Over his sixty years, Luther Burbank likely never suffered a month as dreadful as those days spanning New Year 1910.
The dark times began in mid-December of 1909 when his mother died. It was not unexpected – she was 96 and in failing health – but her passing was still a heavy blow; “she had been her son’s constant companion and throughout the years the devotion of one to the other was marked,” the Press Democrat noted in her obituary. She had lived with him or in a house next door his entire life, except for a brief period when he first moved to California. It must have been a lonely Christmas without her in his big house on Tupper street.
Barely a week after her funeral, Burbank found reporters on his doorstep. A San Francisco newspaper had published a rumor that Burbank had lost his $10,000 annuity from the Carnegie Institution. We don’t know which paper published the original story, but in wire service summaries it was stated that the Institution allegedly disliked his “commercialism,” and specifically didn’t approve of the deal he had made with the Law brothers to form a distribution company. The Santa Rosa Republican asked Burbank if any of this was true; “he replied that he had not heard of anything of the kind and felt certain there was nothing in the story published.”
Then on January 16, 1910 – a month and a day after the death of his beloved mother – the New York Times printed the most damning story on Burbank that had ever appeared in a major American newspaper. Headlined “Doubts Cast on Burbank Wizardry,” the article began,
|Scientists and Government officials are beginning to examine with a good deal of attention the schemes to which the name of Luther Burbank, the so-called “plant wizard,” has been lent.
Mr. Burbank’s varieties of vegetable, plants and flowers have been exploited for years in the press as standing marvels. He has not hesitated to call them his creations and he has received scientific recognition of the highest character by an annual grant of $10,000 for ten years from the Carnegie Institution to enable him to continue his experiments.
But lately his claims have met with a good deal of criticism…
“Burbank, to my mind, is just a sharp Yankee seedsman,” the Times quoted Dr. B. T. Galloway, Chief of the Washington Bureau of Plant Industry. “Too many of the men who really made great discoveries in the horticultural world died in the poorhouse, for me to be willing to see a man get such renown with so little solid basis for it.”
The paper rehashed at some length a controversy from the previous summer when an English gardening magazine and The Rural New Yorker (“an agricultural publication of high standing”) declared Burbank’s “Wonderberry” was a variety of nightshade that most gardeners considered a weed. The NY Times also brought up Burbank’s non-creation of the thornless “Burbank Cactus” and cast doubt that it was the world-changing discovery Burbank claimed.
“But putting aside the question of the merit of Mr. Burbank’s plants,” the article continued, “scientists feel that of late he has permitted himself to be exploited commercially in a way contrary to scientific ethics.” The article denounced the “lurid advertising” of the New South Farm and Home Company, which was selling farmland in central Florida that Burbank had supposedly attested was perfect for growing his cactus at great profit. Burbank apparently had no connection at all with those land promoters, although their ads quoted letters he had written about general Florida agricultural conditions out of context and used his signature in the ad to make it appear he had endorsed this specific project. The Times apparently did not seek comment from Burbank, making their criticism about any ethical failures on his part less stabbing.
Burbank telegraphed his response to the Times the following day. “I am exploited, whether willing or not, and very much against my own wishes,” he wrote, curiously not denying an endorsement of New South Farm and Home. “Does it pay to exploit commercially a proposition which does not stand on a sound basis of character and value?” He also copied a description of the cactus from his catalog, pointing out that while non-prickly cacti existed in nature, his invention was “absolutely thornless.”
Burbank’s letter to the New York Times continued:
|It was mutually agreed upon and fully understood, both by the Carnegie Institution and myself, that I should have the privilege of supplementing their inadequate annual aid towards the continuance of my experiments by the sale of my productions as before.
I am now past sixty years of age, have done good work, and no one is dependent upon my efforts. The grant brought with it more care, responsibility, correspondence, and visitors and a full crop of envy and jealousy, and but for the advice of friends I should have dissolved my connection with the institution last year.
Those comments were remarkable because here was Burbank apparently confirming important news – that the rumors were true and he had lost the prestigious grant that served as the bedrock of his scientific legitimacy. The Times’ editor didn’t seem to know what to do with this admission; Burbank’s letter was published as a stand-alone article with the preface that “it was also noted that Mr. Burbank is in the receipt of an annual grant of $10,000 for ten years from the Carnegie Institution that he may pursue his scientific studies unhampered by lack of funds.”
