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From garden biotech to garage biotech: amateur experimental biology in historical perspective

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 August 2013

Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, Free School Lane, Cambridge, CB2 3RH, UK. Email:


This paper describes the activities of amateur plant breeders and their application of various methods and technologies derived from genetics research over the course of the twentieth century. These ranged from selection and hybridization to more interventionist approaches such as radiation treatment to induce genetic mutations and chemical manipulation of chromosomes. I argue that these activities share characteristics with twenty-first-century do-it-yourself (DIY) biology (a recent upswing in amateur experimental biology) as well as other amateur science and technology of the twentieth century. The characterization of amateur plant breeding as amateur experimental biology offers a corrective to a dominant narrative within the history of biology, in which the turn to experimental research in the early twentieth century is thought to have served as an obvious dividing line between amateur and professional activities. Considered alongside other better-known amateur efforts, it also suggests that we might gain something by taking a more unified approach to the study of amateur science and technology.

Research Article
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 2013 

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1 Bobe and Cowell were not the first to recognize the possibilities of amateur molecular biology. For one early and often-referenced article on the subject see Rob Carlson, ‘Splice it yourself’, Wired, May 2005, online at, accessed 29 May 2012.

2 Early news reports on DIYbio in the mainstream press include Carolyn Johnson, ‘Accessible science: hackers aim to make biology household practice’, Boston Globe, 15 September 2008; Julian Guthrie, ‘Do-it-yourself biology grows with technology’, San Francisco Chronicle, 20 December 2009, A1, online at, accessed 11 May 2012; ‘Taking biological research out of the laboratory’, National Public Radio interview, 27 December 2009, transcript online at, accessed 11 May 2012. Accounts in science journals include Wolinsky, Howard, ‘Kitchen biology’, EMBO Reports (2009) 10, pp. 683685CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; ‘Straight talk with … Mac Cowell and Jason Bobe’, Nature Medicine (2009), pp. 230–231; Alper, Joe, ‘Biotech in the basement’, Nature Biotechnology (2009) 27, pp. 10771078CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed. For more recent reports see Kean, Sam, ‘A lab of their own’, Science (2011) 333, pp. 12401241CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Regalado, Antonio, ‘Doing biotech in my bedroom’, Technology Review, 13 February 2012Google Scholar, online at, accessed 29 May 2012. More extended journalist accounts include Wohlsen, Marcus, Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life, New York: Penguin, 2011Google Scholar; and selected chapters in Hitt, Jack, A Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character, New York: Crown, 2012Google Scholar.

3 In his report on the first DIYbio meetup in Boston in March 2008, Bobe asked, ‘Can be the Homebrew Computing Club of biology?’, online at Other examples of this comparison include Riddell, Alan, ‘Tweaking genes in the basement’, Wired, 7 July 2006Google Scholar, online at; Delfani, Alessandro, ‘Tweaking genes in your garage: biohacking between activism and entrepreneurship’, in Sutzl, Wolfgang and Hug, Theo (eds.), Activist Media and Biopolitics: Critical Media Interventions in the Age of Biopower, Innsbruck: Universität Innsbruck, 2012, pp. 163178Google Scholar.

4 For example, ‘Hacking goes squishy’, The Economist, 3 September 2009, 30–31; ‘Straight talk with …’ op. cit. (2), p. 231; Wolinsky, op. cit. (2), p. 684.

5 Guthrie, op. cit. (2), A1.

6 ‘Taking biological research out of the laboratory’, op. cit. (2).

7 For an analysis of these various comparisons and their helpfulness in understanding amateur biological experiments see Christopher Kelty, M., ‘Outlaw hackers, Victorian amateurs: diagnosing public participation in the life sciences today’, Journal of Science Communication (2010) 9, pp. 18Google Scholar.

