Wednesday, October 5, 2011

When botanists were rock stars

I've read a great deal about Luther Burbank while preparing for my Economically Important Plants Class*. Burbank (1849-1926), the "Wizard of Santa Rosa", was a plant breeder responsible for russet ("Burbank") potatoes, shasta daisies, white blackberries, stoneless plums and a thousand other specialty plants. Self-taught and some sort of crazy, Burbank was a popular sensation. The Carnegie foundation sent a post-doc (George Harrison Shull, one of the first breeders of hybrid corn and the founder of the journal Genetics) to observe him, both sides of the Scopes Monkey Trial asked him for expert testimony, he was given a professorship at Standford, Swami Paramahansa Yoganda dedicated Autobiography of a Yogi to him, and he went camping (or at least was invited to go camping) with his peers seen here, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, every year. Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera both painted him. People bought subscriptions in advance for multi-volume books of his life and works. In 1906 Burbank, a childless bachelor semi-reclusive yet self-promoting plant breeder wrote The Training of the Human Plant, a book about raising children. It was a best seller. It is still quoted today.
His letters allegedly help change federal policy posthumously, 'cause Fiorello LaGuardia wouldn't vote against the wishes of the man he considered, "the outstanding American of his time."
I don't quite get this sensation.
I pretty sure my congressman wouldn't read a book by a plant breeder on plant breeding, much less consider him an expert on other policies.
I doubt any congressman could name a current plant breeder.
Heck, I can't name a current plant breeder and I work in this field.
How times have changed.

In related news, I was a panelist at the Oklahoma Women in Science Conference yesterday (see pg. 21 for everyone's favorite fire-twirling plant ecologist and her sons). Four young women asked for my autograph. Seriously.
Botanists, rock stars, almost the same thing.

*Jane S. Smith's The Garden of Invention is a very readable biography that doesn't shy away from Burbank's oddities, poor financial decision making and the scientific and practical consequences of his work. Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist's View of Genetically Modified Foods by Nina Fedoroff and Nancy Marie Brown is an excellent look at the science of transgenic organisms and points out just how "dangerous" and "unnatural" some of Burbank's "traditional plant breeding" was. The Training of the Human Plant is available through the Library of Congress (there is a special Burbank collection there) and is quacky but delightful. Who am I to argue against the idea that children need sunshine, both literally and of love?


Prairie Quilter said...

Sounds like a good conference. Nice pictures of the panelists.

janet said...

Nice picture and bio! And very interesting about Luther.

Beth said...

I like the bio and the pictures :-)

Jamie said...

The Garden of Invention won the Bancroft Book Award at the Denver Public Library Western History last year. I was on the jury and loved the book.

Sparkling Squirrel said...

Thanks all. Jamie, I'm curious if you are my friend Jamie and have been lurking for years or if you are someone else. Either way, thanks for contributing and welcome to Sparkling Squirrel. We hope you'll be back.

Jamie said...

I would be the lurking seemiller who checks your blog every once in awhile. :)

Sparkling Squirrel said...

Jamie, thanks for letting me know. I'm glad you enjoyed Garden of Invention as well. What else did you read on the jury?