Midnight in the Gardens of Gamma Radiation

The 1950s and 60s were the breeding ground for all sorts of wild atomic enthusiasm, some of it plausible, much of it not. If you believed everything you read, the power of the atom was going to revolutionize every aspect of human life. We’d have atomic planes, trains, automobiles, and ships (the last of which, unlike the first three, actually happened). Highways would be built and harbors created through nuclear excavations (like Project Chariot, thankfully cancelled before it irradiated a large chunk of Alaska’s North Slope). The US Atomic Energy Commission, in their irrepressible search for wonderful things to with atomic power, even did a decade’s worth of work on a plutonium-powered artificial heart.

All the projects mentioned above existed with the support of major governments, but you didn’t need to be government-funded in order to be an atomic booster. You could, like Muriel Howarth, just be incredibly enthusiastic. Historian (and working nanotech researcher) Paige Johnson has cataloged Howarth’s remarkable efforts to promote atomic power in Great Britain through pamphlets, lectures, picture books, music, and what seems best-described as a strange interpretive dance – in the pantomime Isotopia, according to Time magazine:

“13 bosomy A.E. Associates in flowing evening gowns gyrated gracefully about a stage in earnest imitation of atomic forces at work. An ample electron in black lace wound her way around two matrons labeled ‘proton’ and ‘neutron’ while an elderly ginger-haired Geiger counter clicked out their radioactive effect on a pretty girl named Agriculture. At a climactic moment, a Mrs. Monica Davial raced across the stage in spirited representation of a rat eating radioactive cheese.”

(You can read Johnson’s article, “Safeguarding the Atom: The Nuclear Enthusiasm of Muriel Howorth” through her webpage).

Howorth’s final effort, as well as the first to directly involve something approaching nuclear research, was the Atomic Gardening Society, established in 1959. Using seeds irradiated by C.J. Speas, who had secured an Atomic Energy Commission license to use Cobalt-60 to irradiate seeds in a cinderblock bunker in Tennessee, associates of the Society were to plant and document the growth of these potentially-mutated plants. The venture seems to have failed quietly; Johnson records no evidence for the survival of the Society past 1963.

The story seems wild, but as Johnson explains in an extended and tremendously informative interview over at Pruned, the use of gamma radiation to spark potentially attractive mutations in various plants was big, cutting-edge science at the time. Not only were nuclear powers like the US, UK, and Soviet Union building their own “gamma gardens” in which to irradiate plants, but so were countries like India and Japan – supported, in part, by a joint division of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Small radiation sources at the center of each atomic garden (see the Pruned interview for pictures) emitted enough radiation to spark frequent mutations in the surrounding plants. These could, if beneficial, be bred and refined into viable commercial strains using the same methods that plant breeders used to fix naturally occurring characteristics.

The results were not an unparalleled success – Johnson describes their efforts by saying “if we think of modern GM as taking a scalpel to the genome, mutation breeding by irradiation was a hammer.” Equally troubling, Jacob Darwin Hamblin’s research on the joint FAO/IAEA division suggests that the scientists and administrators involved sold projects to developing world hosts even as earlier adopters like the US were abandoning the same ideas as ineffective. The plant irradiation program at the US Brookhaven National Laboratory, for example, was closed down in 1979.

Despite these problems, mutagenic breeding did achieve some notable successes. Johnson notes that the majority of today’s commercial peppermint crop is descended from the wilt-resistant “Todd’s Mitcham” cultivar created in the gamma garden at Brookhaven. Other fruits of mutagenic breeding include the “Star Ruby” and “Rio Red” grapefruits and the “Calrose 76” and “Reimei” varieties of semi-dwarf rice.

As a result, mutagenic breeding has never really gone away. In 2007, the New York Times did a feature on the practice, focusing on the work of Joint FAO/IAEA Division and its head, Pierre Lagoda. So if someone offers you a tour of a functioning gamma garden (like the Institute of Radiation Breeding at Hitachiohmiya), you should totally say yes – just not while the irradiating is going on.

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