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A very ‘Rhum’ affair

By Roger Underwood - posted Wednesday, 20 January 2010

I was mulling over a paper on the temperature record at Darwin in the Northern Territory of Australia the other day (Eschenbach, Willis (2009): The smoking gun at Darwin central). The paper presented data that diverged significantly from the “official” view that Darwin’s temperature has skyrocketed in recent years as a result of global warming. On the contrary, the Bureau of Meteorology’s own temperature records actually show no upward or downwards trend over the last century. The difference between the actual data and the official position is perplexing, to say the least, and I could not help but sniff the wind and wonder where the smoke was coming from. 

However, I am no climatologist so I will have to wait for an independent analysis of the Darwin situation before reaching a firm conclusion. Nevertheless, the issue triggered an intriguing memory. I went to my bookcase and ran my eye along the titles. There it was: a slim paperback I had bought second-hand several years ago: A Rum Affair. A true story of botanical fraud by Karl Sabbagh, published in 1990. I sat down and re-read it, finding to my pleasure that I could easily recapture the fascination of the first reading. Almost an entire Sunday slipped past.

The story centres on John Heslop Harrison, an eminent British botanist and academic in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Heslop Harrison was Professor of Botany at the University of Newcastle-on-Tyne, a Fellow of the Royal Society and an expert on the natural history of the Hebrides, including the island of Rum (the spelling of the name was changed to Rhum in Victorian times, for the sake of propriety, but is today more usually spelled Rum, a spelling I prefer).


Heslop Harrison had a theory about the Hebrides, the string of islands lying off the west coast of Scotland. He believed that they had escaped the last Ice Age, despite the fact that glaciation had covered the rest of the British Isles, Europe and North America. His theory could be proven, he maintained, by the discovery of plant species growing on Hebridean islands that are found no-where else in Britain, species representative of the pre-Ice Age flora. Indeed he found several such species on Rum, including a sensational discovery of a rare sedge Carex bicolour, which he duly announced in a paper in the Journal of Botany, and a reed (Juncus capitatus) previously known only from the Channel Islands south of England.

Many contemporary scientists were sceptical of Heslop Harrison’s theory, and suspicions grew about the validity of his ever-lengthening list of rare plant discoveries. Suspicion deepened when attempts to find the plants by other botanists were unsuccessful, and when it was pointed out that the rare species found by Heslop Harrison on Rum were growing on very different soils and in quite different topographical situations to those where they naturally occurred.

Heslop Harrison also “discovered” a species of water beetle in a Hebridean loch which had never been found in the British Isles before, and never was again, giving rise to puzzlement among British entomologists. This led to further rumours and whispers within scientific circles.

Eventually, just after the end of World War II, a searching investigation was undertaken, focusing on about a dozen of Heslop Harrison’s “suspect” reeds and sedges. The investigator was John Raven, a Cambridge classics don, skilful amateur botanist and son of a noted British botanist. Raven’s methods were not entirely honourable. For example he tricked Heslop Harrison into allowing him onto Rum and into joining one of Heslop Harrison’s field excursions. Nevertheless, his investigations were meticulous and his analytical skills impeccable.

Raven concluded that the rare species found by Heslop Harrison did not occur on Rum. On the contrary, he considered that they had been raised by Heslop Harrison in his garden shed at Birtley, and then planted on Rum, where they were dramatically discovered by Heslop Harrison (working alone) shortly afterwards. To this day no other botanist has been able to duplicate Heslop Harrison’s key finds. Nor, inexplicably, were Heslop Harrison’s original collections professionally curated and archived, so they cannot be studied in herbaria today.

Nevertheless, Heslop Harrison had supporters in the botanical and scientific establishment. The allegations of fraud were well-known and oft-discussed within academic and botanical communities, but did not become public.The issue never became a cause célèbre in the media, as perhaps might have happened today. Raven’s report was not published, but simply “tabled” at Trinity College at Cambridge, where it languished for nearly half a century in the archives before re-discovery by Sabbagh (also a Fellow of Trinity College). The whole saga only came to light after the publication of Sabbagh’s book and a number of newspaper articles derived from it. The book drew unfavourable comment from Heslop Harrison’s supporters who were still influential in botanical circles as late as the 1990s, but subsequent disclosures from the British Natural History Museum have strongly supported both Raven’s and Sabbagh’s conclusions. Heslop Harrison died in 1967, a lonely and angry man, maintaining his innocence to the end.


(Heslop Harrison’s youngest son Jack was also a botanist and had an impeccable reputation. He became the Director of the Botanic Gardens and Herbarium at Kew.)

I found Raven’s investigations and conclusions, and Sabbagh’s book entirely convincing; I am in no doubt that fraud occurred. The most recent edition of the authoritative Sedges of the British Isles (quoted by Sabbagh) would seem to sum it up. After listing Carex glacialis, C.bicolor and C.capitata, all discovered by Heslop Harrison, under the heading of “Dubious Records”, the book goes on to say:

The first two were recorded for Rhum ... and the last mentioned species for S Uist in the outer Hebrides ... as a single tuft. All have since disappeared from these localities and we consider them to have been planted.

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About the Author

Roger Underwood is a former General Manager of CALM in Western Australia, a regional and district manager, a research manager and bushfire specialist. Roger currently directs a consultancy practice with a focus on bushfire management. He lives in Perth, Western Australia.

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