Trowels and tribulations

July 9, 1999

What drove a biologist to fabricate the botanical history of a Hebridean island, and why did academia keep silent about his fraud for 50 years? Anne Sebba uncovers a Rum affair.

In 1948 one of the greatest scandals of 20th-century British botany seemed set to explode - and then went dead. At its heart, a Newcastle University professor, the Hebridean island of Rum and a collection of unusual plants. Only now, 50 years later, are the details of the fraud finally being revealed, in a story that has powerful lessons for scientists today.

"I had been aware of the episode for some time," explains film-maker Karl Sabbagh, whose book exposing the affair is published next month. In 1980 he was sent an obituary of one of the protagonists in the scandal, Cambridge classics tutor John Raven, a man whom, coincidentally, Sabbagh had known from his own time at King's College, Cambridge. The obituary referred elliptically to a report Raven had written exposing the fraud, which had been deposited in Trinity College library but never published. Sabbagh put the cutting to one side, but in 1997 a chance meeting with Ghillean Prance, then director of Kew Gardens, revealed the identity of the other man: John Heslop Harrison of what is now Newcastle University.

"Giving the alleged culprit a name put flesh on his bones and made me want to know more about him," Sabbagh explained. But as soon as he started investigating he found the academic world clammed up - eager to let sleeping reputations lie. "Several people really tried to put me off following up the story and I realised why no one in the field could possibly have tackled it."

Part of the problem was that Heslop Harrison's son and grandson are both distinguished botanists - the son, Jack, was director of Kew Gardens and grandson Pat is a botanist at the John Innes Centre, University of East Anglia. There was widespread fear in such tight circles of upsetting them. Incredibly, one of Sabbagh's key informants, a man who had to be given a nom de plume throughout the book, was concerned - although without justification - that, by cooperating, he might jeopardise a grant application that the grandson had authority to turn down.

The story begins in the 1930s, when Professor Heslop Harrison, the son of an ironworker, started making regular trips to the Hebridean islands off Scotland, with their unique flora and fauna. Rum, in particular, an island that had been in private hands for a century - unbotanised virgin territory - was especially interesting to those who liked to find new plants or old plants in new places. Within a few years, the Heslop Harrison reputation stood high, enriched by a long string of publications.

Nonetheless, the professor made enemies easily and several colleagues started to view his ever-lengthening list of Hebridean rarities with suspicion. In 1941 he published two papers in the Journal of Botany announcing further discoveries on Rum of plants hitherto unknown in Britain. For John Raven, an amateur with a passion for plants and a fierce belief in the purity of the intellectual pursuit, this was the final straw. He believed the time had come "when, in the interest of scientific truth as well as peace, a determined effort should be made to settle the dispute". So he wrote to the council of Trinity College asking for a grant to enable him to make a trip to Rum.

Sabbagh speculates about exactly how the plan was formulated to infiltrate a Heslop Harrison expedition, believing it originated probably "in late-night discussions over warming cups of cocoa as damp socks were unfurled and feet dried in front of a log fire in some spartan Scottish hostel". Throughout his book Sabbagh gently pokes fun at this naturalist world. He cannot help being amused, for instance, when he is told about "a controversy over pondweed".

Then there is Heslop Harrison himself, who kept his home-designed, glass-lidded jars in his kitchen and bathroom. He is well matched by his botanical rival Maybud Campbell, who wore sensible shoes and calf-length kilt and turned out to be an expert singer of Czech lieder. And there is the description of things going wrong when Raven does eventually get himself to Rum in 1948 only to discover with horror that he has accidentally left on the boat much of the equipment on which he depends for survival over the next week. When he and his colleague are lent a replacement primus stove this catches fire, burning the roof of their tent.

But despite these tribulations, Raven found the evidence he was looking for and, on his return, made his accusations. He alleged that at some time in the 1940s Heslop Harrison transported alien plants to the Isle of Rum and planted them in the soil. He then "discovered" the plants, claimed they were indigenous to the area and that he was the first to find them. Raven's report to the council of Trinity College states: "In the interests not only of truth but also of the reputation of British science it is essential somehow to discover what plants and what insects he (Heslop Harrison) has either completely fabricated or else deliberately introduced into the Hebrides."

Although Trinity academics debated the report and a number of eminent British scientists knew of its contents, no action was taken. Why did the contemporary academic establishment, and particularly the small circle of those in the know about Raven's report, not wish to do anything about it? "Largely because of the very English concern that harm would be done to the perpetrator if his misdeeds were publicised," says Sabbagh. Or, as the editor of Scottish Naturalist, Vero Wynne-Edwards, put it at the time: "No one wants such things to happen."

Those who might have exposed Heslop Harrison were discomfited "because they moved in the same circles and knew they'd be bumping into him at conferences and sitting on the same committees. Later generations did nothing, largely because they were not aware of Raven's report, which, after all, was clearly marked: 'Not to be looked at in the life of J. Heslop Harrison (jnr).' They did, however, quietly set about removing his attributions from the reference books."

A more serious issue is why one might expect higher standards of personal or professional morality from scientists, and Sabbagh, unequivocally, thinks one should not. "We should expect truth to be a central tenet of their work. But there is also a driving desire to contribute to 'knowledge' so there is a temptation for all scientists who believe in a particular theory to massage the evidence or even to create data to support that theory," he says.

"People find it very tempting to justify themselves by saying, 'Well, I know this is true ... but others don't see it as clearly. Therefore if I egg the pudding a bit, even plant a plant where it hasn't grown before, but I know it couldI' "It's a question of the ends justifying the means," continues Sabbagh. "Heslop Harrison had a theory to prove - the perglacial theory, which said that the distribution of plants and insects throughout the Hebrides proved that some forms of life had survived during the 1.5 million years that Scotland and the north of England were covered with ice."

Sabbagh, 57, who read natural sciences at Cambridge, recognises that botany does not have the image of a serious science. "You don't expect botanists to win Nobel prizes and, just as importantly, you don't expect them to destroy the world one day." Nonetheless, chatting to him in his offices overlooking the river at Richmond, he is at pains to point out that for generations the amateur botanist has made an important contribution to other areas of professional science.

Clearly Heslop Harrison would not get a job in a modern university, says Sabbagh, but, on the other hand, his story is far from unique today as the pressures on younger scientists, constantly pushed towards publication, intensify. Indeed, Sabbagh touches on several scientific controversies, including one very recent one involving Indian palaeontologist Viswa Jit Gupta, who claimed to have found some highly unusual fossils in the Himalayas, claims that sparked a heated debate in several scientific journals.

By the end of his research, did Sabbagh have any sympathy for the fraudulent professor, a man who felt so insecure he had his notepaper printed with the false address of a smarter road than the one he lived in? He answers slowly: "He probably had an image of everyone else in the academic world being better than him. He was self-made and went to university via night school and extra teaching. Being famous for discovering new sedges and new beetles wasn't enough. He wanted to make an impact in the theoretical world of science and be remembered for that. But sympathy? No, I don't think so. He manipulated people, he was pompous and self-righteous, he wasn't a person I would have enjoyed having a drink with. But I think I do understand him."

A Rum Affair is published in August by Penguin, Pounds 16.99.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments