A Rum Affair: A True Story of Botanical Fraudby Karl Sabbagh
A Rum Affair is an absorbing tale of scientific chicanery and academic intrigue-critically acclaimed and a finalist for the Los Angeles TimesBook Prize. In the 1940s, the eminent British botanist John Heslop Harrison proposed a controversial theory: Species of plants on the islands off the west coast of Scotland, he said, had survived the last Ice Age. His premise flew in the face of evidence that the last advance of the ice sheets extended well south of mainland Scotland, but he said he had proof-the plants and grasses found on the Isle of Rum-that would make his name in the scientific world. Harrison didn't anticipate, however, the tenacious John Raven, an amateur botanist who boldly questioned whether these grasses were truly indigenous to the area, or whether they had been transported there and planted. What seems at first a minor infringement of academic honesty soon becomes an enthralling tale of rival scientists and fraudulent science, a skillful whodunit that, in the hands of the talented Sabbagh, joins the ranks of the best narrative nonfiction.
The New York Times Book Review
- Da Capo Press
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- 1 DA CAPO
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Read an Excerpt
"A Curious Episode"
Every year King's College, Cambridge, sends out its annual report to graduates of the college. In an average year, the information it provides is usually of little interest to anyone on the outside, and hardly more riveting to the people it is produced for: how well the college did academically (usually very well) and sportingly (usually derisory); which graduates gave copies of their new books to the college library (Jan Pienkowski has donated another Meg and Mog book, for example); who landed a prestigious job (Her Majesty's Ambassador to Venezuela, Artistic Administrator of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra); news of college servants (Mrs. Hoye, bedmaker, retired after twenty-eight years' service); and so on. Most of the report is taken up with obituaries of fellows and graduates, which were written for many years by Patrick Wilkinson, a Fellow of the college, who clearly treated the task as the opportunity to create a minor art form.
Although I am a voracious reader, I do not make a practice of reading obituaries. But there was a unique quality about the obituaries of Kingsmen that meant I usually tried to find time to sit down and read them within a day or two of the arrival of the annual report. Not to put too fine a point on it, they contained some good examples of donnish wit. For example:
In College, he organized nocturnal races, naked except for gowns, onthe older Fellows' tricycles.
His most vivid recollection of the College was to be of the Provost's wife.
Baron Corvo ... braved travelling in his sidecar despite his insistence (before the days of traffic lights) that the faster you drove over the crossroads the smaller was the mathematical probability that you could have a collision.
After passing second MB he served as a surgeon sub-lieutenant in destroyers, based on Malta, and remembered his ship shelling the British lines in Gallipoli, a mistake he attributed to his commanding officer's breakfasting on port and pineapple chunks.
Meanwhile, he made heroic efforts of cycling to spend as much of his leave as possible with the choirboys of Canterbury Cathedral.
He developed blackwater fever and qualified for the Guinness Book of Records by achieving the highest known nonfatal temperature.
He radiated fun and he never lost the sense of mischief which had prompted him as a small boy to write `bugger' with a pin on a burgeoning vegetable marrow in a vicarage garden.
Due to an inspired misprint in The Times obituary he was described as being `survived by many nephews and pieces'.
You probably get the idea.
In 1980, the usual brown envelope dropped on my doormat, and a few days later I sat down to browse among the obituaries. One of the dons who had died that year was a classics tutor named John Raven. He had been senior tutor when I was an undergraduate. Truly the only thing I remembered about Raven was that, at a welcome sherry party for new students, he demonstrated an ability to move from a standing to a cross-legged position in one smooth movement while keeping his torso entirely vertical.
Raven's obituary had its share of wit, but one particular paragraph intrigued me:
In 1954 he was at the centre of a curious episode. A reputable biologist had recorded finding, mainly on the Isle of Rhum, several plants not previously found in Britain. The botanical world was surprised, not to say suspicious. John went to investigate. His report was deposited in Trinity College Library and has never been published. John was indignant with editorial scientists who thought that `not having unpleasantness with botanical circles' was more important than truth; but enough was made public to secure that the plants were quietly dropped from later editions of British flora. Kingsmen recalled the exposure of T. J. Wise by J. W. Carter of the year 1924.
For seventeen years this elliptical story stuck in my mind as worth exploring further, but I did nothing about it. Then, in 1997, when I had a prominent botanist to lunchthe first such occasion in my lifeI mentioned the story, and the botanist told me, in a rather unforthcoming way, that the allegations of fraud investigated by Raven concerned a Professor John Heslop Harrison of Newcastle University. Immediately, my interest intensified. Giving the alleged culprit a name put flesh on his bones and made me want to know more about him.
