Frits Went’s Atomic Age Greenhouse: The Changing Labscape on the Lab-Field Border

Journal of the History of Biology 42 (2):289-324 (2009)
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Abstract

In Landscapes and Labscapes Robert Kohler emphasized the separation between laboratory and field cultures and the creation of new "hybrid" or mixed practices as field sciences matured in the early twentieth century. This article explores related changes in laboratory practices, especially novel designs for the analysis of organism-environment relations in the mid-twentieth century. American ecologist Victor Shelford argued in 1929 that technological improvements and indoor climate control should be applied to ecological laboratories, but his recommendations were too ambitious for the time. In the postwar period Frits W. Went, plant physiologist at the California Institute of Technology, created a new high-tech laboratory, dubbed a "phytotron", in the hope that it would transform plant sciences by allowing for unprecedented control of environmental variables. Went's aspirations, the research conducted in his laboratory, and its impact in initiating an international movement, are considered. Went's laboratory can be seen as a "hybrid culture" evolving in the laboratory, complementing and intersecting with some of the field practices that Kohler describes. It was also a countercultural movement against the reductionist trends of molecular biology in the 1950s and 1960s. By considering the history of the laboratory in relation to field sciences, we can explore how new funding sources and cross-disciplinary relations affected the development of field sciences, especially in the postwar period.

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