BURBANK FOLLIES, PART III

In the summer of 1907, Luther Burbank was a man with many Boswells trailing his steps, hoping to pry secrets from his encyclopedic mind. Each biographer desired to author the magnum opus on Burbank and his plant-breeding methods, and Burbank cooperated with them all equally, which is to say that he barely cooperated with anyone at all.

(This is the third part of a series on Burbank’s troubled relationship with the Carnegie Institution. The previous part discusses George Shull and the Carnegie Institution. The introduction to this series, “Burbank’s Follies,” provides more background on these topics and offers a critical overview of Burbank’s work. The series concludes here.)

Besides Shull, another habitue was a writer named W.S. Harwood, preparing a second edition of “New Creations in Plant Life.” Harwood had written a 1904 magazine article on Burbank and expanded that into a book-length profile with descriptions of his work methods a year later. That book sold well even though it was slammed by knowledgeable critics, suffering a particularly harsh review in the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society: “[Harwood] traces the course of his hero’s life and work with all the ardour of the true hero-worshipper…The book does not help at all, as we had hoped it would, to enable us to sift the truth from the obviously exaggerated accounts.”

In the published fragments of Shull’s correspondence with the Carnegie Institution, the sycophant Harwood is only mentioned once, and in passing; aside from being another person demanding Burbank’s attention, Shull didn’t consider him a competitor. But Shull didn’t know what to make of a new visitor to Burbank’s farm: Dr. William Martin, an editor from the Cree Publishing Company of Minneapolis, who was now living in Burbank’s old house and studying all of Burbank’s scrapbooks. The publisher had been negotiating with Burbank for over a year to prepare a ten-volume set that would document Burbank’s methods – an arrangement that seemed in direct conflict with the Burbank’s $10,000/year grant from Carnegie. Shull wrote to the Committee in February, 1907:1


Mr. Burbank informed me that the Cree books can not be in the least conflict with our work. He says that the 10 volumes will not contain as much ‘meat’ as ten pages of the Carnegie work. It is to be made up mostly of illustrations, on thick paper, with very brief statements in large type:–to be sold by subscription.

Shull’s supervisor urged him to “find out all you can” about the Cree project, and Shull replied the next month:2


I do not believe that it will be possible for me to learn much more intimately of the contents of Cree books than I have already reported. I do not think that they will be in very direct conflict, however, with the work we are planning, though without doubt, a large part of the public will draw a comparison between that work and ours, which will not be as favorable to the Carnegie work as we might hope, since the Cree work is being planned specifically to please the popular mind…

Dr. Martin was the Rev. William Mayo Martin, D. D. from Minneapolis, who the Santa Rosa Republican described as “a prominent author and man of letters.” (Martin was replaced a few months later by H. B. Humphrey, a plant pathologist from Washington State College, but Martin’s qualifications for the project are a mystery. I’ve been unable to find anything about him professionally, academically, or even personally through census records. It’s as if he never existed. UPDATE: Martin was Cree’s brother-in-law.) Besides Martin, the Cree faction also included Martin’s stenographer and a junior professor from Stanford University, botanist Dr. Leroy Abrams, who had been hired to work with Martin, and was expected to be there for a year. Shull wrote to the president of the Carnegie Institution that it was getting crowded at Burbank’s place.3


Yesterday Mr. Harwood was here revising his book on ‘New Creations.’ Dr. Martin is here getting material for the ten volumes of the Cree Co., and a representative of Collier’s [Magazine] was also securing data for articles, so you can see none of us will be able to receive much attention. Mr. Burbank is trying to treat us all alike and has assigned different hours to each of these various interests.

Shull’s 1907 stint with Burbank was cut short by the death of his wife and infant at their Santa Rosa home. With the Carnegie Institution work on hiatus while he was in mourning back east, Shull hoped that Burbank would spend more time with the Cree team, all the better to concentrate on the scientific questions Shull would pose when he returned. Alas, Burbank sent him a letter stating that he had been very busy, “and so have not dictated to the other company at all since you left, but when you come back will try to give both parties a short time each day as usual.”4 Back in Santa Rosa, Shull wrote to the Committee in February, 1908 that he was no longer sure that the Cree project would be as lightweight as Burbank had claimed:5


It should also be noted that the management of the Cree Publishing Company’s projected work, is fully aware of the wave of adverse criticism which has been directed against Harwood’s book because of its unbridled praise of Mr. Burbank’s achievements, and is obviously taking steps to lessen this tendency in their publication. The employment of a trained botanist by that company, to stand sponsor for the scientific bearings of the work who will have been a longer time in actual contact with Mr. Burbank than I will have been, opens the question as to the relative merits of that work and ours, and also as to whether one or the other of these two works will not be superfluous in the presence of the other.

