Listen to my #BSHS14 paper – ‘The History of Agricultural Experiment: A Latourian Synthesis of Genetics’

Hello you.
I have uploaded a video (including slides) of the paper I delivered at the 2014 British Society for the History of Science annual conference, hosted by the University of St Andrews. My very sincere thanks to all the organisers. I would also like to thank Giuditta Parolini, who organised the two panel session on the ‘history of agricultural experiment’ in which I presented my work, and Jonathan Harwood, who gave a thorough and generous response to all the papers presented there. With a bit of luck, some version of this paper might well get submitted to a journal. Exciting! (For me). Lastly, my thanks to Chris Kenny, who gave me his time (when I didn’t know where to begin researching the history of experiment) and then set me to work on Latour. If any of you ever get to ask Dr. Kenny for advice, take both!

It is remarkable to me that someone hasn’t made this argument before, which makes me suspicious. If you know of such an example, or allusion, please do pass it on. I would also welcome any criticisms and comments, which will help as I continue to write. Thanks!


Download my thesis – ‘Genetics, Statistics, and Regulation at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, 1919-1969’

Hello all, this is a short post to announce that I am making my thesis available online. It can be downloaded (entire or by chapter) via the links below.

There are two main groups of people I am hoping will read it. Firstly, current employees of NIAB (who I kept in mind throughout the writing process) and secondly,  historians of plant breeding/agriculture, (who were the main historiographical audiences). As you can see though, I address a number of different subjects, including the First and Second World Wars, randomized control trials, and genetics.

To my first audience – I hope you enjoy it! I have kept NIAB in focus throughout, and while you might not agree with everything you find, or might want to question some of my interpretations, my main hope is that you can get a sense of the history behind the Institute. If you already have a sense of that history, all the more reason for you to read this! Please do send any criticisms, or questions, or comments to me, or indeed write them in reply to this blog post.

To my second audience – I hope you enjoy it! I understand the vast distance between thesis writing and publishable writing, and with luck, I hope most of this will be coming to you in a much more polished format some time soon (i.e. over the next ten to fifteen years). Working on NIAB was a great challenge, and the archival materials really are worthy of greater study than I could achieve all by my lonesome.

If you want to know why each chapter is titled ‘Seed Multiplier’ or something similar, you will need to read the Introduction. Similarly, if you hate having to read over the watermarks, email me! Depending on how well I know you, you just might get a prettier version. No idea if the watermark does anything other than help me sleep at night, but it’s there.

WHOLE THESIS: ‘Genetics, Statistics, and Regulation at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, 1919-1969’


1. Seed Multiplier: The Wartime Founding of NIAB and the OSTS, 1914-1921

2. Field Trialler: Trialling Methods and the Resistible Rise of Randomization, 1921-1931

3. Plant Identifier: The ‘Cereal Synonym Committee’ and the Commercial Life of Genetics, 1930-1937

4. National Institute: Agricultural science in the Second World War, 1939-1955

5. Independent: Reinventing NIAB in the productivist era, 1955-1970



Appendix 1: NIAB Archive Handlist (hosted on NIAB archive website)

Appendix 2: Trial centres that cooperated with NIAB’s county oat trials



Outsider scientists: D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, biology and art

One of the things that first attracted me to HPS was that I got to study losers. People who lost debates, people who lost out in the received histories, people who lost credibility. Understanding why they lost, or have been displaced from history, and reviving their views while subjecting them to fresh analysis, are things that I have come to love. It was for this reason that as soon as I saw Outsider Scientists: Routes to Innovation in Biology I immediately wrote to the book reviews editor of the BJHS (who also keeps a very fine blog) to bag a copy. In the preface to this edited collection, Michael Dietrich and Oren Harman write

 No one likes an outsider. They know it all, haven’t paid their dues, and often think little of the rules everyone else has been required to play by – except that outsiders are also sometimes godsends, blowing in like a felicitous wind, carrying new energy and whispering new truths. Outsiders often see things differently than those who have been gazing at a problem for a long time, and it is this perspective that makes them so valuable.

Outsiders are of course not necessarily losers. The list of figures addressed in this collection include Gregor Mendel (big winner in the long run), Louis Pasteur (winner then and now), Erwin Schrödinger (status indeterminate between winner and loser) and David Hull (tiger blood). Nevertheless, outsiders exist in the same territory as losers, what with the world being set against them. With these general interests explained I can turn to the reason for this post.

