John William Heslop Harrison (1881-1967) – distinguished botanist, Fellow of the Royal Society and research fraud

Overview

Heslop Harrison was an eminent English professor of botany who was based in Newcastle in the middle years of the twentieth century and who sired a mini-dynasty of other eminent biologists. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society as was one of his sons; a very unusual occurrence. He cultivated plants which were not native to Scotland or even sometimes to Great Britain, planted them on the island of Rum in the Scottish Hebrides, and then discovered them there. He claimed that their presence as native plants in the Hebrides supported his theory that these islands had remained largely ice-free during the last ice age and that these species had uniquely survived there but had been killed off by a thick blanket of ice in the rest of Scotland and northern England. He also published major experimental studies on moths and sawflies that seemed to provide evidence for the Lamarckian view of evolution i.e. inheritance of characteristics acquired during the organism’s lifetime. There is now no doubt that these experimental studies were either very poorly designed/executed/interpreted or the results fabricated/falsified. A report by John Raven, a Cambridge academic, written in 1948 documented detailed evidence that Heslop Harrison had committed multiple acts of research fraud on the island of Rum. This report was kept buried away in a Cambridge library until author and journalist Karl Sabbagh gained access to it to help write a book about Heslop Harrison entitled A Rum Affair. This Raven report was eventually published in a botany journal in 2004.

The Rum affair (after Sabbagh 1999*)

Heslop Harrison was Professor of Botany at King’s College, Durham which was based in Newcastle and later became part of the University of Newcastle. He has been accused of fraud in several areas of botany and entomology but his plant “discoveries” on the Hebridean island of Rum are the best known and most thoroughly investigated. Until 1957, Rum was privately owned, and a landing on the island needed permission from its owner Lady Monica Bullough. Heslop Harrison’s team were given sole access to the island for biological field studies. In 1957 the island was purchased by The Nature Conservancy and designated a National Nature Reserve and opened for study and tourism. Heslop Harrison claimed to have discovered many plants, particularly grasses, sedges and rushes on Rum and other Hebridean islands that had never otherwise been recorded there or sometimes anywhere else in the British Isles. He claimed that these plants had survived in the Hebrides because these islands had remained largely ice-free during the last ice age when the rest of Scotland was covered in a blanket of ice for many years. For example, he claimed that his team had found five alpine species on Rum that were otherwise unknown in the British Isles and three species that were only found in the Channel Islands and south west England.

By 1948, some botanists were suspicious of his numerous unique plant discoveries on this small island. It is thought that he collected seeds and then cultivated these plants (perhaps in his Newcastle garden) and then planted them on Rum where he or one of his team would “discover” them. He reported these discoveries as native to the island. Any students or family members involved in these discoveries were probably innocent of any deception. The plants were accurately identified, only their native location on the island was falsified.

John Earle Raven was a classical scholar who spent most of his working life as a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge where he was as an eminent classical scholar (co-author of The Pre-Socratic Philosophers . Raven was also an accomplished amateur botanist who co-authored Mountain Flowers in Collins famous New Naturalist series of books. In 1948, he was granted £50 (c £1500 today) by Trinity College, Cambridge to travel to the Hebrides to investigate the allegations against Heslop Harrison. Raven had to use the influence of Heslop Harrison to gain permission to land on Rum to carry out his investigation; a deception that clearly disturbed him. Raven and his companion landed surreptitiously on the island a few days before his authorized visit to make some preliminary investigations.

In 1948, Raven submitted a hand written report of his investigations to the Council of Trinity College. Only a small group saw this report and it was hidden from public view until Karl Sabbagh unearthed a copy lodged by Raven in King’s College library. If the evidence presented by Raven is accepted as honestly and competently collected then the case that Heslop Harrison, or someone close to him, committed research fraud is proven “beyond a reasonable doubt”. Evidence that Heslop Harrison faked results in other areas of biology reinforces this conclusion. Listed below are some of the key points that Raven believed proved Heslop Harrison guilty of deliberate deception. (I have used formal botanical names but non-botanists should not be put off by this as the underlying arguments are quite straight forward.)

• It seemed improbable that so many species not found elsewhere in Scotland could all be native to this small island and be highly localised even on Rum.

• So few specimens of each species were found that is highly improbable that they could have survived as isolated colonies on the island for millions of years since the ice age.

• Some plants were found in habitats very unlike their normal habitats.

• There was an absence of usual companions for some of the unique discoveries. E.g. no other alpine plants were found near a colony of Epilobium lactiflorum, an alpine which is not found elsewhere in Britain.