There was no need for Shull to worry. Sometime during 1908, plans fell apart for Cree to publish that ten-volume set. Reasons are unknown; it could be that Prof. Abrams withdrew because of the frustrations working with the uncommunicative Burbank, or that the publisher ran out of money or patience. Although that work was abandoned, partners in the Cree venture would continue to develop money-making schemes with Burbank, which will be the subject of following installments in the “Burbank Follies.”


Now a century past, the story of Burbank’s conflicted doings with the Carnegie Institution, Cree Publishing and other would-be suitors is well-documented in books and journal articles. At the time, however, the Santa Rosa newspapers only reported approvingly of Dr. Shull’s comings and goings and the “splendid work” turned out by Cree; to the public, all apparently were having a merry time hanging out with the plant wizard, according to the papers. But there is one significant event from 1907 that was newsworthy, yet is not mentioned in any literature about Burbank: The thwarted plans to create a “Burbank Institute.”

in late October, Petaluma’s George P. McNear, possibly the most financially important man in the county, announced that “premature publicity” had derailed plans to create a Burbank Institute. As this was the first mention in the newspapers of any plans to create an international plant-breeding school, one has to wonder what publicity he meant – and why that should squelch the deal. There were other mysteries in McNear’s single-paragraph non-announcement: Who were the “wealthy men interested in results of experiments” that were expected to fund a “permanent endowment” for the institution? If truly “Burbank’s consent [had] not been secured,” as McNear wrote, how could any group presume to found a school centered upon Burbank’s methods?

The Press Democrat and Santa Rosa Republican articles that followed McNear’s statement filled in some details. Yes, the editors knew about the plans and had indeed vowed secrecy. The PD reported Stanford President David Starr Jordan, a well-known Burbank booster, was said to be the author of the press release signed by McNear. Whether that’s true or not, it’s clear something actually was afoot.

It’s difficult to know what to make of this episode. One reason to be skeptical is because plans for a potential Burbank Institute were not mentioned by any of his biographers, and this period is well-documented, thanks to Shull’s correspondence with the Carnegie Institution. It also appears that the newspaper articles about the thwarted plans for the school were written nearly verbatim from Burbank’s dictation. His fingerprints can be found in his customary overstated claims that “the Carnegie Institution has already set aside the sum of $100,000” for his support and “its perpetuation would appear only reasonable,” that he would “teach the higher science of plant breeding,” and that “University professors…were greatly interested in the project.”

There are two possible scenarios that I can imagine – and in both cases, Burbank is my pick as the probable source of the newsleak, inadvertently or no:

* There might have been “cigar talk” among some of Burbank’s more well-heeled supporters about the possibility of creating a Burbank school. Unable to restrain his need for self-aggrandizement, Burbank boasted to someone that wealthy and famous people were soon to build an institute in his honor. Word got back to McNear and the others, who became alarmed that Burbank was pushing them into commitment, so they shot down the idea, fast.


* Serious plans really might have been underway to create and endow a Burbank Institute. But the bank panic of 1907 – which occurred the same week as McNear’s declaration – caused potential investors/donors to hunker down. With the intent of pushing them into commitment, Burbank whispered to the papers that the secret deal was still in the works, which led McNear and the others to send out the statement to the press.

Some combination of the two scenarios is also possible. Yes, the nation was suddenly facing the total collapse of the U.S. economy, and investors would be foolish to give Luther Burbank a bunch of post-dated blank checks during the crisis. At the same time, many believed that Burbank’s new spineless cactus was as important a discovery as the Russet potato, and speculators were indeed “interested in results of [Burbank’s] experiments,” hoping to get in on the ground floor. As for Burbank’s role, the only thing he loved more than being idolized was having a reliable income, and a Burbank Institute had enormous potential for both. One can imagine his anguish at seeing such a project suddenly dissolve, and one can imagine he might risk a long-shot bid to snatch it from defeat.

NOTES:
 1pg. 138, Bentley Glass, The strange encounter of Luther Burbank and George Harrison Shull (American Philosophical Society) 1980
2pg. 139, ibid
3pg. 171, Peter Dreyer, A Gardener Touched With Genius (Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, Santa Rosa, CA) 1985
4pg. 140, Glass
5pg. 139, Glass

COMES TO WRITE VOLUMES ON BURBANK

Rev. William Mayse [sic] Martin of Minneapolis, a prominent author and man of letters, arrived here Friday morning, and will make his home here for the coming year. He comes to edit a work of ten volumes, to be entitled “New Creations.” This will explain in detail the marvelous work of Luther Burbank, the well known local scientist, in his propagation of new plants and flowers. This work is to be published by the Cree Publishing Company, which is having the large colored panels and colored postals made of Mr. Burbank’s creations. Rev. Mr. Martin is accompanied by his private stenographer and will have his office in the former Burbank home. His family have remained to spend some time in Los Angeles, but later will come here to make their home while Mr. Martin is doing the great work he has undertaken.

