Tuesday, 4 March 2014

The History and Social Influence of the Potato (excerpts from the preface)

Here are some entertaining excerpts, with an interesting connection to William Bateson, from the preface of Radcliffe N. Salaman's magnum opus of 1949:

The History and Social Influence of the Potato

"Now that, after many years, a record of my studies on the history and economic repercussions, consequent on the introduction of the potato, is near completion, it may not be inopportune to give some account of how my interest in this otherwise inoffensive vegetable came about. [...]

My career as a medical man and pathologist was brought by illness to a sudden close in 1903. [...]

In the following year, I retired to what promised to be a life of ease and leisure in the beautiful village of Barley, in north Herts. In less than a couple of years my health was completely restored and I was able, once more, to lead a physically active life. Thirty-two years of age, happily married, free from financial cares, and devoted to hunting, one was unconsciously graduating for the part of a Jane Austen character. But I discovered, as I believe her men also would have done, had not their careers invariably terminated with their capture and mental sterilization at the altar, that 'respectability', even with a corresponding income, is not enough. [...]

It was at this time that the study of heredity had taken on its new character and direction, following on the rediscovery of Mendel's epoch-making experiments. I was tempted to hope that within the field of the new science I might find an opportunity to satisfy my desire to do, as well as to learn.

In this connection, I was fortunate in knowing William Bateson, and it was at his suggestion that I enlisted as one of the small group of professionals and amateurs who, under his guidance, were building up the English school of Mendelian research.

With material supplied by Bateson, I set to work: in succession on butterflies, hairless mice, guinea-pigs, and Breda combless poultry. In my hands, all these adventures, I regret to say, were more or less complete failures. Loth to trespass further on Bateson's generosity and time, I decided that my next failure, if failure it was to be, should be in a field which, as far as I knew, had not been invaded by any of the new biologists.

Armed with this resolve, I confided to my gardener, Mr Evan Jones, that I felt it would be more becoming were I to confine my attention to some common kitchen-garden vegetable, and had he any suggestions to make? Jones was one of those men who, within the ambit of their own profession, feel themselves to be all but omniscient. His answer, prompt and to the point, remains fixed in my memory: 'If you want to spend your spare time on vegetables, then you had better choosen [sic] the potato, for I know more about the potato than any man living.' This seemed a promising beginning, though not without its dangers, seeing that Jones was an autocrat and I was instinctively opposed to dictation by others. However, I asked him to procure for me two distinct varieties, one bearing red, the other white tubers, and said I would 'try my luck'. With a sweep of the hand towards the kitchen garden, Jones informed me that all that one could wish for, in the matter of red and white potatoes, was already at my disposal, and introduced me to two plants: one, a white tubered variety, he said was 'Ringleader', and the other, a red one, was 'Flourball'. With these two, in the year 1906, I embarked on an enterprise which, after forty years, leaves more questions unsolved than were at that time thought to exist."
Max Liebermann: "Kartoffelernte" [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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