8 On amateur radio and television operators see Haring, Kristen, Ham Radio's Technical Culture, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006Google Scholar; Haring, , ‘The “freer men” of ham radio: how a technical hobby provided social and spatial distance’, Technology and Culture (2003) 44, pp. 734761CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Takahashi, Yuzo, ‘A network of tinkerers: the advent of the radio and television receiver industry in Japan’, Technology and Culture (2000) 41, pp. 460484Google Scholar; Douglas, Susan J., ‘Audio outlaws: radio and phonograph enthusiasts’, in Wright, John L. (ed.), Possible Dreams: Enthusiasm for Technology in America, Dearborn: Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village, 1992, pp. 4559Google Scholar; Douglas, , Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899–1922, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989Google Scholar. On computer tinkering see Tinn, Honghong, ‘From DIY computers to illegal copies: the controversy over tinkering with microcomputers in Taiwan, 1980–1984’, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing (2011) 33, pp. 7588CrossRefGoogle Scholar; see also Campbell-Kelly, Martin and Aspray, William, Computer: A History of the Information Machine, Boulder: Westview Press, 2004Google Scholar, Chapter 10. For an account of early amateur rocketry in the United States see Springer, Anthony M., ‘Early experimental programs of the American Rocketry Society, 1931–1940’, Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets (2003) 40, pp. 475490CrossRefGoogle Scholar; an account of amateur rocketry in Germany can be found in Neufeld, Michael J., The Rocket and the Reich: Peenemünde and the Coming of the Ballistic Missile Era, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995Google Scholar, especially Chapter 1. On tinkering in electronic music see Waksman, Steve, ‘California noise: tinkering with hardcore and heavy metal in Southern California’, Social Studies of Science (2004) 34, pp. 675702CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a breezy account of do-it-yourself nuclear science see Silverstein, Ken, ‘The radioactive boy scout: when a teenager attempts to build a breeder reactor’, Harper's (December 1998), pp. 5972Google Scholar.

9 On amateur birdwatching see Barrow, Mark V., Passion for Birds: American Ornithology after Audubon, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000Google Scholar. On specimen collecting see Kohler, Robert, All Creatures: Naturalists, Collectors, and Biodiversity, 1850–1950, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006Google Scholar. Other similar (but not biology-related) twentieth-century examples of public participation in scientific observation include, most famously, astronomy, and also weather and earthquake monitoring. On amateur astronomy see McCray, Patrick, Keep Watching the Skies! The Story of Operation Moonwatch and the Dawn of the Space Age, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008Google Scholar; McCray, Patrick, ‘Amateur scientists, the International Geophysical Year, and the ambitions of Fred Whipple’, Isis (2006) 97, pp. 634658CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed. On earthquakes see Fan, Fa-Ti, ‘“Collective monitoring, collective defense”: science, earthquakes, and politics in communist China’, Science in Context (2012) 25, pp. 127154CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On weather see Vetter, Jeremy, ‘Lay observers, telegraph lines, and Kansas weather: the field network as a mode of knowledge production’, Science in Context (2011) 24, pp. 259280CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 On the negotiation of this relationship in the twentieth century see, for example, Barrow, op. cit. (9); Kohler, op. cit. (9); Star, Susan Leigh and Griesemer, James R., ‘Institutional ecology, “translations” and boundary objects: amateurs and professionals in Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907–39’, Social Studies of Science (1989) 19, pp. 387420CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the distinctions between amateur and professional practice in the nineteenth century see, for example, Alberti, Samuel J.M., ‘Amateurs and professionals in one county: biology and natural history in late Victorian Yorkshire’, Journal of the History of Biology (2001) 34, pp. 115147CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Desmond, Adrian, ‘Redefining the X axis: “professional,” “amateurs” and the making of mid-Victorian biology – a progress report’, Journal of the History of Biology (2001) 34, pp. 350CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Keeney, Elizabeth M., The Botanizers: Amateur Scientists in Nineteenth-Century America, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992Google Scholar; Secord, Anne, ‘Corresponding interests: artisans and gentlemen in nineteenth-century natural history’, BJHS (1994) 27, pp. 383408CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 See, for example, Strasser, Bruno, ‘The experimenter's museum: GenBank, natural history, and the moral economies of biomedicine’, Isis (2011) 102, pp. 6096CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

12 Maines, Rachel P., Hedonizing Technologies: Paths to Pleasure in Hobbies and Leisure, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009Google Scholar. The history of lay participation is most recently addressed in a special issue of Science in Context on ‘Lay participation in the history of scientific observation’: Science in Context (2011) 24. Within the literature of leisure studies amateur science appears as a variety of what Robert Stebbins calls ‘serious leisure’, sharing important commonalities with other leisure activities pursued in a systematic fashion; although Stebbins sees commonalities among varieties of amateur scientific practices, he does not place these in the context of the history of science and technology. See, for example, Stebbins, Robert A., ‘Science amateurs? Rewards and costs in amateur astronomy and archeology’, Journal of Leisure Research (1981) 13, pp. 289304CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Stebbins, , Amateurs, Professionals, and Serious Leisure, Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1992Google Scholar.

13 Beyer, D.J., ‘Crossing tomatoes with eggplants and peppers’, Country Life in America (September 1910), p. 549Google Scholar.

