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


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.

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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. 683685; ‘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. 10771078. For more recent reports see Kean Sam, ‘A lab of their own’, Science (2011) 333, pp. 12401241; Regalado Antonio, ‘Doing biotech in my bedroom’, Technology Review, 13 February 2012, online at, accessed 29 May 2012. More extended journalist accounts include Wohlsen Marcus, Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life, New York: Penguin, 2011; and selected chapters in Hitt Jack, A Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character, New York: Crown, 2012.

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 2006, 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. 163178.

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. 18.

8 On amateur radio and television operators see Haring Kristen, Ham Radio's Technical Culture, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006; Haring , ‘The “freer men” of ham radio: how a technical hobby provided social and spatial distance’, Technology and Culture (2003) 44, pp. 734761; Takahashi Yuzo, ‘A network of tinkerers: the advent of the radio and television receiver industry in Japan’, Technology and Culture (2000) 41, pp. 460484; 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. 4559; Douglas , Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899–1922, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989. 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. 7588; see also Campbell-Kelly Martin and Aspray William, Computer: A History of the Information Machine, Boulder: Westview Press, 2004, 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. 475490; 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, 1995, 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. 675702. 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. 5972.

9 On amateur birdwatching see Barrow Mark V., Passion for Birds: American Ornithology after Audubon, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. On specimen collecting see Kohler Robert, All Creatures: Naturalists, Collectors, and Biodiversity, 1850–1950, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. 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, 2008; McCray Patrick, ‘Amateur scientists, the International Geophysical Year, and the ambitions of Fred Whipple’, Isis (2006) 97, pp. 634658. On earthquakes see Fan Fa-Ti, ‘“Collective monitoring, collective defense”: science, earthquakes, and politics in communist China’, Science in Context (2012) 25, pp. 127154. 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. 259280.

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. 387420. 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. 115147; 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. 350; Keeney Elizabeth M., The Botanizers: Amateur Scientists in Nineteenth-Century America, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992; Secord Anne, ‘Corresponding interests: artisans and gentlemen in nineteenth-century natural history’, BJHS (1994) 27, pp. 383408.

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

12 Maines Rachel P., Hedonizing Technologies: Paths to Pleasure in Hobbies and Leisure, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. 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. 289304; Stebbins , Amateurs, Professionals, and Serious Leisure, Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1992.

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

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, 2007. 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, 1984; Leighton Ann, American Gardens of the Nineteenth Century: ‘For Comfort and Affluence’, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987; Punch Walter T. with Adams William Howard, Massachusetts Horticultural Society (eds.), Keeping Eden: A History of Gardening in America, Boston: Little, Brown, 1992. A further resource is Hedrick U.P., A History of Horticulture in America to 1860, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1950.

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, 1989.

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

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. 381421; 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. 1942. On the growth of suburbs see Jackson Kenneth T., Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985; Stilgoe John R., Borderland: Origins of the American Suburb, 1820–1939, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988; Hayden Dolores, Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820–2000, New York: Pantheon Books, 2003.

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, 1988, 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. 131148. 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. 281310. 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. 163204; Fitzgerald Deborah Kay, The Business of Breeding: Hybrid Corn in Illinois, 1890–1940, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990.

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. 409444; 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. 6286; 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. 10811088.

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. 497502.

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, 2009. Other accounts include Dreyer Peter, A Gardener Touched with Genius: The Life of Luther Burbank, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985; Pandora, op. cit. (22).

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

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

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

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. 142146; Gilkey Howard Ellsworth, ‘Lilies made to order’, Garden Magazine (April 1920), pp. 107108; Mornington R., ‘Creation of hybrid plants’, House & Garden (May 1922), p. 64; Tukey H.B., ‘How you may breed a new fruit’, Garden & Home Builder (August 1926), p. 541.

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. 240.

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. 669.

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, 497.

38 On the longer history of hybridization see Kingsbury Noël, Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009, 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. 373374.

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

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, 112.

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 1939. 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. 259–84. For a contemporary view on the colchicine ‘fad’ see Wellensiek S.J., ‘The newest fad, colchicine, and its origins’, Chronica Botanica (1939) 5, pp. 1517. 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, 1955.

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. 1746. 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. 393411; 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. 5663; Nebel B.R. and Ruttle M.L., ‘The cytological and genetical significance of colchicine’, Journal of Heredity (1938) 29, pp. 39.

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. 263378. 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. 17; Baynes Crowell, ‘Big things expected from new chemical’, Washington Post, 7 August 1938, p. R6; ‘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, 1942.

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. 10.

65 Tenney Barbara, ‘A report on experiments with colchicine by lay scientists’, Proceedings of the Oklahoma Academy of Science for 1941, pp. 3840, 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. 127141; 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. 977984.

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

68 A few examples: Couch Glenn, ‘A botanist upsets heredity’, Sooner (January 1939), pp. 11, 27; ‘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. 234236; 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. 16.

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

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

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

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. 297.

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

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. 599635.

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

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. 1415.

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

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

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, 1909.

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, 1964.

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. xiii.

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. 289319; Beatty , ‘Masking disagreement among experts’, Episteme (2006) 3, pp. 5267; 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. 147177. 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. 517550. 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, 1985; Weart Spencer R., Nuclear Fear: A History of Images, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.

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

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. 233270; 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, 1989. 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. 637647. 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. 2548.

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. 198209. 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. 2948. Or, for a popular report, Porterfield Byron, ‘Atom-farm crops mutated by rays’, New York Times, 30 July 1958, p. 31.

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. B18; Aronson Earl, ‘The weeders guide: atomic irradiated seeds produce striking plants’, Hartford Courant, 12 November 1960, p. 5; Orr Richard, ‘The home garden: “atomic” seeds a new novelty’, Chicago Daily Tribune, 13 April 1961, p. S13.

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. 551571.

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. 28. 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. 12. 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. 224229. 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. 116.

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

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. 3643; Krimsky Sheldon, Genetic Alchemy: The Social History of the Recombinant DNA Controversy, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982; 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. 13831434. 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, 2010.

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

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

I thank Hasok Chang, Daniel Kevles, Bruce Lewenstein, Joanna Radin, Alistair Sponsel, Bruno Strasser and two anonymous referees for their comments on this work at various stages.

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The British Journal for the History of Science
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