Digging up planted evidence

A Rum Affair
October 29, 1999

When I was an undergraduate I joined a Botanical Society of the British islands excursion to the Isle of Skye. I well remember evening discussions in our hotel about all the spurious botanical records from the Hebrides attributed to J. W. Heslop Harrison of Newcastle University. Debate at that time focused on whether the professor had deliberately planted unusual plants in Rum and other islands or whether his students went ahead of him and hoaxed him. The evidence presented in this fascinating book, which reads like a detective story, is that Heslop Harrison himself was the conman. An investigation of his activities was carried out by Cambridge classics scholar and amateur botanist, John Raven. He wrote a detailed report that was deposited in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, which funded Raven's trip to Rum, but its contents were not disclosed at the time. The report is the basis for A Rum Affair, which finally sets the record straight about the activities of someone always regarded as a most distinguished professor of botany.

The reason for the fraud seems to have been Heslop Harrison's desire to prove his theory that some parts of the West Highlands of Scotland had escaped glaciation, and that some plants and animals survived there from before the last ice age. Since his data were not satisfactory, the professor apparently introduced plants and recorded the presence of butterflies to prove his point. The island of Rum was the ideal place to perpetrate such a deception, because it was privately owned by Lady Bullough, the owner of Kinloch Castle. It was necessary to obtain her permission to visit the island and Heslop Harrison's contact with her seemed to ensure that access was limited to those people of whom he approved. The only way that Raven managed to get to Rum was with the help of Heslop Harrison, whom he deceived into thinking that he, as a fellow botanist, was interested in seeing some of the rare plants. The trouble was that Raven found some common garden weeds growing around the base of one of the plants that Heslop Harrison claimed to have discovered on Rum. This formed part of the evidence that Raven presented to document fraud.

After Karl Sabbagh has presented his evidence for the fraudulent actions of Heslop Harrison, he presents the details of three other cases of scientific fraud taken from psychology, plant physiology and palaeontology,in order to analyse the reasons for such behaviour. He shows that scientific fraud arises for a variety of reasons, such as ambition, haste to publish results, and the urge to prove a theory for which the evidence is weak.

Despite the charge against Heslop Harrison in this book and the fact that he was not an easy person to like, he was obviously a fine naturalist who knew his plants and animals extremely well and was genuinely in love with them. Several distinguished members of the next generation of botanists owe their training to his teaching ability and inspiration. One of the more unpleasant actions related here is how he reported some of his new "discoveries" in the name of his sons, unbeknown to them, so as to spread the records beyond his own name.

Perhaps it is for the best that the truth is made public, but I hope that it in no way detracts from the reputation of the next two generations of Heslop Harrisons, both of which contain distinguished botanists. Jack Heslop Harrison, who was one of my predecessors as director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, was an extremely able botanist and administrator. His son Pat is also one of the top botanists in Britain. I think the son and grandson are to be even more admired because of the way in which they have not let their careers be hampered by J. W.'s reputation. In fact, they were almost certainly inspired by him and have definitely redeemed the family name.

Sir Ghillean Prance was formerly director, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

A Rum Affair: How Botany's 'Piltdown Man' Was Unmasked

Author - Karl Sabbagh
ISBN - 0 713 997 8
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £16.99
Pages - 224

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