In fact, Institution president Robert S. Woodward had sent Burbank a letter more than three weeks earlier, notifying him that the Board of Trustees had voted to “discontinue subsidies in aid of your horticultural work. It is unnecessary here to set forth the reasons which have led to this action…The probability of such action was also indicated to you in the summer of 1908 on the occasion of my last visit to you. While personally regretting the necessity for this termination of our relations, there appears to be no other course open to the Institution.”1
Thus Burbank’s endowment had ended exactly when the San Francisco paper had published its story about the rumored cancellation. Burbank had lied to the Republican reporter when he said it wasn’t true. Or maybe not; what he actually told the Santa Rosa paper was “he had not heard of anything of the kind.” The official letter from Washington D.C. could not have reached him by that time, and while presumably president Woodward would have telegraphed Burbank promptly after the decision had been made, we don’t know that. It’s certainly possible someone among the anti-Burbank faction on the Carnegie board rushed to leak the embarrassing news to the press before he actually received notice.
The day after Burbank’s letter to the New York Times was published, newspapers everywhere reported that his deal with the Carnegie Institution was terminated – again, this was over three weeks after the Board voted. Like other papers, the Press Democrat excerpted sections of his letter-to-the-editor as if it were Burbank’s press release (and he might well have distributed it as such). To its discredit, the San Francisco Call cut-and-pasted the letter to make it appear to be an interview under the headline “Burbank Discusses Institute’s Action.” Worse, the Call paired the “I am exploited” sentence with a reference to his deal with the Law brothers, removing it completely from the original NY Times context about land scammers in Florida. Not the golden age of journalism that was.
The churlishness apparent in Burbank’s comments must have shocked all but his most devoted admirers. What he dismissed as “their inadequate annual aid” works out to over a quarter million dollars in today’s money – hardly a trivial sum. For those in the public who revered him as a “wizard” here was another all-too-human Burbank, with self-pity and bitterness seeping from his words.
Burbank’s comments left the impression the grant requirements were a burden and great imposition, but we now know that he did little and was uncooperative, even sometimes hostile to researcher Shull (see parts 2 and 3 of this series). In the termination letter Woodward also wrote he expected Shull be able to wind up his report, and Burbank responded, “I shall try to aid Dr. Shull in recorrecting the dictation which I have been giving him the last five years.”2 When Shull returned to Santa Rosa, however, he found Burbank even more intractable and insisting he was too busy. Shull wrote to Woodward, “He says he has no income now, and that his time is worth $500-$600 an hour.”3 In the end, Dr. Shull was able to complete only one small paper which described Burbank’s experiments with rhubarb.
It’s telling that Burbank called the Carnegie grant his lost “income.” He evidently misunderstood it to be an entitlement – a public benefactor’s thanks for years of good works and encouragement for him to continue doing what he was doing. It also seems he failed to understand the advancement-of-science mission of the Carnegie Institution. Asked to provide a summary of his work in 1908 for the Institution’s yearbook, Burbank submitted four pages of hyperbole and descriptions that were more appropriate for advertisement copy.4 His thornless cactus was really popular and yields were amazing; he gushed, “it means more than the discovery of a New Continent!!” His work was “a heavy burden personally, but to the great world it means a revolution, a new birth in agriculture, horticulture and biological research.” Needless to say, none of that ballyhoo made its way into the dry two paragraphs that appeared in the yearbook.
In Burbank’s defense, it has to be said that there was also a great deal of miscommunication between him and the Institution’s president Woodward. In the summer of 1908 – about a year and a half before the grant would be terminated – Woodward wrote to him in alarm:5
|…I deem it imperative to state that a halt must be called upon all these operations if your connection with the institution is to continue.
I wrote you in December, 1904, and it is still my desire, to give you a free hand in your horticultural work and in the expenditure of the subsidies grated you, but it was assumed, of course, that in so doing the good name of the institution would be in no sense jeopardized. Now, however, that the institution is put on the defensive with regard to your connection with it, it is essential for me to point out that your entrance into other fields than those of horticulture, however much this may be desired by the irresponsible public, raises serious doubts as to whether your connection with the institution should continue…
Woodward was particularly concerned because he had received “a large mass of correspondence with regard to the projected institute to be founded in your honor.” Burbank promptly replied that his information was far out of date; he had nothing to do with the proposed local “Burbank College” and anyway, the idea never went very far and had been abandoned months ago.
The Institution was also greatly concerned about the ongoing work for a series of Burbank books supposedly being produced by Cree Publishing, then later Cree-Binner. Burbank repeatedly assured him it was apples and oranges; the other books were intended to be lightweight reading for the general public. When Burbank griped, “I have long been pained, surprised and disappointed that the Carnegie Institution has made no move” to present his work to “the clamoring public,” Woodward replied they had always planned to publish the “popular aspects of your work,” but were scared off when the guys from Cree showed up.6 This was news to Burbank; demerits to the Carnegie Institution for not making that clear way back in 1904, when the terms of the grant was negotiated.