14 Beyer, op. cit. (13).

15 On the expanding interest in horticulture see Pauly, Philip, Fruits and Plains: The Horticultural Transformation of America, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007Google Scholar. On the history of gardening in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries see (in addition to Pauly, op. cit., and the sources in notes 16 and 17 below) Tice, Patricia, Gardening in America, 1830–1910, Rochester, NY: The Margaret Woodbury Stron Museum, 1984Google Scholar; Leighton, Ann, American Gardens of the Nineteenth Century: ‘For Comfort and Affluence’, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987Google Scholar; Punch, Walter T. with Adams, William Howard, Massachusetts Horticultural Society (eds.), Keeping Eden: A History of Gardening in America, Boston: Little, Brown, 1992Google Scholar. A further resource is Hedrick, U.P., A History of Horticulture in America to 1860, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1950Google Scholar.

16 On horticultural societies see Tamara Plakins Thornton, ‘Horticulture and American character’, in Punch et al., op. cit. (15), pp. 189–203; and Walter T. Punch, ‘The garden organized: the public face of horticulture’, in Punch et al., op. cit. (15), pp. 219–240. See also Thornton, Tamara Plakins, Cultivating Gentlemen: The Meaning of Country Life among the Boston Elite, 1785–1860, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 Lyon-Jenness, Cheryl, For Shade and for Comfort: Democratizing Horticulture in the Nineteenth-Century Midwest, West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2004Google Scholar.

18 On the increasing commercialization of horticulture see Lyon-Jenness, Cheryl, ‘Planting a seed: the nineteenth-century horticultural boom in America’, Business History Review (2004) 78, pp. 381421CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lanman, Susan Warren, ‘“For profit and pleasure”: Peter Henderson and the commercialization of horticulture in nineteenth-century America’, in Scranton, Philip and Schrepfer, Susan R. (eds.), Industrializing Organisms: Introducing Evolutionary History, New York: Routledge, 2004, pp. 1942Google Scholar. On the growth of suburbs see Jackson, Kenneth T., Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985Google Scholar; Stilgoe, John R., Borderland: Origins of the American Suburb, 1820–1939, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988Google Scholar; Hayden, Dolores, Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820–2000, New York: Pantheon Books, 2003Google Scholar.

19 On cereal crop and other agricultural breeding see Kloppenburg, Jack Ralph, First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology, 1492–2000, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988Google Scholar, Chapter 3. On fruit breeding see Kevles, Daniel, ‘Fruit nationalism: horticulture in the United States from the Revolution to the First Centennial’, in Beretta, Marco et al. (eds.), Aurora Torealis: Studies in the History of Science and Ideas in Honor of Tore Frängsmyr, Sagamore Beach: Science History Publications, 2008, pp. 131148Google Scholar. On gentleman cultivators see Thornton, op. cit. (16).

20 Kloppenburg, op. cit. (19), pp. 58–90. See also Paul, Diane B. and Kimmelman, Barbara A., ‘Mendel in America: theory and practice, 1900–1919’, in Rainger, Ronald et al. (eds.), The American Development of Biology, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988, pp. 281310Google Scholar. On interest in plant breeding within academic circles see Kimmelman, Barbara A., ‘The American Breeders’ Association: genetics and eugenics in an agricultural context’, Social Studies of Science (1983) 13, pp. 163204CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Fitzgerald, Deborah Kay, The Business of Breeding: Hybrid Corn in Illinois, 1890–1940, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990Google Scholar.

21 Much has been written on the reception of Mendelism among scientists and breeders. See, in addition to the texts cited in footnote 20 above, Barbara A. Kimmelman, ‘A Progressive Era discipline: genetics at American agricultural colleges and experiment stations, 1900–1920’, PhD thesis, University of Pennsylvania, 1987, ProQuest/UMI 303610687; Palladino, Paolo, ‘Wizards and devotees: on the Mendelian theory of inheritance and the professionalization of agricultural science in Great Britain and the United States, 1880–1930’, History of Science (1994) 32, pp. 409444CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Cooke, Kathy J., ‘From science to practice, or practice to science? Chickens and eggs in Raymond Pearl's agricultural breeding research, 1907–1916’, Isis (1997) 88, pp. 6286CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Allen, Garland E., ‘The reception of Mendelism in the United States, 1900–1930’, Comptes rendus de l'Académie des sciences – Series III – Sciences de la vie (2000) 323, pp. 10811088Google ScholarPubMed.

