Nick Wilson, "Political Ecology and the Irish Potato Famine"


D. British Responses: Science, Work, Soup, and Starvation

The British government's responses can be divided into four categories, each of which replaced the previous one in turn as the famine ran its course. The first period occurred early in the famine, when the British government struggled to understand the nature of the blight through scientific investigation. When the true extent of the potato crop loss was still unclear in October 1845, Sir Robert Peel, the prime minister of England at the time, appointed a panel of scientific experts to examine the causes of the potato blight. The three professors conscripted for the task spent three weeks producing reports and conducting experiments before concluding their business and returning to England. Their efforts focused on attempts to understand the nature of the blight, recover nutrition from potatoes that had been destroyed, and also to treat uninfected potatoes that had already been harvested. This last effort was in response to the horrifying discovery by Irish farmers that the blight could be transferred from infected potatoes to apparently healthy ones after they had already been harvested.32

In addition to filing reports with the British government, the scientific panel also developed and recommended an ineffective treatment procedure for preventing the spread of the potato blight and a useless method by which to extract food from blighted potatoes. These directions were printed on about 80,000 leaflets and distributed throughout Ireland. The instructions to the Irish farmers were so complex that the scientific commission "appear to have had some doubts about their intelligibility, for they concluded [in their instructions to the farmers], 'If you do not understand this, ask your landlord or clergyman to explain its meaning.'"33  In the end, science had little effect on the course of the potato blight in Ireland.

32. Condensation of Woodham-Smith, 43-47.
33. Woodham-Smith, 45.
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