• Growing out of the centre one of the unique plants (Polycarpon tetraphyllum) “discovered” by Heslop Harrison on Rum was a specimen of another of Heslop Harrison’s Rum discoveries (Juncus capitatus). Both were otherwise unknown in Scotland. The only feasible explanation for this amazing coincidence was that the Polycarpon plant had been “introduced” and that the soil around the introduced specimen had been contaminated with a Juncus seed.

• Amongst a colony of Carex bicolor otherwise unknown in the British Isles, one specimen was dying and appeared to have been recently dibbled in and had not rooted properly.

• Growing out of a Carex bicolor specimen (another of Heslop Harrison’s unique discoveries) was a Poa annua plant that is better known as a garden weed. A Poa seed was probably a contaminant of the soil around the introduced Carex plant.

• In the immediate vicinity of other Carex plants, were other Poa annua plants and another garden weed Sagina petula. Almost certainly growing from contaminating seeds when cultivated Carex plants were planted. These garden weeds were restricted to the immediate vicinity of the Carex colony and not found elsewhere.

• Growing out of the centre of a Polycarpon plant was a plant Raven could not identify immediately. Experts in Cambridge later identified this as Wahlenbergia nutabunda, a weed from the Canary Islands. This weed was usually only found in Britain in Botanic Gardens where it survived by self-seeding. Almost certainly from a seed contaminating the introduced Polycarpon.

• A pellet of soil surrounding one plant specimen was analysed in Cambridge and contained olivine, a common constituent of Rum soil and some quartz. Olivine and quartz would not naturally be found together. The quartz could only be present naturally if washed down from a higher level but Raven reported that there was no quartz above the location and so it was probably a contaminant of the soil of the transplanted specimen.

Some of these individual coincidences and oddities might just have honest explanations but cumulatively they constitute overwhelming proof that Heslop Harrison’s unique plant discoveries had been deliberately introduced. After his investigation, Raven (1949)  wrote a letter to Nature relating to his Rum investigations. The title of this letter “Alien plant introductions on the isle of Rhum” left no doubt about his opinion of at least two of Heslop Harrison’s unique discoveries. In his Wikipedia entry it is said that Raven did not comment on the means of their introduction but any botanist reading this piece carefully would have been left in little doubt that Raven thought that these were deliberate introductions and who he believed was responsible. All of the references to the original discoveries are attributed to Heslop Harrison and Heslop Harrison’s assistance in helping Raven to find some of the dubious specimens is acknowledged. He discusses some of the most damning findings from his report for Trinity College as listed above. He reports his finding that growing from the middle of a rare Polycarpon plant “there sprouted a vigorous plant of Juncus capitatus” and says that “such close juxtaposition of two exceedingly rare plants is most unexpected”. He also reports his finding of the alien annual Wahlenbergia nutabunda plant growing within another Polycarpon specimen. He comments upon the unusual form of one of the Polycarpon plants which was unlike any growing in southern England or like any in the Natural History museum but “most nearly matched by specimens from Malta and Greece”. He goes on to discuss his finding of weed plant Poa annua sprouting from amongst the leaves of a rare Carex bicolor plant and that he had fully satisfied himself “that there were no other specimens of Poa annua in the neighbourhood.” He concludes that both Polycarpon tetraphyllum and Carex bicolor were alien introductions into Rum. He questions some of Heslop Harrison’s other Rum “discoveries” in this piece, which for a 1000 word letter written in quite diplomatic terms packs a hefty but subtle punch.

In 2004, Raven’s report was finally published in full in a botany journal Watsonia (Preston, 2004**) along with detailed analysis of the veracity of the 600 species recorded by Heslop Harrison as flora of the island of Rum (Pearman and Walker, 2004**). Pearman and Walker concluded that 13 of Heslop Harrison’s most remarkable discoveries on Rum were probably deliberately introduced by him to the island. There were “plausible” explanations for over 100 other plants only recorded by Heslop Harrison and not recorded since 1957 e.g. 46 were possibly casual introductions like weeds associated with cultivation which have disappeared due to changes in land usage. How many other examples of fraudulent introductions are there amongst these other 100?

Despite confirming multiple frauds (at least 13), Pearman and Walker conclude that Heslop Harrison undoubtedly made some valuable discoveries on Rum, some of which have been substantiated and that his work on other groups of plants “has added greatly to our understanding of the critical flora of the Hebrides”. If other scientists have to spend time and effort sifting through the “discoveries” of an author to try and decide which can be regarded as probably real and which fabricated then can one trust any of their findings without clear substantiation by others? If you can only trust what others have confirmed what contribution has the untrustworthy scientist made? Heslop Harrison published highly dubious research (discussed below) in other areas of biology and his reports have tended to create areas of uncertainty and confusion rather than enhancing clarity and understanding.

