a short time before attending Heidelberg University to study Chemistry and Physics. However, that adventure only lasted only about a semester before he went off to Wurzberg to study plant growth. He went back to teaching botany, geology, and zoology in Amsterdam for several years while returning to Wurzburg on his vacations to continue his work with plant growth.

Personal Life

In 1875, Hugo de Vries moved to Germany where he worked and published his findings on plant growth. It was while he was living there that he met and married Elisabeth Louise Egeling in 1878. They returned to Amsterdam where Hugo was hired as a lecturer at the University of Amsterdam. It was not long before he was elected as a member of the Royal Academy of the Arts and Sciences. In 1881, he was given full professorship in botany. Hugo and Elisabeth had a total of four children - one daughter and three sons.


Hugo de Vries is best known for his work in the field of genetics as the subject was in its so-called infancy stages. Gregor Mendel's findings were not well known at the time, and de Vries had come up with some very similar data that could be put together with Mendel's laws to create a more fully developed picture of genetics.

In 1889, Hugo de Vries hypothesized that his plants had what he called pangenes. Pangenes are what is now known as genes and they carried the genetic information from one generation to the next. In 1900, after Gregor Mendel published his findings from working with pea plants, de Vries saw that Mendel had discovered the same things he had seen in his plants as he wrote his book.

Since de Vries did not have Gregor Mendel's work as a starting point for his experiments, he instead relied on writings by Charles Darwin who hypothesized how traits were passed down from parents to offspring generation after generation. Hugo decided that the characteristics were transmitted via some sort of particle that was given to the offspring by the parents. This particle was dubbed a pangene and the name was later shortened by other scientists to just gene.

In addition to discovering genes, de Vries also focused on how species changed because of those genes. Even though his mentors, while he was at University and worked in labs, did not buy into the Theory of Evolution as written by Darwin, Hugo was a big fan of Darwin's work. His decision to incorporate the idea of evolution and a change in species over time into his own thesis for his doctorate was met with a lot of resistance by his professors. He ignored their pleas to remove that part of his thesis and successfully defended his ideas.

Hugo de Vries explained that the species changed over time most likely through changes, which he called mutations, in genes. He saw these differences in wild forms of evening primrose and used this as evidence to prove that species did change as Darwin said, and probably on a much quicker timeline than what Darwin had theorized. He became famous in his life due to this theory and revolutionized the way people thought about Darwin's Theory of Evolution.

Hugo de Vries retired from active teaching in 1918 and moved to his large estate where he continued to work in his large garden and study the plants he grew there, coming up with different discoveries he published. Hugo de Vries died on March 21, 1935, in Amsterdam.