The United States has often historically embraced the power and importance of “innovation,” valuing newness regardless of genuine social benefits or costs. If something is new, this thinking generally goes, it is improved. Helen Anne Curry's study of plant breeding puts this idea of novelty and its intrinsic, self-evident value at the center of her analysis. She considers the strange, lively history of technological systems of plant breeding that were oriented around producing novelty. People in the twentieth century who tried to change plants and their heredity used a range of different organisms and technologies and had varying investments, intentions, purposes, and goals. But as her story makes clear, they shared a sometimes-murky enthusiasm for the uncharted potential of new plants—to be beautiful, huge, patriotic, and profitable. Providing compelling perspectives on consumerism, marketing, and the everyday roles of technology and science in the United States in the twentieth century, her study tracks efforts to produce mutations in plants. The seed merchant David Burpee's Glowing Gold and Orange Fluffy calendulas, a type of garden flower, were sold as the “X-Ray Twins” (p. 59). Doubled chromosomes, produced by the powerful chemical colchicine, promised to make everything bigger and better, including tobacco, tomatoes, dogs, cats, and maybe even people. Gamma ray fields at Brookhaven National Laboratory were built to modify corn, but they also animated public enthusiasm for atomic energy. Home gardeners were persuaded to join the fun by buying irradiated seeds and experimenting in their own yards. The first “atomic garden” was presented at the 1961 Cleveland Home and Flower Show, manifesting ideas about science and citizenship in the Cold War. As a study of the marketing of scientific promise, this book is filled with rich details and wonderful illustrations of the exuberance. Curry also illuminates the history of the biological sciences in the United States more generally. The interest in X-ray technologies in the 1920s and 1930s coincided with broader scientific and technological transformations in agricultural practice. The scientific work with colchicine after 1937 intersected with rapidly changing roles of private industry in laboratory and military sciences. And the postwar-era atomic energy work on plant mutation was just one part of the vast enterprise of radiation genetics, increasingly recognized by historians as central to the development of postwar biology. Her scientists and amateurs—she considers both—were in U.S. Department of Agriculture experiment stations, national laboratories, state universities, seed companies, garden centers, and flower clubs. Although Curry tracks technical practices and theories, this is not a narrow study of a few highly trained elites. She is interested in what changes in plants meant to all of those who longed for them. None of those seeking to control what they sometimes called plant “evolution” succeeded. Their stories are best understood not as revealing the wonders and promise of scientific innovation but as making visible the institutional and technological structures where innovation was valorized. Curry provides a novel perspective on well-recognized, broad historical arcs. Her story of knowledge and desire provides a way of seeing the twentieth century through its dreams about plants. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Journal of American History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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