Once the money was cancelled, Burbank did not comment upon it directly, aside from his disjointed letter to the New York Times with its odd swipe that the undoing was to be blamed on the “full crop of envy and jealousy” against him. But he was not quite ready to let the matter go.
Edward F. Bigelow, editor of “The Guide to Nature,” a monthly magazine published by a naturalist society based in Connecticut, inserted himself in the summer of 1910 between Burbank, “the grand, kindly-hearted man, beloved by all who knew him and especially by the school children of Santa Rosa” and “iron-hearted” Woodward (not that Bigelow had any bias). The published article offers snippets from letters written to him by both. Burbank seemed to be on a rampage to find out who was responsible for pulling the plug:
|I would ask you plainly why do the Carnegie people refuse to give the full facts, I DEMAND them… I have never desired any publicity, and would always have greatly preferred private life except that it was necessary to mention my new creations in order to sell them to keep the work going; 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.|
Woodward’s response was measured and polite (at least, until Bigelow apparently became strident). “You are certainly unaware of the thousand pages or more of history bearing on this subject filed in our office,” he replied, but declined to explain the reasons for the termination, “out of consideration for [Burbank] especially. [T]he history of our attempt to cooperate with him in his work should not be given to the public until after his death.” Nothing about it was further said, however, when Burbank died sixteen years later.
But the basis can be found in the minutes of the December, 1908 Board of Trustees meeting, when Burbank’s final year of financial support was approved. Andrew Carnegie spoke in support of Burbank, saying he wanted to “sustain Mr. Burbank in his work” for the benefit of mankind, not the advancement of science, and would even approve in an increase in the amount. Woodward agreed, but pointed out he was often asked “why we, as an institution, are subsidizing a faker.” The Board resolved “it was desirous of seeing the work brought to an end.”7
While unlikely, it’s possible that Burbank could have stayed on the grant payroll for another few years, given his personal backing from Mr. Carnegie. But it is probably revealing the first reports of the cancellation mentioned Burbank’s association with the Law brothers; given Woodward was already concerned Burbank might be harming the “good name of the institution,” there was no way he could remain part of the Carnegie family if he had been associated with the scabrous Laws. In the end, Luther Burbank lost his lucrative deal with the Carnegie Institution not because of a cabal of enemies, but because of bad decisions by the guy he saw every morning in the mirror.
|1Unpublished correspondence December 27, 1909; archives of Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, Santa Rosa, CA|
|2Unpublished correspondence January 12, 1910; archives of Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, Santa Rosa, CA|
|3Peter Dreyer, A Gardener Touched With Genius (Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, Santa Rosa, CA), 1985, pg. 180|
|4Unpublished correspondence September 29, 1909; archives of Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, Santa Rosa, CA|
|5Unpublished correspondence August 4, 1908; archives of Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, Santa Rosa, CA|
|6Unpublished correspondence August 15 and September 22, 1908; archives of Luther Burbank Home & Gardens, Santa Rosa, CA|
|7Dreyer, pg. 173|
LUTHER BURBANK’S MOTHER DIES HERE LAST NIGHTThe woman who gave Luther Burbank to the world is dead.
Deeply loved and revered by the immediate members of her family and highly esteemed by a large circle of friends, Mrs. Olive Ross Burbank entered into rest at a quarter past five o’clock Wednesday evening at her son’s residence on Santa Rosa avenue. Her life span lacked but three years and four months of being one hundred years.
The end came so peacefully that it was just a lengthening of the unconsciousness into which she had fallen some days previously and an awakening again in a land where time is not measured by years and where people never grow old or infirm.
Almost up to a week ago Mrs. Burbank was able to take some walking exercise in the garden about the house. She had commenced to show signs of failing, some eight or ten years ago, however. At the close of life came the final breakdown of the system and accompanying pain and suffering, which was relieved by the coming of the silent messenger and the touch that brought peace, winging the spirit of the loved mother and friend to the realms above.Born in Massachusetts
Mrs. Olive Ross Burbank was born in Sterling, Mass., on April 7, 1813. She came of rugged scotch ancestry. In 1845 she was married to Samuel Walter Burbank and they lived at Lancaster, Mass. Her husband died in 1868. Of the union five children were born, three of whom survive. The latter are Luther Burbank of this city, Alfred Burbank of Riverside county, and Mrs. Emma Burbank Beeson, recently of this city, and Healdsburg, and now of Point Richmond. A stepson is Daniel Burbank of Petaluma.Makes Home With Son
It was in 1877 that Mrs. Burbank came to Santa Rosa, two years after her son, Luther Burbank, had made his home here. Since that time she had been her son’s constant companion and throughout the years the devotion of one to the other was marked. She was deeply interested in his work in the creation of new fruits and flowers and each of his successes meant just so much joy for her. She used to smile as she related how when he was a mere baby Luther had a love for flowers, even to the extent that his tears would turn to laughter if a flower was pressed into his baby hands.
