Paul de Kruif
THE MAIZE BREEDER
OF HOW THE FIRST ABORIGINAL RED MAN—or woman—stumbled on to the first green accidental tree of maize there can only be a poetic guess. But there is written record of the curious and fundamental maize exploit of the civilized white man, George Harrison Shull.
Shull married a maize plant to itself. By the dwarfish and ill-begotten children of that incestuous marriage this little professor was surprised. Through the runtish offspring of this unnatural union, consummated by his pottering with certain paper bags, he began for the first time of all men to trace down, to uncover pure blood lines of maize that had been mysteriously hidden and hopelessly mixed for nobody knows how many thousands of years. For maize Shull discovered the silliness of the superstition that like produces like. To the breeding of the Indian corn he brought sureness—where everything before had been as full of whims and chances as the issue from the passion of any human boy and girl. For maize this obscure Shull was certainly a new fantastic sort of pioneer.
It would be wrong to say George Shull was the first to try the utterly impractical, you'd almost say impossible, stunt of fixing the fathers an ear of maize should have. Thirty years before Shull made his highbrow paper-bag marriages of corn at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island, the botanist Beal in Michigan was castrating maize plants, depriving them of their manhood by pulling off their tassels.
Beal—who was a learned Quaker—was urging practical Michigan men to try new complicated tricks of breeding maize. Tall, loathing tobacco, proud of his austere teetotality, Beal traveled north to the Farmers' Institute at Traverse City. The dirt men from miles around trooped into Campbell's hall, having come in from their new-cleared land in bob-sleighs, stamping the snow from their socks and rubbers around the red-hot big-bellied wood stove. Professor Kedzie was going to talk to them about kerosene lamps and illuminating oil; Professor Beal was about to instruct them in "Horticultural Experiments and How Discoveries Are Made." But principally these plain men were lured to this intellectual feast of 1876 by excellent music, rendered by the Traverse City Silver Cornet Band. Little did they know they would listen to landmark science in the breeding of maize.
Beal rose to his great height and peered at his smelly meeting. "What do we think of a man," he asked earnestly, "who selects the best calves, pigs, lambs, only from the best mothers, paying no attention whatever to the selection of a good male parent?"
These Michigan men—though not polished—weren't given to butting in on speeches or even answering these professors, their obvious betters. And anyway they wouldn't say out loud with the women around what they'd think of such a fool as that—and what they thought privately wouldn't be fit to print. What would a good farmer think of a fellow who bred livestock just from the mothers?…
With something of the owl in him, waiting like the schoolmaster he was for his thought to sink home, Beal squinted at his grown-up pupils dramatically. "But that," he said, "is just what our farmers are doing now, selecting from the largest, fairest ears of corn!"
There's no record how many of his moustached listeners, with the blended aroma of pine trees, tobacco juice, and barns in their beards, understood the polygamous, promiscuous way of a maize plant's marrying and begetting. Surely not many of them knew the bizarre physiology of a maize plant being husband to a hundred wives and at the same time wife to half a hundred husbands. Carefully Beal got all that through their heads.
"But it's only the ears—those are from the mother plants—that you pick for seed. Yet those ears have been formed from silks that have got pollen from every conceivable kind of father. There are lots of slender, unthrifty stalks in your field—yet they shed pollen which blows by the chance of the wind on to the silks of the very best plants. There are plenty of barren stalks, that don't shoot ears at all—but they've tassels, from which pollen goes all over the field. ... "
Well—what about it?
"What I suggest," offered this dreaming professor, "is that you go through your fields, spotting those poor plants, and jerk off their tassels before they shed pollen. That'll keep them from mixing their blood with the rest of the corn."
Here was the first fanatic for corn eugenics—nearly as foolish as modern folks who without humor advocate picking out human fathers by science instead of letting nature do it with a sidelong look in the eye or a pink rush of color to the face of a maid. The farmers listened—with more or less respect. But what was this tall loon of a prof raving about, anyway? What man had the time to go through his whole field of corn every day during the whole two weeks or more of tasseling time—pulling off tassels from bum stalks? How'd you know a stalk was barren? Sometimes the ears shot out very late! And if a plant was barren—did this prof know whether or not barrenness ran in families, whether it went down to the children? Let this feller come out and be their hired man for a while and see how much time he'd have to be mooching 'round in a cornfield two weeks in July—with the wheat ready to cut!
