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In Splendid Isolation

In Splendid Isolation: A History of the Willie Commelin Scholten Phytopathology Laboratory, 1894-1992

Patricia E. Faasse
Translated from the Dutch by Beverley Jackson
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  • Book Info
    In Splendid Isolation
    Book Description:

    For almost a hundred years, the Willie Commelin Scholten laboratory was the hub of phytopathology research in the Netherlands, where generations of students learned the principles of plant pathology.In Splendid Isolationreconstructs the history of this unique institution, from its beginnings as a small private laboratory in the late nineteenth century to its final days as a renowned university research center. This unique volume chronicles how the laboratory's scientific reputation spread far beyond the country's borders as it diagnosed and researched thousands of plant diseases.

    eISBN: 978-90-485-2167-8
    Subjects: History, Sociology, General Science, Botany & Plant Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Prologue
    (pp. 1-6)

    May 1995. The harsh whining of chain saws pierces the air of the sleepy neighbourhood. The Parks and Public Gardens Department has started work bright and early and two men are sawing down a twenty-metre high elm in an enclosed garden in the western district of Amsterdam. Hanging from ropes like mountaineers, the men slice off the tree’s branches one by one, each time with a single sweep of the saw. The lopped branches swish down to the ground below. A few hours later, the colossus has been reduced to a pathetic stump. The houses on the other side of...

  2. 1 What did Willie want?
    (pp. 7-28)

    Caspar Willem Reinhard Commelin Scholten died on Friday, 30 June 1893, exactly one week before the end of the academic year. According to the record of his death in Amsterdam’s municipal archives, he was, ‘aPhilosophiae Naturalis Candidatus[bachelor of natural philosophy] by occupation’, and lived in Amsterdam. He was twenty-five years old. Yet Amsterdam’s archives reveal nothing about the cause of death, so that the inquiry moves to Apeldoorn, the city where he died.

    In the card-index boxes of Apeldoorn’s municipal archives, there is no mention of a ‘Commelin’, ‘Scholten’, or any combination of the two. In the micro...

  3. 2 Phytopathology: a private or a public institute?
    (pp. 29-62)

    Like farmhouses and land, the knowledge of farming was passed down from father to son. Farmers knew from experience which soil was more fertile and which fertilizer produced a higher yield. They had learned which crop rotation systems prevented soil exhaustion and reduced the risk of disease. They reproduced this knowledge for generation after generation. Improvements and innovations were ascribable to their own acute powers of observation and to chance rather than to the application of any insights based on scientific discoveries.¹

    Someone like Jacob Krelage, who farmed his land well, could afford to build a study and pore over...

  4. 3 The lady from Roemer Visscherstraat
    (pp. 63-94)

    Female students were no longer exceptional by the late 1890s. Between 1878, the year in which Aletta Jacobs became the first woman to take her final medical examinations at the University of Groningen, and 1905, when Ritzema Bos finally left Amsterdam for Wageningen, the proportion of female university students increased from 2% in the academic year 1895 to over 18% in 1904.¹

    The percentage of female biology students was traditionally much higher (25% in 1898; 63% in 1913).² A variety of explanations have been suggested for this. One is that biologists were regarded as peace-loving people who communed with nature...

  5. 4 ‘Out in Baarn’
    (pp. 95-122)

    Westerdijk was just thirty-four when she gave her inaugural address in Utrecht. One of the photographs taken on this occasion shows her in a static pose, standing beside a column. She is wearing a black gown and has a book in her left hand. A white jabot dangles below her chin, and her flat black beret is stuck upright on her head. She gazes earnestly into the camera, her eyes hidden as always behind the thick lenses of her glasses. It is a stately portrait, so dark that her face and jabot provide the only highlights. The picture exudes gravity,...

  6. 5 Sturm und Drang
    (pp. 123-158)

    On Saturday 14 March 1931, Westerdijk celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of her directorship. Early in the morning, she and her mother were driven to the Badhotel in Baarn, where the entire board of the Willie Commelin Scholten Phytopathology Laboratory Foundation awaited her for the fiftieth board meeting.

    Before Went opened the meeting, however, Westerdijk made him a gift of a gavel, ‘to remedy the absence of a gavel in the years behind us’, the venerable Ernst Krelage, secretary of the board, recorded gravely in the minutes.¹ In this close circle of board members, Went then proceeded to share with his...

  7. 6 ‘Toil and moil’
    (pp. 159-194)

    ‘The war stopped just at the frontier of Baarn’, Westerdijk wrote in 1946 to one of her many foreign contacts in the world of phytopathology. ‘One day longer, and the whole village would have disappeared.’¹ It is said that Westerdijk spent the entire evening playing the piano, completely alone, with the distant thunder of approaching bombing in the background.² The Villa suffered no damage.

    The College of Agriculture was less fortunate. ‘Many of the Wageningen institutes were severely attacked’, she wrote to another fellow-phytopathologist. ‘And the worst is, that all the instruments have been stolen by the Germans, not even...

  8. 7 Triangular relations
    (pp. 195-232)

    ‘There were three things I wanted to change’, says Koen Verhoeff in a recent interview.¹ ‘When I took over as director, the atmosphere at the Laboratory struck me as… how shall I put it…’. He pauses thoughtfully, and then says, nodding, ‘quiet.’ Folding his hands, he explains, ‘After the lively surroundings of Naaldwijk Research Station and the Institute of Phytopathological Research in Wageningen, that took me by surprise. There were not many students in Baarn to inject life into the place. I was also startled to find that most people here went home for lunch. In America, I had been...

  9. 8 Charity begins at home
    (pp. 233-256)

    ‘It has become a tradition to start each year with a summary of what the past year has meant to the department and to reflect on what the new year has in store for us’, remarked Schippers on 5 January 1987, in his first New Year’s address to his staff as the Laboratory’s new director.¹

    Who better to look back? At 54 years of age – for 28 of which he had worked at the Phytopathology Laboratory in Baarn – he could still recall the days when Westerdijk and her housekeeper had lived there. It took an effort of the imagination to...

  10. Epilogue
    (pp. 257-268)

    May 2005. Minuscule scars in the tree’s trunk betray the site of last year’s injection. Each elm is marked as a green dot on the land registry map of Pernis. Ten trees next to a car park on Deijffelbroekselaan, a lone elm near the football field a little further down the road, three more on the outskirts of the village, and six on a canalside near Willem Weysingel. A row of ducklings follow a mother duck in the water. The trees are in full leaf. Their green makes a sharp contrast with the clear blue sky.

    The two tree surgeons...

  11. Acknowledgements
    (pp. 269-272)
    Patricia Faasse
  12. Table of terms and abbreviations
    (pp. 273-276)