The Henry Moore Institute here in Leeds have produced an exhibit on the work of D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson titled ‘D’Arcy Thompson’s on Growth and Form‘. It is still in town until the 17th of August and well worth a visit.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Thompson is not a figure I have worked on, though I know him to be something of an outsider. Best remembered today for his 1917 book  On Growth and Form, Thompson is recorded in the history of biology as a problematic figure, one set against the world as he found it. At the turn of the twentieth century, while the rest of biological science was busying itself with experimentation, turning life on life, uncovering Darwinian evolutionary lineages and so on, Thompson stressed the constraining influence of structure upon organic development, the results of which could be mathematized and modelled. Thompson’s dedication to the close and detailed study of natural forms made him appear anachronistic both then and now. However, it is my pleasure to report that some cutting-edge HPS research has begun to challenge this received view. Thompson can in fact be made much less of an outsider provided we appreciate the disciplinary context(s) in which worked. In research very recently published by Maurizio Esposito, it is instead argued that “Thompson’s mathematical morphology was not the science of a loner and his ideas on evolution were not so ‘heretical‘”.  (If you have trouble scaling the pay wall, let me know). The Henry Moore exhibit can help to flesh out this picture, focusing as it does on two aspects of Thompson’s professional life not typically addressed synthetically; his teaching, and his influence on the artist Henry Moore.

Regarding his teaching, the bulk of the material has been loaned to the Henry Moore by the University of Dundee.

Plaster models used by Thompson. All rights to the image are property of the University of Dundee.

Plaster models used by Thompson. All rights to the image are property of the University of Dundee.

The above photograph is of one of the more colourful series that Dundee have lent to Leeds, a set of plaster models depicting ‘development of a primitive chordate’. The accompanying text explains that nothing is known of its origins. This is where HPS comes in! On looking at them I was immediately struck by how alike they were to the wax models that we have on display at the University of Leeds Museum for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine. A couple of years back, I was among a number of researchers who studied objects very much like these, which we then blogged about here, here and here. I remembered the name of Ziegler, arguably the most important C19th and early C20th manufacturer of medical and biological wax models, and so with a few google searches, I was able to pinpoint the original wax series that Thompson’s plaster models had been  based on.

Ziegler wax models. No idea who owns the rights to the image! If it’s you, get in touch and I’ll hook your link up.

To be certain that the models on display at the Henry Moore were the same series as these Ziegler models, I looked at the models numbered 17, 4 and 20 (pictured) on display in the Henry Moore, and sure enough, the models correspond to one another. If you actually visit the display in Leeds, you can see what a massive difference there is between the detailed colouring of these wax models, and the more lurid and much less delicate paint job that Thompson’s plaster versions received. Was this deliberate? Either a) to save money, or b) so that Thompson could make clearer more definite points about structure as he taught his students? Either way, breathing life back into Thompson’s class room – by investigating these models and the others currently on display, including Blashka models of a Jellyfish, flatworm lava, and Polychaete –  is one important way to help diminish his status as an outsider or loner.

Lastly, the exhibit includes drafts and sketches by Henry Moore, which we are told were heavily influenced by Thompson’s scientific work. They are amorphous, flowing, ambiguous, with faces in the wrong places, that sort of thing. (You can tell I know quite a bit about art). Here I would like to have seen something of the ‘evolution’ of Moore. We are given only the point at which he is supposed to have come under the influence of Thompson, but without seeing his earlier sketches and ways of working, we (or rather I) can’t see what difference Thompson made. There is every chance that studying Thompson’s influence within the art world, and the extent to which he himself was influenced by art, particularly his interests in classicism – which gained greater social significance at precisely this time, following the First World War and into the years of reconstruction – might embed his science all the more firmly in his historical context, helping to make Thompson much less of a loner or outsider.

On writing an institutional history (with special #histsci emphasis)

Though my thesis is many, many, extraordinary things, it is – when all is said and done – an institutional history. (By the way, I’ll be making it available online when all the paperwork is signed off and I’ve PAID to have it bound). Five chapters, each focusing on a 10-15 year chunk of time, chart the first fifty years of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB), a scientific and regulatory organisation based in Cambridge.

When first starting out, I was directed towards Mary Douglas’ ‘How Institutions Think‘. I remember enjoying it, but it became clear very early on that NIAB was not going to be an appropriate place to explore these ideas; Douglas’ institutions tended not to have ‘Institute’ in their name. Rather than continue casting around, I decided to dive straight into the mountains of untouched archive material held by the Institute, which for the years 1900-1970 have now been catalogued. The files, notebooks, folders, and boxes that make up the NIAB archive had been salvaged and organized by Tricia Cullimore and Paul Thompson, two employees at NIAB with a deep appreciation for the Institute’s history. These materials were then subsequently discovered on behalf of HPS by Berris Charnley. From there, and thanks to a grant from the AHRC, my PhD emerged. It was obvious from the beginning that this archive was going to make or break the thesis, and thinking about it now, it’ll probably make or break my career!