– Santa Rosa Republican, February 2, 1907
CREE GETS OUT SPLENDID WORK

Donald [sic] Cree, President of the Cree Publishing Company of Minneapolis, Minn., who is engaged in getting out a ten-volume work entitled, “Burbank’s Creation,” is on the coast making arrangements to place the work with subscription agencies. While in this city Monday Mr. Cree made the Press Democrat a pleasant call and permitted an inspection of the prospectus of the sets of volumes.

The work gives promise of being the most elaborate of its kind ever attempted. The paper is all especially made with the “Luther Burbank” watermark in the margin, and the plates are all colored to life, from handpainted samples prepared here by specialists.The binding represents the finest the art can produce and are in several styles from the luxurious $1000 to the $500 and $250 per set down to a popular edition.

Mr. Burbank has been dictating for several months for the text of the work and the “copy” is being sent out as fast as prepared and placed in the hands of the printer. The first volume is expected to be ready for delivery within a short time and the rest will follow as rapidly as they can be handled. The work is sold by subscription only.

– Press Democrat, May 28, 1907
DR. MARTIN IS CHANGED
Cree Publishing Company Plans Burbank Cards

Dr. William Mays [sic] Martin, who has been here for several months past as editor of the Cree publishing company’s works on Luther Burbank and his work, has been given another line of work by his firm, and the editorship has been placed in the hands of H. B. Humphrey, who will continue the work on the set of books under course of publication.

The Cree company has determined to issue a series of postal cards, setting forth various views of the Burbank home, Mr. Burbank’s photograph, some of his flowers and fruits and views from the experimental grounds. This department of the work has been placed in charge of Mr. Martin and already thousands of the cards have been ordered from all parts of this state, and dealers as far east as Chicago have placed large orders for the cards. It is expected that this line of the of the work will be in great demand, and the cards will be made from the superb views recently made by the company from oil paintings of the real views, such as are being used in the publication of the illustrations in the books.

– Santa Rosa Republican, October 28, 1907

SET OF BOOKS ON BURBANK WORK
Complete Scientific History of Eminent Scientist’s Work in Realm of Nature

President Dugal Cree of the Cree Publishing Company, of Minneapolis, accompanied by Rev. William Mayes Martin, D. D., has been spending several days in this city. This is Mr. Cree’s second visit to Santa Rosa, he having been here last September, at which time he entered into negotiations with Luther Burbank for the rights to publish a set of books covering the scientist’s life work. During the present visit the details have been completed and a contract entered into between Mr. Burbank and the publishing house for the latter to bring out a set of ten volumes of “New Creations,” an edition authorized by Luther Burbank giving a history of the facts, methods, principles, and a description of the new creations brought out by the famous scientist during his thirty-five years work among fruit, flowers, and foliage.

Dr. Marin will remain here to look after the Publisher’s interests and forward the copy as rapidly as the stenographer, who will take the subject matter from Mr. Burbank’s personal dictation, completes it, assist in gathering data, and see that nothing is left undone to hurry forward the preparation of the completed work.

The desire of the publishers and hopes of Mr. Burbank are to in this manner answer the thousands of questions which are constantly pouring in on Mr. Burbank, and also save the valuable time and labor which it requires to answer such requests by letter. Mr. Burbank has had most insistant demands from publishers all over the United States as well as Europe for the publication of such a work while the reading public and horticulturists desire it as a permanent monument to his memory as well as to preserve the methods and plans of the noted scientist for future reference.

The work will be profusely illustrated with full page colored plates made natural to life of all Mr. Burbank’s star creations with scenes and views of his home and experimental grounds, both here and at Sebastopol. The work will be as the name implies, a complete review of the actual methods of work carried on by Mr. Burbank in accomplishing the results which has made his name famous the world over.

“For years,” Mr. Burbank said today, while discussing the publication, “I have been importuned and urged to write a complete work which would stand as an authority of my work among fruits and flowers, but I have felt my time and attention belonged to the work in hand and that others might write the story of it. I have refused all offers up to the present time and Mr. Cree is the only many who has been able to bring me to consider the subject seriously much less enter into a contract or agreement to prepare a complete work.”

