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The World of Our Dreams: How America’s Plant Explorers Transformed Our Farms and the Food We Eat
October 23, 3:00 pm - 4:00 pm
Many of the plants that populate our farms today are the result of federal plant introduction, an extensive effort by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expand the range of species cultivated in the United States.The Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction (SPI) soon led the way. Beginning in 1898 and lasting for a period of about forty years, the “golden age” of plant exploration promised to rescue struggling farmers, revolutionize diets, and modernize American industries.
This lecture examines how a little-known team of explorers searched the world for enticing plants, looking closely at both what they accomplished and failed to achieve. It weaves together the stories of Frank N. Meyer, a Dutch immigrant and the namesake of the Meyer lemon; David Fairchild, the team’s charismatic leader; Wilson and Paul Popenoe, two brothers from Kansas who intertwined the fields of plant breeding and eugenics; and Howard Dorsett, a University of Missouri alumnus who helped introduce America to the soybean. Ultimately, while the plant explorers transformed American diets, the abundance of new plants often failed to translate into lasting biological diversity.
Amidst growing concerns about crop genetic diversity and food security, plant explorers remain central figures in the making of modern America. Join us to learn more about their work and complex legacy.
Dr. Rebecca Egli is a historian of agriculture and the environment in the United States. At the Linda Hall Library, she is conducting research for her current project, “Seeds of Misfortune,” a history of America’s plant explorers that examines the impact of plant introduction and breeding on the development of modern agriculture.
Rebecca grew up in Kansas City and received her PhD in history from the University of California, Davis in 2018. Her dissertation, The World of Our Dreams: Agricultural Explorers and the Promise of American Science, investigates federal scientists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, exploring developments in plant biology, attitudes towards breeding and race, and the ecological consequences of importing non-native plants and insects into the U.S. Her work has been supported by a number of organizations, including the Council on Library and Information Resources. She received an MA from King’s College London in 2010 and a BA from the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 2008.
The event is free and open to the public; however, e-tickets are required.
Parking is free in Library parking lots and along the west side of Holmes Street between 51st and 52nd streets. The main entrance to the Library grounds is on Cherry Street. The Linda Hall Library is not affiliated with UMKC. Parking in all UMKC lots is by permit or meter.
Questions? Contact Eric Ward at 816.926.8753 for more information about these events.