STS Seminar Series 2012-13
Department of Science and Technology Studies
University College London

Monday 26 November, 4.15 pm
Venue: Room 105, 24 Gordon Square
Building Location:

Helen Curry (HPS, Cambridge)

Atoms in agriculture: nuclear science as agricultural outreach in the United States, 1945-1960

In 1947, biologists at the Brookhaven National Laboratory collaborated in studies in which they exposed growing plants to large doses of radiation. From an in-house investigation into the effects of radiation on genes, chromosomes, and whole plants, the work soon morphed into an extensive cooperative program. Plant breeders from around the country and eventually the globe sent seeds and plants to be irradiated at Brookhaven using a range of atomic technologies. Breeders hoped that exposure to radiation would quickly generate genetic mutations, useful variations with which they could create improved fruits, flowers, and crops. The program inspired other atomic installations to take up similar research, including the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, which began its own cooperative irradiation program in the late 1950s. In this talk, I will consider the history of the cooperative breeding programs at Brookhaven and Oak Ridge, situating these among other research sponsored by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission as well as ongoing debates about the genetic effects of radiation. I will discuss how the scientists involved successfully aligned the hopes of agricultural producers, the interests of the atomic laboratories, and the larger aims of the AEC — not least by drawing attention to “beneficial mutations” at a time when many Americans were increasingly concerned about the harmful genetic effects of radiation and fallout.

Forthcoming Seminars:

Monday 10 December, 4.15 pm
Jack Stilgoe, STS, UCL
“Governing intent: Experiments in responsible geoengineering”
Venue: Room 105, 24 Gordon Square
Building Location: