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Atomic Gardens

In March 1959 an unusual group of scientists, government officials, and lesser worthies assembled for a dinner party in the dining hall of the Royal Commonwealth Society, London. Unbeknownst to them, one of the courses was a strange strain of American peanuts: ‘NC 4x’, ‘North Carolina 4th generation X-rayed’ peanuts, produced from seeds that had been exposed to 18,500 roentgen units of x-rays in order to induce mutations. The irradiated peanuts were unusually large--big as almonds, according to those in attendance, outshowing the British groundnuts served alongside--and had reached the dining table through the generosity of their inventor Walter C. Gregory of North Carolina State College, who sent them as a gift to Mrs. Muriel Howorth, Eastbourne, enthusiast for all things atomic.

Disappointed with the reaction of her guests, who were less than appreciative of the great scientific achievement present at table, Muriel afterwards “began inspecting [the] uncooked nuts wondering what to do with them all…I had the idea to…pop an irradiated peanut in the sandy loam to see how this mutant grew.” The “Muriel Howorth” peanut (for she had already named it after herself) germinated in four days and was soon two feet high. She called the newspapers.

Almost immediately there were interviews and television appearances, AP reporters in the driveway and sightseers peering into the glasshouse to get a look at the plant. Its portrait was commissioned and put on display at the Walker Galleries in London. Garden writer Beverley Nichols came to call:

"Yesterday I held in my hands the most sensational plant in Britain.
It is the only one of its kind. Nothing of its sort has ever been seen in the country before.
To me it had all the romance of something from outer space.
It is the first ‘atomic’ peanut.
It is a lush, green plant and gives you a strange, almost alarming sense of thrusting power and lusty health.
It holds a glittering promise in its green leaves, the promise of victory over famine."

Muriel was a great former of societies (about 12, near as I can tell, over her lifetime..she was invariably President), and she immediately constituted the Atomic Gardening Society and published a manual, Atomic Gardening:

"I now felt that by some stroke of luck which is difficult to ascribe to chance, I had been given the opportunity—so much longed for—to bring science right into the homes of the people. I organized an ATOMIC GARDENING SOCIETY to co-ordinate and safeguard the interests of ATOMIC MUTATION EXPERIMENTERS who would work as one body to help scientists produce more food more quickly for more people, and progress horticultural mutation."

The Atomic Gardens grew out of post-WWII efforts to use the colossal energy of the atom for peaceful pursuits in medicine, biology, and agriculture.  'Gamma Gardens’ at national laboratories in the US as well as continental Europe and the USSR bombarded plants with radiation in hopes of producing mutated varieties of larger peanuts, disease resistant wheat, more sugary sugar maples, and African violets with three heads and a singular atomic entrepreneur named C.J. Speas irradiated seeds on his Tennessee farm and sold them to schoolchildren and housewives, among them Mrs. Muriel Howorth.

Atomic Gardens are my current research project, and will soon result in a publication as well as a presentation to take place on February 28, 2011 at the rescheduled (after last year’s volcanic ash debacle) study day on the Landscape of the 1950s. They are just recent enough that there are those still alive who may remember what was at least enough of a cultural moment to to form the plot device for Paul Zindel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.  

If you know anyone that participated, that was involved in laboratory research, or grew the seeds, or was a ‘Mutation Experimenter’, please get in touch…the history of one of gardening’s weirdest moments needs to be captured before it’s too late! (And if you want to hear more, sign up for the 1950s study day at the University of Bristol...)
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Brent said...

Thank you. This struck me as a bizarre and fascinating chapter of recent history, as apparently it did you. But I suppose that it was all perfectly normal in the 50s.

Appalachian Feet said...

I've never heard of this! I kept waiting for you to write that the irradiated peanut was dangerous. It wasn't? Now I know why so many people joke that their garden grows like it is on a nuclear waste site.

Sarracenia said...

