Book Review: Flower Hunters by Mary Gribbin and John Gribbin


I’ve spent a fair amount of the last six months in the quiet corridors of the Manchester Museum Herbarium, helping with a lengthy transfer of packets of the General Moss collection from filing cabinet to boxes. Sifting through sheets and packets, I can trace the patterns that the personalities of the different collectors etch in the collection. I see the differences in packeting; ‘stuffers’ who see the size of the envelope as the minimum target and the ‘folders’, who encase tiny scraps in tissue-thin paper, the localities visited and the specimens selected which different personalities pick. It is inevitable that any Herbarium collection is filtered through the collectors’ passions and whims. Therefore, when I found a copy of Mary and John Gribbin’s Flower Hunters in the library, I picked it up out of a desire to learn more about the collectors whose specimens fill the shelves of herbaria throughout the world.

The book traces a history of botany up until the 20th century, when there still existed territories unaltered by human hands. There is a distinct horticultural slant, but does cover scientific and economic botany which interests me more. There is also more of a stress on Hunters than Flowers; biographic minutiae trumps botanical detail. I would have liked to have seen more on the bryophytological loves of Richard Spruce, for example, to get a feel for his mind and passions.

Across the biographical chapters of individual botanists, what piqued my interest was how class influence how these collectors could practice and were rewarded for their work. Whilst all suffered on arduous, years long journeys around the world, the gentleman (and gentlewoman) naturalist had a retinue and global connections. Their resources permitted the intellectual freedom to see global patterns in vegetation, which fueled evolutionary and ecological thinking. In contrast, working-class commercial plantsmen were sent out on their own and expected to keep their heads down, looking for the economically not intellectually fruitful, but only seeing the smallest slice of the profits their seeds and plants made.

The book is structured roughly chronologically, with each chapter on the life of a plant collector (or collaborating pair), hence showing the changing shape of science and adventure. The structure works well in the beginning, the early classification system of John Ray (1627-1705) is followed by the more familiar classification of Linnaeus (1707 – 1778). I was surprised to learn that Ray’s somewhat cumbersome classification based on essential features of the plant (such as the dicotyledon/ monocotyledon division still current) blended with Linnaeus’ user-friendly classification system based on somewhat arbitrary features (Crytogamia, anybody?) to create the bones of modern plant taxonomy. Linnaeus is not the origin of plant taxonomy, he had his own forerunners as well. We then move to Joseph Banks (1743 – 1820), the de facto first director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and friend of George III who accompanied Captain Cook on the Endeavour. Here scientific curiousity is inseparable from imperial ambition, Banks saw the land and flora of the Pacific as ripe for “improvement” and exploitation.

Then follows the plantsmen, sent as the somewhat disposable employees of private companies into unmapped territory. These include David Douglas (1799-1834) sent alone on starvation pay by the Royal Horticultural Society to discover and collect plants including his eponymous fir and the Sugar Pine in North America. Expected to live on the land and employ local guides, his health was ruined, losing most of his vision and becoming rheumatic. He died in a bizarre, tragic manner; on Hawaii, his poor eyesight caused him to fall into an animal trap where he was gored by the trapped bull.

We then move onto a pair of similarly intrepid plantsmen, William and Thomas Lobb, who also brought large trees back to their employers. But with the later plant hunter, Robert Fortune (1812-1880), the voyages become more routine. His work involved trading, officially and unofficially, with other plant breeders in China. His notable achievement was in service of the British Empire, he was the first to take viable tea seeds out of China to establish successful plantations in India, ending China’s monopoly on tea. Though economic considerations went into even Linnaeus’ botanising, consideration of profit becomes more naked and unscrupulous.

