April’s free e-book from the University of Chicago Press is Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding by Noel Kingsbury, which is a great history that covers the science in good detail without requiring a specialist knowledge (if you want a great history with less technical detail, Tom Standage’s An Edible History of Humanity is fantastic). Hybrid covers a lot of ground, and that includes mutation breeding.
Interestingly, Kingsbury’s perspective is quite different from the sources I previously wrote about. Though he acknowledges that the process has its limits, Kingsbury points to a large number of results, with 998 commercially viable crop varieties as of 1990 (most of them mutated by gamma rays). Contrary to Jacob Darwin Hamblin’s suggestion that scientists in the developed world pushed the methodology on developing countries where it may not have been suited, Kingsbury suggests the fact the technique is low tech and labor intensive compared to genetic modification makes it “eminently suitable for developing countries” today.
Among the observations contained in Kingsbury’s account: the Soviet bloc was a major early adopter of mutation breeding, with high-yield “Nucleoryza” covering 80% of Hugarian rice-growing land in the 1960s and East German’s “Jutta” barley the first commercially released variety (in 1955). Kingsbury also mentions an early at-home mutation breeder whose story rivals Murial Howorth. John James of Ohio, “the Frankenstein of Flowers,” began experimenting by scraping the radium off watch dials where it was used in luminous paint, following it up with Cobalt-60 and Iodine-131. His book, Create New Plants and Flowers – Indoors and Out, was published in 1964.