Let’s Make Botany Hip Again, Part 2: Experimenting with Experimenting
In my previous blog post, I discussed Professor Beal’s pioneering hands-on teaching strategies and his efforts in building the College’s first botanical laboratory. As I delved into research about the botanical laboratory and Beal, it became apparent that the lab was not Beal’s only, or most sacred teaching space; during his tenure at Michigan Agricultural College, Beal turned campus itself into an extended laboratory of sorts. This post focuses on Beal’s work in the fields of botany and forestry, and how these contributions changed the landscape of agricultural research and, quite literally, the landscape of this campus.
In researching the botanical laboratory, I discovered a large collection of reports and bulletins on Beal’s work. Academics are all too familiar with the adage “publish or perish,” but at MAC, there were also legal imperatives for professors to publish. As part of the 1861 legislative act transferring control of MAC to the State Board of Agriculture, the College was charged with conducting scientific experiments to promote education and progress in agriculture, and with publishing results in annual reports. These records provide us with a sense of what MAC professors, including Beal, were doing and thinking about during this time.
Much of Beal’s research was inspired by real-world problems. During his first 13 years at MAC, Beal “mingle[d] considerably with the farmers in the interest of horticulture to learn their needs and modes of work and thought.” Drawing on the work of Charles Darwin, Beal experimented with selection and hybridization of various crops to improve their yield and quality. In 1878, Beal cross-pollinated different strains of corn, increasing corn production by 53 percent. Beal corresponded with Darwin himself about this line of study, evidenced by letters in the MSU Archives.
One of the experiments Beal reported, a long-term seed vitality study, would turn out to be his most famous. Just before the first botanical laboratory was built in 1879, Beal buried identical bottles of seeds at a secret location on campus. The goal of the experiment was to retrieve one bottle every five years and test how many sprouted. The last bottle is due for excavation in 2100. It is currently the world’s longest continually monitored scientific study.
Not all of Beal’s ideas were so inspired. One experiment was called “Feeding the leaves of plants with soup” and it was exactly what you’re thinking. In what I can only describe as an attempt to generate carnivorous tomatoes, Beal made a soup from “a quart of water and a hand-sized piece of meat,” then applied the soup daily to the leaves of the tomato plants. Instead of nourishing the plants, as he had predicted, the soup produced dead spots that gave the plants a “sickly appearance.” With an almost tangible shrug, Beal wrote, “Perhaps the soup was too strong; probably the plants do not like food served up in this form.”
Beal’s various research reports make clear that much of his research was conducted outside of the laboratory around campus and in the extensive arboretum and “wild garden” he planted. It appears he conceptualized these campus spaces as extensions of his botanical laboratory and invaluable spaces for experimentation and observation.
The arboretum began in 1874 as two rows of swamp white oaks near where Mary Mayo and Campbell Halls now stand. By 1880 there were over 275 species of shrubs and trees across two acres of land. Beal often published on his observations in the arboretum, including which species of trees flourished and their rates of growth. Perhaps an even more impressive feat was the wild garden. Planted in 1877, it contained over 700 species of flowering plants. The work of planting, labeling, and maintaining the garden was undertaken almost entirely by students with Beal’s oversight. Specimens from the garden, which was located just outside the first botanical laboratory, were regularly used as materials for Beal’s classes. While the organization of the garden has changed over the years, it is currently the longest continually maintained university garden in the nation and a pleasant place to wander as one escapes the library.
During the period of operation of the first laboratory, the legal push for agricultural research intensified. The Hatch Act of 1887 gave federal funds to state land-grant colleges to establish Agricultural Experimental Stations and required publication on agricultural research. MAC professors received part of their salaries from Experimental Station funds and were expected to devote a third of their time to experiments.
To put it lightly, Beal was not enamored of the pace of this directive. While he published some experimental results, he often used the platform instead to promote education and conservation. In an 1891 bulletin titled “Why not plant a grove?” he wrote, “These few pages on forestry have not been written to secure the applause of those who see little use for a bulletin unless it contain some new truths brought out by conducting careful experiments.” Instead, Beal expressed his concerns about deforestation, urged farmers and landowners to plant trees, and drew on his own experiences with the arboretum in explaining the best methods of doing this.
Reflecting on my research into Beal’s research, it is clear the first botanical laboratory served as the center of botanical research and education at MAC. However, as I hope I have illuminated in this post, these efforts neither began nor ended with the building itself. From his arrival at MAC to his retirement, Beal claimed campus spaces as sites for teaching and scientific observation. That said, the construction of the second botanical laboratory apparently came as a welcome relief after two years of sharing space in the agricultural laboratory. When its cornerstone was laid on June 22, 1892, Beal held a ceremony at which prayers were read and his daughter Jessie sang a hymn. Perhaps it was the prayer, or perhaps it was its construction in brick, but the building still stands today as part of Laboratory Row.
True, Alfred Charles. A history of agricultural experimentation and research in the United States 1607-1925 including a history of the United States Department of Agriculture. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1937.
Beal, William J. The Agricultural College of Michigan Bulletin No. 45, Department of Botany and Forestry: Why not plant a grove?
Beal, William J. A Brief Account of the Botanic Garden of the Michigan State Agricultural College, 1882.
MSU Archives & Historical Collections
UA 1 State Board of Agriculture/Board of Trustee Records
- Board of Trustee Meeting Minutes Notes: 1878
- Board of Trustee Meeting Minutes Notes: 1879
- Board of Trustee Meeting Minutes Notes: 1880
- Michigan Board of Agriculture Department Reports, 1880: Report of the Professor of Botany and Horticulture
- Report: Michigan State Agricultural College Experiments and Other Work of the Horticultural Department (1880)