The New York Times. September 29, 1912
Prof. De Vries of Amsterdam University, “the Darwin of Botany,” Now Visiting This Country,
Gives the Solution of America’s Biggest Agricultural Problem.

In the rear of one of the workshops of the botanical department of Amsterdam in Holland there is a little garden much overgrown and fenced in with a wire screen. In this garden, if the visitor arrives at the right time, he sees bent over a cluster of uninteresting looking plants or perhaps digging the earth with a spade a gaunt, middle-aged man with piercing gray eyes. He is Hugo de Vries, known by fellow-experts as the world’s greatest living botanist, hailed by them as the “modern Darwin,” and the man whose work may be the means of furnishing the world in generations to come with its daily bread.

Dr. de Vries arrived in this country a few days ago, delivered lectures at the Brooklyn Institute and the New York, Botanical Garden, was the chief guest at a dinner given by a group of scientists, and hurried on to Philadelphia and Washington. The special occasion which brings him to America is the opening of the great Industrial Institute in Texas founded by Mr. Rice of this city, the aged rich man who was murdered at his home here a few years ago. He will also visit the place in Alabama where the original evening primrose, with which he has performed so many of his experiments, is said to grow. Later he will join an exploring expedition to be sent out by the New York Botanical Garden, and will make a trip into the wilds of the Everglades of Florida.

When the series of Luther Burbank's remarkable experiments began to become famous, it became known that it was not the California wizard's hybrid flowers and fruits which gave the measure of the value of his experiments, but that a breed of potato which he had evolved years before on his father's farm in Lancaster, Mass., and which he sold to a dealer for $125, had been annually adding $17,000,000 to the wealth of the country. It is at the very root of this problem of increased production that de Vries is working.

The old belief was that the various species of animals and plants had been created separately, and that they remained forever unchangeable. Darwin showed that various species had not come up through the ages unchanged, but that they had undergone a process of development, largely by means of what he styled " natural selection," and which Herbert Spencer later termed "the survival of the fittest." The origin of the fittest" Darwin did not attempt to solve.

De Vries is solving that problem. He is proving that new species come into being by leaps and bounds—in a single day, as it were. He has raised hundreds of species in his little garden In Amsterdam and actually beheld new species spring from them the like or which had never been imagined. He took what is known in Alabama as the evening primrose, and under his eye the plant gave birth to more than a dozen novel forms, at least nine or which have ever since remained constant and true to their various types.

De Vries took grains and fruits, bred them in large numbers, and found that they gave oft the same remarkable forms. These sudden jumps upward from the parent type he named "mutants." in a field of corn, all of the same species, be would find perhaps one plant with heavy stalks, exceptionally full ears and differently shaped leaves, and by isolating this seed he bred a superior kind of plant. So far as has been determined there is no end to the possibilities of this kind of development.

The agricultural colleges have continually experimented upon the problem, of breeding of food products, and find that only by continual selection of the finer grades is the endless battle against mediocrity won, for all these breeds, more or less mixed, tend to degenerate. The state of perfection to which any breed could be brought and held has always been problematical on account of this reversion to the lower type. The discoveries of de Vries, however, have opened up endless possibilities for the increase of the productivity of any given area of land, for by the careful selection of the "mutants" or offshoots of regular varieties a new species springs into being of a pure type, never degenerating, and perhaps of double or triple the yield of the parent plant.

Burbank tries to develop the biggest plums and the biggest potatos, but de Vries is trying to discover the laws which govern such vagaries of nature. He talked at length of his work to a SUNDAY TIMES reporter and said:

The Rimpau Seed Farm.

"In Germany the slow method of improving grains Is adhered to and has given admirable results. One of the best‑known instances of which the historical records are complete is the famous rye of Schlanstedt, produced by Rimpau, and which is now largely cultivated all over the central part of Germany and the northern districts of France.

"In the year 1870 I visited Mr. Rimpau on his farm at Schlanstedt and studied his cultures. The best of his new rye was standing on a small parcel out in the fields, but surrounded by patches of vegetables and other plants not belonging to the cereals. These minor cultures occupied a large square, which in its turn was surrounded by a complete range of shrubs. Thus the rye, standing in the midst of the square, was sufficiently removed from the neighboring fields to insure it against possible contamination by pollen of other varieties. On the other hand it had the same soil and almost the same cultural treatment as the average cuItures.

