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Helen Anne Curry

Peter Lipton Lecturer in History of Modern Science and Technology

I am a University Senior Lecturer in the history of science and technology. I'm also fellow and director of studies in the History and Philosophy of Science at Churchill College.

My current research focuses on the history of efforts to understand and use crop diversity as a resource for agricultural development. In August 2020 I launched the project 'From Collection to Cultivation: Historical Perspectives on Crop Diversity and Food Security' with support from a Wellcome Trust Investigator Award. The team of researchers associated with this project will work together to create new accounts of where, how, and by whom contemporary crops are made.

This project has its origins in my investigation of history of genetic conservation, especially the preservation of seeds and other plant materials in seed and gene banks. This history was the focus of a Pro Futura Scientia Fellowship from 2017–20 and a Wellcome Seed Award from 2016–17. It is also the subject of my current book project, Endangered Maize: Indigenous Corn, Industrial Agriculture and the Crisis of Extinction. You can watch me talk about aspects of this research in a short film produced by the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute or a presentation given at the conference Biodiversity and Its Histories.

I've always been interested in the tools and techniques behind the foods we eat. My 2016 book Evolution Made to Order: Plant Breeding and Technological Innovation in Twentieth Century America traces the history of several early technologies used to modify genes and chromosomes, including their application as novel methods of plant breeding. You can learn more in a review of the book that was published in Science in November 2016 or my interview with the New Books Network.

I'm also interested in bringing research to new audiences. In 2017–18 I collaborated with All Seeing Eye in their production of the virtual reality game Seed, which allows players to tinker with plants and genes just like the amateur plant breeders I've written about. You can read more about this project in The Times Higher Education.

Research interests

Histories of 20th and 21st century sciences and technology, especially biology and biotechnology; histories of agriculture, horticulture and gardening; histories of conservation and environmentalism; global environmental histories.

Books & edited collections

Evolution Made to Order: Plant Breeding and Technological Innovation in Twentieth-Century America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

with N. Jardine, J. A. Secord, and E. C. Spary, eds. Worlds of Natural History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, November 2018.

Ed., "The Collection and Conservation of Plant Genetic Resources," Culture, Agriculture, Food & Environment 4, no. 2 (December 2019).

Journal articles

'Taxonomy, Race Science, and Mexican Maize', Isis (forthcoming, 2020). [Open Access Repository.]

'Gene Banks, Seed Libraries, and Vegetable Sanctuaries: The Cultivation and Conservation of Heritage Vegetables in Britain, 1970–1985', Culture, Agriculture, Food, and Environment 41, no. 2 (2019): 87–96.

'From Bean Collection to Seed Bank: Transformations in Heirloom Vegetable Conservation, 1970–1985'BJHS Themes 4 (2019): 149–167.

'From Working Collections to the World Germplasm Project: Agricultural Modernization and Genetic Conservation at the Rockefeller Foundation'History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 39, no. 5 (June 2017). [Open Access Repository.]

'Breeding Uniformity and Banking Diversity: The Genescapes of Industrial Agriculture, 1935–1970', Global Environment 10, no. 1 (April 2017): 83–113. [Open Access Repository.]

'Atoms in Agriculture: A Study of Scientific Innovation between Technological Systems'Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 46 (2016): 119–153. [Open Access Repository.]

'From Garden Biotech to Garage Biotech: Amateur Experimental Biology in Historical Perspective', British Journal for the History of Science 47 (2014): 539–565.

'Radiation and Restoration; or, How Best to Make a Blight-Resistant Chestnut Tree', Environmental History 19 (2014): 217–238.

'Industrial Evolution: Mechanical and Biological Innovation at the General Electric Research Laboratory', Technology and Culture 54 (2013): 746–781.

'Naturalizing the Exotic and Exoticising the Naturalized: Horticulture, Natural History and the Rosy Periwinkle', Environment and History 18 (2012): 343–365.

Contributed chapters

'A Short History of Seed Keeping', in Jeannie Whayne, ed., The Oxford Handbook of the History of Agriculture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

'Wanted Weeds: Environmental History in the Whipple Museum', in J. Nall and L. Taub, eds., The Whipple Museum of the History of Science (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2019): 223–236.

'Imperilled Crops and Endangered Flowers', in H. A. Curry, N. Jardine, J. A. Secord, and E. C. Spary, eds., Worlds of Natural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, November 2018): 460–475.

'Speeding Up Evolution: X-Rays and Plant Breeding in the United States, 1925–1935', New Perspectives on the History of Life Sciences and Agriculture, edited by Denise Phillips and Sharon Kingsland (Dordrecht: Springer Verlag, 2015): 459–478.

Short articles

'Why Save a Seed'Isis 110, no. 2 (June 2019): 337–340.

'How Gardeners are Reclaiming Agriculture from Industry, One Seed at a Time,' The Conversation, 18 December 2019.

'X-ray Lilies and Atomic Marigolds'The Conversation, 24 May 2016.

'Tomato Seeds in Space: NASA Outreach and Science Education in the Shuttle Era'Endeavour 34 (2010): 173–180.

Book reviews

Review of Stuart McCook, Coffee is Not Forever: A Global History of the Coffee Leaf Rust (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2019), Environmental History 25, no. 4 (October 2020): 813–814.

Review of Bruno J. Strasser, Collecting Experiments: Making Big Data Biology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), FASEB Journal 34, no. 3 (March 2020): 3445–3447.

'Profits, Prejudice, and Plant Patents', review of Mara Hvistendahl, The Scientist and the Spy: A True Story of China, the FBI, and Industrial Espionage (Riverhead Books, 2020), Science 367, no. 6477 (31 Jan 2020): 517.

Review of Tore C. Olsson, Agrarian Crossings: Reformers and the Remaking of the US and Mexican Countryside (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), Agricultural History 92, no. 2 (Spring 2018): 283–285.

'Extension and Experiment: The Politics of Modern Agricultural Science', essay review of Sigrid Schmalzer, Red Revolution, Green Revolution: Scientific Farming in Socialist China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016) and Tiago Saraiva, Fascist Pigs: Technoscientific Organisms and the History of Fascism (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016), Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, available online 4 April 2017. [Open Access Repository]

'The Beauty of Botanicals', review of Richard Mabey, The Cabaret of Plants (New York: Norton, 2016) in Science 351, no. 6271 (22 January 2016): 346.

Review of Kendra Smith-Howard, Pure and Modern Milk: An Environmental History Since 1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) in H-Environment Roundtable Reviews 5, no. 4 (20 July 2015).

'The Living Element', review of Luis A. Campos, Radium and the Secret of Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015) in Science 348, no. 6242 (26 June 2015): 1435.

Review of Sally Gregory Kohlstedt and David Kaiser (eds.), Science and the American Century: Readings from Isis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), in Social History of Medicine 27, no. 1 (2014): 183–185.

Helen Anne Curry