To complete this series of posts on my trip to Seattle for the History of Science Society meeting (1,2,3), I’ll discuss two presentations dealing with 20th and 21st century botany. Jim Endersby of the University of Sussex in Britain spoke on “A Visit to Biotopia: Genre, Genetics, and Gardening in the Early Twentieth Century,” based on his recently published article (Endersby, 2018). He began with E.T. Brewster’s 1908 essay in The Atlantic Monthly, “Nature against Nurture” in which the author wrote about the wonders that would be coming soon from the new science of genetics. This was only seven years after Hugo de Vries published his work on primrose genetics and introduced Gregor Mendel’s research to a large audience. Brewster cited work on breeding experiments with cattle, insects, and plants to show how fast the field was developing.
Endersby moved on from there to discuss more literary utopian visions that also featured plants prominently. These include Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1979) and H.G. Wells’s Men Like Gods (1923). In both novels, farming was important to sustaining these futuristic communities, and genetics was used to create better crops. Endersby’s point was that genetics quickly entered the public imagination, and writers sensed this and augmented to the trend. There was a definite optimism about the possibilities: a better world based on better plants was indeed possible. He returned to the more scientific end of the topic by taking up the work of Luther Burbank and its public reception. Here was someone who wasn’t just writing about possible futures but was helping to create them. Endersby noted that the public saw Burbank, as Gilman herself did, as someone who could bring about human control over nature. Burbank still has some botanical name recognition, but most of us would be hard put to remember more about him than that he was a plant breeder. Endersby’s presentation was a useful reminder of how important Burbank was in shaping 20th century American horticulture and agriculture.
In some ways, Xan Chacko’s (University of California, Davis) presentation was closely related to Endersby’s in that she, too, discussed a rather utopian project, or at least one that has been described in those terms. Her paper, “Post-Colonial (bio)Prospects: Founding a Seed Bank for Kew Gardens,” dealt with the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB), established by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in 2000, hence its name. For this endeavor, which aimed at banking seeds for 25% of the world’s plant species, Kew received substantial support from the Wellcome Trust. Chacko’s research at the MSB was part of a larger project on how Kew was able to recast itself from an arbiter of colonial plant knowledge under people like Joseph Dalton Hooker to defender of the world’s biodiversity.
The MSB is located at Wakehurst, a Sussex garden Kew manages. While I knew about it and its work from Kew blog posts (1,2), I did not know much about how it came to be. Though in Kew literature 2000 was its official start, Chacko explained how its origins could be traced back to around 1970, when a new science director looked critically at Kew’s seed program. Essentially, it consisted of saving seeds for about 4-5,000 species, most collected from plants growing at Kew and used primarily for propagating more plants on site. Some were also shared with other botanical gardens. However, there had been complaints of low germination rates and inaccurate labeling. Needless to say, the proposed solution involved more funds and more personnel; to justify such support a plan was drawn up to expand the bank.
While the seed unit had been part of the plant physiology department, it gained more autonomy when it moved to Wakehurst in 1974. Over the years, it expanded and set the goal of saving seeds from all United Kingdom species. In the meantime, conserving biodiversity had become more urgent as the 20th century came to a close. In looking for a project to fund that would address this issue, the Wellcome Trust was attracted to the infrastructure Kew had already built and the expertise it had developed, and so supported the building of a dedicated facility for banking seeds. A big occasion was celebrated in 2010 when 10% of the world’s plants were represented in the MSB.
Chacko cast a questioning eye on what does this really mean, what has been saved at MSB, how viable are the seeds, and what is Kew doing with them? She compared the MSB to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway that has the mission of primarily bank seeds for food crops and for crop wild relatives. Another difference is that Svalbard is a backup to seedbanks around the world; countries send portions of their own seed reserves as a way to insure survival. This is one of the requirements for Svalbard accepting seeds. Also, there are projects to test seed viability and to renew the “deposits” as needed. The MSB is less concerned with these issues, though it is carrying out research to earmark seeds from certain species as being particularly important to store. These include work with the UK National Tree Seed Project to collect and store seed from the country’s woodlands. There is also a crop wild relatives project to save the genetic diversity of species closely related to crop species. It’s interesting to think of such endeavors as growing out of the Kew bureaucracy that was once headed by Joseph Banks who saw plants as sources of wealth for the future of his nation (see last post).
Brewster, E. T. (1908). Nature against nurture. Atlantic Monthly, 102(1), 120–125.
Endersby, J. (2018). A visit to Biotopia: genre, genetics and gardening in the early twentieth century. The British Journal for the History of Science, 51(3), 423–455.
Perkins, C. G. (1979). Herland. New York, NY: Pantheon.
Wells, H. G. (1923). Men Like Gods. London, UK: Cassell.