22 Katherine Pandora makes the case that Burbank's status as a self-made man was a key component of his public appeal. See Pandora, Katherine, ‘Knowledge held in common: tales of Luther Burbank and science in the American vernacular’, Isis (2001) 92, pp. 497502CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

23 Even though scientists became critical of Burbank in the early twentieth century, he continued to be a popular public figure, often grouped in his time with the famous inventors Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. A recent account of Burbank is Smith, Jane S., The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants, New York: Penguin Press, 2009Google Scholar. Other accounts include Dreyer, Peter, A Gardener Touched with Genius: The Life of Luther Burbank, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985Google Scholar; Pandora, op. cit. (22).

24 Harwood, William Sumner, ‘Every man his own Burbank’, Country Calendar (May 1905), pp. 2123Google Scholar.

25 Williams, Henry Smith, ‘Every woman her own Burbank’, Good Housekeeping (April 1914), pp. 440449Google Scholar.

26 For a selection of other similar instructional pieces see Iorns, M.J., ‘How to make new varieties’, Garden Magazine (November 1905), pp. 170171Google Scholar; Barron, Leonard, ‘How to do what Burbank does’, Waterloo Daily Courier (August 1907), p. 6Google Scholar; Williams, Henry, ‘Burbank's ways with flowers’, Good Housekeeping (August 1914), pp. 158167Google Scholar; Haynes, William, ‘Game for gardens’, Good Housekeeping (May 1916), pp. 560566Google Scholar.

27 Harwood, op. cit. (24), p. 23.

28 This was also true of amateur guides not directly inspired by Burbank. See for examples Fletcher, S.W., ‘How new fruits can be made by crossing’, Garden Magazine (April 1908), pp. 142146Google Scholar; Gilkey, Howard Ellsworth, ‘Lilies made to order’, Garden Magazine (April 1920), pp. 107108Google Scholar; Mornington, R., ‘Creation of hybrid plants’, House & Garden (May 1922), p. 64Google Scholar; Tukey, H.B., ‘How you may breed a new fruit’, Garden & Home Builder (August 1926), p. 541Google Scholar.

29 ‘11 types of garden enjoyment’, Garden Magazine (February 1907), pp. 23–24, 24.

30 Window ledge: Williams, op. cit. (26), p. 159. ‘Cooped-up city back yard’: Harwood, William Sumner, New Creations in Plant Life: An Authoritative Account of the Life and Work of Luther Burbank, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1905, p. 240CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

31 These were the tools listed by Harwood; recommendations differed slightly from one guide to the next. See Harwood, op. cit. (24), p. 22.

32 Normand, J.L., ‘Letter’, American Gardening, 5 December 1903, p. 669Google Scholar.

33 Haynes, op. cit. (26), p. 560.

34 Iorns, op. cit. (26), p. 171.

35 Beyer, op. cit. (13).

36 Williams, op. cit. (25), p. 449.

37 Powell, E.P., ‘Fine arts of the country home’, Outing (January 1911), pp. 492499, 497Google Scholar.

38 On the longer history of hybridization see Kingsbury, Noël, Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Chapter 4.

39 Historians attribute the popularity of Mendelian genetics in the United States to a number of factors, including the professional interests of geneticists at agricultural research stations, the previous history of selection and hybridization work at such stations, and the appeal to biologists of a set of scientific ideas that would enable them to be as applied and interventionist as physicists and chemists. See Paul and Kimmelman, op. cit. (20); Fitzgerald, op. cit. (20); Cooke, op. cit. (21); Allen, op. cit. (21).

40 Smith, J.R., ‘Making plants and fruits to order’, Everybody's Magazine (September 1911), pp. 373374Google Scholar.

41 Cockerell, W.P., ‘Making of the red sunflower’, Garden Magazine (July 1914), pp. 332334, 332Google Scholar.

42 Cockerell, op. cit. (41), p. 333.

43 Several American horticultural societies had organized in the early and mid-nineteenth century to promote fruit and flower culture; membership in these included both gentlemen cultivators and commercial growers (see Pauly, op. cit. (15), pp. 51–67). A less commercial and more middle-class culture characterized the individual floral societies that organized about a hundred years later. These were primarily dedicated to breeding and growing prize flowers of a specific type, whether dahlia, lily, iris or other. A third type of organization, the garden club, also appeared in the United States in the early twentieth century; garden clubs were initially by and for women cultivators, with a focus on civic improvement (see Walter T. Punch, op. cit. (16)).

44 Most societies had journals or yearbooks that documented the activities of their members, awards given at exhibitions, advances in breeding or cultivation practices and the like. See, for example, the New England Gladiolus Society Yearbook, the Bulletin of the American Iris Society, the Lily Yearbook and others. These were undoubtedly the most active and knowledgeable communities of amateur plant breeders.