There were one or two good models at my disposal when it came to thinking about how to write the history of an institution such as NIAB. The official history of NIAB was a particularly obvious one, but just as obvious was that its authors (two past employees of the Institute) weren’t writing for an HPS audience.  Beyond this there was Eileen Magnello’s history of the National Physical Laboratory – significant for my purposes not only as a scientific institute, but one similarly patronised by the state and with a strong industrial standardising remit, paralleling much of NIAB’s work in enlightening ways.  In addition, there were the series of excellent and thoroughly researched John Innes Centre timeline’s, written by Sarah Wilmot, Outreach Curator and Science Historian at the Centre. That both of these latter resources had been compiled with an eye to their respective institution’s centenaries was also significant, as NIAB itself will be enjoying these celebrations in 2019 (and that of the Official Seed Testing Station, housed in the same Cambridge building, in 2017). From both of these works I learnt that it was possible to make exposition entertaining (sooooo much exposition in an institutional history) and that it is imperative never to take your eye off the ball; the institute is the key, or main thread, around which the rest must be woven. But what IS the Institute?

NIAB Headquarters, completed in 1921. Image property of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany.

NIAB Headquarters, completed in 1921. Image property of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany.

It’s this place, dummy!

I am only partly joking. Pointing to the buildings, grounds, and staff isn’t a ‘wrong’ answer in an institutional history. Pointing to these things and saying that this is all an institution is, that would be wrong, and is a common problem within more traditional institutional histories. Other problems include myopia (failing to see the institute as but one part of a much larger picture), taking the organisation too seriously (failing to see its fuzzy edges, incoherence, the constraints on its decisions), and being too hesitant to address darker episodes in the institute’s life, either due to developing too much affection for the place or (more worryingly) due to pressure from the institute’s contemporary staff. This last problem is of particular concern for that growing number of us funded by an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award (CDA). Students working on a CDA are closely bound to the collaborating partner from day one. You can imagine the kinds of problems this might throw up when researching and writing an institute’s history. I was exceptionally lucky that my NIAB supervisor, the Institute’s Director, Tina Barsby, allowed me my own head, and while her questions and suggestions contributed greatly to the ultimate form of the thesis, there was never even a wiff of ‘brand management’ or ‘interference’ in my research and writing. Tina always made the effort to find in my work points of comparison, often very direct, to her own experience, and I hope the thesis will go on to be something of a reference point for those responsible for NIAB’s future.

Having said this, I did develop an affection for the place. I think there are two main ways in which this shaped my thesis.

Firstly, I left out the more ‘journalistic‘ elements of historical writing. I placed my level of interpretation at a steady 10,000 feet and maintained it throughout. It would have been very easy to dip down time and time again, to interpret exchanges and arguments as ‘heated’ or ‘incoherent’, pointed out when somebody said something stupid, or whatever, but I simply left this kind of thing out. After all, NIAB matters, and has mattered, to many more people than just me. Writing a history of the place does not give me ownership over NIAB’s identity, there are many other people out there with memories of the Institute, and perhaps histories of their own. Trying to put my greasy little fingers over every moment, every face, every surface of the Institute, would not only have made my history off-putting to this wider audience of people interested in NIAB, but would also have been petty.

Secondly, when writing, I tried to imagine my thesis being read by the people who currently work there. I met quite a number of them, and got to spend extended periods of time with a few of the exceptionally friendly ones, drinking tea, eating cake, listening to them discussing their working week, institutional politics, family life, hobbies etc. Developing this sense of ‘NIAB today’ was, I think, important, because the history of the Institute can and should be a resource for these guys just as much as it should be for any historian. Having their imaginary eyes just over my shoulder has (I hope) helped me write fewer things that will come to make me cringe over the years ahead. An appreciation for ‘NIAB today’ also helped me select my problems (in a way that is not unproblematic). NIAB’s staff today have to worry about the purpose of the Institute, the arrangement and value of trialling, developments in genetics, regulation of plant matter, and the global agricultural industry. (That is Chapter’s 1 -5 in a nutshell). I am 99% certain that if a NIAB employee were to sit down and read that brief list, they would nod in recognition of the deep problems at the heart of each, and the unique way in which they are put together at the Institute.*

