Cornell University
Will the real Maize Genetics Garden please stand up? --Kass, LB, Murphy, RP While writing a history of Cornell's Plant Breeding Department and conducting research for an intellectual biography of Barbara McClintock, we have located documents that clear up the confusion surrounding the location of two corn growing fields at Cornell University during the Golden Age of Corn Genetics, 1928-1935. These areas identified as the "Emerson Garden" and "the hole" are currently part of the Cornell Plantations arboretum, botanical gardens and natural preserves. We present evidence that these areas, misrepresented as one local (May 1991), were two separate fields.

In early 1927, R. A. Emerson, Head of Cornell's Plant Breeding Department wrote to his former student Milislav Demerec at Cold Spring Harbor about growing his white seedling stocks at Cornell the following spring: "I do not know as yet whether the farther garden, which we call the hole, will be available." Emerson was most concerned that the University might take over this area and "construct part of their new water system on it" (Emerson to Demerec March 30, 1927).

In fact, the Carnegie Filtration Plant, near Emerson's office and originally built in 1904 following the typhoid epidemic of 1903 (Anon 1905, Cornell campus map, 1914), was no longer large enough to meet the new demands on the system. Consequently, an enlarged filtration plant was erected in 1927 and 1928, and located in a more convenient place, "where it would not interfere with the expanding main campus and where there would be enough land for future expansion" (Plant Managers Report). The new water system unfortunately occupied part of the Plant Breeding Department's "farther garden," thus limiting land for growing the important corn stocks maintained by Emerson's department. This area was used primarily for corn genetics or breeding from the 1920s to 1960s, when it was ultimately and completely transferred to the water filtration plant (Murphy unpub. ms. p. 12).

Plant Breeding's nearer experimental maize garden, named Emerson Garden ca. 1949, was less than a five minute walk down gymnosperm slope from Emerson's department in the Forestry building (later named Fernow Hall). This Garden is located near the headquarters of the Cornell Plantations. The "farther garden," known in the department as "the hole," was east of the Garden, between Judd Falls and Caldwell Roads, about a half hour's walk from the Botany and Plant Breeding Departments (see map in Haine 1995:74-75). In these fields, faculty and students in both departments grew their maize crops and laid the foundations for our current understanding of maize genetics.

It was in the Emerson Garden where George Beadle, Barbara McClintock, Marcus Rhoades, Charles Burnham, Harriet Creighton and others grew and harvested their special maize plants, providing the first connections of chromosomes with linkage groups, semi-sterility, crossing-over, translocations, etc. (Emerson, 1932; Emerson, Beadle and Fraser, 1935; Kass and Bonneuil, in press). The Garden area was quite convenient -- only a few minutes walk from their cytology lab in Stone Hall. It was protected from early frosts in winter, which also permits earlier plantings in spring. The shed adjacent to their plot (known fondly as McClintock Shed, Haine 1995: 54-55), not only provided storage for crops and equipment but also shade for a cooler and secluded lunch. During a break from pollinations, the famous 1929 photograph of Emerson and his colleagues was taken in back of this shed (Emersonís maize group 1929).

The inception of the Plant Breeding Garden has an interesting history. In 1909, L. H. Bailey, then dean of Cornell's College of Agriculture turned over the entire garden to H. J. Webber, head of Cornell's recently established Department of Plant Breeding. Webber had previously shared the field with Farm Crops, but he requested use of the whole area, expecting his "breeding garden to be the most interesting spot on the University Campus" (Webber to Bailey, 16 March 1909). Bailey had always dreamed of a good outdoor laboratory and he hoped it would be "one of the best laboratories at Cornell" (Bailey to Webber, 25 March 1909). Emerson inherited the Garden in 1914, when he succeeded Webber as department head. By 1932, Emerson and his students had more than fulfilled Bailey's and Webber's expectations (Emerson 1932).

The confusion about the location of the two plant breeding fields seems to have emerged from a 1991 publication by May, who relied on memoirs and recollections by the early maize geneticists. R. P. Murphy, co-author of this report, was Head of Cornell's Plant Breeding Department from 1953 through 1964. His records and experiences in both localities were most valuable for this interpretation. Other faculty and students in Cornell's Plant Breeding department had also grown plants in both the "Emerson Garden" and "the hole." They were most surprised to find that these areas had been misrepresented as one locality by May, who was never a student in their department. Their comments provoked us to seek records documenting the locations of these corn fields. We were fortunate to find letters in the Cornell Archives that provide a clear picture of where the exciting history of maize genetics had its origins. The glory of maize genetics is memorialized by the Emerson Garden at the Cornell Plantations -- the hole remains hidden in the records of the past.

Figure 1.  Cornell's Plant Breeding Garden from gymnosperm slope overlook along Tower Road (ca. 1932).  Photo courtesy of J. H. Srb from A. M. Srb's papers.

Figure 2.  Cornell's Plant Breeding Garden, facing west from Judd Falls Road, with "McClintock Shed" on left and Forestry Building above (ca. 1932).  Photo courtesy of J. H. Srb from A. M. Srb's papers.

Acknowledgments: We thank Plant Breeding Department Professors Elizabeth Earle, Margaret Smith, Henry Munger, and Ronnie Coffman, for bringing this question to our attention. We give special thanks to Tom Rapalee, Al Loomis and Jan Slattery for giving us a tour of the filtration plant on April 29, 1998, and for sharing its documented history.


Anon. 1905. Andrew Carnegie. The Cornellian. 37: 8-9.

Cornell Campus Map 1914. Cornell Archives

Cornell University Plant Breeding Records. Cornell University Archives.

L. H. Bailey Papers. Cornell University Archives.

Emerson, R. A. 1932. The present Status of Maize Genetics. Proceedings of the Sixth International Congress of Genetics I: 141-152.

Emerson, R. A., G. W. Beadle and A. C. Fraser. 1935. Summary of linkage studies in maize. Cornell Univ. Agric. Experiment Station Memoir 180.

Haine, Peggy (Chief writer). 1995. Cornell Plantations Path Guide, First edition. Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.

Kass, Lee B. and Christophe Bonneuil. (in press). Mapping and Seeing: Barbara McClintock and the linking of genetics and cytology in maize genetics, 1928-1935. In Jean-Paul Gaudilliere and Hans-Jörg (eds.), The Mapping Cultures of 20th Century Genetics: From the Fly Group to the Human Genome Project. London: Routledge

May, Mike 1991. Hidden glory in the hole. Cornell Plantations. 46 (1&2): 3-6.

Murphy, Royse P. unpublished manuscript (April 2000), A History of the Department of Plant Breeding in the New York State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University.

Plant Managers Report. Undated. The Cornell University Water System--From the 19th Century to the Present Day. Tom Rapalee gave a copy of this report to Lee Kass and R. P. Murphy on 29 April 1998.

Emersonís maize group. 1929. pcmb/pcmb3-2.html

Please Note: Notes submitted to the Maize Genetics Cooperation Newsletter may be cited only with consent of the authors.

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