A RUM AFFAIR: A TRUE STORY OF BOTANICAL FRAUD By Karl Sabbagh Farrar, Straus & Giroux 240 pp., $24
The obituary section of the King's College alumni report may seem an odd place to start a book. But that's where, in 1980, author Karl Sabbagh discovered a veiled reference to scientific misconduct which, after two decades, became his new book, "A Rum Affair: A True Story of Botanical Fraud."
Amid the colorfully written death notices, the one that stuck in Sabbagh's mind was of John Raven, a classics tutor and amateur botanist. Sabbagh remembered Raven for his ability "to move from a standing to a cross-legged position in one smooth movement while keeping his torso entirely vertical."
But it wasn't this physical feat that struck Sabbagh. Within the obituary was a passage about Raven's investigation of a reputable British biologist who in the 1940s had recorded finding several previously unknown plants on the Isle of Rum, one of the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. The finding of the plants subsequently drew enough suspicion for them to be dropped from editions of British flora books.
It was another 17 years after reading Raven's obituary, in 1997, that Sabbagh by chance during an interview with a botanist learned the name of the offending scientist: John Heslop Harrison of Newcastle University. It was the findings on Rum that propelled Harrison to the top ranks of the world of botany, and also eventually prompted his demise. But calling Harrison's act "misconduct" was not a straightforward matter: The initial report by Raven, who was prompted to investigate Harrison by other suspicious botanists, was not published, so rumors and innuendo continued. Some friends of Harrison denied he could have done such a thing, while his enemies were all too eager to assume the worst.
Putting a name with the deed piqued the interest of Sabbagh, a writer and television producer. He set off on a journey as painstakingly detailed as Raven's to uncover the truth about the rare plants of Rum that Harrison alleged he discovered.
While this could be tedious reading, Sabbagh's aptness with the turn of a phrase, his humor, and attention to detail cast the trek to trace Harrison's path into a botanical Sherlock Holmes-like mystery.
Along the way, he reveals the actions and personalities of the main characters, and questions their motives. Was Raven, a dogged investigator with a passion for the purity of intellectual pursuit, up to the task of taking on a botanist of Harrison's stature? Did Harrison, who was admired by many but loved by few, underestimate Raven and trip over his own arrogance and sloppy record-keeping? And why would he commit scientific fraud anyway?
Sabbagh ably tackles these questions using library documents, interviews with surviving relatives and colleagues, and by visiting Rum. He recounts how Raven and Harrison remained cordial during much of Raven's investigation, possibly because Harrison wasn't aware his work was under scrutiny.
During a visit to Rum, Raven cleverly got Harrison to take him to the locations where the new plants were discovered, without arousing suspicions about his true intentions. Raven then carefully assembled a case for fraud, as Harrison showed him areas where two different rare plants were found in close proximity, a discovery that would make most botanists suspicious. Another location had signs of recent digging and planting. And many times, the plants Harrison had documented weren't at the described locations at all. But Harrison had explanations for any and all anomalies: cattle trampled the plants, there was a landslide, and so on.
Raven left Rum convinced that Harrison snuck onto the island and planted the very specimens he later claimed to have discovered. But alleging scientific misconduct is very serious, and scientists don't like to blow the whistle on each other. Upon leaving Rum, Raven shared soil and root samples he had collected with noted botanists, which bolstered his fraud case even more. He submitted a 21-page report with the circumstantial evidence to the Council of Trinity College, but Sabbagh could find no records showing what happened after that.
There were letters between Raven and Harrison with accusations and counter-accusations that grew increasingly less cordial. Raven eventually wrote a letter to Nature, a respected British scientific journal, in January 1949, 18 months after the trip to Rum. It wasn't until February 1951 that Harrison responded in a letter to the editor. In the interim, his wife had died, and the scandal had died down.
Exploring why scientists commit fraud, Sabbagh comes to some disconcerting conclusions. Harrison may have done it because his career was nearing an end, and he wanted to make his mark on botany. But even more likely, he did it because he thought he could get away with it.
In any case, Harrison may have had the last laugh. He had earlier been accused of making up findings of various moths. But from time to time, some of his discoveries are confirmed. Sabbagh leaves us with an ambiguous image of Harrison: distinguished scientist or accomplished fraud, but probably both.
*Lori Valigra is a freelance writer in Cambridge, Mass.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society