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A Rum Affair: A True Story of Botanical Fraud

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A Rum Affair is an absorbing tale of scientific chicanery and academic intrigue —critically acclaimed and a finalist for the Los Angeles TimesBook Prize. In the 1940s, the eminent British botanist John Heslop Harrison proposed a controversial theory: Species of plants on the islands off the west coast of Scotland, he said, had survived the last Ice Age. His premise flew in the face of evidence that the last advance of the ice sheets extended well south of mainland Scotland, but he said he had proof—the plants and grasses found on the Isle of Rum — that would make his name in the scientific world. Harrison didn't anticipate, however, the tenacious John Raven, an amateur botanist who boldly questioned whether these grasses were truly indigenous to the area, or whether they had been transported there and planted. What seems at first a minor infringement of academic honesty soon becomes an enthralling tale of rival scientists and fraudulent science, a skillful whodunit that, in the hands of the talented Sabbagh, joins the ranks of the best narrative nonfiction.

296 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1999

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About the author

Karl Sabbagh

25 books22 followers
​Karl Sabbagh, founder and managing director of Skyscraper Publications, has written nearly a dozen books, ranging across topics as diverse as architecture, psychology, history, mathematics, fraud, Victorian boys’ papers, and the Middle East.​​ Some of his books are derived from major television documentary series he produced and directed; others are pieces of original non-fiction for a general readership. ​

From 2010 to 2012, he was managing director of Hesperus Press, an independent British publisher of minor classics, fiction in translation, and some original non-fiction. While at Hesperus, he acquired the UK rights to The Hundred-Year-Old Man who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, which has so far sold over 500,000 copies in the UK alone.

Skyscraper's unique programme draws on Karl's extensive experience as both author and publisher.

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5 stars
14 (10%)
4 stars
54 (41%)
3 stars
44 (33%)
2 stars
13 (10%)
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5 (3%)
Displaying 1 - 19 of 19 reviews
363 reviews1 follower
December 27, 2022
Have just finished the most recent Maggie Hope WW II mystery series title which was set on the Isle of Rum in the Hebrides off the coast of Scotland. When I serendipitously found this title on my shelves at home (another book rescued from the recycling bin at the library I worked at but never read), I figured it was time to read it. Botanical fraud situation from mid-20th century Britain based on a fairly well known botanist claiming to find plants on this remote island when most other research and study showed it to be virtually impossible these plants would have lived through the Ice Age there. It is a story of the current author (KarlSabbagh) tracking down the fraud story and fact-finding research that another person (John Raven) did but never really made public. So ...a story within a story. It was well researched but perhaps could have been shortened a bit. The Latin grass names all run together to this non-botanist although I know why they are there.

Another GR reviewer said Erik Larsen could have done it better, which maybe true, but this is still a good read. And certainly the case is made for why honest and accurate, detailed record-keeping is important in scientific research, especially when people are being given credit forever for finding species no one else has ever seen.

My absolute favorite passage, however, must be quoted here for librarians who may read this review. Author Sabbagh writes about doing research in the London Library (as opposed to the British Library.)

"Its key difference from the British Library is that all the shelves are open. Instead of looking up a book in a catalogue and asking someone to get it for you, you can roam the shelves to your heart's content. In fact, you often find yourself roaming the shelves to your heart's discontent because the nineteenth-century system of classifying books is often impenetrable to twentieth-century logic, and the system of locating the books once classified requires the geographical skills of a Burton or a Speke. But the illogical and labyrinthine nature of the place is such that, if you don't find what you are looking for, you almost always find something better."

This totally exhibits the tone of the book and why I enjoyed it.
Profile Image for dejah_thoris.
1,234 reviews20 followers
December 11, 2017
A very interesting investigation into scientific truth and what motivates well-known scientists to commit fraud. Told almost like a thriller (except with long Latin plant names) so it was a compelling and easy read. Definitely would recommend to a book club or a class on ethics.
June 16, 2012
I am not remotely interested in botany yet I found this book (which I picked up for 50 cents at a bazaar)a great read. Very good author; well researched; thoroughly enjoyed. My verdict on the "crime" - a case of suspected scientific fraud around which the story revolves:- not proven.

Francis - Malta, Med.
Profile Image for Kay.
1,009 reviews178 followers
August 6, 2011
Yawn! I've had this book stuffed back on a shelf for years and finally resolved to read it. Author goes into minute detail over an inconsequential deception. I couldn't get past page 30. While I like books on natural history, my eyes glazed over on this one.
402 reviews6 followers
January 12, 2023
Scientific fraud? fiction or fact?

