Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

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.

Linked references
Hide All

This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Howard Wolinsky , ‘Kitchen biology’, EMBO Reports (2009) 10, pp. 683685

Joe Alper , ‘Biotech in the basement’, Nature Biotechnology (2009) 27, pp. 10771078

Sam Kean , ‘A lab of their own’, Science (2011) 333, pp. 12401241

Haring , ‘The “freer men” of ham radio: how a technical hobby provided social and spatial distance’, Technology and Culture (2003) 44, pp. 734761

Honghong Tinn , ‘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

Anthony M. Springer , ‘Early experimental programs of the American Rocketry Society, 1931–1940’, Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets (2003) 40, pp. 475490

Steve Waksman , ‘California noise: tinkering with hardcore and heavy metal in Southern California’, Social Studies of Science (2004) 34, pp. 675702

Mark V. Barrow , Passion for Birds: American Ornithology after Audubon, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000

Patrick McCray , ‘Amateur scientists, the International Geophysical Year, and the ambitions of Fred Whipple’, Isis (2006) 97, pp. 634658

Susan Leigh Star and James R. Griesemer , ‘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

Samuel J.M. Alberti , ‘Amateurs and professionals in one county: biology and natural history in late Victorian Yorkshire’, Journal of the History of Biology (2001) 34, pp. 115147

Adrian Desmond , ‘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

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

Barbara A. Kimmelman , ‘The American Breeders’ Association: genetics and eugenics in an agricultural context’, Social Studies of Science (1983) 13, pp. 163204

Paolo Palladino , ‘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

Kathy J. Cooke , ‘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

Katherine Pandora , ‘Knowledge held in common: tales of Luther Burbank and science in the American vernacular’, Isis (2001) 92, pp. 497502

Noël Kingsbury , Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009

Jordan Goodman , ‘Plants, cells, and bodies: the molecular biography of colchicine, 1930–1975’, in Soraya de Chadarevian and Harmke Kamminga (eds.), Molecularizing Biology and Medicine: New Practices and Alliances, 1910s–1970s, Amsterdam: Harwood Academic, 1998, pp. 1746

O.J. Eigsti , ‘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

R. Bonney , ‘Citizen science: a developing tool for expanding science knowledge and scientific literacy’, Bioscience (2009) 59, pp. 977984

Frank Thone , ‘Science stunts for the gardener’, Science News-Letter, 13 April 1940, pp. 234236

Philip H. Smith , ‘No short-cut horticulture’, Scientific American (September 1940), p. 140

Haig Dermen , ‘Colchicine polyploidy and technique’, Botanical Review (1940) 6, pp. 599635

John Beatty , ‘Weighing the risks: stalemate in the classical/balance controversy’, Journal of the History of Biology (1987) 20, p. 289319

Jacob Darwin Hamblin , ‘“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

Jospeh Masco , ‘Mutant ecologies: radioactive life in post-Cold War New Mexico’, Cultural Anthropology (2004) 19, pp. 517550

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

Angela N.H. Creager and María Santesmases , ‘Radiobiology in the atomic age: changing research practices and policies in comparative perspective’, Journal of the History of Biology (2006) 39, pp. 637647

Jacob Darwin Hamblin , ‘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

T.S. Osborne and A.O. Lunden , ‘The cooperative plant and seed irradiation program of the University of Tennessee’, International Journal of Applied Radiation and Isotopes (1961) 10, pp. 198209

H. Sparrow and W. Ralph Singleton , ‘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

Robert E. Kohler , ‘A generalist's vision’, Isis (2005) 96, pp. 224229

Robert E. Kohler and Kathryn M. Olesko , ‘Introduction: Clio meets science’, Osiris, 2nd series (2012) 27, pp. 116

Rae S. Goodell , ‘Public involvement in the DNA controversy: the case of Cambridge, Massachusetts’, Science, Technology, and Human Values (1979) 4, pp. 3643

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The British Journal for the History of Science
  • ISSN: 0007-0874
  • EISSN: 1474-001X
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-for-the-history-of-science
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 7
Total number of PDF views: 33 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 271 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 28th June 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.