A Good Read: A Scottish Plant Hunter in Nineteenth-Century Japan

The Society for the History of Natural History, or SHNH (http://shnh.org.uk/) produces a newsletter for its members three times a year. One item in the newsletter is ‘A Good Read’, where members of the society can write an article on their favourite natural history book. Past issues of the newsletter (available at http://shnh.org.uk/newsletter/) have included contributions on Mary Kingsley’s travels in West Africa and the history of herbals. When asked to step up I chose the story of a Scottish plant hunter and his adventures in Japan:

Robert Fortune’s Yedo and Peking. A narrative of a journey to the capitals of Japan and China (London, John Murray, 1863).

A surly Robert Fortune. From http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-great-british-tea-heist-9866709/?no-ist
A surly Robert Fortune. From http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-great-british-tea-heist-9866709/?no-ist

‘Having heard and read so many stories of this strange land’ recalled Robert Fortune in 1863, ‘I had long looked upon Japan in much the same light as the Romans regarded our own isles in the days of the ancient Britons.’ In a good read, it is impossible to tell where adventure ends and natural history begins. It is this quality that attracted my undergraduate-self to the Scottish botanist’s Yedo and Peking. A narrative of a journey to the capitals of Japan and China. Following centuries of isolation (sakoku), Japan had been forcibly opened to Western trade with the arrival of Commodore Perry’s fleet outside Edo (now Tokyo) in 1853. Treaties were subsequently signed between the Tokugawa shogunate, United States and multiple European powers. New trading ports were opened and travel privileges granted to foreigners.

In the wake of diplomats and merchants came Victorian plant hunters. Working on behalf of the United States patent office, Fortune was keen to not only gather ‘vegetable productions of an ornamental and useful kind’ but also ‘other objects of natural history and works of art.’ He first arrived in Japan in 1860, at a time of transition. Steam machinery and telegraph lines rested alongside temples, teahouses and gardens. Fortune’s lively description of everyday life in nineteenth-century Japan is intermingled with botanical observations and notes on garden design. A moment of hero worship appears when he meets the elderly German physician and ‘veteran naturalist’ Philipp Franz von Siebold. Yet Fortune’s Japanese guide Tomi is described as overly-fond of sake (rice wine), managing to stay only ‘largely sober’ during the daylight hours.

Following a brief sojourn in China, Fortune’s narrative continues upon his return to Japan in the spring of 1861. Fortune prepared and stored his ‘collections of dried plants, seeds, insects and shells’ and soon had cases crammed full of ‘rare species’. Yet all was not well. Fortune lived under the protection of the Tokugawa government following attacks on foreigners by disaffected rōnin (masterless samurai). Characteristically, the collector within him took the time to show his guardians his natural history books and collections, ‘with which they appeared greatly pleased .’ His rationalisation to the Japanese officials is indicative of the whole practice of imperial natural history: ‘in England we had such things introduced from all parts of the world… I was now endeavouring to add to our collection all that was useful or beautiful in Japan.’

Robert Fortune’s adventures in China are better known than his Japanese travels, perhaps unsurprisingly, as the former found him disguised in native dress and fighting off pirates. But his expeditions to Japan also have much to offer readers: a nineteenth-century shopping spree in Edo, visiting ‘garden after garden in succession’ and infectious delight on acquiring a male Aucuba japonica, the ‘Holly of Japan.’ Yedo and Peking. A narrative of a journey to the capitals of Japan and China is now freely available, along with many of Fortune’s other works, at the Biodiversity Heritage Library website.

SHNH Newsletter, No. 110, July 2016, pp. 13-14 


Graduate Workshop in the History of Biology: University of Leeds

I’ve spent the past few weeks organising a graduate workshop for students from Leeds and Manchester, which took place at the Centre for HPS (@hpsleeds) on Tuesday 07th June. Although I spent much of the workshop behind the scenes (preparing tea and coffee!), from what I saw graduate students from both universities were pursuing some intriguing research questions in the history of biology, biomedicine and the human sciences…


In my own panel, we had Clare O’Reilly exploring the correspondence between Charles Darwin and an Aberdeenshire farmer on crop hybridisation. Mathew Andrews (@UlceraVerminosa) investigated the history of maggots for wound treatment: including its modern revival with the use of “bio-bags.” I delivered a (work-in-progress!) account of why us Britons have been so hostile to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Other conferences and thesis writing have kept me busy (and absent from this blog for too long). I haven’t managed to write posts about some of my more recent talks, but you can find their abstracts on my academia page (https://leeds.academia.edu/MatthewHolmes):

  • “Twentieth-Century Biotechnology in the British Landscape: Historical Reflections.” Technology, Environment and Modern Britain Workshop, University College London, 27th April 2016.
  • “Malthus’s Shallow Grave: The Population Bomb (1968) and British Agricultural Science.” British Society for Literature and Science, University of Birmingham, 8th April 2016.