– Press Democrat, January 10, 1907

REPRESENTS THE CREE COMPANY
Bruce is Canvassing State For Burbank Books

R. A. Bruce, representing the Cree publishing company, is in the City of Roses for a visit. He spent Christmas day with relatives here. He is a partner with John J. Newbegin of San Francisco, the agents for this state of the splendid work being published by the Cree Company on Burbank’s New Creations. Regarding a story that appeared in the Republican a few days ago, the substance of which was taken from a Marysville paper, Mr. Bruce claims he never pretended to represent Mr. Burbank, and it is a well-known fact that Mr. Burbank has no agents of an kind in the field for the sale of his new creations. Mr. Bruce is traveling over the state securing subscribers to the work being published by the Cree Company, and is meeting with good success. We have reasons to believe from the credentials he has presented that he is doing a legitimate and fair business in every respect.

– Santa Rosa Republican, December 26, 1907

PERPETUATION OF BURBANK METHODS
Promoters of Plan to Establish Institute Say Discussion of Matter at This Time is Premature

Admitting that the facts as published are correct, and yet fearful that undue publicity at this time may geopardise [sic] the final outcome, certain of the projectors of the proposed Burbank institution for the perpetuation of expert plant-breeding have undertaken to discourage further discussion of the matter, and the following statement ssaid to have been prepared by President David Starr Jordan of Stanford University and signed by George P. McNear of Petaluma, chairman of the committee having the project in charge, has been given to the press:

Petaluma, Oct. 26–Several persons have met to devise plans for permanent endowment and perpetuation of a laboratory of plant-breeding through the aid of wealthy men interested in results of experiments. No satisfactory plan has been yet devised. Premature publicity makes it necessary to abandon the matter. Mr. Burbank’s consent has not been secured.
George P. McNear, Chairman,

The Press Democrat believes it is in a position to state, however, that the abandonment of the project is only temporary; and that the institution will be established in due time. The idea has been suggested on numerous occasions, and when President R. S. Woodward of the Carnegie Institution was in Santa Rosa some two or three years ago he intimated that such a project was even then under consideration [illegible microfilm] the Carnegie Institution has already set aside the sum of $100,000 to assist Mr. Burbank in his work, and under the circumstances some arrangements for its perpetuation would appear only reasonable and proper. Such an arrangement as the one proposed would certainly have the hearty support of all Santa Rosans as well as of the entire scientific world.

– Press Democrat, October 27, 1907

INJURIOUS TO SONOMA COUNTY
Premature Publication Will Thwart Plans

The premature publication of the proposed plan of establishing a school of international character and importance in Sonoma county has caused the abandonment of the plans which were in process of formation. The publication has done an untold and irreparable injury to Sonoma county, and was done without authorization and after the parties to the conference had been pledged to secrecy, and after a request had been made of the newspapers that it should not be published because of the fact that it [would] cause the matter to be dropped. In the face of this request, which was made wholy with the idea of benefiting Sonoma county, the giving of publicity in the matters was unwarranted and injurious.

The REPUBLICAN was requested at the time to refrain from any mention of this matter regarding the establishment of the great international school until it was ready for publication, at which time the same was to be given out officially by Mayor John P. Overton. For the reason that it was for the benefit of the county, this paper withheld mention of the same, desiring to throw no obstacle in the way of the accomplishment of anything that would be in any manner injurious to the best interests of the county. The matter has been abandoned and the unwise action of the paper which published the matter when requested not to do so may prevent its ever being taken up again.

Luther Burbank, who had been approached to become the head of this great school, which was to teach the higher science of plant breeding along the lines of Mr. Burbank’s work was to have taken the matter up with his confreres after arranging his affairs with the Carnegie Institution, and the publicity given may prevent this being accomplished.

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 2, 1907

PLANS WORKING ALONG NICELY
Another Important Announcement Will Be Made Later In Connection With the Burbank Laboratory

Plans for the establishment of a laboratory or college for the imparting of special instruction in Luther Burbank’s great work in the creation of new fruits and flowers are going along very nicely.

It is expected that before long another important announcement will be made in connection with this matter. The Republican will get this news later.

The University professors here the past week were greatly interested in the project and both at Berkeley and Stanford it is occasioning much discussion.

– Press Democrat, November 3, 1907

Read More

BURBANK FOLLIES, PART II

I imagine there were quite a few times in the autumn of 1907 when you might have seen a man with a faraway gaze sitting by himself at a Santa Rosa restaurant. The 34 year-old gentleman may have been thinking about a scientific paper he had recently published, or he might have been thinking about his wife and daughter, who had died a few months before. Or he might have been thinking about how much he’d like to wring Luther Burbank’s scrawny neck.

That man was George Harrison Shull, a botanist who worked for the Carnegie Institution, making his fourth stay to Santa Rosa. His job here was to study Burbank’s methods, and it was not going well. In a letter that Oct. 9 to his supervisor back in Long Island, he griped that the great man was even being less cooperative than in his previous visits:


In the nine days I have been here, I have had only two hours of Mr. Burbank’s time. He comes in each day at the appointed hour to say that he “Simply can not give me the time” and promises to do better later. In view of the urgency on the part of the Committee to hasten the work, you can imagine the strain this puts on me.

