Book Review: A Rum Affair

Sorry for the long absence, folks! I caught a hideous summer cold which totally took me out for about ten days and then I was away for a bit. Summer colds seem so unfair – in the winter if I’m sick I’ll just lean into it. It’s cold outside, there’s not much to do other than work and I just dose myself with nyquil and sleep it off, watch trashy TV, and order takeout. In the summer it’s already hot and sticky and there are so many fun and interesting things to be doing – I resent every second spent in forced convalescence.

Anyways, on to our selection today. Whether you will enjoy “A Rum Affair: A True Story of Botanical Fraud” by Karl Sabbaugh probably depends greatly on how much of a plant or history nerd you are. In brief, the book is essentially a journalistic investigation of an incident in England in the early/mid 1900’s in which a distinguished professor of botany, John Heslop Harrison, was accused by John Raven (an amateur, but respected, plant enthusiast) of sowing rare species of sedges and other plants on the Scottish Island of Rum and then claiming to have found them growing there naturally, for the purposes of supporting his pet theory regarding the timing and extent of the last glaciation. Because Harrison was so respected and there was no way to prove the accusations, the papers regarding it were sealed and hidden away in the dusty records of Newcastle, nearly forgotten.

The author investigates the accusations, as well as all the incidents surrounding them and the lives and careers of the two major players, the professor and the accuser.  Although it is clear from the get-go (and the title itself, really) that the author believes the accusations of fraud to be true, he makes a fairly convincing and rational case for the guilt of the professor  (at least to this reader), without completely dismissing the value of Harrison’s other work and contributions to botany and natural history.

Although the book is highly historical in nature and Sabbaugh is not a botanist, the plants and the field of botany at the time get a very good going over, with detailed explanations of the fraud and the species involved. His lack of expertise is an asset here, as he does not shoot over the lay reader’s head with technical jargon but labors to explain the case and the science as it was explained to him. He also frames some of the conflict as a class struggle between the profession of humble origins and the privileged, talented amateur, which sheds a different light on the accusations and garners sympathy for the seemingly-insecure Harrison (although Raven is generally the more likable character). At times the writing is a bit dry and repetitive, but it is liberally sprinkled with wry humor and engaging anecdotes of those he is writing about and of his own experiences during the research process.

Although the basic information of the case is summed up nearly from page 1, if you are interested in the more esoteric details I feel the rest of the book is worth a read. This is a case that will never truly be solved; the evidence against Harrison is damning but by no means conclusive. But reading about it in detail not only provides an interesting glimpse into the world of British botany in the time period surrounding the second World War, but it also provides a setting for a discussion of larger issues regarding scientific ethics, verifiability, class discrimination, and the seeming immunity from accountability of respected authority figures in the scientific community.

I recommend this book to plant nerds, 20th century history buffs, and those looking for a good, factual mystery. It’s not terribly long and reasonably enjoyable despite some slow bits. But remember to read with a skeptical eye and judge the facts for yourself.

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~ by lycaon on June 30, 2011.

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