Bucking the arch of the narrative is the figure of Marianne North (1830-1890). A wealthy woman, she circled the globe without the expected chaperone, not plant hunting for profit or for a scientific institute (as none would employ a woman to do so) but for her art. She was an incredible prolific botanical artist who, unusually for the time, painted plants in situ. She worked rapidly and in oils, producing what the Gribbins describe as not highly detailed but more importantly accurate. They are not plants “murder[ed] to dissect” but alive in their habitat, an ecological not an anatomical painter. I am hesitant to criticize the inclusion of North as I admire her as an intrepid artistic woman. But she does stick out of a narrative trend of increasing commercialization of plants precisely because she was not a plant hunter, with all it’s masculine connotations. She did not bring back the plants themselves as trophies, but her own impressions of the plants and their environments captured in the paintings. If her story was in the context of a discussion of the growing ecological understanding, amongst the stories of Alexander von Humboldt and Alfred Russell Wallace for example, it would make sense. But here it feels like she was shoehorned as “the woman” in a history of a period and profession which was more or less uniformly masculine. The best way to appreciate women’s contribution to science is to place them in their intellectual context, not to include them in a place where their lives seem superfluous and dismissable.

The final story is that of Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911), who I know best for the Bentham & Hooker System of classifying seed plants which the Manchester Museum Herbarium (and many other herbaria) arrange their specimens by to this day. This is not discussed in the book, sadly, as it would make a nice narrative circle from Ray and Linnaeus to Hooker. The focus is instead upon Hooker’s botanising in the Himalayas. He was one of the earliest Europeans to explore the Tibetan Plateau, and is largely responsible for the flourishing of rhododendrons in the gardens (and countryside!) of Britain. Less destructively, his collections form integral parts of many herbaria in Britain, including Manchester’s.

A book such as this does run the threat of superficiality and glaring omission (Darwin is conspicuously but understandably absent, but aside from Linnaeus there is an absent of the non-Britons). But more important is cohesion, which it ultimately lacks. It doesn’t make any conclusions about the state of botanical science in this period, merely presenting fascinating stories.  A book which treated the hunters and their plants on the same level, giving biographical and evolutionary detail alongside each other, would have made maybe a more enjoyable, tightly structured book.


Book Review: How To Survive a Plague by David France


My generation are some of the first to grow up with HIV infection as a treatable condition. We only know a world where combination HAART can give those newly infected an undetectable viral load and a nearly normal lifespan, so we largely lack the fear and stigma which surrounded AIDS from its beginning. It is easy for us to think, yes, HIV/AIDS was and is tragic, but the modern treatments are as good as a cure, so it’s no real problem now. But such complacency is wrong.

David France opens How to Survive a Plague with the funeral of Spencer Cox, a member of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) who suggested that HIV researchers test  the drug Crixivan in large simple trials to produce data fast and get the drug on the market. This scene is not at the height of the plague but in 2013. The drug combinations he and many others were saved by in 1996 became ineffective, as his HIV strain mutated to snake past all available HIV drugs. What it is vital for those born after the plague years to know is that treatability does not entail dismissal. And France’s book details the struggle and stubbornness, as well as plenty of setbacks and self-aggrandizement, it took to get to where AIDS is today.

France runs a history of the science of HIV/AIDS alongside and intertwining with the history of activism. His writing is less pacy when writing on the research compared to when writing about the high drama of drug trials, but forgivable given his background. France is an AIDS activism insider. He is among the crowds of plague survivors at Cox’s funeral and is connected to the story’s main players. Though the scope and tone of the book somewhat resembles Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “Big Book of Cancer”, it does not attempt to magisterial objectivity. This means the book is How to Survive a Plague (as a gay male activist and journalist in New York, 1981-96). At the books heart is a small world of New York activists. San Francisco is a distant oasis separated by the dry sands of prejudice, to say nothing of the rest of the world. But narrowness is key to the intimacy France creates by following key figures like characters in a novel through what would otherwise be a fog of names, dates and acronymns.

Some of his stars include the musician Michael Callen, Richard Berkowitz and their physician Joseph Sonnabend, who together authored a 1982 book advising on safe sex. There is Larry Kramer, the mercurial playwright crucial in ACT UP’s founding and Peter Staley, the ex-Wall Street trader who protested against the high price of the drug AZT at the New York Stock Exchange. The book is rich in the tales of these and others fighting have AIDS taken seriously by scientists and law-makers.

