Truth Concealed for 50 Years—Why?

Rum is a small island of the Inner Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. Some 70 years ago, its owner granted botanist John Heslop Harrison, a university professor and member of Britain’s prestigious Royal Society, permission to study its plant life.

During the ensuing years, Harrison reported finding many rare species there, plants that had only been seen growing hundreds of miles farther south. Harrison was enthusiastically acclaimed, his achievements adding greatly to his reputation. But as his list grew, so did the skepticism of other botanists.

In 1948, John Raven, a Cambridge classics don and keen amateur botanist, accepted the challenge to investigate. But his report was never published. Instead, it was hidden away, and only in 1999 were its contents revealed. Why? Because Raven proved that Harrison was a fraud. As the magazine New Scientist reported, the plants had been cultivated elsewhere and secretly transferred to Rum.

Raven had a natural feel for plants in their habitat and soon spotted among the roots of several of Harrison’s “discoveries” weeds that were common in England but rare on Rum. Other plants were infected by a gnat that had been reported in only two locations in Britain—one being Harrison’s garden in England. Further evidence came from the roots of a plant, which held particles of quartz—a long way from any natural quartz on Rum.

There was yet more. Harrison’s pronouncements on the island’s butterflies and beetles were known to be fraudulent. The Sunday Telegraph Magazine noted that one Rum resident confided: “The professor kept something up his sleeve—either a butterfly or a plant—to discover every year.” So why was Harrison never exposed?

Researcher Karl Sabbagh concludes that the decision to take no action was a kindness to protect Harrison’s family, but the fact that Harrison was a powerful man, dangerous to cross, would have been taken into account too. Sabbagh also observes that an exposé “could have brought the entire botany profession into disrepute.”