Or just personalities larger than life? The facts do add up, and it is a very good telling. Lots of personal detail, appropriate correspondence, papers, interviews and chronological order to sift through events. A good use of photographs too (at the end). And a galloping read. More enjoyable as I have been to several of these places, and have even met a few of the (later) mentioned people. I found I wanted to talk with people about this book. Importantly we should note that science depends on factual accounts. It is to the detriment of all when politics and emotions (or tenure) get in the way. This story is very relevant today.
819 reviews2 followers
July 1, 2019
The author tries to run down whether the botanist John Heslop Harrison relocated sedges on an island in Scotland to support his particular evolution views. He also seems to have made doubtful entomology claims. I wish Sabbagh had done a better job citing David Allen's research on botanical societies and provided more context in the beginning part of the book. I feel it would have read better with some editorial reorganizing.
Profile Image for Steven McKay.
135 reviews3 followers
May 6, 2017
The author takes a moderately interesting scientific controversy from the early 20th century, and explores it in excrutiating detail. Perhaps if I were a historian or journalist I might find this more interesting, but it felt like I was reading a dissertation. Far more detail than I needed, and I even like plant taxonomy.
Profile Image for Carol Aldred.
146 reviews2 followers
November 2, 2017
An interesting book concerning scientific deceit. But over long and repetitive
3,160 reviews24 followers
Want to read
June 17, 2019
If like, in open culture look up 'Oliver Sacks' Recommended Reading List of 46 Books: from plants and neuroscience, to poetry and the prose of nabokov'
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
165 reviews
July 14, 2020
It's interesting to read about this case (and others) of data tampering by a scientist -a botanist in this case-who is trying to prove his theory and also to earn acclaim.
Profile Image for Cy.
39 reviews
October 29, 2021
Pretentious and long-winded book about an interesting tale. Deserves an in-depth magazine article, not a book. And certainly not one that this is as self-aggrandizing and pompous as this author's.
82 reviews
June 4, 2022
A slanderous book written by someone with no skill.
Profile Image for Mike Sutton.
Author 3 books6 followers
February 5, 2015
I love this book and thoroughly recommend it. It is very detailed and I can imagine some might feel that it is rather overladen with detail. But the detail is necessary to do justice to the complexity and seriousness of the question of whether or not the eminent British botanist John Heslop Harrington committed science fraud by importing and seeding the field of scientific discovery with species of plant, beetle and butterfly in order to claim the unique discovery of their unexpected capture on the Scottish isle of Rum.

This is a scholarly book that is accessible to anyone of keen intellect with a tolerance for balanced evidence weighing, genteel writing and good manners. The author - Karl Sabbagh - has crafted his work well and written a gem-strewn masterpiece of the rare "did he do it?" science fraud genre.

Despite giving over many pages to assess the obvious bias of his accusers, it is rather clear, I think, before we reach the end of the book that Sabbagh is certain his protagonist - Professor Heslop Harrington - at least committed some of the science frauds he was accused of.

I must admit that after reading one sentence on page 93 that thereafter, and right to the end, I suspected a twist in the tale would be produced where we would learn that the Professor was in fact exonerated by the author's own discovery. But such heroic new evidence does not come.

Consequently might I beg a breach of etiquette and wonder whether perhaps, if this review is ever drawn to his attention, Karl Sabbagh could use the comments section below it to answer a simple question. My question relates to what Sabbagh tells us on page 93 about "Kinloch Castle" built on the island or Rum by the wealthy George Bullough in 1900:

'The estimated cost of the castle is said to be more than $20 million in today's money. Bullough thought nothing of importing red sandstone and soil from the Scottish mainland and workmen from Lancashire to build the house and establish the garden.'

About the second of those two sentences, I'd like to ask Karl Sabbagh the following questions:

Could the unexpected varieties of plant and butterfly that the Heslop Harrington and his associates found on Rum have been accidentally introduced by George Bullough importing their seeds and pupae in the said imported soil? Moreover, did Bullough also set up a fashionable garden water feature or dig a grand pond - complete with imported water plants from where foreign water beetles could so easily have have migrated to the islands lakes? What plants might have come to the island with the Lancashire gardeners in 1900?

Why was this Bullough Contamination Hypothesis not examined in your superb book?
Profile Image for Stephen.
Author 6 books28 followers
January 16, 2009
Fraud and deception in the staid world of academia, botany no less? Who would have believed it?

After all, a plant is a plant is a plant, where they choose to grow is their own business and after they dig their tiny little rootlets into terra firma, they have no way of moving around. Or do they?

Curious mystery that takes place principally on the Isle of Rùm—one of the Small Isles of the Inner Hebrides off the coast of Scotland—and the provenance of some of the plants and grasses that grow there.

Profile Image for Mya R.
339 reviews10 followers
November 20, 2014
Written in 2005:
"I had hopes for this book, but sadly Mr. Sabbagh seems to spend a lot of pages padding out a limited amount of knowledge and even then it's a slim read that reaches few definite conclusions. One upside of the book is a desire to visit the Isle of Rum (also known as Rhum), as it sounds a lovely place. Another is the increased awareness that, in science, documenting your work so others can replicate your findings is of paramount importance."
Profile Image for Jason.
111 reviews10 followers
February 11, 2009
A fascinating little book about a paranoid fraud named John Wilson Heslop Harrison, who was once the caretaker of the Isle of Rum off the coast of Scotland.
23 reviews
May 11, 2009
Some interesting ideas and facts. It helps to understand some of the pressures (real or not) that may drive a professional to "create" data.
Displaying 1 - 19 of 19 reviews

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