What was new about the AIDS epidemic was how activists engaged with research. Theatre major and high school dropouts were reading the scientific literature on HIV/AIDS and presenting their own illnesses at conferences so they could challenge drug companies and government officials on funding and clinical trials. ACT UP’s famous mantra was “drugs into bodies”, they intended to get as many people on the best drugs quickly. This was strikingly at odds with a government and medical establishment characterized by it’s neglect, greed and indifference.

Successes finally emerged when researchers and activists worked together. AIDS activists suggested the parallel track method of clinical trials, which generated good data from a carefully controlled clinical trial, but those who aren’t the ‘perfect patient’ trials need can get the drugs. The drug Crixivan appeared promising in the early 1990s, so was rapid rushed from test tube to human trials via the substitution of animal trials for a ‘big chimp trial’, a scientist heroically took the drug themselves. But the manufacturer Merck faced was slow in producing enough of the drug for the Phase II trials, so driven by love and despair activist Tom Blout on Merck’s community advisory board was getting the drug bootlegged for lover Jim Straley, who died after his supply ran out.

Such a personal history of an emotive topic runs the risk of whiggish hagiography, but France’s acknowledgement of the failures and successes of activist groups keeps it balanced. The pitfalls of activist-driven medicine as shown in the case of AZT. Pressure from activists to value hast came at the cost of efficacy, when the good outcomes early in the Phase II clinical trial of the drug meant the trial was stopped prematurely and the drug approved in record time. But AZT was ultimately found to have no effect on lifespan, not captured in the short trial. But the scientists have plenty of flaws as well. There was a narrow focus by the NIH on trials of drugs which targeted the HIV virus, at the expense of developing treatment for the opportunistic infections which actually kill AIDS patients. But by the end of the plague, activists and scientists largely collaborated to temper each others’ faults. There is comedy in some of ACT UP’s stunts, such as the unfurling of a giant condom over the house of anti-AIDS research Senator Jesse Helms. But throughout the book runs a sense of the great, howling injustice of the willful ignorance of the AIDS crisis by those in power.

The book ends in 1996, the end of the plague years, the survivors dissipated. But the plague still shuffles on, wreaking havoc for those lacking access to treatment and bruised by previous treatments. AIDS casts a long shadow over the LGBTQ community, but the grief and anger spurred activists into becoming more vocal in demanding their own humanity be respected. The consequences of their actions reverberate in every pride march and every newly-out teenager today.

The “Deep Otherness” of Plants: On Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl


I’ve spent much of the time since reading Hope Jahren’s memoir Lab Girl in November pressing the book into the palms of anyone whom asks for recommendations. This is not because it is something tritely described as a science book which non-scientists can enjoy, as if this means it has been specially dumbed down. This book is not concerned with explaining scientific concepts about how the world works, which won’t attract a person not interested in thinking in causal mechanisms. Jahren is not concerned with detailed explanations of her work, instead the book starts prior to this and explores what draws us to look at the world with a curious mind, a thing we all inevitably do whatever our day job. It is more impressionist than explanatory, with the tautness and rhythm of literature, dealing with what drives a particular sort of person cram themselves into small lightless rooms with big questions and anxious hearts.

Lab Girl is Jahren’s autobiography of becoming and painfully establishing herself as a scientist. She works at the intersections of many disciplines and  could be described as a plant geochemist, one of the few scientists who spend their time sifting and sorting data extracted from rock samples to constructing landscapes millions of years gone. I enjoyed this spotlight on an under-hyped branch of science whose way of looking at the living world we all should learn from. Jahren and her colleagues see with the panorama of the palaeontologist and the eye of the environmental scientist for the interplay of living and non-living and so understand the environment as ever shifting, the present world should not be taken for granted.

