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Luther Burbank (1849-1926)
The "Idaho" Potato
Luther Burbank had only an elementary education, but was always an avid
reader. At the age of 19, he was profoundly impressed by Charles
Darwin's treatise The Variation of Animals and Plants under
Domestication: "It opened up a new world to me." At 21,
Burbank purchased a 17-acre plot of land; he went on to become one of
history's most inventive and productive breeders of plants.
Conducting as many as 3,000 experiments at once, Burbank painstakingly
crossbred foreign and native species of plants, cultivated the resultant
seedlings, and used grafting to arrive at new and better breeds. Of the
tens of thousands of varieties he attempted, hundreds were successful,
including the famous "Shasta" daisy. One hundred years after
their invention, Burbank's July Elberta peach, Santa Rosa plum, and
Flaming Gold nectarine (to name a few) were still on the market.
But his greatest success was the Russet Burbank potato (1871), better
known as the "Idaho" potato. This was soon exported to help
Ireland recover from the devastating potato blight of 1840-60. And even
today, despite all the horticulturists who have followed in his
footsteps, Burbank's large, hardy, fine-grained potato is unsurpassed, a
staple of American agriculture.
Like George Washington
Carver, Burbank realized that human ingenuity could improve nature's productivity.
His tremendous success, and also his own book, How Plants Are Treated to
Work for Man (1921), largely inspired the later Plant Patent Act (1930),
which made new varieties of plants patentable for the first time. As Thomas Edison
said in support of the legislation, "This will, I feel sure, give us
many Burbanks." Burbank himself received 16 plant patents posthumously.
More importantly, he set the precedent for innovation in plant breeding that
continues today with the help of bio-engineering.