Heslop Harrison’s experimental support for Lamarckian theories

Heslop Harrison was committed to the pre-Darwin theory of “inheritance of acquired characteristics” proposed by Jean Baptiste Lamarck in 1809 e.g. giraffes have long necks because continual stretching by their ancestors to reach higher leaves led to small heritable increases in neck length which over generations has produced today’s long-necked giraffes. In 1809, Lamarck obviously knew nothing about DNA and the molecular basis of genetics and so this theory seemed like a reasonable explanation in the light of the current understanding. It is now difficult to envisage how characteristics acquired during an animal’s lifetime could alter its DNA so that these characteristics could be transferred genetically to the next generation. According to Darwin’s theory of natural selection the members of the species that have the most appropriate genes (DNA) are the ones that survive and reproduce.

Before industrialisation the peppered moth Biston betularia f. typica predominated in northern England. This variant had wings with predominantly light colouration which helped to camouflage it on the light coloured tree bark and lichens and thus reduced the toll from bird predation. Another variant with predominantly black wings was much more visible against the light foliage and lichens and so high bird predation limited its prevalence. The frequency of the dominant gene for melanism was at this time around 0.01%.

Industrialisation and pollution led to darkening of bark and acid killed off the light coloured lichens. Black moths (melanics) were now better camouflaged and birds killed more of the predominant light variety. By 1900 98% of peppered moths in Manchester were the dark version (from less than 1% 50 years earlier). Since 1962 the relative frequency of the black moths has fallen as pollution has been reduced. Experimental studies confirm that the darker moths are less preyed upon in polluted woodland and light moths less predated in the unpolluted woodland.

Heslop Harrison’s explanation of these observations was that salts of lead and manganese present in pollutants caused mutation of the genes responsible for melanism which were then passed on to future generations. He chose the Early Thorn Moth for experimental studies reported in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. This is a species where the gene for melanism is recessive and so difficult to detect whereas in the Peppered Moth, all individuals that carry the gene are black because it is a dominant gene. Heslop Harrison fed his moth larvae with leaves contaminated with the lead and manganese salts and reported that over generations dark winged varieties (melanics) appeared and then when these were bred in the absence of the toxic chemicals they still produced dark offspring. Other scientists have attempted to repeat Heslop Harrison’s experiments (see his Royal Society biography/obituary by Professor Alexander Peacock) but have failed to produce any melanics. Heslop Harrison’s results may be due to poor methodology but given his other behaviour, scientific fraud must be a real possibility.

Heslop Harrison also conducted a series of experiments on sawflies which are very specific in choosing to lay their eggs on one particular species of willow. In a series of experiments also described in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, Heslop Harrison claims to have shown that this preference is a genetically determined characteristic and that he was able to change this preference by forcing sawflies to feed on a different willow (Salix) species and subsequent generations maintained this altered preference i.e. he had induced an heritable change in these sawflies. For example, he transferred sawflies which normally lay their eggs on Salix andersoniana to another species Salix rubra. These sawflies became adapted to feeding on this new willow species and after a few generations showed a preference for this new host even when the previously preferred variety of willow was made available again. Heslop Harrison claimed that his experiments showed that the change in environment had induced a change in the genome:

“A direct demonstration of a genuine Lamarckian effect has been made, one is forced to admit that Lamarckism itself has received powerful support, both directly and indirectly, from the work described above.”

Even IF one believes that Heslop Harrison’s data was honestly and competently generated a simpler alternative explanation in Sabbagh’s book is that perhaps adult sawflies tend to lay eggs on the type of food plant upon which they had been raised.

Other “unique” discoveries

Heslop Harrison also laid claim to some unique findings of water beetles from the Hebrides and to have captured several specimens of the Large Blue Butterfly never otherwise reported from the Hebrides. Heslop Harrison sent samples of beetles which he claimed had been collected on Rum by his sons George and Jack to an expert in entomology Professor Frank Balfour-Browne. Balfour-Browne identified the beetles but of course he could only rely on the word of Heslop Harrison about where, when and by whom they had been collected. One of these water beetles was normally only found in the Canary Islands and had never been found in Britain (a Canary Islands plant was also found on Rum by John Raven during his 1948 investigation!). In 1936 his son George purportedly found several species of whirligig beetles on the island of Raasay which have never otherwise been reported in Britain. In 1938 specimens were sent from Rum that had supposedly been collected by his son Jack and these contained a species normally found in the Pyrenees, Alps and Balkans but not in Britain. It seems highly likely that the unsuspecting sons’ collections were spiked with dead examples of these unique species by Heslop Harrison before being sent off for formal identification by the expert. This technique of using a trusting expert to authenticate planted specimens was also used by the fraudulent Indian palaeontologist Vishwa Jit Gupta (the subject of another post).