Next week I’ll be attending the Three Societies conference in Edmonton, Canada – which I will blog about! You can follow events there on Twitter using the hashtag #3soc2016

Herbarium, Ethics & Eels: BSHS Postgraduate Conference, University of Cambridge

A new year: another British Society for the History of Science (BSHS) postgraduate conference! The BSHS provides a friendly and relaxed venue for postgraduate researchers to present their findings. Hosted this year by Cambridge HPS, a number of biologically-themed papers and events were in evidence. It began with an outing to the Cambridge University herbarium (http://cambridgeherbarium.org/).

Plant specimen collected by Darwin from Rio de Janeiro. Full details of Darwin’s collection can be found (with images) at the herbarium website: http://cambridgeherbarium.org/collections/darwin-specimens/darwins-plants-at-cambridge/

Now housed in the Sainsbury laboratory, the hebarium contains specimens of great historical significance, some dating from the early-eighteenth century. The herbarium holds Charles Darwin’s plant specimens from the voyage of the Beagle, which were passed onto his friend and mentor John Henslow. Darwin’s specimens are an impressive sight, possible the result of criticism from Henslow, who asked Darwin to label his specimens correctly and refrain from sending him “scraps”. Other items of interest in the collection include plants gathered by Alfred Russel Wallace in South-East Asia (http://rsnr.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2014/09/16/rsnr.2014.0035.short?rss=1).

Drawer of bird skins
Edmund Selous (1857-1934) refused to kill birds for the purposes of collection: a practice which the norm at the time. https://www.rammuseum.org.uk/collections/zoology/flights-of-fancy

Back at the conference, students from the University of Leeds participated in a “Evolutionary theories” panel. Clare O’Reilly introduced attendees to concepts of hybrid plants in late nineteenth-century Britain, while Emily Herring delved into the strange world of the neo-Lamarckism. Meanwhile, I was lucky enough to be the chair of the panel on zoology. Here, Mathew Andrews of the University of Manchester presented his research on Edmund Selous (1857-1934), whose scientific work on ornithology was shaped by his ethical objections to killing birds for use as specimens or for museum display. Federica Turriziani Colonna (Center for Biology and Society, ASU) then examined the work of a young Sigmund Freud on eels at the Trieste Zoological Station in 1876.

Although the BSHS annual conference will not be taking place this year, American, Canadian and British societies for the history of science will be gathering for the “Three Societies” meeting in Edmonton, Alberta from 22-25 June. Hopefully this meeting will prove to be just informative about science and the natural world!

Taxonomic Technology: Electrophoresis & Classification in Agricultural Botany (Part 1)

My second ever work-in-progress seminar at the University of Leeds introduced attendees to the second chapter of my PhD, which examines the use of laboratory machinery and biochemical methods to identify and analyse crop varieties at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) during the 1980s. By the late-twentieth century, classifying agricultural plants was a difficult task. More and more varieties were submitted to NIAB by plant breeders, while the distinguishing characteristics of varieties grew smaller and smaller. Identifying and classifying varieties had traditionally relied upon botanically-trained observers. Yet visual scrutiny of plants’ morphological characteristics was problematic, requiring both considerable expertise and grown specimens.

The problem of classifying of agricultural plants is demonstrated by these images of celery varieties. Each column here represents a distinct variety: the correct classification of these samples by eye would be a near-impossible task for the untrained observer. From G.W. Horgan, M. Talbot and J.C. Davey, ‘Plant variety colour assessment using a still video camera’, Plant Varieties and Seeds (1995) 8: 161-169.

An escape route was provided to NIAB via a form of protein fingerprinting developed in biochemistry: electrophoresis. For historians of biology, electrophoresis is best known for its use by Lewontin and Hubby to break an impasse in population genetics during the 1960s. Electrophoresis was trialed at NIAB during the same period, to little avail. Matters changed during the early years of the 1980s, when staff at NIAB’s Chemistry and Quality Assessment Branch were able to apply electrophoresis to cereal varieties. Electrophoresis works by running an electric current through a gel in which a sample sits. As different proteins carry different charges, they separate into distinct “bands” (see below).

An early image of a completed electrophoresis sample. The darker protein “bands” can be seen once the gel is chemically dyed. From R.P Ellis, ‘The identification of wheat varieties by the electrophoresis of grain proteins’, Journal of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (1971) 12: 223-235.

