12 Jan 2010, 11:13pm
Forestry education
by admin

A Very ‘Rhum’ Affair

By Roger Underwood

I was mulling over a paper on the temperature record at Darwin in the Northern Territory of Australia the other day [1]. The paper presented data that diverged significantly from the ‘official’ view that Darwin’s temperature has skyrocketed in recent years as a result of global warming. On the contrary, the Bureau of Meteorology’s own temperature records actually show no upward or downwards trend over the last century. The difference between the actual data and the official position is perplexing, to say the least, and I could not help but sniff the wind and wonder where the smoke was coming from.

However, I am no climatologist so I will have to wait for an independent analysis of the Darwin situation before reaching a firm conclusion. Nevertheless, the issue triggered an intriguing memory. I went to my bookcase and ran my eye along the titles. There it was: a slim paperback I had bought second-hand several years ago: A Rum Affair. A true story of botanical fraud by Karl Sabbagh, published in 1990 [2]. I sat down and re-read it, finding to my pleasure that I could easily recapture the fascination of the first reading. Almost an entire Sunday slipped past.

The story centres on John Heslop Harrison, an eminent British botanist and academic in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Heslop Harrison was Professor of Botany at the University of Newcastle-on-Tyne, a Fellow of the Royal Society and an expert on the natural history of the Hebrides, including the island of Rum (the spelling of the name was changed to Rhum in Victorian times, for the sake of propriety, but is today more usually spelled Rum, a spelling I prefer).

Heslop Harrison had a theory about the Hebrides, the string of islands lying off the west coast of Scotland. He believed that they had escaped the last Ice Age, despite the fact that glaciation had covered the rest of the British Isles, Europe and North America. His theory could be proven, he maintained, by the discovery of plant species growing on Hebridean islands that are found no-where else in Britain, species representative of the pre-Ice Age flora. Indeed he found several such species on Rum, including a sensational discovery of a rare sedge Carex bicolour, which he duly announced in a paper in the Journal of Botany, and a reed (Juncus capitatus) previously known only from the Channel Islands south of England.

Many contemporary scientists were sceptical of Heslop Harrison’s theory, and suspicions grew about the validity of his ever-lengthening list of rare plant discoveries. Suspicion deepened when attempts to find the plants by other botanists were unsuccessful, and when it was pointed out that the rare species found by Heslop Harrison on Rum were growing on very different soils and in quite different topographical situations to those where they naturally occurred.

Heslop Harrison also ‘discovered’ a species of water beetle in a Hebridean loch which had never been found in the British Isles before, and never was again, giving rise to puzzlement amongst British entomologists. This led to further rumours and whispers within scientific circles.

Eventually, just after the end of World War II, a searching investigation focusing on about a dozen of Heslop Harrison’s “suspect” reeds and sedges, was undertaken. The investigator was John Raven, a Cambridge classics don, skillful amateur botanist and son of a noted British botanist. Raven’s methods were not entirely honourable. For example he tricked Heslop Harrison into allowing him onto Rum and joining in with one of Heslop Harrison’s field excursions. Nevertheless, his investigations were meticulous and his analytical skills impeccable. Raven concluded that the rare species found by Heslop Harrison did not occur on Rum. On the contrary, he considered that they had been raised by Heslop Harrison in his garden shed at Birtley, and then planted on Rum, where they were dramatically discovered by Heslop Harrison (working alone) shortly afterwards. To this day no other botanist has been able to duplicate Heslop Harrison’s key finds. Nor, inexplicably, were Heslop Harrison’s original collections professionally curated and archived, so they cannot be studied in herbaria today.

Nevertheless, Heslop Harrison had supporters in the botanical and scientific establishment. The allegations of fraud were well-known and oft-discussed within academic and botanical communities, but did not become public.The issue never became a cause celebre in the media, as perhaps might have happened today. Raven’s report was not published, but simply ‘tabled’ at Trinity College at Cambridge, where it languished for nearly half a century in the archives before re-discovery by Sabbagh (also a Fellow of Trinity College). The whole saga only came to light after the publication of Sabbagh’s book and a number of newspaper articles derived from it. The book drew unfavourable comment from Heslop Harrison’s supporters who were still influential in botanical circles as late as the 1990s, but subsequent disclosures from the British Natural History Museum have strongly supported both Raven’s and Sabbagh’s conclusions. Heslop Harrison died in 1967, a lonely and angry man, maintaining his innocence to the end. [3]

I found Raven’s investigations and conclusions, and Sabbagh’s book entirely convincing; I am in no doubt that fraud occurred. The most recent edition of the authoritative Sedges of the British Isles (quoted by Sabbagh) would seem to sum it up. After listing Carex glacialis, C.bicolor and C. capitata, all discovered by Heslop Harrison, under the heading of ‘Dubious Records’, the book goes on to say:

“The first two were recorded for Rhum… and the last mentioned species for S Uist in the outer Hebrides… as a single tuft. All have since disappeared from these localities and we consider them to have been planted”.