No—the skeptical farmers had a lot of sense on their side. And even Jake Leaming, or James Reid, who in these very days were founding the varieties of their magnificent Yellow Dent corn by the old Indian way of picking out the finest fairest ears, couldn't have made head or tail to William James Beal's theoretical proposals. How control the fatherhood of an ear of maize? Here's the best corn crank, here's Jake Leaming himself, standing in the middle of his field in high summer, standing in an invisible rain, a golden rain of pollen that makes the air sneezy, that settles on his hands, in his eyebrows, on the sleeves of his shirt—and on the silks of a thousand maize trees all around him….Who'd say what pollen should go where? Who—but some professor? Botany? All right—but Beal ought to be learnin' it to city boys in white collars and town girls that went to college because they aimed to teach school. Botany!
Of course it was outlandish that William Beal had ever become a professor—it was as strange as the trick of a fine ear of corn yielding nothing but runts and nubbin ears every now and again. Look at Beal's father: he was one of those pioneers whose faces had the mark common to all of the stump-grubbers and tree-fallers of those grim Michigan days—a thin-lipped mouth drawn down at the corners. ... No highfalutin monkey business in the head of old Beal. He helped carve Michigan out of the woods. But his boy, William James? When he should have been sweating, this lad had gazed at the Pottawattamie Indians, hilling up their maize, planting it year after year in the same old hills in Lenawee County, southern Michigan. Young Beal had watched bear pounce on the back of his father's screaming pigs and make meals off those critters before they were dead. He'd seen myriads of cotton-tails, skunks, squirrels, busy bothering his father's corn standing in shocks in clearings still too rooty to plow. The boy didn't seem to care for his dad's thin-lipped life.
So, out of this now lost lovely country, where the gray geese trampled down the wheat near the little lakes, where the burning log-heaps in the autumn evenings threw giant shadows on the tree rims of the clearings, Beal bumped. He jounced away, over corduroy roads—to the University of Michigan. Next he went east—to Harvard College, and here he had the nerve to brace the famous Swiss-American, Louis Agassiz. "I have the ambition to be a botanist and zoologist," William told that formidable man.
"But why do you want to study zoology?" roared Agassiz. "There's no money in it! You must make up your mind to be poor all your life!"
NOW here is Beal, crammed full of the lore of sea-urchins and the intimate parts of fossil fishes by this completely professorial Agassiz. Here is Beal—a professor in the little one-building Michigan Agricultural College at Lansing that did very well to have three professors in all. Here you have Doctor of Philosophy William James Beal, an impractical jack of all the sciences of horticulture, a fanatic for crossbreeding like the old druggist of Marquis wheat fame, William Saunders, only with his feet much farther off the ground than Saunders. This Beal will improve the Michigan corn crop!
"To infuse new vigor into varieties, I propose in the case of corn and other seeds to get seeds from remote parts where they have grown for some years and to plant these different seeds near each other and so mix them," wrote the dreamer Beal.
In the not too fertile fields close by his absurd new college, Beal started an experiment Jake Leaming would have snorted at. From Farmer Jacob Walton of the town of Raisin he got a White Dent corn—Walton had kept that corn "pure" on his own farm for ten years. Farmer Hathaway, from way off at Little Prairie Ronde, sent Beal some ears of his pet Yellow Dent—fifteen years he'd nursed it, selected it, grown nothing but his own maize without mixture from foreign parts.
"Too much care is needed for experiments, to trust them to others," said Beal. So he tucked a row of white grains of the Walton corn under the ground with his own hands—he was at least that much of a gardener. And in the row next to the Walton he planted the yellow seed from Hathaway, and beyond that again a row of the Walton. So, strangely, in alternate rows he planted these two sorts of corn, saw they were well hoed, watched them shoot up with that fantastic vigor of maize in May and June. Then came July—and what an experiment! Here is Beal, pottering up and down between these rows of the Dent and the Walton, just as tasseling time comes on, at the very beginning of the maize honeymoon. The intent and serious Beal walks with dignified deliberation through his small green forest, just as the tassels begin to send out their plumes to crown the trees of it. He starts a brutal operation:
He jerks the tassels off the tops of the Walton corn plants. With a hawk's eye, with a scientist's ruthlessness, with an experimenter's care, every morning he goes, yanking the hopeful fecund tassels off the Walton corn before they've ever a chance to shed their pollen. So he castrates the corn of Jacob Walton.