The Carnegie Institution had awarded Burbank a $10,000/year grant in 1905 amid controversy. While he had the enthusiastic support of Andrew Carnegie and Stanford University’s president, Burbank was viewed skeptically by much of the scientific establishment, and considered even to be a charlatan.

(The introduction to this series, “Burbank’s Follies,” provides more background on these topics and offers a critical overview of Burbank’s work.)

In his first report to the Institution, Shull had described Burbank as possessing remarkable skills, able to keep track of hundreds, maybe thousands, of plant-breeding experiments. The problem, however, is that these records were kept in his mind, with precious little written down on paper. Without documentation of all the cross-breeding that led to the final hybrid, his work was scientifically worthless. Yet at the same time, Burbank resented those who said he wasn’t a man of science. “Mr. Burbank says himself that if he were conducting a scientific experiment, he would do it differently, but maintains that it makes his work none the less scientific, indeed stamps it as of a higher scientific type.”1 (This wasn’t the first time Burbank claimed to be the father of a new field of science – see Part I.)

The main problem, however, was that Burbank didn’t like to be questioned and was hostile to scientific debate. “You say, ‘He is always impatient of a conversation in which he does not do all or nearly all the talking,’ the Institution’s president wrote to Shull. “Now, singularly enough, this is precisely the remark he has made to me concerning you.” Burbank had written a peevish letter to the Institution’s president that complimented Shull as “pleasant and pliable,” yet “it seems to be almost necessary to perform a surgical operation before some fixed impression can be removed to make way for another, but when once convinced by an overwhelming number of facts he at once admits that that is the way he always thought it was.”2 In other words, Burbank was annoyed at the concept of being challenged to defend an unorthodox idea, which is at the core of the scientific method. Years later, Shull wrote, “I learned from the start that my problem was chiefly a psychological one.”3

Without field notes of past work, Shull was left to flip through scrapbooks of old newspaper and magazine clippings collected by Burbank’s secretary. When Shull tried to pry information from him about his current projects, Burbank often begged off, claiming illness. “I am sorry his health is so bad,” Shull wrote to his supervisor. “I have spent some time with him every day, but have often been obliged to cut the work short because I find him on the verge of nervous collapse.”4 Shull also arrived at the farm before Burbank in order to quiz his field workers and compose simple, direct questions that he had some hope Burbank would deign to answer.

While Shull’s letters and reports to the Carnegie Institution voice his frustrations in dealing with Burbank, the published “Year Book” from the Institution always claimed “grand progress” was being made in Santa Rosa. From the 1906 Year Book:


By great good fortune the earthquake which proved so destructive to the city of Santa Rosa in which he lives and to the surrounding country, did very little damage to his property. In one respect, doubtless, the earthquake was advantageous to him and to his work, namely, in preventing visitors from encroaching too freely on his time and attention.

The 1907 Year Book similarly dished up a vague-on-the-specifics report that “the experiments and investigations of Mr. Burbank and the work of preparing a scientific account of his methods and achievements are progressing as favorably as the available division of time and labor permit…” As Burbank’s first biographer pointed out, the discrepancy is easy to explain: The Carnegie Institution was allowing Burbank himself to write the official summary of the analysis of his own work.5

(RIGHT: George H. Shull in 1906. The original picture was of Burbank, Dutch botanist Hugo de Vries and Shull, as seen in the thumbnail. When Burbank published his 12-volume series in 1915, the image was cropped to remove Shull, as can be seen in an earlier article. CLICK to enlarge. Photo courtesy Luther Burbank Museum)

Like it or not, Shull was spending about half of his year in Santa Rosa. A newlywed with a baby on the way, Shull bought the recently-built house at 724 McDonald Avenue in early 1907. His wife joined him here, and on May 5, their baby was delivered stillborn. The mother died two days later. Shull buried them both in the Odd Fellows’ Cemetery (just across the fence from Santa Rosa’s Rural Cemetery) and quickly returned to New York. Although he remarried, Shull ordered that he be interred next to them after he died in 1954.

As noted above, the situation with Burbank did not improve when Shull returned in the autumn of 1907. It was decided by the Carnegie Institution that Shull should spend some time the next year in Europe to gauge the impact of “Burbank’s Creations” outside of the United States. Shull found that the California-bred hybrids did poorly outside of the New World, and Europeans felt that Burbank’s renown was undeserved. 6

Meanwhile, the Intuition’s president popped in on Burbank in 1908 to see what was really going on. He wrote to Shull’s supervisor:


Mr. Burbank was visited during my western trip and found to be pretty badly tangled up with the rest of the universe, so badly, in fact, that it was necessary to issue a sort of ultimatum to him. I hope we may be able to extricate him, in part at least, since I feel that he is making good to the Institution on the horticultural side.

