Santa Rosa, like so many American towns, defines itself through reflected glory. Today the town clings to the renown of the late Charles Schulz to lend it a personality; so many statues and other tributes abound here that we might as well rename the place “Snoopyville” and have done with it (note to Chamber of Commerce: a single over-sized Charlie Brown, or Snoopy, or Woodstock is whimsy; streets chockablock with colossal boy, bird, and beagle monuments are a cornucopia of urban blight).
Before Schulz, Luther Burbank reigned alone as Santa Rosa’s iconic figure for nearly a century, albeit most of that time posthumously. While alive, the reserved and studious Burbank was pressed into service not only as the town’s ambassador, but imposed upon to perform as its main tourist attraction; Northern California travel bureaus expected him to personally conduct group tours of his gardens, and he faced a tiring daily gauntlet of gardening groupies trekking to his home on pilgrimage.
As worshiped as he was by the general public, Burbank was viewed skeptically by many in the scientific community, and considered even to be a charlatan. By chance, a pair of newspaper items that appeared a few days apart in early 1905 illustrate the paradox that was Burbank. The first article below announces that Burbank was awarded an annual grant from the prestigious Carnegie Institution “to secure the efforts of Mr. Burbank for science.” The item a couple of weeks later finds Burbank pitching pseudo-science to the local horticultural society.
This essay goes into greater background than usual because it’s now mostly forgotten that Burbank and his work were matters of some controversy in his day. Details here also lay the groundwork for future posts; Luther Burbank repeatedly pops up in the Comstock House story from this point onwards (although many details are not yet well understood). We know it was Burbank who encouraged matriarch Nellie Comstock to move her family to Santa Rosa in 1908, where young Hilliard would become one of the fortunate few allowed to work in his gardens. Two of her older children were part of the Roycrofters movement founded by Elbert Hubbard, who came out to visit Burbank (and the Comstocks as well?) the following year. We also know Nellie was apparently a close friend of the colorful Oscar Binner, whose goal of publishing a hands-on guide to Burbank’s methodology was stymied both by the Carnegie Institution and Burbank’s disorganization. And somewhere along the way, Burbank supposedly made a gift of the unusual flowering dogwood and/or copper beech that still stand, side by side, outside the back door of Comstock House. All in all, the history of Luther Burbank and the Comstocks — and maybe the Oates as well, to some degree — are joined together like players in E.L. Doctorow’s great novel, “Ragtime,” where the lives of disparate remarkable people criss-cross in unexpected ways.
Burbank was near the pinnacle of his fame in 1905, thanks in part to a couple of notable magazine articles. The summer before, a writer named W.S. Harwood had written an adulatory feature on Burbank in the widely-read magazine Scribner’s which did much to cement the Burbank-Wizard legend in the public mind. A more serious article on Burbank’s work appeared a few months later in Popular Science Monthly, written by no less than Stanford University president David Starr Jordan. Both authors expanded their articles into books; Harwood’s “New Creations in Plant Life” appeared later in 1905, and included a quote from Jordan on Burbank’s scientific bona fides that would be much repeated : “If his place is outside the temple of science, there are not many of the rest of us who will be found fit to enter.”1
But it was the grant from the Carnegie Institution of $10,000 a year, “for so long a time as may be mutually agreeable,” that really gave Burbank’s status a boost; the prestigious Institution was known for funding only the pursuit of pure science. It also meant that Burbank now had some measure of financial security for the first time in his life; no longer would he be dependent upon scrounging up buyers willing to take a chance on his latest and greatest wonder.
Harwood’s biography, published a few months after the announcement, has a chapter on the Carnegie grant, promising Burbank’s secrets will be at last revealed for the benefit of the world: “Mr. Burbank has by no means been lacking in the matter of general scientific record, but the new arrangements will give opportunity for the registering of much that should be preserved… it was utterly out of the question for Mr. Burbank to prepare such elaborate data as will now be of record, greatly as he desired it, though it will appear in the description of his novel plan books that he never for a moment lost sight of the absolute necessity of fundamental records… as the work progresses through the years, there will be publication of the data compiled and set in order by trained men.”2
To assist Burbank, a separate grant provided for a researcher to visit Burbank in Santa Rosa and learn his “tricks,” as the Institution’s president put it.3 After a false start with a researcher who quit after a few months, Carnegie himself suggested to trustees that “a man of science, who perhaps has done nothing, should go cap in hand” to Burbank. And so a young botanist named George Harrison Shull made his first cross-country trip to visit Burbank in 1906.