Electrophoresis provided a new means of classifying agricultural plants and was promoted in NIAB’s publications as an efficient and modern technique of variety identification. The experience of the Institute during the 1980s chimes with what historians of science have termed the “molecularisation movement” in the life sciences. This movement is usually associated with genetics and the role of DNA and nucleic acids. Yet historians have called for broader studies under the theme of molecularisation, not least because of the broad use of terms such as “molecular biology” by scientists themselves. Financial gain and prestige came from NIAB’s research into electrophoresis; the technique still appears in guidelines issued by international agricultural bodies today, despite the rise of DNA sequencing. Yet electrophoresis was not the only method of classification investigated by NIAB during the 1980s, as future posts will explore…



Molecular Biology and Evolution at ISHPSSB 2015, Université du Québec à Montréal

The Blog is Back! Following a few hectic weeks of international travel, including the International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology (ISHPSSB) 2015 conference in Montreal, normal service can resume. ISHPSSB was the first international conference I had ever attended. With hundreds of attendees, it was also the largest! Nominally I was there to present a paper on a facet of my PhD research – the history of a largely ignored form of biotechnology know as somatic hybridisation (http://leeds.academia.edu/MatthewHolmes). But with multiple panels and sessions, ISHPSSB’s speakers were delving into everything from Darwin to embryology, ecology to agriculture. One of the most intriguing (and popular) panels discussed aspects of molecular biology and the modern synthesis in biology. As always, a few textual snapshots are provided below:

But first, some Montreal landmarks…


Vassiliki Betty: The modern evolutionary synthesis brought together botanists, geneticists and paleontologists under a single conceptual framework – one which combined evolutionary ideas and Mendelian genetics – during the mid-twentieth century. By the end of 1950s, advocates of the synthesis was arguing for evolution as the unifying theory of biology. Links between chemistry, physics and biology also grew as biologists jumped on the ‘DNA bandwagon’. Yet all was not well in the new world of biology, as rifts between the new molecular biologists and traditional organism-focused biologists occurred in American Ivy League institutions. One well-known example is found in E.O Wilson’s memoirs, which described his Harvard colleague James Watson (co-discover of the structure of DNA) as the ‘Caligula of biology’, who aggressively drove the molecularisation of biology and even blocked the appointment of ecologists to the department.

Yet other noted figures felt no such clash. Botanist George Ledyard Stebbins Jr. embraced the techniques of molecular biology by the mid-1950s, despite his training in taxonomy and museum work. Chair of Genetics at UC-Davis during the 1950s and ’60s, Stebbins encompassed developmental genetics (which challenged Mendelian genetics) and postulated new mutation processes, including the easier formation of inter-specific hybrids in plants. In a 1968 paper he stated that modern synthetic theory was based upon multiple disciplines and acknowledged there were different answers to how characteristics – for example the neck of a giraffe – developed, given by field naturalists, Darwinians, developmental genetics and molecular biologists. None were wrong. All were correct, but incomplete.

ISHPSSB President Michel Morange speaks to a packed room at the molecular biology session.

Michel Morange: Jumping to the mid-1980s, molecular biologists had accepted evolutionary synthesis, as the Luria-Delbrück experiments chased Lamarckianism out of microbiology. Molecular biologists used Darwinism in their work, isolating mutations to demonstrate the creative power of variation and selection. François Jacob (1982) stated that embryonic development had been ignored. But various molecular biologists continued to have ideas about the molecular mechanisms of evolution. Research was not always straightforward. The T-complex model, proposed by Dorothea Bennett in 1975, was supposed to demonstrate how embryonic development of mice was disrupted. Unfortunately the T-complex turned out not to exist. Yet other models, including gene regulation and  heterochronic mutation were successfully integrated. It is now acknowledged that there are different forms of evolution and progress in evolution occurs independently of the environment. The molecular biologists were largely Darwinian but did not follow the evolutionary synthesis to the letter.

Book Review: The British Arboretum: Trees, Science and Culture in the Nineteenth Century

Today, the arboretum – a green space containing systematically planted trees – may seem a commonplace and enduring aspect of the British landscape. Yet The British Arboretum (2011) demonstrates that, in the nineteenth century, arboretums were sites of scientific innovation, public education and Edenic ideals. Authors Paul A. Elliot, Charles Watkins and Stephen Daniels move from the late-seventeenth century and depleted British woodlands to arboretums as public recreation grounds two centuries later. Standing over this cultural and scientific history is the figure of John Claudius Loudon, author of the Arboretum Britannicum (1838), an influential study of hardy British trees and shrubs.


Plates from John Claudius Loudon’s Arboretum Britannicum (1838).

