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A RUM AFFAIR How Botany's "Piltdown Man" was Unmasked

Karl Sabbagh

The Penguin Press, Bath Road, Harmondsworth, Middlesex UB7 0DA, UK, 1999, hard cover, 224 pages, 16.99 Sterling, ISBN 0 713 994788. Available from Amazon.co.uk

Reviewed for naturalSCIENCE by

Edward Teague

Software Systems, Ltd., Rochdale, England


Karl Sabbagh was inspired to write A RUM AFFAIR: How Botany's "Piltdown Man" was Unmasked by an obituary of John Raven, a don and classicist, and gifted amateur botanist. Raven and his equally distinguished father, Canon Raven, shared the goal of painting every single species of the British flora. What intrigued Sabbagh was an allusion in the obituary to John Raven's part in characterizing the plant life of the Hebridean Isle of Rum, off Scotland's west coast.

The author was able to meet John Raven's widow and discovered her late husband's role in raising suspicions about discoveries claimed by the distinguished botanist Professor John Heslop-Harrison. During the 1940s, Heslop-Harrison was responsible for cataloguing plants from the Isle of Rum that were supposedly new to the British flora. The island, now owned by the National Trust and operated as a nature reserve, was owned during the 1930s by the rich cotton magnate, George Bullough. Bullough died in 1939, but his widow, Lady Monica Bullough, an alluring French-born divorcee, lived on until 1967 in the palatial Kinloch Castle that Bullough had built for himself.

Sabbagh, unfortunately, has a very limited knowledge of botany and current plant taxonomic thinking. Anyone knowledgeable about field botany in Britain will be aware of the scepticism that attaches to Professor Heslop-Harrison's records describing Arctic species known only from Rum. A letter in Nature from John Raven (January 15, 1949), entitled "Alien Plant Introductions on the Isle of Rhum [sic]," detailed suspicions surrounding these records and, incidentally, repudiates Sabbagh's claim that Raven's evidence was never published. As a member of the Botanical Society of the British Isles in the late 50s, a student of Professor Tutin at Leicester University in the early 60s, and a worker at the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, I was well aware of the story as were my colleagues. Furthermore, any user of the standard Flora of the British Isles by Clapham,Tutin and Warburg (CTW) could, by reading between the lines (1st Edn., 1952), infer the dubiety of some of the records. For example, statements such as that both Carex glacialis and Carex bicolor "ha[ve] been recorded from the Island of Rum, Inner Hebrides," or that Carex capitata "has been reported from South Uist, Outer Hebrides," although literally correct, convey to the initiated the reservation implied when an auction house uses, as a form of code, expressions such as "attributed to," or "signed," etc. to indicate the questionable provenance of a painting. Perhaps not accidentally, CTW omits Carex bicolor from the index.

>Various other records by Heslop-Harrison, such as those of Herniaria ciliolata and Illecebrum verticillatum recorded from South Uist and Barra, were omitted from CTW altogether, presumably because voucher specimens were not available for determination. The Atlas of the British Flora, published in 1962 by the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI), relied on very carefully vetted records from the Hebrides, and the editorial team of Flora Europea, under Professor Tutin at Leicester University, were certainly well aware of the problems associated with plant records made by Heslop-Harrison, the Carex records having been carefully studied by A.O. Chater.

The problem with outright rejection of these questionable records is that Heslop-Harrison was a distinguished academic, a Fellow of the Royal Society, and a fine field botanist. One could not dismiss everything that he had done. Thus, in a gentle scholarly way, the matter was simply glossed over and clearly erroneous records quietly corrected; although, with good reason, many of Heslop-Harrison's records still stand.

For example, Heslop-Harrison discovered a form of Dactylorchis fuchsii on Rum with the labellum and spur resembling D. maculata ssp ericetorium, which Professor Clapham was able to determine had a chromosome number of 2n = 40, whereas, for D. maculata, 2n = 80. Clapham therefore identified it as a new subspecies, ssp rhoumensis, found only on Rum. And this is not the only species endemic to Rum. Pugsley, in 1930, published a monograph on Euphrasia and identified three species endemic to Rum: E. rhumica, E. eurycarpa and the curiously named E. Heslop-Harrisonii.