I should say straightaway that it was not easy to discover what that name actually was. The professor had started as a simple Harrison, with Heslop as a middle name, and at some point decided to adopt the Heslop as part of his surname. But there were times when some people called him one name and others called him the other simultaneously.
My botanical friend's slight reluctance to expand on the story also increased my interest. He was concerned that Heslop Harrison had a son who was still alive and had himself become a distinguished botanist. He gave the impression that the whole profession knew about the accusations but that, on the whole, this was never openly acknowledged.
We are none of us responsible for the sins of our fathers, and yet apparently, after this father's death an entire generation of botanists had tiptoed around the accusation to avoid offending his son, who, I presumed, had played no part in the misdeeds, if misdeeds there had been.
So, where to start? Patrick Wilkinson was dead by now, but, as the obituary said, the "report was deposited in Trinity College Library ..."
Oh no, it wasn't. A librarian at Trinity acted on my phone call, spent a couple of days investigating, then called back to say that there was no trace of the report. "Have you tried King's? It may be there," she said. I hadn't, I did, and it was.
There was a certain amount of caginess on the part of the King's librarian. "You'll have to get Mrs. Raven's permission," he said. Mrs. RavenFaith Raven, John Raven's widowturned out to be a woman who eschewed small talk and spoke her mind. Having established that I was a Kingsman, and therefore presumably "a safe pair of hands," she agreed that I could read her husband's report.
In a light, airy room on the second floor of the library, several people sat almost motionless at tables, turning the pages of rare books or carefully perusing sheets of manuscript. The quiet scratch of a pencilno pens allowedwould occasionally enliven the silence. Researchers came here from all over the world to consult the papers of E. M. Forster or John Maynard Keynes, or any of the hundreds of King's fellows or graduates who have left material to the library. Already waiting on "my" table was a faded beige manila folder with "not to be looked at in the life of J. Heslop-Harrison (Jnr)" written on the outside. This interdict introduced a cloak-and-dagger element into the business since, after all, I was looking at it "in the life of J. Heslop-Harrison (Jnr)," the son whom the nation's botanists, it seemed, wanted to avoid offending.
The first things I came across in the folder were photocopies of handwritten letters, along with carbons of typewritten letters. The carbons were from Raven, and the handwritten copies were replies from Heslop Harrison. There were also miscellaneous letters from Raven to others, including one dated 1960 to a friend. It had accompanied a copy of the report and said, "I'd really like it kept under lock and key until both its hero and I are safely in our graves." (Calling Heslop Harrison the hero of the story, when he was anything but, turned out to be a typical example of Ravens gentle irony.)
The bulk of the folder was taken up by a foolscap envelope. In the envelope was John Raven's report, in his small, neat handwriting. It began: "This report will inevitably be of considerable length, and much of it will, I'm afraid, be rather dull ..."
When I finished reading, twelve thousand words later, I could not agree with Raven's initial warning. It was not dull at all. It was a cool, reasoned, humorous, and explosive indictment of chicanery of a high order against a man who, throughout most of his career, was believed by nonbotanists to be a model of academic rectitude, rigorous research methodology, and distinguished discoveries.
At the heart of the report was an accusation, made quite explicitly, that Professor John Heslop Harrison of Newcastle University had, at some time in the 1940s, transported alien plants to the Isle of Rum in the Inner Hebrides and planted them himself in the soil. He had then, Raven alleged, "discovered" the plants and claimed that they were indigenous to the area and that he was the first to come across them. The report dealt with one specific group of plants that had come under suspicion, but the implication was that a whole series of other plants, described by Heslop Harrison and his students in the Inner and the Outer Hebrides over the previous decade or so, were also "planted" and therefore could not be considered "discoveries," as had been reported in academic papers by the professor and his students.
The Raven report presented a long list of Latin names of the plants in questionEpilobium lactiflorum, Erigeron uniflorus, Carex capitata, Carex bicolor, Lychnis alpinaand as I read it, images flashed before my eyes of tiny, brightly colored edelweiss, ornate, exotic orchids, primroses, pansies, and buttercups. It was some time before I realized that the plants at issue, which formed the focus of so much passion, were grasses, sedges, or rushes, mainlyto a nonbotanist unremarkable. One in particular, the sedge Carex bicolor, was both the most unusual of Heslop Harrison's discoveries and one of the least flamboyant.
