Authors: Carl Zimmer
In the years that followed, de Vries would keep fighting for his mutation theory. But the only organisms that had experienced one of de Vries's dramatic mutations were his evening primroses. It turned out de Vries was fooled by an illusion of breeding. What he took to be an entirely new mutation was actually a combination of old genetic variants.
De Vries refused to accept these facts,
retiring to the village of Lunteren in the Dutch countryside. For the next sixteen years, the villagers would sometimes spot a tall bearded man walking amidst a garden of primroses.
In December 1904, a few months after de Vries's first visit, Burbank got a letter from the Carnegie Institution. Andrew Carnegie had set up the institution two years earlier to fund important scientific research. Carnegie himself believed that some of the money should go to Burbank, whom he called a genius. The letter informed Burbank he would shortly receive $10,000 “for the purpose of furthering
your experimental investigations in the evolution of plants.” The institution would send him another $10,000 the next year, and the year after that, with no clear end in mind.
The popular press released a fresh flurry of profiles of Burbank, pointing to the Carnegie cash as science's seal of approval. In 1906, a botanist named George Shull arrived to help Burbank write up scientific reports about his research.
Shull found Burbank to be an artist of nature. As a scientist, however, he was a phantom. When Shull asked Burbank for experimental records, the
old horticulturalist might hand him a few sheets of paper on which he had scribbled notes in pencil. “This was a rich, sweet, delicious, superb pear, as good as Bartlett, perhaps much better,” he wrote on one sheet. He sliced one of the pears in half and stamped it on the page, letting the juice stain the paper.
Shull tried instead to talk to Burbank to extract useful information. Burbank informed him that he was the greatest authority of plant life that ever lived. He claimed to have already discovered Mendel's results on his own, and yet he also declared that acquired characters could be transmitted from one generation to the next. “
Environment is the architect of heredity,” Burbank said.
When Shull pressed him for the concrete details of his work, Burbank grew so irritated he started avoiding Shull around the gardens. It wasn't Shull's line of questioning that annoyed him so much as the fact that
the young botanist seemed to be preparing to explode his legend. Indeed, Shull reported back to the Carnegie Institution that it would be impossible to use any of the plants to test Mendel's theory of inheritance. In 1910, the Carnegie Institution sent Burbank their last check. Their $60,000 bought them a single report from Shull, about rhubarb.
As the Carnegie money dried up, a swarm of businessmen descended on Burbank, proposing deals to make him staggeringly rich. Some of the hucksters set about publishing a lavish, costly encyclopedia of his life's work. That venture collapsed into bankruptcy in 1916. Other businessmen set up the Luther Burbank Company, to sell his plants directly to customers rather than to nurseries. They mismanaged the venture, unable to align their supply to demand. Things got so desperate that the company started shipping ordinary cacti in place of Burbank's spineless variety. Before putting the plants in the mail, company workers simply scrubbed off the spines with a wire brush. The Luther Burbank Company went bankrupt as well.
Burbank managed to hold on to much of his wealth despite these disasters. But they permanently tarnished his reputation. By the 1920s, Burbank had become an untrustworthy businessman whom scientists no longer
revered. He spent his final years puttering around his Santa Rosa farm, cared for by his young second wife, Elizabeth, along with a few assistants. In 1926, Burbank died at age seventy-seven. Thousands of people came to his funeral at a nearby park, and then his body was brought back to his house, where it was buried. Nothing stood over his grave except a cedar of Lebanon. “I would like to think of my strength going into the strength of a tree,” he once said. Elizabeth sold off his remaining plants to Stark Bro's, just as Hiatt had sold his Delicious apples three decades before. Burbank's garden tools went to Henry Ford.
After his death, Burbank enjoyed a longer stretch of fame than de Vries had. His face reappeared in popular culture for decades. As late as 1948, the beer company Anheuser-Busch was using his likeness in their ads. In a full-page ad for Budweiser, Burbank stands in his garden, holding out a rose for a mailman to smell. Both Budweiser and Burbank's varieties, the ad declared, were “
great contributions to good taste.”
In the picture, Burbank has a grandfatherly smile, a shock of gray hair, a starched collar, and a black tie. The image belonged to an earlier chapter in the history of heredity, when breeders could use their intuitions to produce new fruits and flowers, becoming masters of forces they didn't understand. By the 1940s, when the beer ad appeared, heredity meant something very different. It was now a precise molecular science in the hands of some, and a monstrous rationale for oppression and genocide in the hands of others. Even the plants and yeast that went into Budweiser beer in the 1940s had become products of scientific breeding, rather than of Burbank's old wizardry.
There is another picture created after Burbank's death that still feels fresh.