Whatever he meant by Burbank being “pretty badly tangled up with the rest of the universe,” that apparently was the last straw. The Carnegie Institution decided at the end of 1908 that Shull should wrap up the Burbank project in the coming year. Burbank would not be told of their decision, but President Woodward alerted him that he was having difficulty in convincing the board of trustees to continue supporting the project because of Burbank’s “misrepresentations.” 7

Any doubts about their decision were probably dispelled by the controversy that followed a few months later over accusations of fraud against Burbank. In 1908, Burbank had sold a nursery the rights to a hybrid berry he called the “Sunberry.” Renamed the “Wonderberry,” it was then sold to the public as Burbank’s latest marvel. The seed company even produced a cookbook of Wonderberry recipes to promote it. Problem was, the berries were poisonous when green, and palatable when fully ripe only when they were heavily coated with sugar (it’s said to taste like a cross between a very bland berry and an eggplant). Accusations were made that the plant was worthless (true) and not a hybrid at all but really black nightshade, a weed common around the world (false). Burbank offered $10,000 to anyone who could prove the latter, but the reward offer only became another club used to bash Burbank. In the end, the Wonderberry incident proved Burbank to be his own worst enemy. He couldn’t conclusively prove that the hybrid he created did not have nightshade in it because his recordkeeping was poor to non-existent – exactly as Shull had reported to the Carnegie Institution. As a result, Burbank’s reputation was tarnished for the first time in the popular press.8

Burbank learned at the end of 1909 that his grant would not be renewed for a sixth year. There is no (published) account of his reaction (UPDATE: see the final part of this series), but he was vindictive and vituperative when he wrote to the editor of “The Guide to Nature” magazine, claiming “the Carnegie people refuse to give the full facts” regarding the termination of his grant, and sought the editor’s help in bringing shame to his former benefactor. “I have never desired any publicity,” Burbank wrote, without a whiff of obvious hypocrisy, “…but I now desire publicity and lots of it, the more the better. I wish this thing dug to the very earth and the guilty parties exhibited to the light.”

When Shull returned to Santa Rosa in 1910 to wrap up his research, he found Burbank “rather free in his expressions of disapproval of the treatment accorded him by the Institution.”9 Burbank was even more uncooperative than before, as Shull wrote to his supervisor,


You will be interested to know that although Mr. Burbank received me with marked kindness, he fell back immediately onto the old plea as to the great value of his time when the question was raised as to his giving me more assistance. He says he has no income now and that his time is worth $500 to $600 an hour..10

Shull worked on his final report in Santa Rosa despite Burbank’s unwillingness to help, and continued toiling over it for the next four years. Sometimes the unfinished manuscript clearly took the backseat to his own pioneering work in genetics, but he also dedicated almost an entire year in 1913-1914 to wrapping up the Burbank report. He still didn’t produce a final draft, and biographer Walter L. Howard wrote in 1945 that it was still unfinished. Why?

It would be understandable if Shull simply ran out of steam; by 1914, he had been working on the report for nine frustrating years. Refuting accusations made by The Guide to Nature editor, the Carnegie Institution president also revealed for the first time that there was an agreement that “[Burbank’s] work should not be given to the public until his [death].” Given that Burbank lived until 1926, Shull was spending his most productive years laboring over a tome that wouldn’t see light of day for a decade or more. As Howard wrote: “Shull had become absorbed in his own genetical researches which, to him, seemed more important than working over his old Burbank records to recover a few flakes of gold from a large mass of sand.”11

The most logical reason, however, was that both Shull and the Carnegie Institution saw publication as a lose-lose situation. Whatever result was sure to anger and infuriate. A large body of the scientific community wanted the Institution to expose Burbank as a fraud; Burbank’s legion of supporters wanted him enshrined as no less a genius than Newton. There was no possibility of a compromise report that would leave the reputations of the Carnegie Institution and Shull free of significant damage.

Burbank likely saw the Carnegie grant as a kind of sinecure – an “attaboy” for long years of good works and encouragement to do even more cross-breeding. Given that George H. Shull wasn’t the sort of fawning sycophant that normally wanted to hang with Burbank, it surely occurred to him that any report published by the Institution might have a high risk of being embarrassing and damaging to his reputation. Those were two reasons why Burbank was motivated to be uncooperative. The third reason was that he had others at hand who wanted to write the “Compleat Burbank,” and these parties were far more willing to wear Burbank’s leash. More to come in Burbank Follies, Part III.

