John William Heslop-Harrison

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John William Heslop Harrison
Died23 January 1967
Birtley, Tyne and Wear
Alma materDurham University
AwardsFellow of the Royal Society[1]

Prof John William Heslop Harrison, FRS FRSE (1881–1967), was Professor of Botany at King's College, Durham University (now Newcastle University). He enjoyed a brilliant career, specialising in the genetics of moths, but is now best remembered for an alleged academic fraud.[1][2]


He was born in Birtley on 22 January 1881, the son of George Heslop-Harrison, a pattern-maker at Birtley Iron Works. He was educated at Bede College School in Durham then Rutherford School for Boys in Newcastle upon Tyne. His mother was a keen gardener, and other influences such as his uncle, Rev J E Hull, and neighbour, Charles Robson, led him to an early interest in botany and natural history.[3]

He then studied at Durham College of Science, graduating BSc in 1903. He did further postgraduate study at the University of Newcastle gaining an MSc in 1916 and doctorate (DSc) in 1917.[4]

In 1921 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. His proposers were James Hartley Ashworth, Sir Thomas Hudson Beare, Percy Hall Grimshaw, and James Ritchie. He served as the Society's Vice-President 1945–1948. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1928.[4]

He died in Birtley, Tyne and Wear on 23 January 1967.


From 1903 to 1905 he was a schoolmaster in Gateshead and then until 1917 in Middlesbrough.

In 1917 he began lecturing in Genetics and Botany at the University of Newcastle being given a professorship in 1927. He remained in this role until retiring in 1946.


In 1948 he was accused by John Raven, a University of Cambridge classics tutor, of making false claims to have discovered certain plant species on the island of Rùm on the west coast of Scotland. Whether or not such grasses were on Rùm is pivotal to a theory that the islands escaped the last ice age. The fraud claim is described – and its veracity supported – in Karl Sabbagh's book, A Rum Affair.[5] In 2008 further proof about the forgeries committed by Heslop-Harrison emerged.[6][7][8]

Lamarckian experiments[edit]

Heslop Harrison was described as a loner who avoided as much contact as possible with other professionals and conducted most of his experiments at his home in Birtley, Tyne and Wear.[2] He was a supporter of Lamarckian evolution from his experiments with moths and sawflies.[9] According to researcher Michael A. Salmon "Heslop Harrison claimed to have experimental proof that physical changes in the life of an individual moth or sawfly could be passed on to its progeny, according to the theory of Lamarck... For example, Heslop Harrison thought that melanism resulted from the effect of pollution on individual moths which somehow altered their genes. When others attempted to repeat his experiment, however, they always seemed to come up with different results."[2]

In the 1920s, Heslop Harrison conducted experiments on the peppered moth, claiming to have evidence for the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Other scientists failed to replicate his results.[10][11] His experiments were criticised by J. B. S. Haldane.[12]


In 1906 he married Christian Watson Henderson. Their eldest son was George Heslop-Harrison FRSE who also came to fame as an entomologist.

Heslop Harrison's fourth son was Jack Heslop-Harrison who became director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in 1970. His daughter Helena married the botanist William Andrew Clark.[13]

Botanical Reference[edit]


  1. ^ a b Peacock, A. D. (1968). "John William Heslop Harrison 1881-1967". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 14: 243–270. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1968.0011.
  2. ^ a b c Michael A. Salmon, Peter Marren, Basil Harley. (2000). The Aurelian Legacy: British Butterflies and Their Collectors. University of California Press. pp. 216–217. ISBN 0-520-22963-0
  3. ^ Peacock, A. D. (1 November 1968). "John William Heslop Harrison. 1881–1967". 14: 243–270. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1968.0011.
  4. ^ a b Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 0 902 198 84 X.
  5. ^ Sabbagh, Karl. (1999). A Rum Affair. London: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press. ISBN 0-7139-9277-8
  6. ^ "Botanist John Heslop Harrison faked rare plant discoveries". Alastair Jamieson, The Daily Telegraph, 2 October 2008.
  7. ^ "The botanist, the Ice Age flora and seeds of doubt". Magnus Linklater, The Times, 2 October 2008.
  8. ^ "Botanical fraudster who planted the evidence is weeded out". Robin McKie, The Guardian. 25 July 1999.
  9. ^ Bowler, Peter J. (1983). The Eclipse of Darwinism: Anti-Darwinian Evolutionary Theories in the Decades Around 1900. p. 103. Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 978-0801843914.
  10. ^ Giltrow, Janet. (2002). Academic Reading, Second Edition: Reading and Writing Across the Disciplines. Broadview Press. p. 144. ISBN 1-55111-393-7 "During the 1920s, the entomologist J. W. Heslop-Harrison published experimental data supporting his claim that chemicals in soot caused widespread mutations from light winged to the dark winged form. Because these mutations were supposedly passed on to subsequent generations, Harrison claimed that he had documented a case of inheritance of acquired traits. Other biologists failed to replicate Harrison's results, and R. A. Fisher pointed out that Harrison's hypothesis required a mutation rate far higher than any previously reported."
  11. ^ Moore, Randy; Decker, Mark D. (2008). More Than Darwin: An Encyclopedia of the People and Places of the Evolution-creationism Controversy. Greenword Press. p. 203 ISBN 978-0313341557 "In the 1920s, British entomologist J.W Heslop Harrison (1881–1967) claimed that pigmentation of these moths was a result of Lamarckism. However, scientists could not repeat Harrison's work, and evolutionary biologists such as Ronald Fisher argued that Harrison's explanation required much higher rates of mutation than had been reported."
  12. ^ Haldane, J. B. S. (1932). "The Hereditary Transmission of Acquired Characters". Nature. 129: 856–858. doi:10.1038/129856a0.
  13. ^ "Former Fellows of The Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002".
  14. ^ IPNI.  Hesl.-Harr.