The painter Frida Kahlo paid a visit to Burbank's garden in 1930. She had moved from Mexico to San Francisco a few months earlier. Her husband, the artist Diego Rivera, had accepted a commission to paint murals for American patrons, the first of which would capture the spirit of California. Kahlo and Rivera took the short drive from San Francisco to Santa Rosa to visit the home of a hero of the state. Burbank's widow, Elizabeth, gave the couple a tour around the grounds, showed them the cedar under
which Burbank was buried, told them stories about her late husband, and gave them some photographs of him to take with them.
Kahlo painted Burbank on a stark, tan California landscape. High clouds moved across the sky, and behind him grew a pair of trees. One tree was small, with oversize fruits. The other grew clusters of balls in different colors, perhaps patterned after one of Burbank's mother trees. From the knees up, Burbank looked like he does in many photographs, with a tranquil expression on his face, wearing a dark suit and holding a plant. In this case, he's holding a philodendron, a vinelike plant with lobed leaves that Kahlo painted to be as big as his chest. Below the knees, Burbank was transformed by Kahlo's powerful imagination. His legs disappeared into the stump of a tree. Kahlo cut away the earth to reveal the tree's roots, which pierced the head, the heart, the stomach, and the legs of a corpse.
Burbank had no children of his own who could carry his hereditary particles after his death. His fame eventually faded. But many of the varieties that he developed continued to grow, to make seeds of their own, and to be replaced by their offspring. Some, like the Burbank potato, bear his name. Others grow namelessly, Burbank's handiwork having been long forgotten. He had found an immortality here on Earth, his work and his plants extending their existence in intimate replication.
A few months before he died, a reporter paid Burbank a visit to ask him about religion. Burbank was such a familiar figure in the United States that reporters would ask his opinion about everything from jazz to crime. At one point in the interview, Burbank said that Jesus had been “a wonderful psychologist,” and an infidel to boot. “Just as he was an infidel then, I am an infidel today.”
Now the river of letters that poured into Burbank's house turned furious. Prayer groups formed to beseech God to help Burbank see the light. To respond to the attacks, Burbank arranged to give a speechâa sermon, reallyâat the First Congregational Church of San Francisco on the last Sunday of January 1926. More than 2,500 people crammed the pews.
The seventy-six-year-old Burbank told them that he was no atheist. He subscribed to what he hoped would someday become a religion of humanity,
worshiping a God “as revealed to us gradually, step by step, by the demonstrable truths of our savior, science,” he said to his audience. Burbank didn't see the point of wasting time pondering hypothetical eternities in heaven or hell. Heredityâthe continuity of life through the generationsâwas vast enough for him. “
All thingsâplants, animals, and menâare already in eternity, traveling across the face of time,” he said.
as an idea for a perfect city.
In 1861, a businessman named Charles Landis traveled from Philadelphia into the empty Pine Barrens of New Jersey. He bought twenty thousand acres and laid down a map of lots. He called it Vineland. Farmers bought land to grow crops on the fertile soil, and retired Civil War soldiers later came to work in new glass-manufacturing plants. The idea of Vineland endured into the twenty-first century, in the generous width of its main streets, in the triumphant design of its municipal buildings. But a new city has grown on top of Landis's idea: a city that lost its factories, that turned its outlying farms into suburbs, that brought in immigrants not from New England but from Mexico and India.
I came to Vineland on a bright cold day in February, driving along South Main Road, one of the original roads that ran along the city's eastern edge. I passed a bleak, treeless row of gas stations, supermarkets, cell phone shops, and liquor stores. At the intersection with Landis Avenue, I pulled into a Wawa store parking lot and walked inside to buy a bag of peanuts. Car mechanics and home health aides were ordering sandwiches and coffee and lottery tickets. When I came back outside, I looked up at the grumpy, overheated winter sky. The clouds were tormenting the South Main traffic with tantrums of rain. My phone buzzed with a tornado warning for all of South Jersey. I pulled a wool cap onto my head and took a walk, eating peanuts for lunch.
The convenience store driveway curved around a wedge of grass by the intersection. A massive rounded stone stood in the center of the wedge, surrounded by bushes and spotlights anchored into the wood chips. I walked over to inspect it. The stone was inscribed with a name: S. Olin Garrison. No explanation, no date. The drivers of the passing cars and trucks paid the tombstone no notice. I doubt any of them knew who S. Olin Garrison was, let alone why he was buried in front of a Wawa store.
Turning my back to the noisy commercial strip, I looked eastward across a huge, empty field, crossed by a worn concrete path. I walked down the path, under a row of leafless trees that leaned over the left side. The trees had lost some of their boughs, and some were dead. But you could still sense that someone had planted them in grand, rational intervals long ago. The line of trees led my eye across the field to a pair of small, square gazebos in the distance, tilted on the frost-heaved earth. Beyond them was a scattering of old buildings. A late nineteenth-century edifice had a dome sprouting from one corner. Around it huddled a few old houses and outbuildings, falling into disrepair.
