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.

[..]

– Press Democrat, May 8, 1907

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