Behind the Scenes: The Winterbourne Phytotron
As an archive volunteer, you often delve into the archives to research a subject and discover a story that intrigues you, and this happened when transcribing the interview of Arthur Blaymires, who was Head Gardener in the 1960s. I was researching information for the Garden History exhibition, and Arthur remembered when Professor Heslop-Harrison took charge of the Botany department in 1960 and instructed him on building and maintaining a Phytotron.
The shell of the phytotron building is still in the grounds today tucked away in a corner of the greenhouses area, and this is how it looked on 17th May 2021.
To quote Arthur Blaymires:
‘Then the Phytotron was built, that was built in the early 60s for Professor Heslop-Harrison. That was four greenhouses and five chambers, that you could have summer in the winter and winter in the summer. The five chambers had refrigerators, air conditioning, humidifiers, so you could alter the day lengths, you could alter the temperature, and that was my main job then to look after this building. Both the electronics and watering the plants in the building. The main crop we were growing for Prof. Harrison was marijuana, Indian Hemp. I think we had a licence for 2,000 plants.’
Phytotrons were huge climate-controlled laboratories that enabled plant scientists to experiment on the environmental causes of growth and development of living organisms. The first phytotrons were built in the USA in 1949 and by the use of modern technologies of the early Cold War, such as air conditioning and humidity control it was envisaged they would bring an end to global hunger.
By the 1960s, all environmental conditions could be changed for the study of specimens, which meant that the temperature, light, atmosphere and soil types, could all be modified in a controlled environment. In fact, you could create the environment for the coldest Arctic winters or the hottest Sahara deserts and all environments in between. This enabled the botanist to study how plants changed and reacted in different environments.
Professor Heslop-Harrison (below) joined the University of Birmingham as Mason Chair Professor of Botany on 1st April 1960 having previously worked at Queen’s University in Belfast as Professor of Botany.
On 11th May 1961, Professor Heslop-Harrison and his wife Yolande demonstrated at the Royal Society’s annual conversazione in London their research into what makes plants grow the way they do, putting forth leaves and flowers and tendrils. They also demonstrated how climate affected differentiation of the sexes. In some species these processes were governed by the interaction of two principal factors, the length of day and the night temperature. Abnormal conditions caused varying degrees of sterility and sex reversal, and the experiments were aimed at finding out the physiological basis of these effects.
This research was made possible by the use of the Winterbourne Phytotron, building on the previous research completed on the Belfast phytotron. This research also supplemented work around the world on pollen grain development and made valuable contributions to the field of plant genetics. During his time at Birmingham, he produced and published over 40 research papers.
He left the University of Birmingham at the end of March 1967 to work at the University of Wisconsin in the USA. He had become increasingly frustrated that he was spending too much time on administration and this new role gave him the opportunity to pursue his passion for botanical research.
After the departure of Professor Heslop-Harrison, the phytotron continued to be used by the University and in 1968 the British Antartic Survey comprising botanists from the University of Birmingham used it to analyse plants brought back from their recent visit to the region. In this photograph, Doctors Stanley Greene and Martin Lewis recorded the temperature of Antarctic plants in one of the chambers of the phytotron.
The science of phytotron technology was constantly changing and during the tenure of Professor Hawkes OBE, who became Mason Professor in Botany in 1967, the Winterbourne phytotron ceased being used and any phytotron work was carried out overseas.
Finally, it was clear from listening to the recollections of Arthur Blaymires that he enjoyed the period in the 1960s when he worked with the Heslop-Harrisons and to quote Arthur:
‘…the last I had heard he had died although Yolande did come along on the day that I retired, and came and had some food with us.’
Arthur retired in 2000, and here is a photo of the phytotron showing the four greenhouses.