To end this post, I’d like to consider the value of writing an institutional history. In the last few weeks before submission, while working on the period of the late 1960s and approaching NIAB’s 50th anniversary (and thus the end of my thesis) I began to find material relating to their then anniversary plans. It was suggested that an institutional history should be commissioned. You can imagine my little heart skipping a beat at the thought of finding some unpublished manuscript at the 11th hour, rivalling my very own history of the same period. Unfortunately it quickly became apparent that the project had never been completed. What was interesting though, were the terms in which NIAB representatives saw the value of this enterprise, as it gave me something of a mirror to my own experiences.

This is a good idea to mark the 50th anniversary and as a propaganda effort. But it all hinges on cost – both £.s.d. for publication, and in time compiling such a record… I should have thought that if anything more than a base recital of facts is envisaged then you [Frank Horne, Director of NIAB] are about the only one who could make a good readable history of the Institute.

I have certainly achieved more than a base recital of facts, and if ‘all publicity is good publicity’ then you can consider my thesis a succesfully completed propaganda effort. As far as costs go, I think you’ll struggle to find a more productive unit than a PhD student. We work hard. Really hard. And keep ourselves poor just for the privilege to do so. Is it ‘a good readable history of the Institute’? Well folks, that’ll be for you to decide. Till then, God bless.

Dominic Berry will be making his thesis available online as soon as possible. In the meantime he is rediscovering the human world and drinking too much. He has decided to end this post as though you had been reading a proper journalistic piece because it makes him feel grand and powerful.

*I now await a flood of NIAB employees telling me I’m talking shit. What’s that you say? They don’t read this? Oh. Oh yes, quite right.



Three embarrassing stories from #phdlife

Hello you.

Well as I’m at the end of the PhD now, I thought I’d share some of my most embarrassing moments. Why?

1) They are funny.

2) Each was caused by a lack of professional maturity (and so each can be learnt from).

3) So that other people either beginning their PhD or part way through it, who might also have found themselves in these sorts of situation, can enjoy a wee moment of recognition.

Doing academic work puts you in a whole host of scenarios that no part of your previous life prepares you for. For instance, doing my PhD put me in Philadelphia. Being in Philadelphia was not a likely thing to have happened to me. Nor does it particularly suit me. Nevertheless there I went and was.

On with the cathartic exercise.

Story 1)

Straight out of the gate, I went to a big conference. I wasn’t presenting any work, but there were some people who I knew I should really talk to. After the panel that they were all in (during which I had asked an eager-beaver question that really should have been answered by the pop of a silenced pistol) I went over to them. There they were having a perfectly nice time. A little chat. There was no room at the inn. But I’m important right? I’m a first year PhD student a few weeks into my project. So I say something sycophantic to one of them, who is now wrenched out of the conversation that they were enjoying and forced to talk to me. After explaining a little about my project and talking about their presentation, it soon transpires that there isn’t much more I can say. Then came “well, when you’ve done a bit more work we can talk about it”. I FELT SO SMALL! In retrospect, I was feeling the distance between my imagined size and my actual size. I said my thank you’s and made a bee line for my hotel room, where I had a little cry. There’s one for you Thomas Dixon, more tears for your coffers.

Lesson: Relax! There are years of the PhD. You will meet people in lots of different places. Sometimes they might even come and try and find you. If you want to talk to someone, don’t make ‘talking to them’ the aim of the conversation. You’re there to work and have fun, not gush over people you admire. You dumb shit.

Story 2)

This one is a bit worse. I was at a book launch at the end of which the decision was taken to make a presentation to ‘BIG PROF’ who had recently won an award of some kind. An impromptu speech was given, the presentation was made, a quick ‘thank you’ speech was given in return, and then everyone got back to enjoying the wine and nibbles. At this point my brain said ‘go congratulate BIG PROF by giving them a glass of wine’. Fucking brain. The number of times it’s done stuff like this to me…euch, anyway, I go get a glass, walk over with a small respectful smile and find – surprise surprise – BIG PROF already has a glass of their own. But my arm was going forwards. My balance had shifted and everything. The glass was going forwards now and there was no way to stop it. There were two options a) turn the movement into a threatening one and throw the wine over their face, b) force them to take the glass. Which is what I did, and then walked away.

Lesson: Don’t do it. Don’t. It’s not a good idea. Save it for friends. Hell, save it for people who know your first name.

