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From Collection to Cultivation

An image of a woman leaning over plants

Doctoral Project: João P. R. Joaquim

This project proposes to explore the history of virus research in agricultural science in mid-twentieth-century Britain. Its central case study is an institution emblematic of the development of state-sponsored virus research: the Potato Virus Research Station (PVRS), installed in Cambridge in 1927. I accompany the development of the PVRS over the decades from its founding until its incorporation into the John Innes Institute (now the John Innes Centre) in the mid-1960s, as the Virus Research Unit (VRU).  

Through this institution and based on the rich archival sources available at the John Innes Centre and other institutional and public archives around Britain, I propose to explore theoretical and methodological change in virus research. Significantly, the PVRS/VRU was involved in a variety of scientific endeavours connected with plant and animal viruses. On a practical level, these encompassed, for example, the multiplication of virus-free seed potatoes and contributions to the development of virus crystallography. At the same time, from a more theoretical standpoint, the PVRS/VRU contributed to important discussions about the nature, classification and nomenclature of its researchers’ objects of study.   

My objective is to contribute to the historiography of virus research by examining instances of agricultural scientific knowledge, expertise and practices that were integrated into this field in the period under consideration. This is a history told through organisms (plants, insects, and microbes), objects (from those repurposed from everyday use to highly specialised scientific instruments) and spaces of science (such as domestic gardens, glasshouses, and laboratories), which considers how they were designed and used by scientists, technicians, and even farmers.   

Keywords: agricultural science, organisms as tools, biotechnology, spaces of science


Recent research presentations by João Joaquim on the history of agricultural virology:

"Aphids, from agricultural pests to instruments in early twentieth-century plant virus research", Humans, Ticks and Insects in Multispecies Networks, University of Turku and Åbo Akademi, Finland, 17 March 2022.

"Potatoes, from managing degeneration to controlling virus diseases", British Agricultural History Society Spring Conference, Harper Adams University, United Kingdom, April 2022.

"From pests to technologies: the changing roles of insects in agricultural virology in mid-twentieth-century Britain", Agricultural History Society Annual Meeting, University of Stavanger, Norway, 6 August 2022.

"Agricultural Virology in Early Twentieth-Century Britain: the search for virus-free potato seed", Coffee Break Seminar, Cambridge Global Food Security, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, 7 October 2022.

"The early days of insect virus research and their tentative use in pest biocontrol", International Society for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Biology Biennial Meeting, University of Toronto (Canada), 9-15 July 2023.

"Nuancing the physiochemical turn at the Plant Virus Research Station", British Society of History of Science Postgraduate Conference, University of Oxford (UK), 31 March 2023.