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Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants

by Jane S. Smith

Pub Date: April 1st, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-59420-209-4
Publisher: Penguin Press

In-depth look at a pioneering horticulturalist and the impact of his work.

Smith (History/Northwestern Univ.; Patenting the Sun: Polio and the Salk Vaccine, 1990, etc.) illuminates the history of the plant-breeding business through a profile of Luther Burbank (1849–1926). In his early 20s, the budding inventor became captivated by a book called Variations of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, in which Charles Darwin tentatively suggested that lasting variations in plants could occur by selection, hybridization and grafting. Burbank realized that he could deliberately force such changes and thus create new, potentially lucrative plants and crops. One of his earliest successes, a large, hardy, white-fleshed potato, has since become the most widely grown potato in the world. His breeding experiments later yielded hugely popular varieties of plums, peaches and other fruits that extended growing seasons and increased farm yields. California fruit producers and exporters, who massively benefited from his creations, lionized him as one of the greatest thinkers of the age. He became so respected and well known that he was mentioned in the same breath as contemporaries Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. He even wrote a book about childrearing, despite the fact that he was childless; The Training of the Human Plant (1907) became a nationwide bestseller. Smith delights in Burbank’s celebrity, but she also keeps a keen eye on the science of his life’s work. One section touches on the debate over whether manipulated plants can and should be patentable; Smith doesn’t shy away from the implications of Burbank’s commerce-friendly plant manipulation and the popularization of the idea that nature can be mastered and altered for a profit.

An accessible introduction to an agricultural innovator that gives equal weight to his life of experimentation and what it has meant for society.