I had spent the morning at a nearby historical society looking over photographs of this spot from over a century earlier. Now that I was at the spot itself, I could see it as it looked on an October morning in 1897. There was no Wawa storeâno stores at all, for that matter. People passed by on foot, bicycle, or horseback. South Main Road and Landis Avenue bordered a 125-acre farm, with pumpkin patches, apple orchards, and asparagus beds. A high gate stood at the corner, with a name arching overhead:
I had come here, and cast my mind back, because the Vineland Training School holds an important place in the history of heredity. Within the walls of the school, Mendel's research was applied to humans, with disastrous consequences. What happened here would influence thoughts about heredity for generations.
In 1897, a path led from the gate into the school grounds, flanked by newly planted trees. The gazebos were plumb and freshly painted. The buildings bustled with two hundred children. S. Olin Garrison, the founder and
principal of the Vineland Training School, was very much alive in 1897, and I pictured him in the main school building, working at his desk. I listened to the sweet-toned bell ring from the school's clock tower in the distance.
One morning in October 1897, an eight-year-old girl named
Emma Wolverton arrived at the school gate. She was of average height, with a pretty, round face; a wide nose; and thick, dark hair. It's impossible to know what Emma Wolverton was feeling that morning. In later years, she never got the chance to speak publicly for herself about her life. Of the many people who spoke for her, few particularly cared what she had to say. To most of them, she was a cautionary tale about all the ills that heredity could pass down through the generations.
We do know a little about how Emma Wolverton ended up at that corner in Vineland. Her mother, Malinda, grew up in the northern part of the state. At age seventeen, she started work as a servant. Soon Malinda became pregnant with Emma and was thrown out of her master's house. Emma's father, reputed to be a bankrupt drunk, abandoned Malinda, and she ended up in an almshouse, where she gave birth to Emma in 1889.
A charitable family took Malinda and her infant daughter out of the almshouse, and Malinda worked for them for a time. Soon she became pregnant again, and her benefactors insisted she get married to the father. Malinda and her husband had a second child together, after which the entire family moved into a rented house on a nearby farm. When Malinda got pregnant with a third child, her husband denied that the baby was his and abandoned her and the children.
The farm where she rented a house was owned by a bachelor. Not long after her husband left, she moved in with the farmer, and he admitted he had fathered the new baby. Emma's benefactors tried to make things right yet again. They arranged a divorce between Emma's mother and her stepfather, and then a remarriage to the farmer. He consented, but only if Malinda got rid of the children other than his own. It was not long afterward that Emma was delivered to the front gate of the Vineland Training School.
When S. Olin Garrison opened the school in 1888, he originally named
it the New Jersey Home for the Education and Care of Feeble-Minded Children. He gave it a motto that would be stamped on their publications for decades to come: “the true education and training for boys and girls of backward or feeble minds is to teach them what they ought to know and can make use of when they become men and women in years.” Garrison was determined to provide a more humane place than the typical warehouses where those deemed feebleminded had been abandoned in previous generations. “Our aim is to awaken dormant faculties, to arouse ambition, to inject hope, and develop self-reliance,” the school declared in a brochure.
To get Emma admitted into the school, she was provided with a cover story: She didn't get along with other children in her regular school. That somehow raised the worry that she was feebleminded. The definition of
was sprawlingly vague in the late 1800s. People brought children to the Vineland Training School because they suffered epileptic convulsions. Others suffered from cretinism, a combination of dwarfism and intellectual disability. Others had a condition that would later be called Down syndrome. Emma belonged to a class of students who had no obvious symptoms but were still judged unfit for society.
When Emma arrived at the school, the staff gave her a thorough examination to judge whether she should be admitted. They observed “
no peculiarity in form or size of head.” Emma understood their commands, and she could use a needle, carry wood, and fill a kettle. She knew a few letters, but couldn't read or count. But the staff found her “obstinate and destructive,” according to their notes. “Does not mind slapping and scolding.”
That was enough. The fact that she had been brought to Vineland because she had become a nuisance at home went unrecorded in her file. Her examiners declared her to be feebleminded. They took her in.
Emma moved into one of the cottages, which she shared with a small group of other children. Every day, the school filled Emma's schedule with classes, duties, and games. Along with reading and math, she was taught about nature on walks through the fields and woods. “We show them
the connection between nature and their being,” the deputy principal, E. R.
Johnstone, said, “how dependent they are upon the plants and animals for their food and raiment.” Emma and the other students spent much of their time singing in music classes. “Proper training will
cause these songs of savagery to become the songs of civilization,” Johnstone predicted.