"This race had been started by Rimpau nine years before, in the year 1867. At the time of the harvest of that year, he inspected, as he told me, a large number of his rye fields, and selected all the ears which seemed to him to noticeably surpass the others. He brought home a handful of them, repeated the trial, and mixed their seeds. This mixed condition in the beginning of his race now becomes the weak point where the whole principle of his method is open to criticism, as I shall soon show.

"The seeds were sown next year, and in the harvest the same selection of the best ears was repeated. Care was taken to exclude all those which, because of some external condition, would have been benefited by more space or more fertilizer than the rest, and would have grown larger by such accidental means. No care, however, was taken to isolate the individuals and to sow their, seeds separately, the principle being that the plants belonged to one race and that this race had been improved. This principle of improving a race without isolating its possible constituents seemed at that period to be the right one, though now it scarcely can be considered as scientifically correct.

"Each year, in the same way, the best ears were chosen for the continuance of the elite strain, and after the exclusion of all ears of minor value the remainder were sown in a field and multiplied without further selection in order to produce all the seed required for the sowing of the whole farm. It took three or four years to reach this quantity. After twenty years of continued selection the elite strain was so much improved as to produce a race distinctly richer than the ordinary varieties of rye in Middle Germany, and slowly and gradually it found its way, first into the surrounding farms, and afterward over large parts of the country.

"During all this period Rimpau was enabled thereby to sell all his harvest as seed grain, attaining in this way a most satisfactory recompense for his labors. Shortly afterward the rye of Schlanstedt was introduced into France, where it soon overthrew the local varieties, especially in the departments north of Paris. Even there it is now cultivated from original seed produced directly by Rimpau or multiplied only during some generations by seed merchants.

"Now, while Prof. Schribeaux of the Institut Agronomique of Paris, in commenting upon Rimpau's achievement, takes this race of rye to be substantially constant, he explains that, in order to keep the Schlanstedt variety up to its original qualities, care must be taken to sow the seeds in a field which is as far removed as possible from all other cultures of rye. Moreover, the field should be large and protected all around by a hedge of trees and shrubs, for without this precaution the Schlanstedt would soon degenerate through accidental crosses with the local variety.

 "There is little doubt, however, that in Rimpau's original field there were several species which he did not notice, and also that among the ears which he selected there were a considerable number of these types, since he selected only those which caught his eye by some striking and useful difference from the main type. His yearly selection gradually reduced this number until he had isolated and purified the very best among them.

"Willet M. Hays has improved the wheat of Minnesota in this country by breeding from the local Fife and Blue Stem races which have been largely supplanted by the old types. 'In each of a thousand plants of wheat,' he told me, 'were a few phenomenal yielders, and the method of single‑seed planting made it practicable to secure these exceptional plants and make new varieties from them,' We know, however, that if such plants had been isolated and they were of one elementary species the breeding would have led back to mediocrity and not to constancy, nor to an exact keeping up of the extreme type. Therefore we conclude that Mr. Hays's phenomenal yielders were, in reality, representatives of distinct elementary species which had been hidden until his time. In his work in Minnesota, however, what with his sowing the seeds of individual selected plants separately, Hays gained a distinct advantage over the slow process of Rimpau and other German breeders. The American, by one single choice, isolated the best strains and observed them to be consistent and pure. The German breeder, on the other hand, by selecting a large number of ears must have gotten an impure race, and needed a long succession of years and a constantly repeated selection to attain in the end the same result. He did not have our present knowledge of the theory of variability.

"In Europe the smaller, cereals constitute the prevailing crops, but in this country, as the saying goes, 'Corn is King.'

"Yearly more than 2,500,000,000 bushels of, Indian corn, of a value of $1,000,000,000, are produced in this country, constituting about eighty per cent. of the world's total crop. Of this, more than 1,500,000,000 bushels are fed to cattle and other meat‑producing animals, the remainder being exported and partly used for industrial purposes. The total number of beef cattle in the United States was officially estimated in 1904 at 43,500,000, with a total value of $660.000,000.

"More than a hundred different commercial products and fifty kinds of food are derived from corn and its various constituents, the glucose factories alone ''consuming over 50,000,000 bushels of corn. There can be no doubt that corn is the most valuable crop in this great country of yours. Cotton, of course, bears the palm as a money crop, but corn is the main supply of food, directly as well as under the form of meat. No single cereal is of the same high importance, and the agriculture of the principal States of the Middle West is almost wholly dependent upon raising corn.

