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…




Gregor Mendel & Scientific Fraud: iHPS Workshop, University of Durham (Part 2 of 2)


On the second day of the iHPS workshop at the University of Durham, Professor Greg Radick (University of Leeds) delivered his keynote address “Is Mendel’s Evidence “Too Good to Be True”? This year has seen the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Mendel’s two 1865 lectures “Experiments in Plant Hybridisation,” with many drawing a line directly from Mendel’s findings to modern biotechnology. Yet two ghosts exist at the Mendelian feast: the specter of eugenics and the accusation that Mendel fraudulently obtained data. Or as Ronald Fisher termed it, that Mendel’s results were “too good to be true.”

Mendel’s 1865 findings are known to many of us. Hybridising garden peas in his monastery garden revealed a reoccurring pattern of three-to-one in second-generation hybrids. In later generations, traits reversed, with gametes receiving heredity information randomly. If we flip a coin multiple times and always end up with an exact fifty-fifty split, eyebrows would be raised. In a 1902 paper by W.F.R. Weldon, statistical analysis of Mendel’s data revealed such a trend, as the latter’s result accorded remarkably with his hypothesis. The chances of Mendel arriving at his results by pure coincidence was placed by Weldon at sixteen-to-one. In 1911, Ronald Fisher spoke at the Cambridge University Eugenics Society on Weldon’s findings. By this time, Mendelian genetics has been established beyond controversy and integrated with Darwinian natural selection. At this talk and in a later 1936 paper, Fisher declared that Mendel regarded his experiments as an empirical demonstration of his conclusions. Mendel was no mere experimentalist – though his results were still fake. Fisher laid the blame at the feet of one of Mendel’s assistants, who had doctored experimental results to please his master.


Drawing upon affair, Professor Radick noted that Mendel’s peas were not intended to be “true-to-nature,” but represented absolute qualities. For historians of science, the episode suggests that a more thoughtful, systematic approach to scientific fraud is needed. We should also be aware of different approaches to genetics offered by historical figures such as Weldon, who emphasised the interaction of genes with each and other and the environment. In fact, recent results from Leeds HPS Genetic Pedagogies Project suggest that students placed on a Weldonian-style genetics course emerge less convinced of genetic determinism than their Mendelian peers.

Field & Laboratory – Darwin in the Ottoman Empire – Chinese Biology & Goldfish

Other associates of Leeds HPS also presented well received papers on the history of biology. Cultivating Innovations ( postdoc Dominic Berry (@HPSGlonk) spoke on the historical division of field and laboratory, drawing upon randomised control trials at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB). Visiting fellow Alper Bilgili (@BilgiliEnglish) described the reception of Darwinism in the Ottoman Empire. Darwin was enthusiastically embraced by some westward-leaning Turkish intellectuals who greatly admired the scientific method – while others sought to integrate Darwinism with traditional religious beliefs. Lijing Jiang (@LijingJiang), who (all too briefly) visited Leeds for some weeks, spoke on Chinese biologists’ investigations into genetics and evolution from the early-twentieth century. In contrast to the experimental cultures of many Western universities, Chinese biologists who studied native goldfish drew upon historical accounts to reconstruct the animals’ evolutionary past.

The History of the Plant: Cultivating Innovation at the John Innes Centre

On Tuesday 14th April, an eclectic mix of historians, lawyers and scientists gathered at the John Innes Centre (a leading research organisation in genetics and plant science) under the auspices of the University of Leed’s “Cultivating Innovation” project ( Giving a historical overview on the question of who can actually own plant was keynote speaker Professor Daniel Kevles from Yale University:

From Public to Private Goods: The Evolution of Plant Properties in the American Political Economy


By his own admission, Professor Kevles begin with an improbable point for a history of plants and intellectual property. In 1751 polymath Benjamin Franklin oversaw the publication of Medicina Britannica in the American colonies. Authored by British physician Thomas Short, Medicina was one of many texts which displayed plants and their medical properties. So why did Franklin involve himself in its publication?

Medical knowledge of plants had long been confined to experts. Compendiums of knowledge appeared in Latin, often containing cryptic alchemical or astrological connotations. The British Patent Office issued patents on plant-based medicines, yet this process did not help ease secrecy surrounding their ingredients. As an Enlightenment man, Short railed against this, declaring that his book was not for the learned gentlemen. He announced that his text omitted traditional superstitions attached to plants. Short also excluded chemical preparations. In his worldview, pure, unrefined plants were the principle gifts of divine providence.

Franklin was smitten by Short’s sceptical empiricism. Intrigued by medicine and agriculture, Franklin became a plant devotee, envisioning fields of soy flourishing in the colonies and sending back specimens from his trips abroad. Both Franklin and Short believed in an idealised “natural commons.” Natural resources were free and provided for all.

