Luther Burbank c. 1907.
© Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Life and Times
Luther Burbank was an American botanist and scientist, most remembered in the food world for the potato named after him.
He was a self-promoter, but his hype about some of his plant creations didn’t live up to reality when they were grown elsewhere in the world outside of the idyllic California environment, where he worked. He didn’t like visitors: on his front door, he had a sign that read “Mr. Burbank is no less occupied than are the officials of Washington, and therefore he most humbly requests that the public not disturb him with visitations.”
Trained botanists found his approach scattered and maddening, and didn’t even know how to respond to his belief that plants could telepathically understand human speech. There may have been method to his madness, though: he was single-handedly responsible for 200 new varieties of fruit alone, such as the July Elberta peach, the Santa Rosa plum, and the Flaming Gold nectarine. He also developed the Shasta Daisy, now common in gardens across North America.
He is best known for the Burbank potato, of course, which was highly-desirable because it was both blight resistant and a very good cooking potato. In 1871, he further developed the Burbank potato into the Russet Burbank, now marketed as the “Idaho” potato.
Burbank couldn’t patent any of his creations, though, because America’s Plant Patent Act wasn’t passed until 1930.
He was a defiant atheist at a time when it was far from fashionable. He published a book called “Why I am an Infidel,” which raised a storm of controversy.
Chronology of his life
- 1849 — Luther Burbank was born on 7 March 1849 in Lancaster, Massachusetts. There were fifteen children in his family; he was the thirteenth. His mother, Olive Ross Burbank, was a tea-totaller. His father was Samuel Burbank. Olive was Samuel’s third wife.
- 1864 to 1867 — Luther attended and completed high school at Lancaster Academy in Massachusetts.
- 1868 — At 19, Burbank read Darwin, which caused him to become an evolutionist, and interested in the development of plants. In this year, his father Samuel died.
- 1870 — Samuel had left Burbank a small inheritance. He used it to buy seventeen acres of land to open a plant nursery in nearby Lunenburg, Massachusetts. The nursery opened in 1871. He began breeding and cross-breeding plants.
- 1871 to 1875 — He developed the Burbank Potato.
- 1875 — Burbank sold the rights to the potato for $150 to James John Howard Gregory of the Gregory Seed Business in Marblehead, Massachusetts (Burbank had initially asked for $500.) Gregory also allowed him to keep ten of the seed potatoes for further research, and named the potato after Burbank. With the proceeds, Burbank moved to Santa Rosa, California, where two (some say three) of his brothers already were. There he bought a four-acre plot of land and started a plant nursery.
- 1885 — He acquired an additional fifteen acres of land called “Gold Ridge Farm” in Sebastopol, California, which he used as a second plant nursery. He called it “Luther Burbank’s Experimental Farm.” His mother and his sister Emma came to live with him in California.
- 1888 — Returned to Massachusetts for a visit.
- 1890 — Burbank married a Helen Coleman.
- 1894 — Burbank visited Canada.
- 1896 — Burbank divorced Helen Coleman.
- 1904 to 1906 — Burbank gave some lectures at Stanford University.
- 1905 — Burbank got a grant from the Carnegie Foundation to support him in his work. Carnegie gave him $10,000 a year, an extremely generous grant at the time, for a ten-year term.
- In December, 1905, Carnegie appointed a man named George Harrison Shull (1874 — 1954) to work with him, to document Burbank’s work and prepare material for publication in scientific journals. Burbank did his work by memory, and instinct, and didn’t keep records. The two didn’t get on. Shull had a disciplined approach to genetics; Shull found Burbank very opinionated and more of a diva who preferred to work by himself (or at least, without having to take advice from anyone else: he had many hired hands for garden workers.)
- Carnegie cut the grant off in 1910, five years early. Burbank was furious, but Carnegie was embarrassed that one of its highest grants ever was producing so little in return –he wouldn’t keep records to report back to his funders, and wouldn’t work with Shull properly. Shull kept on trying to remain on polite terms with Burbank just to produce something written, but in 1914 Shull finally abandoned his effort, and Shull’s rough notes were left incomplete and never published.
- 1915 — Burbank published his 12 volume book, “Luther Burbank—His Methods and Discoveries and Their Practical Application.” Burbank had Shull cropped out of a photo that he wanted to use in the book.
- 1916 — Burbank married Elizabeth (Bessie) Waters, originally of Chicago. Bessie had worked for Burbank as his private secretary for three years prior to their marriage.
- 1926 — In the last year of his life, Burbank allowed himself to be interviewed by a reporter, Edgar Waite. The article was published 22 January 1926 in the San Francisco Bulletin. In it, he declared himself an “infidel” and said that the soul had no immortality. This caused a bit of an uproar in his town. He died a few months later, on 11 April 1926, aged 77, of gastrointestinal complications. He was buried at his request in an unmarked grave beneath a Lebanon cedar tree, planted by himself, in front of his cottage. Despite his crotchety nature, a memorial service held at Doyle Park in Santa Rosa, California on 14 April 1926, was attended by 10,000 people. His wife, Elizabeth, leased Goldridge farm to Stark Brothers Nursery, who held it until 1957.
Elizabeth Waters Burbank
13 April 1926.
Grand Rapids Press.
Grand Rapids Michigan.
Scan courtesy Gary F. Foster]