Fascinating bit of history here! Atomic Peanuts. Brilliant! Thank you so much for sharing this. I'm so glad I have stumbled on your blog! I love how gardens and plants carry a story and how that story can transcend generations.

College Gardener said...

Very interesting and slightly terrifying all at the same time. I wish I knew somebody who could help you with your research. Also, I hope you will be telling us more about that conference. It sounds like it will be fascinating!

Patty said...

Fascinating post. Just found your blog, I'm not sure how anymore. I can't wait to read the other posts. Like you I have an interest in garden history, but have not made the leap as you have. My very amateur blog Women and the Garden may be of some interest to you, maybe not. Regardless I will be reading yours.

Katya said...

How fascinating. Any idea whether these plants were dangerous to consume? Will keep an ear to the ground for any other information.

Yvette said...

I'm fascinated and cringing, at the same time. Many years ago, I bought a copy of "American Ground Zero: The Secret Nuclear War," which looks at American nuclear testing in the 1950s and 60s, which was done above-ground in broad daylight, with significant impact to neighboring communities.

Among many other horrific things, the book features photos of pastures in Nevada with the ground coated in inches and inches of nuclear ash that looks like snow. Many of the photos in this pictographic book were originally published by the "Atomic Energy Commission" which, at the time, highly recommended that people living downwind of the fallout get down and dirty with the ash and enjoy it.

Suburban housewives were paid in rolls of quarters to view test blasts and to bring their families to watch (on specifically built bleachers, facing the mushroom-cloud detonations) and were close enough to the explosions to be covered in ash. Children played in the nuclear "snow" in their front yards and gardens and were told that it was perfectly safe. With radiation contamination comparable to Chernobyl (at the least), there is a portion of our country whose DNA (plant and animal) is probably still being affected today. There were sheep in vermont whose wool was contaminated by the Nevada ash, for example. I recall there was an analysis of cloud disbursement somewhere in there, also.

I can't find my copy of the book, at the moment, but Carole Gallagher, the photographer who chronicled this bit of our history, has listed family names and cities and towns in her portraits. These people were some of the "mutant experiments" of that era. I believe their gardens/land/properties are probably still being affected today. It might be worth a look.

In addition, from the mid-40s to the early 60s, the U.S. seems to have "bought" the Marshall Islands specifically to test nuclear and biological weaponry. The ground/plant-life contamination there is historically epic, and I believe the islanders have sued our government for remediation/relocation expenses, over multiple years and are also being affected by contamination today. I'm remembering that there are certain plants that are simply forbidden from being grown there today, and there have been a slew of experiments conducted around WHICH kind of plant matter can help to clean up the ongoing ground contamination (e.g., sunflowers). This was a backyard-agriculturally-minded population. There is bound to be some garden history for you, there, as well.

You may already be aware of these things. They should all be Googleable, at the least. Wishing you the best of luck on your research. I hope you'll post updates for us, as you go.


Mike Nuckols said...

Blandy Farm, a UVA research station, did atomic research on plants in the 1950's. As a student there in the late 1980s, I distinctly remember the sign noting where the garden once stood as I feared even going near it. I'm not sure what documentation exists about it, but I'm sure there is some in their archives and library.

arcady said...

Hey thanks, Mike! That's exactly the sort of memory I hope to prompt...I'll check into Blandy Farm.

Summer said...

Here's a document with some info on the usage of Blandy Farm to conduct experiments on using ionizing radiation, such as cobalt-60, to induce mutations, particularly on pp. 26-27: http://www.dhr.virginia.gov/registers/Counties/Clarke/021-0550_Blandy_Experimental_Farm_1992_Final_Nomination.pdf

arcady said...

Hi Summer,
Thanks for the doc about Blandy Farm! I'm following up on those leads.

PhoenixBonsai said...

In John Hersey's book Hiroshima it is mentioned that there was seen a lush growth of the ordinary weeds the year after the bombing.

Dolf RJ said...

The IAEA still works on such studies.

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