Nowadays, it might seem perplexing for the founder of a seed company to express the intention to "shock Mother Nature," or at least in bad taste. Yet, this was precisely the goal of agricultural innovators like David Burpee, of the Burpee Seed Company, who sought to use radiation and chemical mutagens to accelerate the generation of new plant varieties, a process otherwise requiring painstaking, slow, and resource-intensive artificial selection. Helen Anne Curry
's Evolution Made to Order: Plant Breeding and Technological Innovation in Twentieth-Century America
(University of Chicago Press, 2016) is a fascinating history of biotechnology that documents the interplay between genetic research and agricultural production; genetic engineering avant la lettre
, one is tempted to say, although botanist A. F. Blakeslee, who figures prominently in the narrative, made a failed attempt to promote the designation "genetics engineer" to describe his work. Through the lens of three different technologies--x-rays, the chemical colchicine, and atomic radiation--Curry shows how chromosomes and genetic mutations became sites of speculation for industrial agriculture and of experimentation for amateur plant breeders. She deftly restores the experimental station, the marketplace, and the garden to their proper place as sites of knowledge production, showing that landscape and lab were perhaps never so separable as our modern conceit might make them appear.
This is part one of a series of new work on twentieth-century biotechnology--look out for further interviews featuring some great new work published by the University of Chicago Press.