580: A Rum Affair by Karl Sabbagh

by Gerard

580.92: Sabbagh, Karl. A Rum Affair: A True Story Of Botanical Fraud. US: Da Capo Press, 2001. 263 pp. ISBN 0-306-81060-3.

Dewey Construction:

  • 500: Science
  • 580: Botany
  • +92: Biography

In 1948, John Raven had had enough. Discoveries from the Hebrides, and most notably the Isle of Rum (also spelled Rhum), by Professor John Heslop Harrison seems to be contrary to all known theories about the Ice Age and plant life in Britain. Harrison had discovered several species of sedge (or grass) on the islands that supported his unique theory that this particular plant life had survived the last Ice Age. It didn’t make any sense to Raven. So, he did what all passionate professors do: he secured a grant, traveled north, and sought to set the record straight.

John Heslop Harrison was a bulldog scholar; his theories were the only right ones and all others were anathema. This, no doubt, got on his colleagues’ nerves as they were just trying to understand the science of botany and weren’t out to dominate the field. When he reported that certain grasses and sedges had been thriving on the Hebrides Islands for the last 10,000 years, no one outright questioned him. No one, that is, until John Raven came along. John Raven was a classics professor who dabbled in botany as an amateur hobby. But, he was very good at it. Harrison’s findings didn’t make a whole lot of sense to him and he went to the Scottish islands to see for himself.

Eventually, Raven sussed out that Harrison’s samples were transported by hand to the islands, then “discovered” at a later date. Raven was never able to find an actual, true sample of the surviving plants anywhere. This, paired with testimony from island residents and other witnesses, painted a picture of scientific fraud. Harrison was adamant that no wrong-doing took place, but could never shake the stigma of Raven’s findings.

Sabbagh’s Rum Affair is the tale of Raven’s search for the truth as well as a look into both past and present botanical scientists. To them, this is still a major scandal in the field. But, for Sabbagh, it is more a journey into why some scientists go too far in their experiments. Whether it’s a lust for fame or a need to be right or a rivalry with another scientist, the reasons often times important in getting to the root of the matter (pun intended).

When I got this book, I thought for sure it would be about rum production as it relates to plant science. Turns out, I was way off. But, by some happy accident, I got to read about a scandal in the botanical world. This may not seem like much to be interested about, but to the thousands of professional and amateur botanists around the world, it is. All in all, a fun and wry book.