Cover image for A Rum affair : a true story of botanical fraud
A Rum affair : a true story of botanical fraud
Sabbagh, Karl.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000.

Physical Description:
viii, 276 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 22 cm
General Note:
"First published in 1999 by Allen Lane, the Penguin Press, UK."
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
QK31.H39 S23 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
QK31.H39 S23 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

On Order



Now in paperback: "A diverting tale of foul play among the ferns." -Los Angeles Times

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Twenty years ago, Sabbagh saw an obit in his alumni magazine for John Raven, a don described as having been "indignant" that his exposure of a scientific deception, if it was deception, had been suppressed. Sabbagh decided to sleuth what seemed a worthwhile mystery, with delightful results. Botany, the particular science involved, and sedges of the British Isles, the particular specialty, become subordinate to the thematic question, how does science police itself? To demonstrate the answer--through people and their bundles of motivations and self-images--Sabbagh perceptively, even sympathetically, resurrects from the dusty archives the two antagonists in this case: professional grass guru John Heslop Harrison and Cambridge classicist and amateur plant hound John Raven. Although unalike in class and temperament, they were both absorbed in plants, and when Harrison published in 1941 his discovery on the Hebridean island, Rum, of Carex bicolor, hitherto unknown in that area, Raven insinuated himself into Harrison's confidence, then denounced the claim. Ably narrated, the course of their conflict proves subtly illuminating about truth and honesty. Gilbert Taylor

Publisher's Weekly Review

Class warfare in British universities! Wholesale deception in top research journals! Sedge grasses covertly transplanted to islands in the Inner Hebrides! Clearly fascinated by this long hushed-up scandal in a quiet field, Sabbagh (Skyscraper: The Making of a Building) has produced a fluent, attentive and compact chronicle of scientific deception and detection. Newcastle University's John Heslop HarrisonÄa confrontational man and a coal miner's sonÄascended to the top of U.K. plant science in part on the strength of unusual grasses that he and his students "discovered" on Scotland's Isle of Rum. The classical scholar and expertÄbut amateurÄbotanist John Raven found in the late 1940s that Harrison had brought the unusual species to the island in order to later claim credit for finding them there. The "discoveries" supported Heslop Harrison's theory that parts of England and Scotland retained plant species from before the last Ice Age. Wanting to avoid a public controversy, Raven never published his clearest indictment of Harrison, instead making his evidence known to others in charge of classifying plants. The Heslop-Raven controversy could bear all sorts of sociological glosses: did it set a hardworking professor from the provinces against a privileged Oxbridge amateur? Or an arrogant professional against a diligent, careful outsider? Did it show how science can police itself, or how collegiality lets coverups go on? Sabbagh considers all these aspects of the case as he sketches the two men's personalities and those of many other relevant characters. Sabbagh's final chapters consider parallel frauds in other scientific fields, presenting credible explanations for how a few scientists steeped in the codes of their profession perpetrate outright fraudsÄand how other scientists get taken in. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Sabbagh, a television producer and author (Skyscraper), here explores a very curious chapter of botanical history. He chases down a 50-year-old open secret of suspected fraud committed by respected botanist John Heslop Harrison, a man who may have planted new specimens on the Isle of Rum off the west coast of Scotland and then claimed them as discoveries. Sabbagh tells two stories: his own attempts to document this incident and Heslop Harrison contemporary John Raven!s meticulous efforts to expose the fraud. He presents the story as a thrilling mystery, creating a steady buildup of suspense while avoiding unnecessary detours into sensationalism. Throughout, it is apparent that Sabbagh is fond of the characters despite their flaws and quirks. Yet he also enjoys exposing the behind-the-scenes machinations that overdeveloped egos, personal feuds, and private agendas cause in the advancement of science, a realm often considered purely objective. An interest in botany is only marginally necessary; this book is for anyone who enjoys the thrill of the chase. Recommended for all public and academic libraries."Marianne Stowell Bracke, Univ. of Houston Libs. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.