Thomas Jefferson opposed patents for this very reason, but gave way to James Madison on the issue, resulting in the Patent Act of 1793. Yet Jefferson’s requirement of novelty in patentable goods maintained the natural commons. Plants were public resources for medicine and agricultural purposes. Crop improvement drew attention from lawyers, naturalists and agriculturalists, who attempted to place the new “United States” on a sound economic footing. These men enlarged and diversified American fauna and flora, founding opulent estates and botanic gardens. In 1819, the Federal government joined their cause, enlisting naval and consular officers to acquire exotic plants and seeds.


Seeds and cuttings could be easily saved by growers, minimising the need to purchase seed. Problems of identity or quality also discouraged buying from seed houses or nurseries. Yet these institutions did provide new varieties, including those from abroad. One example was David Landreth’s seed house, which ran its first advertisement in 1784. Landreth’s developing brand identification through the nineteenth century was held up by Professor Kelves as an instance of defense of intellectual property.

In 1881 Federal government passed trademark legislation, which the Landreth Company seized upon to trademark its liberty bell logo. Seed was now sold in marked bags and packets, carrying threats that any infringements would be prosecuted. “Beware of deception” warned their 1887 catalogue. In the same year, Landreth successfully sued a seed grower in Wisconsin in 1887 for selling his seeds under their name. In 1893 Stark Brothers nurserymen trademarked a “Delicious” apple. Stark had to ask buyers to sign a contract upon purchase of its new “Golden Delicious” seedlings, offering rewards for those who broke its contract and going so far as to employ Pinkerton agents.

In 1930 Congress passed the Plant Patent Act, in no small part due to Stark’s lobbying. At the opening of the twenty-first century, there are still continuities from Franklin’s day. But now plants have been broken down into their chemical components, thwarting Short’s vision. A new regime of privatisation has emerged.

Slaughterhouses, Electric Chickens & Soil: The 2015 BSHS Postgraduate Conference at UCL (Part 2 of 2)

On the final day at UCL, more weird and wonderful talks made an appearance, doing sterling work to keep a now slightly tired and bedraggled postgraduate audience attentive and engaged!

Humane(ish) Slaughter: From Pole-Axe to Electricity  

Representing the Manchester CHSTM group on the “Science and Case Studies” session was Andrew Ball, who spoke on “Stunning pigs: pork, pain and the development of electricity for animal slaughter in inter-war Britain.” This talk featured interactions between scientific innovation and moral considerations, as the humane slaughter movement emerged in tandem with the construction of public, purpose-built slaughterhouses in European and North American cities. Cleanliness, efficiency, quality and the division of labour and animals featured in the new constructions. Experiments and technological advances in electrical stunning were also discussed by vets, physiologists and electrical engineers. Scientists at the University of Bristol tested various levels of current on pigs, despite objections from the humane slaughter association, which pointed out that animal’s pain could not be accurately measured in the experiments. Such groups actually preferred high-powered air guns to kill, in preference to the new electricity or old means of stunning via a blow (or blows) from a pole-axe.


Horticultural & Agricultural Research Stations: Community Outreach and  Electrocuting Chickens

In the afternoon “Science and Environment” panel, Paul Smith stepped up to talk on “Horticultural and agricultural research stations in the UK, 1910-1930: A Feast of Variables.” During these two decades, agricultural research stations varied in size, from large institutions such as Rothampstead, to ones consisting of only a few scientists. During the inter-war period, agricultural research stations were described by one Conservative minister as “research factories,” covering everything from plant physiology to growth stimulants, plant breeding for disease resistance to food storage. Research stations were initially funded through taxation on landowners by Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George. The system focused on pure science, with emphasis on long-term projects at permanent stations. Research stations remained incredibly active in their engagement with growers during this period. At Cheshunt Glasshouse Research Station, over 4700 lectures to farmers were delivered by staff from 1920-21, in addition to tailored visits to growers and analysis of received samples of soil and fertiliser. These stations were actively sought out by farmers for information (who could reciprocate by carrying out scientific investigations on their land). One slightly dubious activity of research stations was the electrocuting of chickens in the belief that they would grow larger. This was later revealed to be false.

Healthy Greens in Unhygienic Soil

In the final talk of the session, Sophie Greenway described her PhD plans with “Growing well: Dirt, health and the home gardener in mid-twentieth-century Britain.” Declining domestic vegetable production in Britain was revealed to be due to ideas of modernity – as ideals of a clean and well-polished home didn’t fit well with soiled vegetables coming in from the garden. Opposition to this trend came in the form of the organic movement, with ideas of healthy soil leading to a healthy populace – although dominant ideas of health being maintained through hygiene and technology have persisted. Interestingly, soil itself has not been considered as a natural resource of any value for much of history (while waste, which can be spread as fertiliser, was). These attitudes may only have changed in the twentieth century, with an increasing awareness of soil erosion via catastrophes such as the 1930s “dust bowl” in Canada and the United States.


Sir Albert Howard (1873-1947), founding father of the organic movement and author of An Agricultural Testament (1940).