Now the silks of this completely female Walton will have to be fertilized by the pollen from the Hathaway of the rows on either side of it. So Beal cross-breeds the Walton maize with the Hathaway. Now he can be absolutely sure of both the fathers and the mothers of the Walton corn. That autumn he husks the Walton ears, labels them. For the next spring's sowing he stows away these cross-bred mother ears whose fathers have come all the way from Little Prairie Ronde. Patient and long as the years is his toil.
"It is easy enough to observe isolated facts; any one can soon learn to do that, but when you compare two or more objects, then you take a step forward in philosophy,"—so old Louis Agassiz had counseled young Beal, had dinned at his pupil Beal—who didn't need to be dinned at. A comparer born, like Angus Mackay, was Beal. And next spring amid the hopeful songs of the just-arrived meadow larks,
Beal puts his newfangled hybrid seed under the ground. Four rows of it he plants—through the middle of a field of the prize Yellow Dent corn, called the best in Michigan by the authorities of the Agricultural College.
The result is superb. That fall Beal is happy, as he shells the ears of this new Walton-Hathaway hybrid maize, weighs the seed from these ears, measures their yield in bushels per acre, compares the yield of this new cross-bred seed with the yield per acre of the standard Yellow Dent corn of the college, the champion corn of Michigan, grown close by in the same field. The comparison knocks his eye out: the result is immense: from the same amount of space in the field that yields one hundred pounds of the college corn, the tall professor reaps one hundred and fifty-three pounds of his hybrid—"Walton x Hathaway." And the hybrid plants, marvelously tall, heavy-stalked, are far and away better yielders than the average of their own parents, or than the better of their parents!
If Beal hadn't been dignified and given to an extraordinarily solemn peering at nature, he would have danced up and down, given an oyster supper in honor of this event to his fellow professors. For here was a moment in his life: here was a prophecy—based on reasoning—come true. That's the moment in the life of any pure scientist, and Beal certainly belonged to that breed of men. And he must be absolutely right about this strange vigor of the hybrid children, because here came a scientific report from across the ocean, from England, from the foremost biologist in the universe, from Charles Darwin himself. That bearded saint of science had brought together the seed of petunias from remote places and married them—and the issue was much bigger and better petunias. "Ah—check !" Beal could whisper. But here's what was finest—Beal had thought the maize stunt up all by himself, and read about Darwin's petunias afterwards. All by himself he'd discovered this principle of the increased vigor of these bastard maize children—it was new. ... Only was it really new?
How long before the unscientific days of Moses had the first experimenter bred a mare to an ass, to be amazed at the birth of the mule—more vigorous, stronger, far huskier than either its mare mother or its jackass father?
Well, granted—but here Beal had done the trick with plants, not animals; here was a new way to breed maize for a record yield. But was that new? For how many thousands of years had the Indians, by rituals, by curious idiotic-seeming ceremonies, charged certain lone wolves of their tribes with the growing of the pure seed of one definite sort or color of maize, far apart from each other, far away from the villages? For how many thousand springs, at each planting time, hadn't they then taken three or four of these sorts of seed and put them under the ground together in one cornhill? How was that different from the scientific experiment of William James Beal—excepting that the professor had pulled off the tassels of one sort, confined the fathers to one variety. ...
The Indians knew nothing of the physiology of tassels and silks: they only had some dim notion that sexual doings occurred between their mixed seeds, had a superstition that mixing breeds of maize pepped up the growth of its trees—caused those trees to yield them more corn bread and hasty pudding….
"A MAN must not hesitate to throw three or four years of experiments in the waste-basket before he appears in public"—this was a saying of Beal. But this strange business of the vigor of cross-bred maize children was nothing to throw into the waste-basket. "It seems to me the greatest chance ever offered, to make a good experiment in this country for the benefit of the farmers!" So Beal told a hard-boiled meeting of stump-grubbers in 'seventy-seven under the elms and willows close by the lovely ribbon of the Grand River at lonia.