Shull found him willing to answer direct questions, but otherwise not very cooperative. Burbank did most of his work in his head, relying on his years of experience and remarkable memory; explaining to Shull the reasoning behind why he chose a particular seed or blossom probably would not only have slowed his morning field work to a crawl, but it even might have been impossible for Burbank to articulate the complex chain of reasoning behind his decisions.
As a result of his eccentric methods, Shull found few records of any of his experiments were kept on paper, and much of what he did write down was recorded in a personal code. Burbank worked haphazardly, creating irreproducible hybrids; he even sometimes applied pollen from several species to the same blossom, and as many as 500 grafts were made on a single tree.4
The definitive biography of Burbank, “A Gardener Touched With Genius” by Peter Dreyer, provides more details from Shull’s unpublished writings: “All of Burbank’s methods, Shull noted, were of the simplest kind. None of them would have been considered satisfactory by an investigator interested in the genetic relationships of the plants he worked with. Burbank himself admitted that had he been conducting a scientific experiment, he would have done things differently. But, he insisted, his work was nonetheless scientific for all that. It was in fact of a higher scientific type, he maintained, since he achieved the desired results without superfluous operations or unnecessary expenditure of effort, thus permitting the accomplishment of more work than would otherwise have been possible. Shull discovered, as others had done before him, that Burbank keenly resented suggestions that he was not a scientific man.”5
Burbank’s lack of a formal scientific education was a core part of the Burbank mystique at the time. As 1905 biographer Harwood described, “…he read such few practical books on botany and the breeding of plants as he could find, but these, save in some manner of nomenclature and detail, were of little use to him. He soon found out that he stood face to face with Nature, and only from her lips could he learn her secrets.”6
But the problem wasn’t simply that Burbank lacked a university degree — it was that his attitude was the antithesis of scientific inquiry; Burbank hated to be criticized or questioned. In a telling anecdote, Burbank showed Shull a row of hybrid plums with green and purple leaves. Mendel’s theory predicted a 3 to 1 split between the two colors in the hybrid, but it appeared that only about ten percent of the leaves were green — proof, Burbank said, that Mendel’s theory was wrong. But Shull actually counted the leaves, and found an almost perfect 3:1 ratio; it was only an optical illusion that there seemed to be more purple leaves. When Shull pointed out the error, Burbank dismissed the facts as irrelevant: “I never count anything,” he told Shull. 7
It’s sometimes hard to tell where Burbank straddled the line between arrogance and ignorance. Burbank told Shull “he figured that he had by that time surpassed Darwin in the number of plants he had raised and therefore he was the greatest authority on plant life that had ever lived,” and should be considered the greatest authority on the subject of evolution.8 Later, Burbank admitted in a letter that he’d never actually read “The Origin Of Species.”
As seen in the local newspaper article below, Burbank had also whipped up a universal theory of sub-atomic “kinetic” forces that could only be understood on a spiritual or extrasensory level. It sounds like bad science fiction, and actually wouldn’t be surprising to learn that George Lucas modeled Star Wars’ theory of “The Force” after Burbank’s ideas. In his Popular Science Monthly article, David Starr Jordan quoted Burbank’s summary of his theory: “The facts of plant life demand a kinetic theory of evolution…The time will come when the theory of ions will be thrown aside and no line left between force and matter. We can not get the right perspective in science unless we go beyond our senses. A dead material universe moved by outside forces is in itself highly improbable, but a universe of force alone is probable, but requires great effort to make it conceivable, because we must conceive it in the terms of our sense experience.”9
Burbank’s lack of scientific mien was shown by his pushing these kinetic-universe ideas as if they were somehow a provable theory, and not just a philosophical or metaphysical belief. An exchange of letters between Burbank and Jordan finds the Stanford president tactfully urging Burbank to keep his theory to himself, or at least frame it as a “confession of scientific faith.” When Burbank, a man whom Jordan otherwise greatly respected, continued to insist that his kinetic forces somehow guided genetics, Jordan diplomatically pointed out that one can’t test and prove ideas that elude definition.10 Jordan expanded and updated his magazine essay in 1909 as a book, but this time added a caveat after the summary of Burbank’s theory: “Whether we accept this or not, whether or not indeed we can conceive what it means, this view of life, which Burbank shares with many other philosophers, opens to us many new vistas of thought…”11