In addition to shaping scientific and cultural landscapes, arboriculture altered the biotic makeup of the British Isles. From the seventeenth century, growing numbers of exotic trees were imported to adorn and enrich gardens, parks and plantations. Arboretums were established to classify and label growing numbers of new arrivals. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Japanese larch (Larix kaempferi) became so popular that it was imagined the tree would replace its European cousin. The scientific name of the species honoured German physician and naturalist Engelbert Kaempfer, who introduced numerous Japanese plants to Europe in the eighteenth century, including the troublesome Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica). Imported varieties required specialist knowledge, as existing taxonomy was unable to cope. The Linnaean system was of limited use, British botanists subsequently adopting the “natural system,” which combined systematics with plant physiology and anatomy.


Plan of the Nottingham Arboretum: http://exchange.nottingham.ac.uk/blog/the-peoples-green-spaces/

In its second half, The British Arboretum provides readers with a series of case studies of historical arboretums. One of the first purpose-built Victorian public parks was the Derby Arboretum, designed by Loudon on behalf of industrialist Joseph Strutt in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Loudon used popular publications such as the Gardener’s Magazine as a utilitarian, rational form of recreation for all social classes. In reality, tension existed over the use of the new green spaces. At the Nottingham Arboretum in 1857, there was little evidence of botanical education reaching the lower classes. Footballs were kicked, trees damaged, plant labels stolen and worst of all, amorous activities occurred in the foliage. Arboretums persisted, but their own popularity and subsequent clamour for access diminished their original scientific purpose.

The British Arboretum is more than another history of green spaces. The authors reach beyond the boundaries of the arboretum, engaging with key themes in British cultural and scientific history in an informative and accessible manner.

Paul A. Elliot, Charles Watkins, Stephen Daniels, The British Arboretum (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2011) is available at: www.pickeringchatto.com/trees


521_British Arboretums_Front

Plants and Animals as Commodities at the Institute of Making, UCL

On January 26th, an unusual mix of researchers gathered at the Institute of Making (UCL) for a workshop entitled “Hidden Histories of the Thing.” In this instance, “the Thing” was not a horror film, but referenced the workshop’s place as part of the “Commodity Histories” project http://www.commodityhistories.org/. A series of intriguing narratives emerged from viewing histories of materials, chemicals and biota as marketable products. Economic gain, national pride, scientific input and philosophical reasoning were applied to items or resources in creative ways! Just a few examples are covered below.

To Use or Not to Use? DDT and Benthamite Calculations

Jazzy advertisement for DDT from Penn Salt Chemicals, 1947: http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2011/06/27/ddt-is-good-for-me-e-e/

An example of a formerly popular commodity was given by Tom Widger in his talk “Pesticides and Modernity.” Synthetic pesticides became a particularly controversial product following the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s bestselling Silent Spring. DDT, a popular insecticide, was revealed to have devastating environmental consequences and, as a carcinogen, posed a public health risk. Yet the compound had numerous advantages in both pest and disease control. It had been used on Pacific islands during the Second World War to keep mosquito populations (vectors of diseases such as malaria) in check. With this in mind, the positive and negative aspects of DDT remain a source of contention. Drawing upon English philosopher and founder of utilitarianism (greatest happiness for the greatest number) Jeremy Bentham, Widger noted the complexities of calculating human health risks alongside issues of food security.

The Apple in Victorian England

On the organic front, Joanna Crosby led the charge with a cultural and material history of apples. During the 1850s, botanists and horticulturalist Robert Hogg led the way in promoting and classifying varieties of English apples. Hogg founded pomological societies and crafted his own lists of apples, from the “Flower of Kent” to the “Flushing Spitzenburgh.” The “Bachelor’s Glory” hailed from the neighborhood of Lancaster and was dismissed as a second-rate fruit. Hogg described apples as indigenous to the British Isles, based on his analysis of Celtic sources. In a very Victorian manner, Hogg also applied anthropomorphic terms to describe apples, which could be handsome, beautiful or hardy.


List from Robert Hogg’s British Pomology (1851).

In art, apples appeared in symbolic form, representing original sin and the fall of Eve. The fruit was also more used to signify what were considered “undesirable” female traits, according to moral norms of some artists. On a more positive note, apples appeared as an ornamental object in gardens and home decoration. Of course, consumption also occurred – hence the Victorian recipe below:

Fruit Cake, from Godey’s Lady’s Book (1864): http://www.thecompletevictorian.com/ThePantry.html

Two and a half cups dried apples, stewed until soft; add one cup of sugar, stew a while longer, and chop the mixture, to which add one half cup of cold coffee, one of sugar, two eggs, a half cup of butter, one nutmeg, one teaspoonful of soda, and cinnamon and spices to taste. Sift in 2 cups flour to hold it together.