Over the next few weeks, I started to talk and correspond with a number of people who might have been expected to know of the events in the Raven report and the broader issue of fraud by Heslop Harrison. The botanists I began to consult were divided into three groups: those who said they knew little or nothing of what I was talking about; those who believed that Heslop Harrison had done what Raven said he did and was lucky to have gotten away with it for so long; and those who believed that he did something a little underhanded or incompetent but that because he was such a good researcher most of the time, kind to his students, and an autodidact who deserved admiration for what he had achieved, his reputation should be left intact. None of those I spoke to, apart from close friends of Raven's, had seen the Raven report or knew much about what was in it.
It was also difficult to find anything in print about the controversy. In the file was a reprint of a letter from John Raven to Nature, the most authoritative British science journal, published in the issue of January 15, 1949, eighteen months after a trip Raven had made to Rum. How and why Raven had written this wasn't clear to me at the time. But to anyone not in the know, it was far from providing evidence of a smoking gun, let alone of the hand that had fired it. The only reference to Heslop Harrison was where Raven said "... thanks to the kindness of Professor J. W. Heslop Harrison ... I was enabled to see some at least of [Rum's] most interesting plants." To someone who had read Raven's report, this would seem on a par with thanking the embezzler for allowing you to see the forged check.
John William Heslop Harrison was professor of botany at Newcastle University at the time Raven wrote his report. He was then aged sixty-seven, and plants and insects had been a lifelong passion. His mother had "the green fingers of a born gardener" and apparently was the only person to whom the young Heslop Harrison would entrust his moths when he was away from home. His first job was as a secondary-school teacher, and for twelve years all his natural history work, leading to scientific papers in the specialist journals, was done outside his working hours. It was that research, and the commitment that underlay it, that led to his first university post, as a researcher at the University of Durham.
A phrase that was often used later, much later, by people who spoke to me about Heslop Harrison was that he was "a miner's son." Not quite accurate, but it has resonances that go far deeper than a bald description of his father's education. Such an expression implies the progression that underlies the American phrase "from log cabin to the White House," and I have the impression that it might be something Heslop Harrison said, or at least thought, of himself: "from miner's son to university professor."
There seemed to be three interwoven worlds that formed the background for the events of the story. There was, of course, the scientific world. This is a world in which hypotheses are formed, data gathered, and theories revised or consolidated, all in an environment from which human emotions, motives, and frailties are meant to be excluded. Whatever had gone on, whatever Heslop Harrison had done, was confined to one part of this scientific world: what is now called biogeography, which deals with how and why particular plants are found in particular places. Heslop Harrison and Raven played subtly different roles on this stage because, for all his botanical expertise, Raven, unlike Heslop Harrison, was not a professional scientist. His "day job" was as a classics scholar and teacher, an authority on the Greek philosophers. All of his botanical activities were pursued as an amateur, but they were of a high order.
Then there was the academic world, split into the two spheres that Heslop Harrison and Raven inhabited: "Oxbridge"Oxford and Cambridgeand what were known as the "redbrick" universities, in towns and cities throughout the rest of Britain. Oxford and Cambridge have always attracted accusations of elitism. And John Earle Raven's family backgroundson of the Master of a Cambridge college, with academics, schoolmasters, and clerics in his backgroundmeant that he would naturally go to a Cambridge college. His undergraduate work at Trinity led effortlessly to a first-class degree, followed by a fellowship in classics at the same college, awarded in 1947. Heslop Harrison, on the other hand, was the son of an ironmaker in a small village in the north of England, and his education involved financial sacrifices by a family that wasn't particularly well off. For him to contemplate a university education at all was quite a step. Emerging redbrick colleges, such as King's College, Newcastle, initially part of the University of Durham and later the nucleus of the University of Newcastle, lacked the history, tradition, and even attractiveness of the older universities yet felt themselves just as capable of competing with the best in the land.
They were very different men socially, Raven and Heslop Harrison, but they were linked by the third world, the world of natural history, and specifically of plants. Although there was an overlap with the scientific world, it soon became clear that many botanists, like Raven, were not necessarily scientists, or not particularly interested in science, but were passionate about plants. I felt it was a passion I would have to get to understand, whether or not I could share it, if I was to get much deeper into the story of the Rum affair.
Meet the Author
Karl Sabbagh earned his degree at King's College, Cambridge, before joining BBC Television. He is the author of five books, among them The Living Body and Power into Art. He lives near Stratford-Upon-Avon.
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