At the same time, the Carnegie grant was proving to be a complete scientific bust. The summary reports that appeared in the Institution’s yearbooks promised much, but offered only excuses why no progress was being made. From the 1905 report: “The experiments under way are the most extensive ever carried out, but from their very nature valuable results, either practical of scientific, can not be obtained at once…much valuable material for thought will undoubtedly be found in the scientific account of the experiments.”12 And then in 1907, “Within the limits of this annual report Mr Burbank finds it possible to give only a brief account of his experiments and operations in plant improvement. This work which has engaged his attention for the past 39 years is of steadily growing interest and its cumulative results are more evident than ever before…”13
The blame for this failure lies entirely with Burbank, and it’s difficult to view his conduct in this episode as anything but shameful. He accepted and kept the money from the generous grant, but failed to make more than a token effort to fulfill his part of the bargain. During Shull’s October, 1907 visit, Burbank granted him only two hours of his time over nine days. Despite the financial freedom guaranteed by the annuity, Burbank kept an unvarying gaze on his same old goal: coming up with new plant variations that would appeal to buyers. Burbank was also striking a deal with a book publisher for a multi-volume set about his work, potentially setting himself in competition with the Institution.
The Institution’s board discussed the “Burbank problem” often,14 and at a key 1908 meeting, conceded that it was unlikely that anything of scientific worth would come from the grant. Andrew Carnegie still held out that Burbank’s work could prove to benefit mankind — but at the same time, noted that he was often asked why the Institution was “subsidizing a faker.” The grant was canceled the next year, and the 1909 yearbook report was briefest of all: “Dr. George H. Shull, of the departmental staff, has continued his studies of the plant developments of Luther Burbank with the expectation of completing this work by the end of the calendar year.” 15
When Burbank published his 12-volume “Methods and Discoveries” in 1915, the Carnegie episode was dismissed in five short and disingenuous paragraphs. “Laboring alone, and many years in advance of his time, it was not to be expected that Luther Burbank could be interpreted in the language of contemporary science. And in fact, with true Yankee keenness, he much preferred that his benefits be reaped directly by those who practice agriculture, rather than by those who merely study agriculture…”16 A colorized photo included in the set showing Burbank with Dutch botanist Hugo de Vries originally included George Shull as well, but was cropped to remove Carnegie’s researcher from the picture.
The last page of the last volume of Burbank’s “Methods and Discoveries” ends with a non sequitur: “The addition of a single kernel to the ear of corn, would, in the United States alone, produce an extra annual crop of 5,100,000 bushels.” It was hope for this kind of breakthrough that led Carnegie to push for continued funding of Burbank. But of the 1,000-odd plants introduced by Burbank over the course of his lifetime, only the russet potato — a natural field mutation he came across by luck in the 1870s — had such world-changing importance. As a businessman seeking to please customers, too often his focus was on creating novelties, such as the “fadeless flower” mentioned in one of the newspaper articles below. (Ironically, the fadeless flower, much hyped in the local papers at the time, has faded from history; the master gardener at the Luther Burbank Home & Gardens had no knowledge of the plant before I asked.)
A few years later, however, someone else would actually develop a corn hybrid that increased yields up to 50 percent, and with it, revolutionize American farming. That man was George Shull.
Lastly, there’s a Ripley’s-Believe-it-or-Not footnote to the story: Burbank and the Carnegie Institution researcher are buried only a couple of miles apart. In 1907, Shull brought his new wife along on one of his fruitless visits to pry information from Burbank. She died here in childbirth, along with their daughter. When Shull passed away in 1954, he was buried next to them in the Santa Rosa Odd Fellows cemetery, approximately in the middle of the row nearest the old Rural Cemetery. Next time you take out-of-towners on a homage-to-Burbank tour, make a side trip to visit the grave of the scientist Burbank shunned, and who developed a plant that really did change the world.