He harangued them—as became a savant—on this mysterious lustiness that appears in the first generation of the offspring begot by the pollen of a corn from one place and conceived by the silks of a maize from another place far distant.
Those farmers chewed at wisps of hay, thoughtfully spat their extracts of Peerless tobacco, as Beal explained that this vigor of the cross-bred corn didn't last, that you'd only find it in the first year of the seed, that next year the seed from these high-yielding children would just be ordinary corn seed again—or maybe even worse than ordinary.
"Of course the two varieties, from each place, will have to be crossed every year to give this high-yielding seed," lectured Beal. "But it will be money in your pockets to plant cross-bred seed every year. ..." he finished.
His audience broke up, went off muttering to itself under its big straw hats—what busy farmer is going to plant two kinds of corn, every year, for seed? What the hell? Who's going to take the time to jerk the tassels off one sort, every day, several times a day, for weeks during tasseling time just to get seed this here college professor claims will yield half again as much as regular corn? And would it yield half again as much—every year?
Even Beal couldn't swear to that. It was one of his sage sayings that "what happens one year in an experiment may be reversed the next. ... and experiments should be continued ten years or more."
And why should Beal's result have been anything more than a chance? How many different traits of fatherhood were dormant in those yellow grains of the Hathaway Yellow Dent corn? How could he be sure that the very same fathers, which after all were distributed here and there, helter-skelter, among millions of pollen grains—would marry the same mothers who were here and there in hundreds of thousands of silks? Let's be kind to old Beal, tinkering experimenter ahead of his time! He had no notion of the enormous individuality of maize. He just had luck—the right pollen happened to nick with the right silks the first two or three years….
Was the Walton maize pure? The Walton maize was as mixed up as a nation of humans—a mob of ten million individual people. You might take a broad-beamed husk of a Danish girl, marry her to a brown-eyed, heavy-shouldered stevedore from way down south in Italy: the kids from this hybrid marriage might turn out themselves to be heavy yielders—to have ten children apiece….Or again some of the girl-children might be barren, and the men might turn out to sire one or two runty children, no more. So with maize. Good old Beal had made a grope and a stumbling step ahead: he'd wanted to give maize the right sort of fathers—but the fathers from a variety? The grains of pollen from any variety of maize are as numerous as the grains of white, dazzling sand on the shore of Lake Michigan; they're as different as the sperm in the loins of the men of America.
If William James Beal had stuck to just this one kind of experiment he might have sensed this mixed-upness of the heredity of corn, might have turned the trick that George Harrison Shull thought of, thirty years later. Alas, in the years of 'seventy-nine and 'eighty, the yields of his crossbred seed weren't nearly so phenomenally heavy. Other professors, Henry of Wisconsin, Georgeson of Texas, Gulley of Mississippi, men he'd induced in his first enthusiasm to try crossing corn from different parts of their own states, didn't report good results or any results to him. And he himself had a thousand things to do, among others he had to teach history—which he detested. And besides, his random curiosity set him pottering at a hundred experiments: burying seeds in the grounds in bottles "to be taken out of the ground at a remote date to determine whether they would sprout." For years with religious regularity Beal pruned the limbs of apple trees the twenty-fifth day of each month of the year to see which pruning would make them thrive best. He planted the pits of peaches diseased with the yellows. ... He crossed the flowers of yellow and Danvers onions….He toiled at an enormous collection and description of North American grasses—
But to breed pure the blood lines of maize, to untangle those tangled mysterious lines—that was not a job for such a universally curious man. There was a job for a single-minded fanatic, eating, dreaming, sleeping, experimenting, thinking maize alone. So old Beal scratched the surface of this strange business of the vigor of hybrids—and then his find went to sleep, his little fact of the heavy-yielding crossbred corn was lost….But the old gentleman botanized to the last, remained wrapped in the study and worship of nature to the very end of his eighty-some years. To the end he stayed poor, proud, and stern. In his last year, when he couldn't walk any more, he still tottered outside, seated himself on a box, and sawed a definite number of sticks of wood every morning. ... Strange as the mixed-up traits of the maize are the quirks of men. What if Beal had put all that persistent Quaker severity of his into the one job of mapping out the blood lines of maize? ... But then in Beal's heyday in Michigan the folks didn't need record yields—and discoveries have a trick of rising from the needs of men.