Story 3)

Another conference, but this time I was presenting. I made the effort to memorise the paper because I’m always impressed by people who can do that, or who can give the appearance of doing it but are really making it up as they go. A fortnight’s solid effort and I had the thing memorised. On the day of the presentation, I get two lines in and go blank. I had to go back to the podium and read from my script (only at certain points did my memory kick in, but I’d lost confidence by then and felt pretty dejected about the whole sorry thing, which was reflected in my performance). I got through it, got asked some very generous questions, but it took everything in my power not to immediately lock up the room and burn it down with everyone inside so that nobody would ever know what had gone on in there. “Why did this happen?” the relatives of those who perished would ask. “Because someone who spent a couple of weeks learning a twenty minute paper by heart, fluffed it pretty much straight away, and wished to kill everyone.” That evening, rather than grow up a bit, I was very insular at dinner, to the point of being rude to the kind people who had made the effort to take our panel out for some food. I’d like to go back and slap that guy.

Lesson: Play to your strengths. I now write my scripts in a conversational tone, and don’t worry about reading them aloud. I just make my presentations interesting and engaging for my audience in different ways. If everyone went around giving dazzling unscripted performances all the time, academia would be a terrible place to work. A terrible terrible peacocky place.

Well that’s all. No doubt more embarrassing things will happen to me, but by then I’ll be so well established in the field that people will just write them off as eccentricities.

That’s enough of me enjoying myself, back to work now. Bye.

Lights, lighty light lights – First World War and correct commemoration

Hello! I’ve been away submitting my thesis and return briefly with this short post because comments are closed on Garry Sheffield’s blog (I guess he must get a bit more spam and haterz than I do).

Anyway, here’s the post I’m responding to on the ‘lights out’ project, of which more can be read here.

People seem to hate this project! And perhaps:

– It is part of a wider problem about lack of government funding for commemoration of the war.

– It is a dumb idea.

– It has some questionable assumptions beneath it.


If these are the case, I want to see arguments for them! I want to know why this particular idea

“is predicated on the belief that the war was a terrible tragedy – which of course it was – but also that it was some sort of accident.”


It just looks like academic snobbishness about the proper way to commemorate the war, a motivation that will alienate more than it will inform the public.


It strikes me as odd how easy it is for historians of this subject to start using ‘respect for the war dead’ as a justification for the extent to which they are affronted by ‘Lights Out’. I was guilty of this myself the other day over on George Simmers’ blog when I wrote:

“If we want to do justice to the Great War, we’re going to need to take every single opportunity to teach it, and teach it well.”

It is lazy and wrong. I felt weird typing those words at the time, but only seeing Sheffield write them here: “The Government’s present attitude is an abdication of leadership, and feels like a betrayal of the memory of the men and women of 1914-18” forced me to see more clearly that it is just plain lazy. We all care about the war dead and war wounded. One side cannot claim to care more. That’s just plain old rhetoric.  If one side can be shown to be ignoring large chunks of history to force some propagandistic programme down our throats, then let it be shown, and we can all enjoy the spectacle of it getting torn to shreds. Show me that with ‘lights out’.

This is my challenge to you world, and here endeth the lesson.

I’m off to watch Jessica Meyer on the telly now (Ripping Yarns starts at 21:00) and you should too!

John Innes Centre Newsletter Entry

Hello! Here’s a short thing I wrote for the JIC internal newsletter ‘Nexus’. It was fun to write with a captive and largely scientific audience in mind. I’m putting it here mostly for my own records, but the ending might also give some of you a titter. Maybe.

The John Innes archives hold some exceptionally rare and valuable collections, these glass teaching slides being a prime example. They are so valuable, because they allow us to investigate how Darlington taught students and the public about genetics. Some very recent historical work (Google J.M. Skopek if you’re interested) has shown how important the actual teaching of genetics was for shaping the discipline, not only in the minds of those who had to figure out a way to teach this stuff, but also for the students that they encountered.

Genetics pedagogy changed a lot during the twentieth century, and reflects how the discipline shifted and reformulated itself, with repercussions for the kind of research that was done. 

Darlington’s slides, many of which are also very attractive (as you can see here) can give us a different angle on this same problem, one not dependent on textbooks. If you’ve ever sat in a lecture and thought “I could teach this better” then you’re already interested in these kinds of problems. The next step is to ask “I wonder if the way I teach things has something to do with my background? I wonder if the way I teach things, though better in lots of ways, is worse in others?”

These are the questions that historians of science try to answer, but with dead people. Spooky to think that some of you might be next on the dissection table!