Accelerating Evolution, Engineering Life: Science, Agriculture, and Technologies of Genetic Modification, 1925-1955


Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowships


History of Science


This dissertation offers a history of the development, application, and public reception in the United States of early technologies of genetic modification in plants. It explores how scientists, breeders, and lay observers at mid-century came to view methods that produced genetic mutations—whether x-rays directed at dormant seeds, a chemical applied to flower buds, or radioactive cobalt placed in a field of crops—as agricultural tools. By revealing a widespread belief that mutagens could enable breeders to speed up evolution, producing genetic variations “at will” and engineering plant types “to order,” the project challenges a more common framing of genetic technologies as having originated in the 1970s and sheds new light on the nature of current debates about genetic modification.