Corn Land All Taken Up.

“In the corn States the production of corn has since some years ago reached the highest degree of development so far as its acreage is concerned. Almost all the land suited for corn growing has been given to this crop. Locally, some increase of this area may still be possible, but it is of no real importance for the total amount of the crop.

"Hence it follows that an increase of the harvest can be attained only by an augmentation of the yield per acre, and since the demand for corn is incessantly increasing, and the prices are becoming correspondingly higher, the question how to increase this yield had become most urgent. The land values are constantly rising, and, while handsome profits are possible, better methods must be employed to secure them.

"The use of fertilizers, more careful processes of preparing the land and handling the seeds and plants, and a proper choice of the seed‑grain are the acknowledged means by which to attain this end.

“Now, no crop is more responsive to careful selection of the seed than corn. According to the condition of the land, the treatment of the field may be of first importance, but good seed must always add to the yield, and the more so the better the condition of the soil and the care given to its culture. Some farmers are producing 60 to 70 bushels an acre every year, while their neighbors are contented with an average harvest of 30 to 35 bushels. In favorable cases the product might easily be increased to a hundred bushels an acre, and even more.

"As a rule, however, the corn yield per acre, is gradually decreasing—at least, in some of the of the leading States. In Ohio the period of 1890 to 1899 showed a falling off of three and one‑third bushels as compared with the previous ten‑years' period. But in Indiana, where the interest In corn selection grew rapidly, the average yield an acre increased during the same time by 12.8 per cent., and in Illinois, where the principle of individual ear selection is followed, the yield per acre of corn has increased to 22 per cent. more than in the ten years preceding the introduction of this method.

"Recent discoveries at the Agricultural Experiment Station of Sweden will, no doubt, some day exercise a notable influence on your American processes of corn breeding. In some points they are in full agreement with these processes; but since they are founded on more elaborate scientific methods they may facilitate the understanding of the processes now in use.

Methods of Selection.

"In selection, uniformity is one of the main purposes; but the shape and color of the ears, their butt and tip ends, the number and direction of the rows, the width and the depth of the furrows between the rows, and many other points have to be considered. Now, science has determined that all the kernals of a selected ear have the same qualities. Also, direct experiments have shown that neither the yield nor the quality of the grain is essentially affected by choosing the seed grains from the butt end, the middle, or the top of the ear.

"In an experiment station we sow the kernels of selected corn in single rows, each ear to a row, and by this method arrive at the individuality of these rows. A whole row, grown from the kernels of a single ear, may produce numerous barren stalks, or weak plants, or small ears with imperfect yield, or be excellent in strength productivity and uniform in other peculiar characteristics. This is the basic main principle of corn selection. Each variety of corn is made up of many elementary forms, each of which is uniform and constant.

"Now, as soon as one of these elementary forms is sufficiently isolated and multiplied a uniform and constant race will be obtained. Climate and conditions work small changes. The main thing for the farmer, or even the scientist, is to be able to recognize these elementary strains and to compare their progeny with the main strain.

"The history of the breeding of corn is a very short one and dates from the discovery of the principle of single‑ear selection a few years ago. Some crude attempts at selection as, for instance, the separation of kernels of different color, have been almost universal. Besides these, the comparative testing of different commercial varieties has long been the acknowledged means of securing the types which best responded to each local demand. Much improvement has been obtained in this way, but in the long run it has not been adequate to comply with the increasing necessity of keeping up with the exigencies of consumption and industry. It is only since the discovery of the prominence of breeding from single ears that a start has been made that seems destined to change the whole aspect of agriculture in the corn breeding States.

"Only he who is ignorant of Burbank's work would scoff at the practical value of horticultural scientific research. His potatoes, his cacti, plums, and other produce have already enriched the country to the extent of many millions of dollars. A large percentage of those who order rhubarb in New York's cafés get Burbank's product. He invented a plum which, in its first sales in Chicago, broke the record for plum prices in the United States. This is but to a suggestion of the great work before the scientist and the breeder.