Mrs. Burbank was a remarkably active woman. She has friends here who remember when she first moved to Santa Rosa. Then despite the fact that she was seventy-five years of age, by her looks and actions she could easily have passed for fifty. She was always kind and solicitous for others. “Mother’s Birthday” will no longer be celebrated as it has been for many years at the Burbank home on each recurring April 7. They were red letter days in the Burbank household. Her room in the Burbank household was where the summer’s sun lingered longest, and where through the open window the sweet perfume of the Santa Rosa rose and the other of her son’s flower creations could come.Some Reminiscences
In the little school Mrs. Burbank attended in Massachusetts she had as a classmate the little girl who was the “Mary” giving the nursery rhyme, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” It was to that school that the lamb followed Mary.
Mrs. Burbank was over six years old and attending school when the late Queen Victoria was born.Interment at Sebastopol
The funeral will most likely take place on Friday afternoon at one o’clock from the residence and the interment will be in the family plot in Sebastopol cemetery. The funeral will be strictly private.– Press Democrat, December 16, 1909
NOTHING TO WIERD STORYFrisco Paper Says Support is Withdrawn
A San Francisco paper of Wednesday has a long rambling story purporting to give the action of the trustees of the Carnegie Institute, in which it is declared the institute has decided to withdraw the financial support guaranteed to Luther Burbank of this city.
Mr. Burbank has never heard of such a matter, and it is hardly probably that there is anything to such a wierd [sic] story. When asked by a REPUBLICAN representative concerning the matter Wednesday afternoon, he replied that he had not heard of anything of the kind and felt certain there was nothing in the story published.
The work which Mr. Burbank is doing is far too important to humanity for the Carnegie Institute to withdraw its support, especially as it was pledged for a specific number of years. This institute does not do things in that manner, and it is an improbable story given to the public.
The cause assigned for the withdrawal of the support of the institute was the commercialism of the work carried on by Mr. Burbank. It is a well known fact that the amount of financial aid which the institute has given him annually is more than expended in carrying on the thousands of experiments which he has underway. For this reason Mr. Burbank sells the rights to new species which he creates. It is declared in the article published that the company formed by the Law Brothers for the exploitation of Mr. Burbank’s works is responsible for the alleged withdrawal.– Santa Rosa Republican, December 29, 1909
CARNEGIE AID HAS BEEN WITHDRAWNLuther Burbank Confirms the Report–Idea of “Commercialism” Old Not Exist in Understanding
Some time ago the report was mentioned that the Carnegie Institution has withdrawn its financial aid towards the development of Luther Burbank’s experiments. The appropriation was $10,000 a year. Mr. Burbank has confirmed the withdrawal of the support and in an interview wired to the New York Times on Monday had this to say of the matter, regarding the announcement that the withdrawal had been because of “commercialism” in the disposal of products:
“It was mutually agreed upon and fully understood, both by the Carnegie Institution and myself, that I should have the privilege of supplementing their inadequate annual aid towards the continuance of my experiments by the sale of my productions as before.
“Am now past sixty years of age, have done good work, and no one is dependent upon my efforts.
“The grant brought with it more care, responsibility, correspondence, and visitors and a full crop of envy and jealousy, and but for the advice of friends I should have dissolved my connection with the institution last year.
“Personally, I have no desire for wealth or fame, a thirst for these is the root of may evils. My ambition has been to leave the world better for having passed this way. To be misjudged is a passing trifle, to have lost a life of honest, earnest labor is a tragedy.”– Press Democrat, January 19, 1910
CARNEGIE SURPRISED AT WITHDRAWAL OF AID
The newspaper interviews at Del Monte on Thursday Andrew Carnegie stated that he was surprised at the announcement some time since that the Carnegie Institution had withdrawn its financial aid to the research work done by Luther Burbank. He said that while he did not usually interfere in the conduct of the business of the Institution he would inquire into the Burbank matter.– Press Democrat, March 12, 1910