Sabbagh’s story has a number of intriguing themes. First there is the reconstruction of the botanical detective work by John Raven that led to the discovery of the fraud. Then there are the suggestions of collusion within the British academic-scientific establishment to ensure the issue was not publicised and would quietly die away. Underlying all this is the interplay between passionate men and women of science, Heslop Harrison’s supporters and his critics, and the behind-the-scenes influence of the great university colleges at Cambridge and Oxford. Not the least of many interesting aspects of the book is the island of Rum itself [4].

Heslop Harrison was a larger-than-life character, described by colleagues as forceful and opinionated. He attracted friends and enemies. He was utterly intolerant of criticism, and fell out badly with colleagues whom he thought should have been backing him and not siding with the opposition. And he was not just a prominent botanist and field naturalist. He was also an outspoken supporter and promoter of Lamarkism (the idea that acquired characteristics could be inherited, as opposed to the Darwinian notion of evolution being a matter of chance mutation and survival of the fittest). He even carried out and published a research project which demonstrated, to the great satisfaction of the Lamarkists, that white moths in England’s industrial north which became covered with soot and ingested aerial pollution, produced dark-winged offspring as a result. This research has since been roundly rejected, basically on the grounds of poor methodology and lack of statistical control, but it needs to be remembered that Lamarkism was popular amongst many scientists of the day (and still has its modern promoters), this being before the genetic mechanisms underpinning Darwin’s theory of evolution were known. However, given what we now know about his botanical research, it is hard to escape the thought that Heslop Harrison manipulated his moth research to get the results he wanted.

The most difficult aspect of the story is to find any satisfactory motivation for Heslop Harrison to attempt such a blatant fraud. Apart from anything else, botany is a discipline in which such an attempt would be almost impossible to sustain, given the long traditions of specimen collection, archiving, repeat survey and ecological and taxonomic research. As Sabbagh points out, and statements from many of Heslop Harrison’s contemporaries confirm, Heslop Harrison was powerfully wedded to theories and concepts such as Lamarkism and the survival of pre-Ice Age flora on the Hebrides. Perhaps he painted himself into a corner over this last issue, and the more scientifically isolated he became on it, the greater was the need to ensure something concrete was discovered for confirmation. Perhaps also, there is no need to look further than to the flaws and human frailties to which all of us are heir.

Looking back, the suggestion that the scientific and academic establishment were happy to sweep Heslop Harrison under the carpet, as it were, and let the accusations of fraud fade quietly away, is also disturbing. There is an old saying “the truth will always out”. Every scientist and academic must know and respect this.

Towards the end of his book, Sabbagh digresses and discusses other notable examples of scientific fraud during the 19th and 20th centuries. All filled me with unease. Eventually my thoughts turned back to the puzzle of the divergent temperature records for Darwin, and to questions of scientific integrity and to the trust in which we put our scientists and the scientific process. It will be intriguing indeed to see where this particular case ends. Not, one hopes, in a follow-up book by Karl Sabbagh.


1. Eschenbach, Willis (2009): The smoking gun at Darwin central [here].

2. Sabbagh, Karl (1990): A Rum Affair. Da Capo Press

3. Heslop Harrison’s youngest son Jack was also a botanist and had an impeccable reputation. He became the Director of the Botanic Gardens and Herbarium at Kew.

4. The history of Rhum is fascinating. It is one of the largest islands of the Inner Hebrides, that windswept archipelago scattered along the west coast of Scotland. Today it is a nature reserve and basically uninhabited, but in the 18th century it had a population of several hundred crofters and fishermen, each with their small leasehold lands or cottages, all owned by the Laird. In the early 1800s, the island was purchased by a Lancashire industrialist who foreclosed on the crofters and fishermen and ejected them from the island. His son inherited the island, built a huge castle on it, and then largely kept the place to himself and his family. Heslop Harrison was one of the few people made welcome, and he came to treat Rhum as his own private natural history museum.

13 Jan 2010, 12:12am
by Mike

Another little known tale of biologist fraud is the theory that bees communicate by a dance language, originally proposed by German scientist Karl Von Frisch in 1946 (for which he won the Nobel Prize). Many people, including many entomologists, still believe that bees talk to each other with waggles and spins. However, a California entomologist named Adrian Wenner performed some clever experiments and proved that bees, like all other insects, communicate with pheromones and the sucrose in the nectar, i.e. by odor, not dancing. And the pheromones play a minor role, at best, compared to the scent of the flowers.

Wenner was thoroughly castigated for daring to criticize the myth of the dancing language of bees. People want to believe that bees exhibit the miraculous ability to communicate by dancing. National Geographic has published many articles about the waggle dance, how so many spins plus a waggle means go north 300 yards to find the flowers, etc. But it’s all bunk.

Poor Adrian had to give up his bee research for 20 years because his work angered so many people. But the advent of the Internet introduced many “lay” people to the controversy, and Wenner has gradually been exonerated because his “odor plume” theory has been frequently confirmed. Plenty of non-academics keep bees. Common sense and common experience have prevailed, although the Language of the Bees is still a popular myth among those who want to believe it. See:




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