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A 'Rhum' Affair

An abandoned crofter’s cottage on the Island of Rum

I was mulling over a paper on the temperature record at Darwin in the Northern Territory of Australia the other day. The paper presented data that diverged significantly from the ‘official’ view that Darwin’s temperature has skyrocketed in recent years, as a result of global warming. On the contrary, when the raw data from the records of the Bureau of Meteorology are consulted, they show no upward or downwards trend over the last century. This is perplexing to say the least, and I could not help but sniff the wind and wonder where the smoke was coming from.

However, I am no climatologist so I will have to wait for an independent analysis of the Darwin situation before reaching a conclusion. Nevertheless, the issue triggered an intriguing memory. I went to my bookcase and ran my eye along the titles. There it was: a slim paperback I had bought in Elizabeth’s Secondhand Bookshop in Fremantle several years ago: A Rum Affair. A true story of botanical fraud by Karl Sabbagh (1990, De Capo Press). I sat down and re-read it, finding to my pleasure that I could easily recapture the fascination of the first reading. Almost an entire Sunday slipped past.

The story centres on John Heslop Harrison, an eminent British botanist and academic in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Heslop Harrison was Professor of Botany at the University of Newcastle-on-Tyne, a Fellow of the Royal Society and an expert on the natural history of the Hebrides, including the island of Rum (the spelling of the name was changed to Rhum in Victorian times, for the sake of propriety, but is today more usually spelled Rum, which I prefer).

The Inner Hebrides, with the island of Rum

Heslop Harrison had a theory about the the string of islands lying off the west coast of Scotland, known as the Hebrides. He believed that they had escaped the last Ice Age. This was despite the understanding in wider scientific circles that glaciation had covered the entire British Isles, Europe and North America at that time. His theory could be proven, Heslop Harrison maintained, by the discovery of plant species growing on Hebridean islands that were nowhere to be found elsewhere in Britain, species representative of the pre-Ice Age flora. Heslop Harrison found several such species on Rum, including a sensational discovery of a rare sedge Carex bicolor, which he duly announced in a paper in the prestigious Journal of Botany, and a reed (Juncus capitatus) previously known only from the Channel Islands south of England.

The sedge Carex bicolor -photograph from Wikipedea

Many contemporary scientists were sceptical of Heslop Harrison’s theory, and suspicions grew about the validity of his ever-lengthening list of rare plant discoveries. Suspicion deepened when attempts to find the plants by other botanists were unsuccessful, and when it was pointed out that the rare species found by Heslop Harrison on Rum were growing on very different soils and in quite different topographical situations to those where they naturally occurred.

Heslop Harrison also ‘discovered’ a species of water beetle (Noterus slavicornis) in a Hebridean loch which had never been found in the British Isles before, and never was again. And he discovered a rare butterfly, also never again collected in the area, to the puzzlement of British entomologists. This led to further rumours and whispers within scientific circles.

Eventually, just after the end of World War II, a searching investigation was undertaken, focusing on about a dozen of Heslop Harrison’s “suspect” reeds and sedges. The investigator was John Raven, a Cambridge classics don, skilful amateur botanist and son of a noted British botanist. As Sabbagh points out, Raven’s methods were not entirely honorable. For example he tricked Heslop Harrison into allowing him to join one of Heslop Harrison’s field excursions on Rum.

Cambridge scholar and botanist John Raven

Honorable or not, Raven’s investigations were meticulous and his analytical and forensic skills were impeccable. He concluded that the rare species found by Heslop Harrison did not occur naturally on Rum. On the contrary, he considered that they had been raised by Heslop Harrison in his garden shed at Birtley, and then planted by Heslop Harrison on Rum, where they were dramatically discovered by Heslop Harrison (working alone) shortly afterwards. To this day no other botanist has ever been able to duplicate any of Heslop Harrison’s key finds.

It is significant that none of Heslop Harrison’s original collections were properly labelled, curated and archived, so they cannot be studied in herbaria today. Professional botanists find this inexplicable. Heslop Harrison was a professional botanist. Yet he failed to observe one of the most fundamental protocols of botany: accurate recording and archiving of the information surrounding a specimen and its collection. It is part of the tradition of botanical science that every plant specimen included in a herbarium has a label that gives, as a minimum, the name of the collector, the date of collection and precise information on the location where the collection was made.

Notwithstanding, Heslop Harrison had supporters in the botanical and scientific establishment. The allegations of fraud against him were well-known and oft-discussed within academic and botanical communities. Curiously, they never became public. The issue was not a cause celebre in the media, as perhaps might have happened today. Nor was Raven’s report ever published. It was simply ‘tabled’ at Trinity College at Cambridge, where it languished in the archives for nearly half a century, before re-discovery by Karl Sabbagh (who was also a Fellow of Trinity College). The whole saga only came to light after the publication of Sabbagh’s book and a number of newspaper articles derived from it. The book drew unfavourable comment from Heslop Harrison’s supporters, still influential in botanical circles as late as the 1990s, but subsequent disclosures from the British Natural History Museum have strongly supported both Raven’s and Sabbagh’s conclusions. Heslop Harrison died in 1967, a lonely and angry man, maintaining his innocence to the end.

