Forgotten fruits

Around the beginning of the twentieth century, William Jasper Spillman, one of Washington State’s first faculty members, recognized that eastern Washington farmers were committed to lucrative wheat as their primary crop. Spillman experimented by crossing wheat varieties to find traits desirable for the Inland Northwest.

Variations didn’t appear in the first generation, but Spillman soon observed that the second generation of plants had combinations of the parents’ traits. He then applied a mathematical formula to predict inherited traits, to the benefit of the wheat farmers.

Many of us know the basics of this research from high school science: Gregor Mendel’s laws of inheritance, published in 1866. However, the practical significance of Mendel’s work was not recognized until Spillman and other scientists independently found and applied those genetic principles 40 years later.

Spillman did not find something completely novel, but that does not diminish the importance of his research. By applying knowledge that had been ignored or misunderstood, thousands of farmers who used Spillman’s research changed the face of the state. Over half a million acres in Washington were planted with Spillman varieties by 1911, writes historian Laurie Carlson ’04 PhD.

Like Mendel’s genetic studies, knowledge and other discoveries can sit in plain sight, forgotten or ignored, until a new use is found. Apple trees in old backyard orchards—some with varieties of fruit thought to have vanished—could provide new genetic material for WSU tree fruit scientists. Ancient corn and millet found by WSU archaeologists might help subsistence farmers in drought-stricken places in the world. American appetites are bringing back hard cider, the drink on which the country was founded.

Spillman was acknowledged for his work, moving on to the U.S. Department of Agriculture after just six years of successful research and service at Washington Agricultural College. The profound importance of Mendel’s studies of pea plants, on the other hand, didn’t receive recognition until Spillman and European scientists verified the findings decades after Mendel documented them. Perhaps other research, medicinal plants in forests, or even practical skills of our ancestors, await rediscovery, when they can be applied to our modern problems.