Karl Sabbagh reports a conversation with Garth Foster, a Scottish-based expert in water beetles who was convinced that Heslop Harrison’s water beetle discoveries were fraudulent. In 1990 Foster surveyed an area of Rum that had been surveyed by Heslop Harrison in 1939. Heslop Harrison reported finding 12 different species and Foster reported 15 in his survey with only five species present on both lists. Seven species reported by Heslop Harrison in 1939 could not be found in 1990.

Conclusions

Many of Heslop Harrison’s plant and insect discoveries were almost certainly faked. Two areas of experimental work demonstrating Lamarckism were on the most favourable interpretation poorly conceived, executed and/or interpreted. His obituary appreciation written for the Royal Society before public accusations about his honesty were made is certainly not a ringing endorsement of his contribution to science. Professor Peacock sums up his contribution to several areas as follows.

• Heslop Harrison set most store by his melanism and sawfly experiments to support Lamarckism. Peacock says that his conclusions are not now (1968) acceptable and are rarely cited and rarely mentioned in teaching.

• His innumerable field records in biogeographical studies Peacock suggests will find their place in field guides but this section is marked with an asterisk which leads to the footnote “Information on a number of Harrison’s controversial botanical records is embodied in confidential papers in the Department of Botany, British Museum (Natural History)”. These records actually document suspicions about their authenticity.

• He is positive towards Harrison and his school’s work in cytology. With his joint work on plants with Dr Kathleen Blackburn singled out with the statement “Their discovery of sex chromosomes in phanerograms can scarcely be omitted from an authoritative work on botany or cytogenetics”. Is this because this work was collaborative and his collaborator generated high quality honest data?

• Peacock suggests that Heslop Harrison should have written a book on hybridity and suggests that Heslop Harrison’s masterly papers on the topic are scattered and have to be searched for in learned journals that are not always readily available. In an earlier part of the biography Peacock criticises Heslop Harrison’s:

“Foible for publishing in a little quarterly, the Vasculum of which he was founder and editor, and which catered for readers interested in the natural history, science, lore and language of the northern counties. It had limited circulation and its availability was a nuisance to serious researchers in problems akin to Harrison’s”.

This looks like another case of a fraudulent author using a journal that he edits and controls to publish anything he chooses without independent review?

It is quite difficult to reconcile Pearman and Walker’s earlier rather indulgent assessment of Heslop Harrison’s contribution to science with this less than fulsome appraisal of Heslop Harrison’s career written by a sympathetic contemporary shortly after his death. Perhaps Heslop Harrison’s most enduring contribution to science was to start a small dynasty of scientists and botanists who have made a real contribution to science. His fourth son Jack, married another respected botanist, followed his father in becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society, and was for a time director of Kew Gardens. One of his grandson’s is also a respected professor of botany. No doubt Heslop Harrison would have claimed a Lamarckist explanation for this phenomenon; his striving to become a good biologist affected his genes and this was passed on to his family as an acquired heritable characteristic!

Footnotes about sources

*Sabbagh, K (1999) A Rum Affair. The exposure of Botany’s “Piltdown man”. London: Penguin books. I have drawn heavily upon Sabbagh’s hard work in investigating this case. His book has been reprinted several times and a new 2016 edition has been produced. I recommend it as an absorbing read. Inexpensive copies of the various editions and printings can be obtained from the Abebooks or Amazon web-sites.

**The two papers below contain respectively an edited reprint of John Raven’s 1948 report and a detailed analysis of the veracity of Heslop Harrison’s plant records from Rum. They were both published in volume 25 of the journal Watsonia which from 1949 to 2010 was the journal of the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI) until its replacement by the New Journal of Botany. Articles from Watsonia can normally be downloaded for free from the BSBI archive but at the time of posting, the links to these two articles had been “temporarily” and inadvertently deactivated.

Preston, CD Editor (2004) John Raven’s report on his visit to the Hebrides, 1948. Watsonia 25, 17-44.

Pearman, DA and Walker, KJ (2004) An examination of J.W. Heslop Harrison’s unconfirmed plant records from Rum. Watsonia 25, 45-63.

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