"Since the time of Darwin, the methods and achievements of the breeders have played a large part among the arguments for the support of the doctrine of evolution. In a broad sense they give us an insight into the processes by which new forms are originated, and since the general laws of variability must be the same for the cultivated condition as for the phenomena of nature at large, there can be no doubt about the general validity of the argument. The experience of the breeders is that new forms arise from time to time from the existing ones. It gives a general idea concerning the affinity of the parent types to their offspring, showing the similarity to be large and the produced differences correspondingly small. On the other hand, it shows that by the accumulation of small differences wider divergences may be obtained. This evidence led Darwin to one of the main propositions of his theory of evolution, namely that the larger groups in the vegetable kingdom have originated in the same way in which the smaller types are still seen to come into existence. This proposition can be proved, and in fact has been proved independently of the questions concerning the details of that origin.

"This broad principle of evolution by means of natural laws having been established, the question naturally arose how far the breeders' experience could be considered as a reliable guide in evolutionary problems.

"On this point, however, many difficulties have arisen, all owing to the simple fact that practical breeding and scientific experimenting are things of altogether different purpose and method. Of late It has been contended that the discussion of the scientific side of the question should abstain from the use of the breeders' results. There can be no doubt that this will prove the right way, since only then will it be possible to submit all arguments to the most severe criticism.

"At present, however, the purely scientific investigations concerning variability and inheritance are only in their beginning. Some fields have been more or less thoroughly explored, and definite laws have been discovered. But the more complicated cases are as yet hardly accessible to our analysis, and the breeders' experience often covers so long a series of years that the science of evolution is still quite inadequate to be compared with it. Moreover, the practical results contain many indications and hints for the starting of investigations, and so many details which otherwise could easily be overlooked, that they are still contributing a most valuable support to evolutionary science.

"Among the breeders the most simple method of producing new varieties is by sowing on a large scale, and then choosing the best individuals. The chosen samples then become the origin of a new variety, which will remain constant as long as it is propagated only in the vegetative way. Hybridization, however, is not always a means of increasing the variability which gives to the breeder his best varieties. In some instances hybrids are as constant and as uniform as their parent species, even when propagated from seed. In such cases the breeder has to be content if his hybrid proves to excel its parent species in some industrial quality, but without renewed crosses his work is limited to its production and propagation.

"In commenting upon the work done at the Svalof station I might emphasize the great principle of the combination of the scientific and the practical sides of the question. Selection on the ground of practically valuable qualities only has been the rule until very recently. Of course it was a good and reliable method, but it was extremely limited in its application; on the other hand, the whole history of the breeding process in Germany consists of isolated cases.

"'By the Svalof principle the breeder is enabled to single out hundreds of valuable strains and to select among them the very best. The search in the field is made on the basis of marks, which can he recognized instantly by the experienced eye upon a simple inspection of the stems and their branching and of the shape and size of the leaves. Thus these distinctions take the place of agricultural tests, which embrace measurements and estimates that can hardly be made for single individuals and never can be applied to so large numbers of specimens as can be compared by purely scientific marks. A broad scientific foundation is thus seen to be the means of abridging the practical work, and this to such a degree that the selection may be extended to all the requirements of practice at large.

"The laboratory farmer has all sorts of devices in this new work of which the farmer, who some day will be the gainer from them, little suspects. The man in the laboratory has all kinds of instruments for measurement and comparison, and employs many collections of samples and photographs of selected plants. In the list of apparatus are what are called 'classificators.' These are small collections of say 15 to 40 ears of corn arranged according to a definite character. For each quality a special classificator is required; for instance, for the size and shape and density of the ears. In order to classify an ear it is shoved along the row until it falls between two ears of the classificator, one beyond and the other behind it. The intervals between every two succeeding ears of the apparatus being marked with figures. The figure on which the ear falls is the indicator of its degree of the character in question.

"The transparency of a grain of barley is measured by means of screens with holes. These are exactly filled by one grain each, and the 'standard' kernels are arranged according to the degree of their diaphaneity. The grains to be tested are put into similar holes of a little separate screen, which can be shoved along the classificator until their transparency coincides with that of one of the standard types.

"The degree of mealiness is tested by a smaller pincer, which measures the pressure required to squeeze a kernel into pieces. Other instruments are so constructed that they collect from the ear all the lowest grains, all those of the second rank, and so on in order to determine the average weight of each group separately.

"The seat of the heaviest kernels is one of the important marks in the testing of varieties of cereals. Many other instruments have been devised in order to make the estimates as independent of personal impressions as possible and thus to make them thoroughly reliable even if they have been made in different years or in different localities."