NOTES:1pg. 145, Bentley Glass, The strange encounter of Luther Burbank and George Harrison Shull (American Philosophical Society, 1980)
2pg. 137, ibid
3pg. 439, Walter L. Howard, Luther Burbank: A Victim of Hero Worship (Chronica Botanica 9)4pg. 136, Glass
5pg. 436-437, Howard
6pg. 140, Glass
7pg. 173, Peter Dreyer, A Gardener Touched With Genius (Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, Santa Rosa, CA), 1985
8pg. 176-177, ibid
9pg. 141, Glass
10ibid
11pg. 442-443, Howard

WILL BECOME SANTA ROSAN
Dr. George Shull Purchases Pretty Home Here

Dr. George F. Shull, of the Carnegie Institute, who is here to write the wonderful works of Luther Burbank, for a series of technical books, has determined to become a citizen of Santa Rosa. On Monday he purchased a handsome residence of Dr. and Mrs. J. N. Hooper on McDonald avenue and will move into the same as soon as possession can be secured.

– Santa Rosa Republican, March 5, 1907
THE SAD DEATH OF MRS. G. H. SHULL
Estimable Young Woman Passes Away in This City Yesterday Morning After Brief Witness

At an early hour yesterday morning the silent messenger summoned from earth the soul of Mrs. Ella Hollar Shull, the dearly beloved wife of Dr. George H. Shull, director in charge of the Carnegie Institute experimental station Cold Harbor Springs, Long Island, N. Y., who came here some time ago to prepare scientific articles on Luther Burbank’s work. Death followed an extremely critical illness of a few day’s duration.

During her brief residence in Santa Rosa the deceased lady endeared herself to many friends and her sudden passing has occasioned the sincerest regret. Life’s span for her was a little over thirty-one years and she was called home at practically the commencement of what seemed destined to be a very happy wedded life. She was a bride only a few months ago, and the devoted husband she leaves behind is almost overwhelmed with the grief that has overtaken him.

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– Press Democrat, May 8, 1907

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A TOUR OF BURBANK’S GARDEN

Although he was rarely found cracking a smile, Luther Burbank had to be beside himself with joy in 1907. He was a year into the grant from the Carnegie Institution, which gave him $10,000 annually “for so long a time as may be mutually agreeable,” which he expected to be at least ten years. He had a contract with a Midwestern publisher for a 10-volume series on his work. He had sold the rights to his spineless cactus for the grand sum of $26,000. And perhaps best of all, the number of people pestering him had been cut down from 6,000/yr to less than half that multitude, thanks to a blunt, even threatening circular published the year before, warning that Burbank was being “murdered piecemeal as a showman” by the annoying, yapping masses.

This is the first of a three-part series on Burbank in 1907, and it’s fitting to launch it with a description of what his experimental farm looked like that year. Tagging along on a tour with 700 teachers (!) was the Press Democrat’s “Dorothy Anne, Society Gossip.” As I’ve written before, her columns are a guilty pleasure of mine. She wasn’t a very good writer and often snippy and mean, but hers are the only accounts that provide us with a view of what it was like to live in Santa Rosa in those days (albeit from a social climber’s perspective). She had toured Burbank’s new home the year before, leaving us a good description of a very nice, very historic house that Santa Rosa shamefully allowed to be destroyed.

2,500 CALLERS ON BURBANK IN 1907
Gives an Idea of the Great Attraction the Scientist and His Work Here Affords

An estimate obtained by a Press Democrat representative Wednesday shows that 2,500 people have come to Santa Rosa to see Luther Burbank during the present year. This furnishes an idea of the attraction the great scientist and his work really affords. The visitors have included prominent men and women from all parts of this country and some from other countries. In addition to visiting Mr. Burbank here many of his callers have also inspected the large experimental farm near Sebastopol.

Prior to two years ago the number of callers was largely in excess of the figure give for this year. Then, it will be remember, a number of Mr. Burbank’s friends, in order to prevent the great strain upon his health, and in order that he should not be molested in his work, sent out a letter which was given wide circulation, asking people to refrain from paying curiosity calls. The letter had the desired effect and since then the number of callers has been diminishing. In 1905 something like 6,000 callers came to the Burbank place.

– Press Democrat, December 5, 1907

Tuesday last the National Educators, 700 strong, swooped down upon Santa Rosa. They came to see, hear, and admire our distinguished townsman, Luther Burbank. They arrived at noon and departed at 3:30 p. m., apparently in a perfect state of rapture, because they had seen, heard, and admired Mr. Burbank. Being of a curious turn of mind, I wondered, as does all of Santa Rosa, what Mr. Burbank has in this wonderful workshop of his that brings distinguished visitors such distances.