“Happiness first and all else follows” was a slogan that hung on the school walls. A team of wealthy Philadelphia women, known as the Board of Lady Visitors, paid for a donkey-pulled streetcar that the children could ride around the perimeter of the farm. The ladies built a merry-go-round at the school, and a zoo stocked with bears, wolves, pheasants, and other creatures. Each year the school put on Christmas plays that residents of Vineland could attend, and each summer the school filled two train cars with students, who traveled to Wildwood Beach for an outing by the sea. One of the earliest photographs of Emma shows her in the back of an open wagon filled with girls and teachers. She sits on a pile of hay, looking back toward the photographer, smiling. The picture is labeled “
off for camp.”
As an able-bodied child, Emma spent part of each day learning manual trades. She got a garden patch to raise fruits and vegetables. Girls like Emma were instructed in sewing, dressmaking, and woodworking, while the boys learned how to make shoes and rugs. The administrators claimed that this labor prepared the students to someday earn a living. But the school, like many asylums and prisons of the time, also depended on their work for their own income. Between May 1897 and May 1898, the school's records indicated, the students made 30 new three-piece suits, 92 pairs of overalls, 234 aprons, 107 new pairs of shoes, and 40 dressed dolls. They washed 275,130 pieces of laundry. They sold $8,160.81 of produce from the school farm, including 1,030 bushels of turnips, 158 baskets of cantaloupes, and 83,161 quarts of milk. The fact that feebleminded children could do so much skilled labor was a paradox that never seems to have troubled the school's administration. Nor did they feel guilty for the money they made on the children's labor. “
We are doing God's work,” Johnstone explained.
For evidence of their divine mission, the school pointed to the lives they had saved. They were also sparing society the burden of feebleminded criminals. “The modern scientific
study of the deficient and delinquent
classes shows that a large proportion of our criminals and inebriates are really born more or less imbecile,” declared Isabel Craven, the president of the Board of Lady Visitors.
Feeblemindedness was not just present at birth, Craven believed, but was passed down from parents to children. She shared the standard late nineteenth-century American belief in the heredity of bad behaviors. Somehow, feeblemindedness could be both a medical disorder and the wages of sin, passed down from the sinners to their children. Writing in the school's annual report in 1899, Craven recounted one such story, about an alcoholic woman in Germany in the late 1700s. She had 834 descendants, out of which 7 became murderers, 76 criminals of other sorts, 142 professional beggars, 64 charity cases, and 181 women who led “
disreputable lives,” as Craven put it.
The Vineland Training School was protecting future generations from this danger by removing feebleminded children from circulation, ensuring that they never got a chance to have children of their own. “What a legacy of crime and expense we may leave to the coming generation in our neglect to care for these incapable ones,” Craven warned.
Emma settled into her new home. Her teachers kept track of her progress in their notes. They logged her letters to Santa Claus, in which she asked for ribbons, gloves, dolls, and stockings. She learned to spell and count, although she struggled with arithmetic. She learned how to make a bed. Sometimes Emma's teachers made a note of bad conduct. At other times, they said she marched well. She acted in the Christmas plays. She mastered the cornet and played songs such as “The Star-Spangled Banner” in the school band. She learned to use a sewing machine to make shirtwaists, and then she learned how to build boxes to put them in, complete with paneled tops and mortise-and-tenon joints.
When Emma became a teenager, she was ushered into the school's unpaid labor force. “
She is an almost perfect worker,” a school administrator noted in her records. Emma waited tables in the school dining room and served as a helper in the woodworking class. She proved herself so capable that Johnstone made her his housekeeper and later put his infant son in her
care. For a time, Emma worked as a kindergarten aide at the school, and a visitor to the school mistook her for one of the teachers. It was not the only time that visitors would comment on how normal she seemed.
At age seventeen, Emma met a new member of the Vineland staff: a small, balding man named Henry Goddard. Goddard moved into a new office above one of the workshops, which he filled with strange instruments and machines. He would give children tasks to perform for him, such as having them poke a wand into holes drilled into a sheet of wood as fast as they could.
One day it was Emma's turn to go to Goddard's office.
“I have five cents in one pocket and five in another,” he said to her. “
How many cents have I?”
“Ten,” Emma replied.
Dr. Goddard asked her another sixteen questions about numbers. All told, she got twelve right and five wrong.
Two years later, Goddard summoned her again for another round of questions. Use
in a sentence. Count backward from twenty.
Goddard's assistants praised her for every answer, although she got a fair number wrong. Later, Goddard reviewed her test and summed up her performanceâher entire existence, reallyâwith a single word he had recently invented:
Unbeknownst to Emma, Goddard had also started making discreet inquiries about her family. His assistants sought out friends of the Wolvertons for gossip. Goddard was sure of what they would discover: that Emma's family were morons, too.