From Potato Farming to Pharmaceutical Factories: The Business(es) of Plant Virus Research in Britain, 1920–2020

Supervisory team: Dr Helen Anne Curry (Department of History & Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge) and Dr Sarah Wilmot (Library & Archives, John Innes Centre)

In 1927, the UK Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries founded the Potato Virus Research Station at Cambridge University. The station became home to what was then an ever-more-urgent area of research in Britain and abroad: the control of plant diseases associated with viruses, which were little understood at the time. Scientists associated with the research station, which later became the Plant Virus Research Unit of the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), then the ARC Virus Research Unit, and still later the Virus Research Department of the John Innes Centre (JIC), remained at the forefront of international plant virus research for the next nine decades. This was true even as the focus of research changed from the urgent matter of keeping disease-free potato stocks for plant breeding and cultivation to understanding the molecular structure of the gene to devising biotechnological applications for plant viruses.

This project offers the opportunity to prepare a pathbreaking account of the development of plant virus research in Britain, drawing especially on the extensive and largely untouched archives related to this research held at the JIC in Norwich. This subject has never been treated in a scholarly account despite many acknowledgments of the critical role of plant virus research in the history of twentieth century biology. The research student will home in on three distinct eras: virus control in crop plants at the Potato Virus Research Station, molecular biological investigations at the Virus Research Unit, and the development of industrial biotechnology at the JIC Virus Research Department. The result will be a novel account of some of the most important changes in biological research in the past 100 years.

As part of the project, the research student will have the opportunity to develop skills related to archive development and public history, for example in assisting the JIC archives in creating catalogues for the relevant collections and taking oral histories of past and present JIC researchers. In collaboration with the JIC outreach team, the student will be invited to develop a public exhibition that will be installed in 2024 to celebrate the centenary of publicly funded plant virus research in Britain.

The research student is supervised by Dr Helen Anne Curry of the University of Cambridge, who has expertise in the history of modern biology and biotechnology. Dr Sarah Wilmot, Outreach Coordinator and Science Historian at JIC, will offer additional supervision and coordinate the use of the JIC Library and Archives. Based at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) at Cambridge while collaborating with the JIC, the research student will move between two world-leading research communities: in the histories of modern science, medicine, and technology at Cambridge HPS, and in plant science, genetics, and microbiology at the JIC in Norwich.