How Agricultural Science Struggled to Defuse the Population Bomb

Another talk! So many talks recently… But this time I was back with the welcoming home crowd at the University of Leeds, finally presenting on my PhD thesis! I began this seminar by recounting an extraordinary speech at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany’s (NIAB’s) 1972 Seed Analyst Conference. Presented by the then vice-president of the National Farmer’s Union (NFU) D.H Darbishire, the keynote address was littered with poignant phrases. The “undernourished of all mankind” were suffering as the “Doom debate” raged in industrialised nations, which were in turn a facilitator of the dichotomy between the “affluent minority and disinherited majority” of the global population.


Edward S. Deevey, Jr. “The Human Population,” in Paul R. Ehrlich, John P. Holdren & Richard D. Holm, Man and the Ecosphere (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1971), p. 49. Original printing in Scientific American, 1960.

Why was Darbishire using a Seed Analysts Conference organised by a Cambridge-based agricultural institute to espouse these views with such urgency? Well, in the same year that Darbishire spoke out, the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth published a computer simulation of human society and the environment, declaring that the growing world population was living beyond its means. This was only the latest in a series of “neo-Malthusian” themed texts, all of which declared that the globe was fast approaching its human carrying capacity.

Such a claim was by no means new in the post-war era. In 1948 ecologist William Vogt’s Road to Survival predicted that world population would crash under the weight of its own numbers, subsequently wiping out three-quarters of humanity. This claim was given new urgency by the 1968 publication of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb. Here, the claim was made that in agricultural terms, “the stork had passed the plough.” In 1966 world population had increased by seventy million, with no compensatory increase in food production.


Ecology teaching slides from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives, Robert McCabe Papers, 1971.

Agricultural science could clearly respond to this (perceived) crisis by endeavoring to increase global crop yields. Steps had been made in the right direction with the “Green Revolution,” high-yielding hybrid crops being passed onto developing nations – albeit with the associated package of chemicals, intensive irrigation and management. However, tracts like The Limits to Growth predicted these gains would soon be overrun by an exponentially growing human population. Higher yielding varieties had to become better, while regulatory institutions like NIAB had to test and promote them faster.

However, intensive monocultures of high-yielding crop varieties had vulnerabilities. Ehrlich had classed these setups as prone to ecological collapse, an opinion shared by many ecologists. Industrialised agriculture was certainly susceptible to common plant diseases like rusts and mildew. Darbishire blamed the practices of plant breeders, who sought to overcome pathogens by focusing on single, major genes. Instead, it might be better to concentrate on “a number of more humble genes.” A genetics arms race with disease strains would bring few benefits.

Clearly, the world faced problems in agriculture, genetics and the environment. How could one institution like NIAB go about responding to these problems? The Institute’s journal certainly carried multiple articles applauding increases in domestic food production across the 1970s. But actions speak louder than words. While NIAB was able to recommend crop varieties with high yields or disease resistance, its work was hindered by the increasing need for disease testing and changing regulatory standards via Britain’s 1973 entry into the European Economic Community (EEC).

At NIAB, cereal yields were portrayed as falling from their peak in the 1950s, due to a mysterious “soil microbiological interaction.” presumably the 1970s equivalent of vital forces or phlogiston theory. Later in the decade, yields were considered to be rising, but at a slow pace. On the disease front, more progress was made, with genetic solutions stepping in for pesticide use (which had taken a battering since the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring). Genetic diversity was urged in fields by NIAB officers in a 1979 newsletter, the same year seeing the publication of geneticist Norman Simmond’s textbook Principles of Crop Improvement, which also called for genetic diversity and conservation.


NIAB at work today! The 2014 Cereals Event, Cambridgeshire. Shoddy photography courtesy of the blogger.

In the event, an imminent Malthusian catastrophe turned out to be a false alarm. Although, such concerns continue to crop up (pardon the pun) in modern fears over food security – after all, the global community is still no stranger to famine. From the perspective of an environmentalist, the trend towards crop diversity and genetic conservation as the 1980s approached certainly sounds promising. However, against the background of all this, recombinant DNA  technology was making great strides. On June 16th 1980, in the case of Diamond vs. Chakrabarty, the US Supreme Court ruled five to four that manmade microorganisms were patentable inventions. Later that year, the prototype biotech company Genentech went public, experiencing a huge demand for its stock on Wall Street. A new chapter on food and environmental controversy was just opening…

Further Reading:

Ainsworth, G.C., Introduction to the History of Plant Pathology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

Ehrlich, Paul R., The Population Bomb (New York: Buccaneer Books, 1968).

Meadows, Donella H. Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers and William W. Behrens, The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind (London, Pan Books Ltd, 1972).

Schoijet, Mauricio, “Limits to Growth and the Rise of Catastrophism,” Environmental History 4 (1999): 515-530.

Silvey, Valerie and P.S. Wellington, Crop and Seed Improvement: A History of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany 1919 to 1996 (Cambridge: National Institute of Agricultural Botany, 1997).

Simmonds, Norman W. Principles of Crop Improvement (New York: Longman, 1979).