Very few people in Santa Rosa scarcely any in fact, know anything about Mr. Burbank’s work. They know what he has accomplished in a [illegible microfilm]. It occurred to me if I went through the grounds possibly I could relate something of the work he is doing at the present time but–after two and a half hours of seeing, hearing and admiring, I must admit what I can say will be only brief, because the mystery enveloping his wonderful work so winds itself around one’s brain that mere description becomes impossible and inadequate. To properly describe Mr. Burbank’s grounds with the wonderful creations in state of process would take days of study and weeks of careful preparation, therefore what I can tell you is in no way a full or accurate account of all Mr. Burbank’s work. It is merely a glimpse.

The first wonderful creation we inspected was the spineless cactus, “Santa Rosa,” the result of ten years of labor and created from the desert cactus. Aside from the remarkable fact that it is absolutely spineless it has another remarkable feature. It stands in a bed surrounded by the original desert cactus from which this new creation apparently draws away all the strength. The two varieties were planted at the same time. At present the spineless flourishes its smooth leaves to the height of five feet, while the original desert plant has a hard time to live at all. What this will mean to the arid regions of our country and foreign lands it takes but a glance to see.

The red canna bed that can be plainly seen from the sidewalk is the same creation that took the first prize at the Buffalo Exposition. From a novice’s point of view I should judge it is remarkable for its wonderful deep red coloring of the flowers and the apparently hardy condition of the plants.

A dried-up bed, from which arose tall yellow stalks that here and there were tied with unornamental white rags, next occupied our attention. This, explained my guide, was a Canassia bed. To my uninitiated mind this information produced nothing but a blank. I had never heard of Canassia. But when my guide described the flower I recognized the tall, graceful wild flower we all know by the name of “wild onion.” It is curious we should call it “onion” when in reality it is the Indian potato. The Comanche Indians had many a fight with the white in the early days because they would not respect their Canassia beds. Mr. Burbank has increased the size of the flower, making it much more beautiful and has enlarged the size of the bulb from the size of a walnut to that of an apple. Think of the feast a Comanche Indian could have if he could get into that bed.

The poppy beds are scattered around the grounds and included among the varieties the Shirley, Opium, Oriental, Alaskan, Mexican, Mediterranean, Iceland Poppy. All are remarkable for some particular development. The Crimson Rhubarb bed with its green tops, supported by the crimson stems, waving gently in the afternoon breeze, hardly would impress you with the thrill it really ought to, for this creation of Mr. Burbank’s gives to the world Rhubarb the entire year, has received praise from almost every country in the universe.

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The Primrose bed was most wonderful to see. These flowers have developed until now they are 5 inches in diameter. These flowers are a perfect white in the morning, but by night have changed to a most delicate pink.

The bed of Bee larkspur, which can be seen plainly from the street, was all propagated from the deep blue variety. The flowers now are all much larger in size and are pale blue, lavender, pale pink, lavender tipped with pink, blue tipped with pink, combining these colors and making beautiful the flowers in a most amazing way.

There are Trigridias from Mexico that were originally red and now bloom in purple, yellow and white; there are gladiolas that are magnificent in size and colorings such as we only see on the Bird of Paradise; there was the yellow calla lily; there was the Potatoes growing in sand, 50 feet away the potato growing in adobe; there was the many seedless young plum trees, not far away from which were the young apple trees raised from seed; there was the white blackberry, the white strawberry, and the lazy wax bean; there was the “Santa Rosa” rose that blooms all the time; there was the Deadly Night shade; the Monkey tree; the Elm tree; the Guinea, commonly called pig weed, remarkable for its beautiful green and crimson foliage; the grasses–including grass from the Philippines, South America and other foreign lands; all these and many more are being cared for and watched by Mr. Burbank with an idea of improving and creating something more beautiful and beneficial for mankind.

Basking in the sunshine by the gate lay a cat, just a plain black and white cat, all unmindful of the fact that above him towered the wonderful apple tree, upon which at one time there grew 526 varieties of apples and caused one little boy in the East to exclaim upon being told that story, “Oh, Mama, is Mr. Burbank God!”, equally unconscious of the proximity of a Catillina cherry tree that is ever green; he paid no attention to the fig tree on the north and did not seem to sleep any of the less well because within the radius of a few feet, a $10,000 cactus grew! Happy cat! Happy cat!

Wonder you gentle reader that hundreds of visitors come from all parts of the world to see, hear, and admire Mr. Burbank and his wonderful achievements? Wonder you that last Tuesday 600 educators returned home with their faces wreathed in smiles at the close of what one visitor exclaimed, “A perfectly happy day” — even if some did not find trained in the proper manner the “Human Plant,” for which they sought so diligently! It is to be hoped that some day not too far distant that Mr. Burbank will find time to have a “Santa Rosa day,” so that his own townspeople, who love and admire him, will be able to see and admire for themselves his wonderful work, and remarkable workshop.

– Society Gossip by Dorothy Anne, Press Democrat, July 28, 1907

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