Jahren structures chapters about her life and work around short vignettes about how plants live. Though she writes of the “deep otherness” of plants, plant scientists do find that the organisms so often on their mind inevitably colours their experience of their own lives. The perils and the struggles of life as a plant mirrors Jahren’s as a scientist, a woman and a person with bipolar disorder. For instance, a chapter on the curious S-shaped growth curves of corn which suggests the traumatic process of making seed is followed by a chapter detailing Jahren’s pregnancy; the emotional turbulence of going off medication in the first two trimesters and in the final trimester being formally barred from her lab as a “liability”. This juxtaposition is more than metaphor. What Lab Girl does best is to convey what it is like to think like a scientist, to have your mind percolated by your subject matter and methods until you yourself become entwined within it.

This is not to say Lab Girl is a romantic account. There are numerous horror stories about funding struggles, scrabbling enough money to pay the salary of Bill, her career long collaborator who spent much of the early days sleeping in the lab or his car. Bill is Jahren’s colleague, but they act more like siblings than two professional.They spend blissful nights in the lab constructing experiments and defrosting hamburgers, pepped up on a steady stream of dark humour. Rather pleasingly, both Bill and the many Mass Spectrometers Jahren has had in her life appear far more frequently than her husband. But Jahren does not dismiss family life, a scene towards the end of the books sees her refer to the two halves of her heart, both full when she puts her son to bed and goes off to the lab to put the half given over to science to use. She doesn’t see either side of her life as detracting from the other, they are all components of what she is.

Jahren does not make her bipolar disorder explicit for the first part of the book, no doubt mirroring its emergence in her life,though this did mean it took me a while to realise that her long hours and nocturnal lab habits are not typical, and shouldn’t be purposefully emulated. I’m cautious around first person account of bipolar disorder as they can be interpreted as glamourising mania and making it desirable for people who don’t have bipolar, which it ultimately never is. Thankful, Jahren avoids this.

On the flip side, except for her pregnancy, her bipolar or the stigma associated with it does not seem to have subtracted from her career significantly. I suspect however that Jahren was of the first generation to do so in significant number, as they would be doubly perceived as irrational and unscientific for being mentally ill and women. Jahren discusses the sexism she has faced, and locates its burden to the “the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can’t possibly be who you are”, the knee-jerk assumption of what a scientist can be which affects more or less all but the white European, wealthy middle-aged able-bodied man.

Whilst the title suggests the book’s subject is the “girl”, I think Jahren intended the stress to be on the “lab” in which the girl happens to be in. Jahren grew up in her father’s lab, and sees the labs she has built over the world as her home, a refuge from the outside world where she can be herself. The book is a love letter to the physical and mental space to think, play and discover that a lab of one’s own brings to the female scientist in particular.

Lab Girl is not a The Double Helix style account of one extraordinary discovery, Jahren sees science as work and herself as “like an ant, driven to find and carry single dead needles [..] and then add them one by one to a pile so massive that I can only fully imagine one small corner of it”. Whilst a science appears to be progressing in leaps and bounds from the outside, as seen from the individual point of view science stagnant with your budget or regresses as your work is made irrelevant.Whiggish narratives are irrelevant or dangerous on a day to day basis, so Jahren explores the pleasure of her work itself; to try to understand the logic of plants, from the inside. But the moments of discovery are beautiful when they happen, such as the blissful moment when Jahren is standing in the lab in the sunrise thinking herself the only one in the world with a newly discovered gem of knowledge, making her “unique existentially”.

As a young woman with designs on making a (increasingly circuitous) route into research science, I have absorb Lab Girl not as a manual for being a scientist, but rather as a suggestion of a way of being as a scientist, a path already flattening down the grass. A path which shows the principle is possible, but does not dictate the route. But it is more important to me as a showing how a life scientist can draw upon their subject – these strange ways of being as a way to reflect upon your own life, to use the subjectivity of another as a way to root yourself in the chaotic seas of your own subjectivity.