45 ‘Garden clubs are means of better plants’, Sandusky Register, 15 May 1938, p. 15.

46 Carhart, A.H., ‘You can be a plant wizard’, Popular Science Monthly (July 1937), pp. 5657, 112, 112Google Scholar.

47 On the history of the demonstration of induced mutation see Luis Campos, ‘Radium and the secret of life’, PhD thesis, Harvard University, 2006, ProQuest/UMI 305345240, Chapters 3–5. For the history of induced-mutation plant breeding see Helen Anne Curry, ‘Accelerating evolution, engineering life: American agriculture and technologies of genetic modification, 1925–1960’, PhD thesis, Yale University, 2012, ProQuest/UMI 3525240.

48 ‘Musician speeds up tree growth in x-ray experiments’, Los Angeles Times, 23 February 1937, p. 16.

49 E.J. Richards to the Office of Geneticest [sic] at Cold Spring Harbor, 26 April 1947, Carnegie Institution of Washington files, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory archives, folder: Requests for Misc Information, 1943–1953.

50 Bott, W.E., ‘Test-tube garden’, Cleveland Press, 22 June 1939Google Scholar. See also the follow-up articles in the Press on 23 and 24 June 1939.

51 On the history of enthusiasm for colchicine in relation to plant breeding see Curry, Helen Anne, ‘Making marigolds: colchicine, mutation breeding, and ornamental horticulture’, in Campos, Luis and von Schwerin, Alexander (eds.), Making Mutations: Objects, Practices, Contexts, Preprints of the Max-Planck Institute for the History of Science, no 393, 2010, pp. 259–84Google Scholar. For a contemporary view on the colchicine ‘fad’ see Wellensiek, S.J., ‘The newest fad, colchicine, and its origins’, Chronica Botanica (1939) 5, pp. 1517Google Scholar. For an extended discussion of colchicine research see Eigsti, O.J. and Dustin, Pierre, Colchicine in Agriculture, Medicine, Biology and Chemistry, Ames: (Iowa) State College Press, 1955Google Scholar.

52 On the history of this research see Curry, op. cit. (47), Chapter 4; Goodman, Jordan, ‘Plants, cells, and bodies: the molecular biography of colchicine, 1930–1975’, in de Chadarevian, Soraya and Kamminga, Harmke (eds.), Molecularizing Biology and Medicine: New Practices and Alliances, 1910s–1970s, Amsterdam: Harwood Academic, 1998, pp. 1746CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also early research on colchicine and polyploidy: Blakeslee, A.F. and Avery, A.G., ‘Methods of inducing doubling of chromosomes in plants: by treatment with colchicine’, Journal of Heredity (1937) 28, pp. 393411CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Eigsti, O.J., ‘A cytological study of colchicine effects in the induction of polyploidy in plants’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (1938) 24, pp. 5663CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Nebel, B.R. and Ruttle, M.L., ‘The cytological and genetical significance of colchicine’, Journal of Heredity (1938) 29, pp. 39CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

53 On the role of polyploidy in evolution as theorized around this time see Müntzing, A., ‘The evolutionary significance of autopolyploidy’, Hereditas (1936) 21, pp. 263378Google Scholar. On the study of chromosomes in relation to plant genetics and evolution in the work of one of the colchicine researchers see Luis Campos, ‘Genetics without genes: Blakeslee, Datura, and “chromosomal mutations”’, in A Cultural History of Heredity IV: Heredity in the Century of the Gene, Preprints of the Max-Planck Institute for the History of Science, no 343, 2008, pp. 243–258.

54 This is addressed in Blakeslee and Avery, op. cit. (52), pp. 408–409.

55 All of these uses are described in Blakeslee and Avery, op. cit. (52), p. 410. For more detailed treatment of each topic and related research see Eigsti and Dustin, op. cit. (51).

56 For example, ‘New control over animal and plant life reported’, Los Angeles Times, 26 October 1937, p. 1; Davis, Harry M., ‘New elixir found for plant world’, New York Times, 26 October 1937, p. 17Google Scholar; Baynes, Crowell, ‘Big things expected from new chemical’, Washington Post, 7 August 1938, p. R6Google Scholar; ‘Chemical speeds plant evolution’, New York Times, 13 August 1939, p. 22.

