Burbank, Luther

Burbank, Luther
born March 7, 1849, Lancaster, Mass., U.S.
died April 11, 1926, Santa Rosa, Cal.

U.S. plant breeder.

He was reared on a farm and never obtained a college education. Influenced by Charles Darwin's writings on domesticated plants, he began a plant-breeding career at age 21. On the proceeds of his rapid development of the hugely successful Burbank potato, he set up a nursery garden, greenhouse, and experimental farms in Santa Rosa, Cal. There he developed more than 800 new and useful strains and varieties of fruits, flowers, vegetables, grains, and grasses, many of which are still commercially important. His laboratory became world-famous, and he helped make plant breeding a modern science. He published two multivolume works and a series of descriptive catalogs.


Courtesy of Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pa.

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▪ American plant breeder
born March 7, 1849, Lancaster, Massachusetts, U.S.
died April 11, 1926, Santa Rosa, California
 U.S. plant breeder whose prodigious production of useful varieties of fruits, flowers, vegetables, grains, and grasses encouraged the development of plant breeding into a modern science that has lent valuable assistance to the study of genetics.

      Reared on a farm, Burbank received little more than a high school education, but he was profoundly influenced by the books of Charles Darwin, especially The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. At the age of 21 he purchased a 17-acre (7-hectare) tract near Lunenberg, Mass., and began a 55-year plant-breeding career that almost immediately saw the development of the Burbank potato. Selling the rights to the potato for travel fare to California, he settled in Santa Rosa, where he established a nursery garden, greenhouse, and experimental farms that were to become famous throughout the world.

      Burbank's breeding methods effected multiple crosses of foreign and native strains in a favourable environment in order to obtain seedlings that he grafted onto fully developed plants for relatively quick appraisal of hybrid characteristics. At all stages of the process he demonstrated an ability for extremely keen observation and the immediate recognition of desirable characteristics, which enabled him to select useful varieties. So profound was this ability that he took the apparent “molding effect” he exercised on his plants as evidence supporting his belief in inheritance of acquired characteristics, even after the publication of Gregor Mendel's principles of heredity in 1901 and the subsequent creation of the science of genetics.

      Burbank developed more than 800 new strains and varieties of plants, including 113 varieties of plums and prunes, 20 of which are still commercially important, especially in California and South Africa; 10 commercial varieties of berries; and more than 50 varieties of lilies. He wrote Luther Burbank, His Methods and Discoveries and Their Practical Applications, 12 vol. (1914–15); How Plants Are Trained to Work for Man, 8 vol., (1921); and a series of descriptive catalogs, New Creations (1893–1901). With Wilbur Hall he wrote an autobiography, Harvest of the Years (1927).

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Universalium. 2010.

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