Karl Sabbagh
A Rum Affair: A True Story of Botanical Fraud

"Somehow this man was too eager to prove things, by hook or by crook, and there were plenty who believed that 'crook' was the word to use." (p. 201)
Science is frequently like detective work. Both professions rely on some similar methods. But this story intertwines the two in ways that are (fortunately) not typical. People, hopefully, go into science to promote knowledge and discovery, not obscure and tamper with the facts as the natural world has presented them. Both the author and the hero of the story do a lot of detective work to flesh out the professor who damages the cause he is supposed to be working towards.

The guts of the story, in relation to the events as they occurred on Rum as referenced in the title, only encompass about 50 pages near the center of the book. Prior to this section Sabbagh sort of strings the reader along (even though the prose is entertaining and I wasn't about to give up reading to find out what happens). After perhaps 100 pages or so I was wondering why I was reading this book, for other reasons though, as the subject seemed rather minor in the grand scheme of things, and it didn't appear that Sabbagh had much of real substance to say about these non-famous participants. (Heslop Harrison is the villain pretending to be a scientist and John Raven plays the part of the hero/detective who discovers Harrison's likely fraud.) I thought perhaps the only audience that would really be interested would be those living in the area in and around Scotland who were also botanists and/or friends or family of the characters involved.

Things do pick up though and can be quite exciting after about page 100. The first 100 pages probably should have been condensed into about 25-50 pages. But once the cards are all placed on the table by page 155 or so, Sabbagh heads off in another direction instead of ending the book. The reader learns about several other cases of scientific fraud and gets a dose of the social aspects behind scientific workings (in a somewhat similar vein to Kuhn or Hacking or others).

Then the subject shifts again but not back to Rum. Sabbagh tells us, for the first time, that Heslop Harrison was not a Darwinist. He was Lamarckian even in the 20th century. Lamarckism was not the only incorrect theory Harrison held onto, however, but both of his pet theories proved to be his downfall. For both erroneous theories he fudged the facts in order to "prove" that he was correct. Hardly the scientific thing to do. The key difference between science and, say, theology or other defenses of inherited beliefs is that scientific theorizing needs to be based on the facts, all the facts. When theories are chosen first and then the facts have to fall in line, people, like Harrison, can get into trouble. Apparently, he created fraudulent data not only in the field of botany but also in his Lamarckian studies and in his (and his sons') insect "discoveries."

At this point (the last 70 pages or so) The Rum Affair turns into more of a Harrison biography/expose', with its dealings in Harrison's other scientific affairs and likely misdeeds, than a focus on the book's title. This isn't necessarily a bad thing as getting the full picture in regard to Harrison makes the dubious activities on Rum more plausible and shows that the thread of deceit ran through his whole scientific work and not just an isolated incident on the Island of Rum.

Fans of the scientific profession will come away disappointed that more scientists are unwilling to challenge those rare individuals, like Harrison, they suspect aren't completely scientific. Perhaps the reason is that enough evidence isn't available to come away with a clearly guilty verdict. But based on some of the quotes, there appear to be other reasons. As one scientist told the author,

you'd better not quote me on some of th[ese allegations of misdeeds]--Heslop Harrison's grandson is on a committee that could turn down a grant application from me. (p. 61)
It is a shame that money should get in the way of what would ideally be a pure, openly honest, and completely ethical profession.

A Rum Affair is enjoyable and should be appreciated by most.

How science can become corrupted by scientists who aren't deserving of the title (or by those dealing in religious apologetics, etc.):

"I have been right so often. I know I'm right this time. This is the way the world was designed. If the evidence isn't forthcoming, then just for the present I'll produce the evidence. It will show everyone that I am right. Then no doubt in the future, others will do experiments and show how right I was." (p. 189)

from the publisher:
The mysterious Isle of Rum [at one time spelled Rhum] is one of the Inner Hebrides situated off the west coast of Scotland. Rugged, mountainous, and largely deserted, the island's brooding beauty and natural diversity attracted an eminent British botanist, John Heslop Harrison of Newcastle University. In the 1940s the professor announced the discovery of several species of rare plants on the island. These unusual finds helped make Heslop Harrison's mark as one of Britain's outstanding scientists, but they were also the latest in a series of discoveries that many botanists were beginning to suspect had been fabricated in order to enhance the professor's reputation.

In the interest of settling the matter once and for all, a young Cambridge don named John Raven managed to infiltrate one of Heslop Harrison's expeditions to Rum. The report he produced after that visit was stark and shocking, and on the basis of a detailed investigation of the alleged discoveries, Raven accused the professor of systematic and persistent fabrication of his evidence. Rumors of Raven's allegations began to circulate in botanical circles, but rather than allowing his suspicions to destroy the professor's career, Raven buried the report and let the rumors go unconfirmed.

In A Rum Affair, Karl Sabbagh investigates for the first time Heslop Harrison's elaborate botanical hoax. Sabbagh interviews Raven's widow and unearths buried documents as he traces Raven's effort to uncover proof that the professor had transplanted the several species in question from his own garden. Along the way, Sabbagh explores the oddly congenial relationship between accuser and accused, detailing Raven's unusual attempts to keep his well-documented discoveries secret (the only public account of his investigation was a letter published in Nature in 1949 that does not directly implicate Heslop Harrison) and to protect Heslop Harrison's children from being damaged by the accusations.

Like a skillful whodunit, A Rum Affair allows the reader to savor each of its surprising revelations of hubris and chicanery as its tale unfolds among the exotic flora of Rum.

Karl Sabbagh earned his degree at King's College, Cambridge, before joining BBC Television to produce science programs. He now lives and works in London, where he produces documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4 in the U.K. and for PBS in the United States. He has written for The Listener, Punch, and World Medicine and is the author of five books, including The Living Body, Skyscraper, 21st Century Jet, and, most recently, Power into Art.

"A bizarre tale of botanical skullduggery ... Sabbagh stumbled across this most arcane of mysteries ... [including] an engaging Sherlock Holmes, with an ebullient Dr. Watson at his side ... [and] an almost Edwardian cast of eccentric subsidiary players." --The Sunday Telegraph

"Fascinating ... Reads like a detective story ... Finally sets the record straight about the activities of someone always regarded as a most distinguished professor of botany." --Sir Ghillean Prance, former director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, in The Times Higher Education Supplement

"An exciting little scientific detective story ... What makes A Rum Affair particularly enjoyable is Sabbagh's gradual unraveling of Heslop Harrison as a corrupted soul rather than a scientific freak; a man pushed by desperation and arrogance to destroy the very prize for which he wants to be remembered: scientific discovery." --Alexander Masters, The Times Literary Supplement

"A Rum Affair is very entertaining. Its appeal will doubtless spread beyond those interested in British botany to those fascinated by the wider issues of scientific fraud and those who enjoy a gripping yarn." --Christopher M. Berry, Nature

"Sabbagh deserves a lot of credit, first for making the subject interesting, then for doing so much detective work." --Charles Arthur, The Independent

"A poignant story of a long-dead botanist who achieved fame by literally planting his evidence." --Tim Radford, The Guardian