57 For example, Blakeslee and Avery, op. cit. (52); Davis, op. cit. (56).

58 Blakeslee and Avery, op. cit. (52), pp. 404–405.

59 ‘Reported from the field of science’, New York Times, 6 October, 1940, p. 59. Other researchers similarly received an influx of colchicine-related requests from individuals eager to participate in the research. Ernie Sears, for example, a geneticist and plant breeder at the University of Missouri, heard from many amateurs after publishing an article on colchicine technique in 1939. See letters to Sears in his personal papers, Sears Papers, Western Historical Manuscript Collection (Colombia, MO), Folder 116 and elsewhere.

60 Viola MacDougall to Albert Blakeslee and Amos Avery, 1 December 1945, Papers of Albert F. Blakeslee, American Philosophical Society (APS-AFB), folder: Colchicine – Correspondence 2.

61 On mangoes: Robe B. Carson to Blakeslee, 20 April 1946, APS-AFB, folder: Colchicine – Correspondence 2. Examples of farmers seeking advice from Blakeslee include George R. Ratliff to ‘Gentlemen’, 5 December 1945, APS-AFB, folder: Colchicine – Correspondence 2; Donald Abraham, n.d., APS-AFB, folder: Colchicine – Correspondence 2. Similar examples can be found in the correspondence files of other scientists working with colchicine, such as Sears (see op. cit. (59)).

62 Eigsti, O.J. and Tenney, Barbara, A Report on Experiments with Colchicine by Laymen Scientists during 1941, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1942Google Scholar.

63 As seen, for example, in ‘Oklahoma botanist offers chemical for experiments’, Bradford Era, 26 June 1940, p. 10.

64 Thone, Frank, ‘Amateur plant breeders aid science’, Bradford Era, 17 December 1941, p. 10Google Scholar.

65 Tenney, Barbara, ‘A report on experiments with colchicine by lay scientists’, Proceedings of the Oklahoma Academy of Science for 1941, pp. 3840Google Scholar, 38.

66 A brief discussion of citizen science can be found in Vetter, Jeremy, ‘Introduction: lay participation in the history of scientific observation’, Science in Context (2011) 24, pp. 127141CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; for historical perspectives on the role of lay participation in science see other contributions to Science in Context (2011) 24(2). For a perspective on recent citizen-science projects see Bonney, R. et al. , ‘Citizen science: a developing tool for expanding science knowledge and scientific literacy’, Bioscience (2009) 59, pp. 977984CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

67 Eigsti and Tenney, op. cit. (62), p. 16.

68 A few examples: Couch, Glenn, ‘A botanist upsets heredity’, Sooner (January 1939), pp. 11, 27Google Scholar; ‘Miracle drugs?’ Sunset (September 1940), pp. 36–37, 39; ‘Plant chemistry for the amateur’, Salmanca Republican-Press, 8 July 1941, p. 7; ‘Take your home gardening more seriously with an amateur fling at plant chemistry’, Portsmouth Times, 5 March 1941, p. 7; ‘Amateurs can contribute to field of plant breeding’, Science News-Letter, 14 February 1942, p. 106; ‘Artificially produced tetraploid plants’, Gardening Illustrated (January 1948), pp. 7–8; ‘Wonder plant-drug will help you grow vegetables’, Chillicothe-Constitution Tribune, 10 March 1949, p. 2.

69 For example, Thone, Frank, ‘Science stunts for the gardener’, Science News-Letter, 13 April 1940, pp. 234236CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Thone, op. cit. (64).

70 Thone, op. cit. (64), p. 10.

71 Couch, op. cit. (68), p. 11, p. 27.

72 For example Quest, a popular science magazine produced in Wellesley, Massachusetts, advertised for sale colchicine, ‘the evolution chemical’, and an accompanying experimental booklet in the 1940s; these were also hawked in the classified advertisements of magazines such as Popular Mechanics and the Science News-Letter.

73 Bott, op. cit. (50).

74 Houghton, Kenneth W., ‘Experiments with colchicine’, Horticulture, 1 January 1940, p. 16Google Scholar.

75 For example, Leach, David, ‘Some notes on the induction of mutation in rhododendron’, Quarterly Bulletin of the American Rhododendron Society (1950) 4Google Scholar, online at–leach.htm, accessed 15 March 2013; Cresskill, Rita, ‘Supremes with colchicine’, African Violet Magazine (December 1959), p. 9Google Scholar.

76 Editorial, ‘Colchicine and double diploids’, Journal of Heredity (1937) 28, p. 411CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

77 Editorial, ‘Colchicine a dangerous drug’, Journal of Heredity (1938) 29, p. 188CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

78 ‘Colchicine experimenters warned of possible danger’, Science News-Letter, 14 December 1940, p. 382.

