April 5, 2013

A Rum Affair - a true story of botanical fraud. By Karl Sabbagh. Critique by Chris Goldthorpe.

A critique by Chris Goldthorpe, B.Sc., M.Phil. Ph.D.
King's College, University of Durham,  (1959-1962)

A Rum Affair - a True Story of Botanical Fraud
By Karl Sabbagh (1999)
Publisher: Da Capo Press 2001
ISBN: 0-306-81060-3
Reprinted by arrangement with Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Karl Sabbagh writes well and recounts a story so gripping (like any crime writer), that I rationed myself to reading one or two chapters at a time in order to take it all in.

The wider picture
John William Heslop Harrison, D.Sc. (1917), FRS. (1921), (1881-1967) held two heterodox theories about natural history that put him at odds against the majority of biologists of the day:

1. During the last Ice Age parts of northern England and Scotland were not covered by ice. In these locations plant and insect species had survived where they are still found today.

2. He supported the Lamarckian theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics as a mechanism for evolution.

The book describes no organised campaign to discredit Heslop Harrison (HH) for holding these minority views, but suggests that he crossed swords with many scientists at the time, because they questioned his regular discoveries of new plant and insect species in the Western Isles. There is no doubt that HH was a forceful individual, who was prone to making opponents of people who held equally strong opinions. Indeed, some of the botanists and entomologists described in the book are also distinctly eccentric, measured by today’s standards.

Background comments from Dr Malcolm Tait:
Dr John Raven was a classics scholar and Fellow of King’s College Cambridge at the time of Rum affair.  He was also a respected amateur botanist and entomologist.  He was asked to investigate the events on Rum by Dr A.J. Wilmott who was in the Dept of Botany of the British Museum and was a close friend of Raven's father.  Wilmott had long suspected Harrison and there had been correspondence between them on various issues. It seems that it was Wilmott who hatched the plot, and encouraged Raven to apply for a grant from Trinity College to do his investigation on Heslop Harrison’s work on Rum).

Research question
Raven’s investigation was limited in scope to botany, and concerned itself with only one basic question. Did HH plant exotic species on Rum then record new plants in the literature to support his Ice Age theory?

Preliminary findings
There is no doubt that Raven, in a very limited period of time for field work, amassed an impressive bank of circumstantial evidence to support his investigation that HH introduced new plants on the island of Rum. However, he never produces ‘a smoking gun’, so to speak, to prove his point one-way or the other. For his part, HH vigorously refuted any suggestion of wrongdoing, and defended himself and his findings when specific questions were raised by Raven.

Sabbagh extends the question about the validity of HH’s scientific work to cover his discoveries of insects, as well as papers that he had published on melanism in moths and related studies on saw flies, to support Lamarck’s theory of inheritance.

Here again there is some circumstantial theorising, but nothing concrete about wilful deception. For example, the fact that other scientists have not been able to reproduce the experiments on melanism could be explained by HH’s faulty methodology and sloppy laboratory techniques. However, it should be noted that these studies were, unusually for an academic scientist, carried out in his garden shed and not under controlled conditions in a university laboratory.

An agriculturalist’s perspective
Surprisingly, I now turn to HH’s daughter, Helena otherwise known as Dolly Clark who taught us the agricultural botany of pasture grasses many years ago. I managed to remember from Dolly’s lectures that the annual meadow grass, Poa annua is a common species of grass that grows in permanent pastureland across the British Isles.

From my experience of both temperate and tropical agriculture, I know that grass species in the wild do not typically grow as isolated, single plants, but are usually found as part of a mixed grass sward that includes herbaceous plants as well. Thus, when I read Raven’s account on pp117-19 about other species being found growing among the sedge, Carex bicolor, alarm bells began to ring.

Raven records that he came across ‘a vigorous plant of Poa annua’ growing in a plant of Carex. He then found another two specimens of Poa in tufts of mature sedge. However, on carrying out a search of the surrounding gravel banks he found no plants of  Poa grass in the flora although he did not expect Poa to grow in such an unfavourable habitat as gravel.

HH (p139) explains the presence of Poa at the Carex site on the grounds that the grass abounds at high levels on the opposite side of the glen and suggests that ‘plants of Poa annua and other species are to be found on pony and deer droppings at all levels’. In other words, the grass may be found almost anywhere on the island where it is spread in the dung of livestock.

Although my suspicions were alerted I waited till I had finished the book before investigating this anomaly of single plants of a common grass species being found intermingled with the sedge, Carex bicolor. From an Internet search (Botanical Society of the British Isles, Kew Gardens, Wikipedia), I discovered, or should I say rediscovered, the following facts about Poa annua.

‘The grass has a worldwide distribution in temperate latitudes. In the UK it is a common species and frequent garden weed where it grows between 0 and 1,210m elevation. In favourable habitats, seeds ripen and are deposited 8 months of the year.  Plants grow rapidly from seed, they flower within 6 weeks then die’.

If annual meadow grass, a short lived annual species and prolific seeder, was spread on Rum in animal droppings, then one would expect that it would be found in groups together with other associated species in dung patches where animals had been grazing. However, Raven found only single plants within clumps of Carex, which leads to the suspicion that both plants had grown together. Nevertheless, even if as alleged, HH had planted the sedge plants for other botanists to find, there is no direct evidence to show a connection between his garden in Birtley and the site on Rum.

This evidence, I suggest, is there when we look at the gnat, Pseudohormomyia granifex whose galls were found infecting Carex bicolor plants on Rum and HH’s claim that this was the gnat’s first appearance in Scotland. So here we have the first record of an insect that has laid its eggs on other new species of sedge with both discoveries claimed by HH (pp142, 147).

Surprisingly, HH himself had reported the gnat species in his garden in Birtley. On p148, Sabbagh writes: ‘ A piece of evidence supplied by the professor himself showed that the Carex bicolor, which Raven believed had been cultivated in the professor’s garden in Birtley, was infected by a gnat that had been reported previously by Heslop Harrison himself from his garden in Birtley’.

Having considered the evidence unearthed by Raven and Sabbagh, I have come to the conclusion that John William Heslop Harrison did indeed grow plants in his garden at Birtley and transport them to Rum where he then recorded them as species new to Scotland.

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