I found Raven’s investigations and conclusions, and Sabbagh’s book entirely convincing; I am in no doubt that fraud occurred. The most recent edition of the authoritative Sedges of the British Isles (quoted by Sabbagh) would seem to sum it up. After listing Carex glacialis, C.bicolor and C. capitata, all discovered by Heslop Harrison in the Hebrides, under the heading of ‘Dubious Records’, the book goes on to say:

“The first two were recorded for Rhum ... and the last mentioned species for [South] Uist in the outer Hebrides ... as a single tuft. All have since disappeared from these localities and we consider them to have been planted”.

Sabbagh’s story has a number of intriguing themes, some of which find echoes in modern scientific controversies. First there is the botanical detective work by John Raven that led to the discovery of the fraud. Then there are suggestions of collusion within the British academic-scientific establishment to ensure the issue was not publicised and would quietly die away, something that would never be possible today. Underlying all this is the interplay between passionate men and women of science, Heslop Harrison’s supporters and his critics, and the behind-the-scenes influence of the great university colleges at Cambridge and Oxford.

Not the least of many interesting aspects of the story is the island of Rum itself. It is one of the largest islands of the Inner Hebrides, that windswept archipelago scattered along the west coast of Scotland. Today it is a nature reserve and basically uninhabited, but in the 18th century it had a population of several hundred crofters and fishermen, each with their small leasehold lands or cottages, all owned by the Laird. In the early 1800s, the island was purchased from the Laird by a wealthy Lancashire industrialist who foreclosed on the crofters and fishermen and ejected them from the island. His son inherited the island, built a castle on it, and then largely kept the place to himself and his family.

The castle on Rum

Heslop Harrison was one of a tiny number of people made welcome on the island. More than that, he came to treat Rum as his own private natural history museum.

John Heslop Harrison was a larger-than-life character, described by colleagues as forceful and opinionated. He attracted both friends and enemies, equally fierce. He was utterly intolerant of criticism, and fell out badly with colleagues whom he thought should have been backing him rather than siding with the opposition.

Professor John Heslop Harrison

And he was not just a prominent botanist and field naturalist. He was also an outspoken supporter and promoter of Lamarckism (the idea that acquired characteristics could be inherited, as opposed to the Darwinian theory that evolution is a matter of chance mutation and survival of the fittest). He even carried out and published a research project which demonstrated, to the great satisfaction of the Lamarckists, that white moths which became covered with soot and ingested aerial pollution in England’s industrial north, produced dark-winged offspring as a result. This research has since been roundly rejected on the grounds of poor methodology and lack of statistical control, but it needs to be remembered that Lamarckism was popular amongst scientists of the day (and still has its modern promoters), this being before the genetic mechanisms underpinning Darwin’s theory were known. However, given what we now know about his botanical research, it is hard to escape the thought that Heslop Harrison manipulated his moth research to get the results he wanted.

The aspect of the story I find most puzzling is to find any satisfactory motivation for Heslop Harrison to attempt such blatant fraud. Apart from anything else, botany is a discipline in which such an attempt would be impossible to sustain, given the long traditions of specimen collection, archiving, data-basing, repeat survey and ecological and taxonomic research. As Sabbagh points out, and statements from many of Heslop Harrison’s contemporaries confirm, Heslop Harrison was powerfully wedded to theories and concepts, including Lamarckism and the survival of pre-Ice Age flora on the Hebrides. Perhaps he painted himself into a corner over this last issue, and the more scientifically isolated he became on it, the greater was his need to ensure something concrete was discovered for confirmation. Perhaps also, there is no need to look further than to the flaws and human frailties to which all flesh is heir.

Looking back, the suggestion that the scientific and academic establishment were happy to sweep Heslop Harrison under the carpet, as it were, and let the accusations of fraud fade quietly away, is also disturbing. There is an old saying “the truth will out”. Every scientist and academic must know and respect this.

Towards the end of his book, Sabbagh digresses and discusses other notable examples of scientific fraud during the 19th and 20th centuries. They filled me with unease.

Eventually my thoughts turned back to the puzzle of the two sets of divergent temperature records for Darwin, and to questions of scientific integrity and to the trust we put in our scientists and the scientific process. It will be intriguing to see where the saga of the Darwin temperature record ends. Not, one hopes (for the sake of the Bureau of Meteorology), in a book by Karl Sabbagh.

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