79 Morrison, Gordon, ‘Facts about colchicine’, Gardeners’ Chronicle of America (October 1939), p. 297Google Scholar.

80 For example, Rockwell, F.F., ‘Round about the garden’, New York Times, 24 July 1938Google Scholar, 38; Smith, Philip H., ‘No short-cut horticulture’, Scientific American (September 1940), p. 140CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

81 A review of research undertaken by 1940 indicates the extent of the ‘fad’: Dermen, Haig, ‘Colchicine polyploidy and technique’, Botanical Review (1940) 6, pp. 599635CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

82 See discussion in Murphy, Denis J., Plant Breeding and Biotechnology: Societal Context and the Future of Agriculture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007, pp. 3940CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

83 See, for example of professional recommendation of colchicine breeding for amateurs working with flowers, Clayberg, Carl D., ‘A guide for the plant breeder’, Plants and Gardens (1974) 30, pp. 1415Google Scholar.

84 For example, Riley, Morgan T., Dahlias: What Is Known about Them, New York: Orange Judd, 1947, pp. 149152Google Scholar; Thomson, Betty F., ‘New kinds of plants by chemical treatment’, Plants and Gardens (Summer 1948), pp. 117123Google Scholar; Kennerly, A.B., ‘New plants on order’, Popular Mechanics (June 1961), pp. 132133, 236Google Scholar.

85 Callaway, Dorothy Johnson, The World of Magnolias, Portland: Timber Press, 1994, pp. 191193Google Scholar; Clarke, Robert Connell, Marijuana Botany: Propagation and Breeding of Distinctive Varieties, Berkeley: Ronin, 1993, p. 6162Google Scholar.

86 This particular distinction between horticultural and agricultural breeding had long been recognized as significant; it was discussed, for example, by Hugo de Vries as part of his mutation theory. See de Vries, Hugo, The Mutation Theory, vol. 1, New York: Open Court, 1909Google Scholar.

87 On this search for novel forms, especially in relation to the use of mutagens, see Kingsbury, op. cit. (38), pp. 348–354.

88 James, John, Create New Flowers and Plants … Indoors and Out, Garden City: Doubleday, 1964Google Scholar.

89 James, op. cit. (88), p. 128.

90 James, op. cit. (88), pp. 127–136.

91 Haworth, James P., Plant Magic, Portland: Binfords & Mort, 1946, p. xiiiGoogle Scholar.

92 Haworth, op. cit. (91), pp. 102–103, 119.

93 Haworth, op. cit. (91), pp. xiv–xv.

94 Haworth, op. cit. (91), p. xiv.

95 Haworth, op. cit. (91), p. xvi.

96 James, op. cit. (88), pp. xv, 61.

97 On scientific debates over the genetic effects of radiation see Beatty, John, ‘Weighing the risks: stalemate in the classical/balance controversy’, Journal of the History of Biology (1987) 20, p. 289319CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Beatty, , ‘Masking disagreement among experts’, Episteme (2006) 3, pp. 5267CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hamblin, Jacob Darwin, ‘“A dispassionate and objective effort”: negotiating the first study on the biological effects of atomic radiation’, Journal of the History of Biology (2007) 40, pp. 147177CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed. On mutation in popular culture in the Cold War and after see Masco, Jospeh, ‘Mutant ecologies: radioactive life in post-Cold War New Mexico’, Cultural Anthropology (2004) 19, pp. 517550CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On other aspects of the atom and nuclear science in popular culture see Boyer, Paul, By the Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age, New York: Pantheon, 1985Google Scholar; Weart, Spencer R., Nuclear Fear: A History of Images, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988Google Scholar.

98 Strong, C.L., ‘The amateur scientist: some experiments on the effects of ionizing radiation on plants’, Scientific American (December 1963), pp. 151159CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

99 For an overview of AEC efforts to promote peaceful uses of atomic energy, especially in light of popular perceptions of nuclear development, see Boyer, op. cit. (97), Chapter 24; also Hewlett, Richard and Anderson, Oscar Edward, The New World, 1939–1946, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1962, esp. pp. 233270Google Scholar; and Hewlett, Richard and Holl, Jack M., Atoms for Peace and War, 1953–1961: Eisenhower and the Atomic Energy Commission, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989Google Scholar. For an overview of radiation biology research in the atomic age see Creager, Angela N.H. and Santesmases, María, ‘Radiobiology in the atomic age: changing research practices and policies in comparative perspective’, Journal of the History of Biology (2006) 39, pp. 637647CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the promotion of nuclear techniques in agriculture see Curry, op. cit. (47), Chapters 6 and 7; Hamblin, Jacob Darwin, ‘Let there be light … and bread: the United Nations, the developing world, and atomic energy's Green Revolution’, History and Technology (2009) 25, pp. 2548CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