Questions about Heslop-Harrison's work in Rum signify no great scandal. Scholars were not seriously misled, with the possible exception of Heslop-Harrison himself, for it has been suggested that students accompanying him on field trips to Rum may have had some fun at his expense by secretly importing exotic species to the island. That Heslop-Harrison perpetrated a fraud in order to reinforce the argument that the Quaternary glaciation was incomplete and that "relict species" were left in its wake, as Sabbagh's book purports to show, is hardly credible as there were already sufficient perfectly respectable records of both Iberian and Arctic relicts to support such a theory.

Sabbagh reports that, in addition to questionable records of flowering plants, Heslop-Harrison was responsible for certain dubious records of water beetles and other insects from the Hebrides, some made in the name of his young son, later a renowned botanist and Director of Kew Gardens. These records, however, had apparently little influence on the course of scholarship. The beetle discoveries were approached with suspicion, particularly by staff at the British Museum. Writing of Heslop-Harrison's insect discoveries, Magnus Magnusson, in his Rum: Nature's Island (Scottish National Heritage, 1997), notes that "many of the insects he found were subsequently confirmed from the localities in which he found them, but the problem was that a few spectacular rarities have never been seen on Rum again ... particularly the large blue butterfly, which is now extinct in Britain, and the slender Scotch Burnet Moth. Some of these more unusual records, it is suspected, may have been mischieviously introduced."

To understand the significance of Sabbagh's tale, it is instructive to consider the social circumstances of the participants. Botanizing in the industrial cities took off in the 1840s with the formation of local botanical societies, some of which still exist in Lancashire. After the Second World War, however, the BSBI, and both academia and the museums in Britain were largely a preserve of the wealthy middle classes, as an examination of the membership lists of the BSBI in the 1940s and 1950s will show. John Raven was a fellow of Kings College, Cambridge, where many of the people who feature in Sabbagh's tale were educated, as was Sabbagh himself.

John Heslop-Harrison, however, did not fit easily into this world. He was a working class lad, the son of a miner, who rose to become a professor at the newly created redbrick University of Newcastle, formerly a college of Durham University. He adopted his double barrelled name late in life, and used an incorrect address on his notepaper to suggest he lived on the poshest residential street in Birtley. Thus, to many of his scientific peers, he must have appeared a vain and pretentious individual, and his delight in the company of Lady Monica with her private island to which he had sole access for field studies must surely have been an irritant. As a student said of him, "he was admired by many but loved by few."

Sabbagh mentions the support Heslop-Harrison gave to the theories of Jean Baptiste Lamarck about the inheritance of acquired traits, which enjoyed renewed attention in the 1920s as a result of the activities of Lysenko, who was extravagantly funded by Stalin. Sabbagh thus intimates that Heslop-Harrison was given to ideas from the wilder shores of science.

In fact, many of Lamarck's theories, widely scorned in his lifetime, are viewed in a much more favorable light today. It is generally accepted now that Darwin's mistake was to use the singular in the title of his magnum opus. Today we would expect him to have written The Origins of Species, for we now know that there are several mechanisms of speciation and there is considerable evidence to support belief in a Lamarckian basis for speciation. In the 1950s, Professor Blower at Manchester University published a considerable amount of work on the subject.

Finally, what were the motives of Heslop-Harrison's critics? It appears that there was some vindictiveness in John Raven's wish to raise questions about Heslop-Harrison's records, fuelled perhaps by other botanists with their own axes to grind. Some of this animosity may have derived from a sense of superiority entertained by the Cambridge men who saw themselves as belonging to an elite, whereas they saw John Heslop-Harrison as an academic arriviste who needed to be taken down a peg or two.

Deliberate falsification of field records, for reasons of vanity or as acts of mischief, is known in every area that naturalists work in. What demons might have encouraged John Heslop-Harrison, an outstanding academic and Fellow of the Royal Society, to produce false records is difficult to guess, and impossible to know.

Books uncovering alleged scandals are a regular source of income to authors and publishers alike. However, to equate the possible falsification of records of plants and insects from the Island of Rum, a minor footnote in the annals of natural history, with the "Piltdown Affair," an elaborate and, for many years, effective fraud involving several people, is risible. No doubt, though, it provides good publicity for the book.

Other Comment on this Book

(1) Adolf Ceska. 2001. Botanical fraud or feud? - Karl Sabbagh's Rum Affair. Botanical Electronic News, No. 268

Edward Teague, a former botanical person, is the founder of Software Systems, Ltd., a company specializing in the automation of textile and other manufacturing plants. He can be reached by e-mail at edward@sofsys.u-net.com.

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