Chronica Botanica 9(5/6) 1945/1946
Walter L. Howard, Ph. D.


TO THE Brahmans of science BURBANK was an Untouchable. They almost dreaded his shadow. His literature was taboo; hence few preserved his seed and nursery catalogs. If one valued his reputation among his colleagues, he must not be caught with a BURBANK catalog on his desk or a BURBANK book upon his shelves. Extremists regarded him as a parody — an imitation scientist and his bid for recognition as ridiculous. To be sure there were liberals here and there, but they seldom raised a voice in protest.

BURBANK'S practical attainments were of no avail. They were either disbelieved or ignored. Many, both in and out of scientific circles, did not know what to believe. There were conflicting stories and prejudice was rife. Had not men of orthodox training tried to improve economic plants by breeding — by following the most approved methods of technique and record-keeping — and got precisely nowhere? Then how could one who violated all the rules expect to be successful? For a Brahman to admit such a possibility would be a reflection on his caste.

The chief period of controversy comprised the years 1893 to 1912. Those were also BURBANK'S most productive years; and had he passed out of the picture at the end of that time and a balance been struck, the historian's task of summing up his career would have been simplified. After that there was less to his credit and more to apologize for. While it is true that the adverse opinion of the scientific world was pretty well hardened by 1912, events of the next few years tended to confirm that view, and unfortunately as well as unjustly — a considerable portion of the lay public either was converted to that belief or left hopelessly bemused.

A potent reason why he was beyond the pale of institutional scientists was the fact that he engaged in the nursery business. That this situation was forced upon him was beside the point. Pursuing the methods of the nurseryman and observing the ethics of the plant salesman of his time, he marketed things of doubtful value. All of this was violently contrary to the ideals of the scientific profession and made him an object of mistrust. Rival nurserymen helped to plant seeds of suspicion against him. Did he really produce by breeding the new plum trees he was selling, or did he bring them all direct from Japan? Was the Shasta daisy truly a product of breeding or an importation from somewhere? Did he breed a race of cactus devoid of spines or did he only bring in the different thornless types intact, from Mexico or Africa? And finally, was there any merit to his claim that he had successfully produced a new species, as claimed, by hybridizing the western dewberry (Rubus ursinus) with the Siberian raspberry (Rubus crataegifolius)?

If science stands for anything it is truth and accuracy in deed and statement. Students have been taught that a legitimate scientist does not ask the world to accept his unsupported word for statements he may make in announcing the discovery of a new truth or an improvement on an old one: he submits the evidence on which his conclusions are based. This is the picture of a conventional scientist, such as is fostered by educational and research institutions of all civilized states.

But science is a tool that is used for many purposes — for war, peace, industry; for the cure of the sick and alleviation of pain; to prevent accidents and unnecessary hazards; to improve government; for the detection of crime; for the promotion of human happiness. Its uses and objectives are legion. We come into the world under its ministering hand, and go out again in spite of all our accumulated knowledge, because in many directions science still stands baffled by the laws of Nature.

One universal use of science is for the promotion of commerce and industry — for personal gain, if you will — and these in all their ramifications make government itself possible, for, of course, this benevolent parasite on the body politic must be supported. Manufacturing and processing may be, and usually are, highly technical, and these various technologies are based on one or more of the sciences.

A knowledge of science or the technological use of it is not necessarily acquired in the laboratory of an educational institution although that is the usual way. There is such a thing as the scientific temperament. Some are born with it, some are not. I do not mean to assert that scientists are born, not made. But I do mean that an individual with a small talent of this character may, by cultivating it assiduously, in lecture room and laboratory, become a fairly proficient technician; while another with a pronounced talent but with only meagre cultural opportunities may, by following his bent his own way, succeed in accomplishing something worth while, without formal training.

Almost without exception the authoritative scientists of the world have had talent as well as opportunities for cultivating it. The institutions of the country are manned from this group. Here and there in history we learn of individuals who, though handicapped by lack of formal training, have nevertheless risen above their environment and become famous for their accomplishments. But their task was made doubly hard because those with formal training are extremely skeptical of the accomplishments of individuals who are not formally trained and at best are liable to accord them only grudging recognition.

GEORGE STEPHENSON the elder was ridiculed by the educated engineers of his day when he was building a locomotive designed to draw a train of cars. Why? Because it was known that he never learned to read and write until he was past seventeen and that what little elementary education he had was obtained by attending a night school. ROBERT FULTON had much the same experience when he was about to navigate the Hudson by steam power. MENDEL, the monk, was ignored by the botanists of his day when he published his epoch-making paper on the laws of inheritance of characters in the garden pea. Educated, yes, but nothing serious in the realm of science could be expected from the clergy! CYRUS W. FIELD, builder of the Atlantic cable, was thought to be a featherbrain. EDISON and MARCONI had to fight for recognition because as scientists they were not to the manner born. CHARLES DARWIN, educated for the Church, was something of an exception. He no doubt would have been ignored by scientists on account of the character of his education but he simply overwhelmed them with the mass of evidence that he submitted in proof of his convictions regarding the origin of species and related matters. But perhaps the most humiliating experience of all was reserved for the WRIGHT Brothers when it became known that they seriously thought they could build a machine that would enable men to fly. What could be expected of two young men who had barely completed high school? And SAM LANGLEY, an educated man, who had faith in their ideas, was ridiculed to his death.

BURBANK had the research temperament. In fact he was a "natural." But to the conventional scientists of his time — especially botanists; later, plant breeders; and still later, geneticists — he was an Untouchable. Others took their cue from workers in the biological sciences, for presumably they knew BURBANK best; and because caste is strong, the word has been passed down the line to this day. While BURBANK was alive they rarely went near him, never tried to ascertain the facts, and many of them would have been embarrassed to be caught reading anything he had written or any of the books that were written about him. I have contacted scores of scientists, young and old, and find, almost without exception, that they speak kindly of him as a man, but those under forty or fifty are apt to say they have "understood" that, scientifically speaking, he was not to be taken seriously.

From the older biological scientists, especially those in Colleges of Agriculture where men must be realists and in Federal departments having to do with plant culture and improvement, we hear a very different story. With only a small dissenting minority these groups show a willingness to commend BURBANK'S virtues and forget his faults. They point out that he accomplished much direct good in the world by his contributions and even more, indirectly, by the stimulus he gave to plant breeding.

Without trial and without seriously trying to determine all of the facts, BURBANK was condemned by institutional scientists on at least six counts: he was untrained in science; he was a nurseryman — sold trees, seeds, etc.; he permitted people to make exaggerated claims for his prowess — even linking him with the supernatural; he was lacking in humility — fought back when criticized; he knocked at their door — or allowed his admirers to do so — when he should have waited for an invitation to enter; and finally he did not have the attitude of a scientist — did not conform — and his methods, it was charged, were so unreliable as to vitiate or invalidate his conclusions.