100 The primary purpose of these programmes was to provide irradiation services to agricultural experiment stations. This was, however, one route recommended by James, and given the extent of the seed- and plant-irradiation activities at these two laboratories, it is easy to believe that their services were in fact more widely used. See description of the Oak Ridge Program: Osborne, T.S. and Lunden, A.O., ‘The cooperative plant and seed irradiation program of the University of Tennessee’, International Journal of Applied Radiation and Isotopes (1961) 10, pp. 198209CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On work at Brookhaven see Arnold Sparrow, H. and Singleton, W. Ralph, ‘The use of radiocobalt as a source of gamma rays and some effects of chronic irradiation on growing plants’, American Naturalist (1953) 87, pp. 2948CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Or, for a popular report, Porterfield, Byron, ‘Atom-farm crops mutated by rays’, New York Times, 30 July 1958, p. 31Google Scholar.

101 Dr Speas's ad: ‘Dr. Speas' atomic energized seeds and plants’, Chicago Daily Tribune, 14 April 1961, p. 19. Breck's ad: ‘Breck's new atomic seeds!’ New York Times, 19 March 1961, p. X24.

102 On popular interest in atomic science (and government or scientific encouragement of this interest), and especially the advances in technologies of everyday life that atomic research was said to make possible, see Weart, op. cit. (97), pp. 155–174.

103 For example, Gold, Bill, ‘The district line: a new horticultural roulette game’, Washington Post, 17 February 1959, p. B18Google Scholar; Aronson, Earl, ‘The weeders guide: atomic irradiated seeds produce striking plants’, Hartford Courant, 12 November 1960, p. 5Google Scholar; Orr, Richard, ‘The home garden: “atomic” seeds a new novelty’, Chicago Daily Tribune, 13 April 1961, p. S13Google Scholar.

104 ‘Atomic plants to be exhibited at Cleveland show’, New Castle News, 23 February 1961, p. 9.

105 On the Atomic Gardening Society see Johnson, Paige, ‘Safeguarding the atom: the nuclear enthusiasm of Muriel Howorth’, BJHS (2012) 45, pp. 551571CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

106 There were some negative reactions to colchicine, for example, such as the popular garden writer Katherine White in 1959 on having to read about chromosomes in her garden catalogues. See White, Katharine, Onward and Upward in the Garden, New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979, p. 28Google Scholar. Or a reader of Horticulture, complaining about housewives obsessed with chemicals and gardens turned into laboratories. See Wright, Richard, ‘Richard Wright asks a question’, Horticulture, 1 January 1940, p. 12Google Scholar. These, however, appeared to be outliers.

107 The journalist Jack Hitt's recent Bunch of Amateurs, op. cit. (2), takes such an approach to various amateur enterprises in American history.

108 Kohler, Robert E., ‘A generalist's vision’, Isis (2005) 96, pp. 224229CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed. This vision for the history of science is further explored in Kohler, Robert E. and Olesko, Kathryn M., ‘Introduction: Clio meets science’, Osiris, 2nd series (2012) 27, pp. 116CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

109 Charles, Daniel, Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food, Cambridge: Perseus, 2001Google Scholar; Lurquin, Paul F., The Green Phoenix: A History of Genetically Modified Plants, New York: Columbia University Press, 2001Google Scholar.

110 On the early debates over the dangers of applied molecular biological research, including especially debates over recombinant DNA, see Goodell, Rae S., ‘Public involvement in the DNA controversy: the case of Cambridge, Massachusetts’, Science, Technology, and Human Values (1979) 4, pp. 3643CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Krimsky, Sheldon, Genetic Alchemy: The Social History of the Recombinant DNA Controversy, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982Google Scholar; Wright, Susan, ‘Molecular politics in Great Britain and the United States: the development of policy for recombinant DNA technology’, Southern California Law Review (1978) 51, pp. 13831434Google ScholarPubMed. On the history of food-related anti-GM activities see Schurman, Rachel and Munro, William A., Fighting for the Future of Food: Activists Versus Agribusiness in the Struggle over Biotechnology, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010Google Scholar.

111 Dyson, Freeman, ‘Our biotech future’, New York Review of Books, 19 July 2007Google Scholar, online at, accessed 11 June 2012.

112 For example, Kloppenburg, op. cit. (19), p. 2.