1William Sumner Harwood,New Creations in Plant Life: An Authoritative Account of the Life and Work of Luther Burbank, 1905, pg. 368
2Harwood, pp. 278-289
3Peter Dreyer, A Gardener Touched With Genius (Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, Santa Rosa, CA), 1985, pg. 133
4A photograph of a tree loaded with grafts can be seen in Harwood, pg. 261
5Dreyer, pp. 144-145
6Harwood, pg. 18
7Dreyer, pg. 151
8Dreyer, pg. 152
9Popular Science Monthly, January, 1905, pg. 225
10Katherine Pandora, Knowledge Held in Common: Tales of Luther Burbank and Science in the American Vernacular (Isis, Vol. 92, No. 3), Sept 2001, pg. 505
11David Starr Jordan, The Scientific Aspects of Luther Burbank’s Work, pg. 77
121905 Year Book – Carnegie Institution of Washington
13 1907 Year Book – Carnegie Institution of Washington
14James S. Trefil and Margaret Hindle Hazen, Good Seeing: A Century of Science at the Carnegie Institution of Washington (Joseph Henry Press), 2002. pp. 30-32
15Dreyer, pg. 173
16Luther Burbank,Luther Burbank: His Methods and Discoveries and Their Practical Application (Luther Burbank Society), 1915, pp. 256-257
WILL BUY BURBANK’S NEW FADELESS FLOWERLetters of Inquiry on New Creation From Foreign Countries
Luther Burbank was a visitor in San Rafael yesterday, the guest of Judge W. W. Morrow of the United States Circuit Court. Through Judge Morrow’s efforts the directors of the Carnegie Institute have recognized the worth of the eminent Santa Rosan in scientific research, and made him a splendid offer recently to pursue his work along his chosen lines.
The idea of the Carnegie recognition was to put Mr. Burbank beyond the necessity of retailing his new creations the moment they had reached a state of perfection. It was their desire to secure the efforts of Mr. Burbank for science, and to put him to work on matters more important than to creating new fruits and flowers to retail to others,
The idea of the Burbank assistance from the Carnegie Institute is not generally understood. The scientist is to give an account of his expenses and expenditures in delving into the matters pertaining to his research, and for this purpose will be allowed $10,000 per annum for a series of years, the number which is not limited. The matter is for an indefinite period., which makes the assistance to Mr. Burbank all the more beneficial.
Mr. Burbank will go on with his evolutionary process and continue in his scientific researches and not make a change for a number of years. Mr. Burbank is greatly pleased with the recognition that his work has received, and will go ahead with redoubled energy in his chosen lines.
Letters pour in by the hundreds upon Mr. Burbank, many of the curiosities. Since he originated the fadeless flower he has had three letters from England, more than half a dozen from different places in the United States, one from France, one from South America, and some from other places, from paries who wish to secure the exclusive right to the gem of floriculture. Most of these writers declare that they wish the flowers for the purpose of adorning the hats and bonnets of the ladies. Mr. Burbank does not recommend this flower for that purpose, but is certain that one of its greatest uses will be in the line of millinery. It will displace other flowers now used, according to Mr. Burbank’s belief.
So far he has not parted with the fadeless creation, although among the letters received there have been some tempting offers.
[…]– Santa Rosa Republican, January 16, 1905
PAPER READ BY MR. LUTHER BURBANK“KINETIC CREATION: A UNIVERSE OF ORGANIZED LIGHTNING,” THE SUBJECT
Eminent Scientist Entertains Linnean Society and Guests at a Meeting Wednesday Evening
The members of the Linnean Society and invited guests were highly entertained at the meeting held at the residence of the Misses Hoen on Fifth street Wednesday night. When it is stated that those present had the pleasure of listening to a paper by a distinguished member of the society, Mr. Luther Burbank, the eminent botanical scientist, everyone wil realize the treat afforded.
Mr. Burbank’s subject was “A Kinetic Creation: a Universe of Organized Lightning.” The paper was prepared to appear in an Eastern magazine and a personal request was made that no extended extracts should be made from it for local publication here.
Mr. Burbank held, among other things, that the product of the universe is force, time and space. Rhytmical vibration in space, measured by time, produced by force. And as inertia, he said, may be supposed to be the union of time and space inopposition to force we may finally conclude that our universe is not half dead but all alive – “A Kinetic Universe.”
In reply to the question why certain drugs named were poisonous to the human system Mr. Burbank explained that was simply because the wave length of their atomical action was in cynchronal [sic] unison with the special wave length of the organs affected for each organ is maintaned by the selective power of the synchronous waves which in the case of food gives the right amount of stimulus, while the separated drugs give temptation, and if continued, in harmonous destructive forces.
[..]– Press Democrat, February 2, 1905