Quarantine herbarium destruction protocol
Marc Jeanson, director of France’s Jardin des Plants. Photo: Antoine Doyen.
Nick O’Malley, ‘Would you burn the Mona Lisa if it was sent?’: Our horror bureaucratic bungle, The Sydney Morning Herald, 23 February 2018
It’s a bungle that has floored botanists around the globe and embarrassed the Australian government. How did 105 priceless and irreplaceable historical plant specimens, sent here by the French, end up being destroyed by biosecurity officers?
Marc Jeanson is young for his role as director of the world’s largest and oldest herbarium, the Jardin des Plantes at France’s Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, and he doesn’t look as you imagine a botanist should.
When Le Monde profiled him a few years back – his job packs that sort of cultural cachet in France – the reporter suggested he might be mistaken for a figure of fashion or advertising. In his mid-30s, he has a pianist’s fingers, an elegant presence and a quiet but passionate manner of speaking.
So it was out of character when, on the morning of April 7 last year, Jeanson arrived at work, checked his email and howled and swore with such violence that a librarian working nearby rushed into his office see if he was okay. He was not.
Jeanson had received a message from the director of the Queensland Herbarium in Australia that was abrupt to the point of being blunt. It told him that a package of 105 botanical specimens of Australian plants owned by the Jardin des Plantes – and gathered by an intrepid French botanist more than 200 years earlier – had been destroyed by Australian biosecurity officials.
To this day, Jeanson can’t quite believe what happened, and nor can scientists and museum directors from around the world who have followed the story with horror.
The specimens were both priceless and irreplaceable. How could anyone, let alone government officials, incinerate such artefacts? It was simply beyond Jeanson’s comprehension. It remains so, even after post-mortems and investigations conducted in both countries, by scientists and bureaucrats, after diplomats stepped in and compensation negotiations were undertaken.
With Australian officials refusing to speak about the incident beyond bland bureaucratic statements of regret, it’s hard to unpick the chain of events that led to the destruction. When you do go looking for answers you find other stories, too: tales of the collection of the specimens, of shipwreck, war and endurance, of a time when exploration and scientific endeavour were as significant to world powers as conquest and trade.
The story begins with a simple loan request made by Tony Bean, a botanist with the Queensland Herbarium, who according to his online professional profile is currently studying two new species of Olearia, a flowering plant of the Asteraceae family, related to the daisy and the sunflower.
We don’t know exactly what Bean planned to do with the specimens, as he tells Good Weekend he’s been instructed not to speak to the media. Other botanists say it appears Bean was seeking to confirm whether or not he had identified new species in Queensland.
On November 17, 2016, Bean logged into a software system called Colhelper, which is used by museums around the world to manage loans to and from their collections, and made a request for the loan of the 105 specimens. The request – numbered 71250 in Colhelper – was received in Paris and, as Bean was a qualified scientist with an accredited institution, promptly processed. The Jardin des Plantes Colhelper administrator, Serge Muller, checked it over and passed it on to the curator in charge of the museum’s Asteraceae collection, Florian Jabbour. The following day Jabbour sent Bean an acknowledgement of receipt of the loan request. Later, Jabbour began the process of removing the precious samples from storage and preparing them for dispatch to Australia. They left the museum in a sturdy plain brown package, marked as museum specimens, the day after Christmas.
So far, says Jeanson, nothing was out of the ordinary. The Jardin des Plantes’ mission is not only to preserve its collection but to share it with the world, and to that end it lends about 10,000 specimens a year without incident. He could not have known that in this instance, a flaw had already crept into the system.
To truly grasp the significance of what was destroyed last March by unwitting biosecurity officers at the Department of Agriculture, you first need to understand the collection from which they came. In 1635, King Louis XIII – according to an English ambassador to his court, a stutterer “so extream [sic], that he would sometimes hold his tongue out of his mouth a good while before he could speak so much as one word; he had besides a double row of teeth, and was observed seldom or never to spit or blow his nose, or to sweat much” – founded the Jardin Royal des Plantes Médicinales, now the Jardin des Plantes.
This was the birthplace of the modern science of botany and it became the most important botanical collection on earth. There are some eight million specimens painstakingly pinned onto cardboard backing, treated for protection from the ravages of insects and moulds, digitised and recorded, stored in shiny yellow metal slots in endless compression shelves over four floors of a humidity- and temperature-controlled, pressurised building on the site of the original royal garden.
In 1785, Louis XVI directed Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse, to lead a voyage around the world. Its mission was to complete the discoveries of James Cook, to correct and complete maps, to establish trade contacts, open new maritime routes and to enrich French science and scientific collections.
After visiting parts of America, Japan and Russia, Lapérouse arrived at Botany Bay on January 24, 1788, as Captain Arthur Phillip was moving the colony of New South Wales, then just days old, from Botany Bay to Port Jackson, where fresh water was more abundant. The French and English officers treated one another with great civility and Lapérouse spent six weeks among the British colonialists before he departed for New Caledonia, leaving journals and maps to be returned to France with the British supply ship Sirius. His two ships were never seen again. When nothing had been heard of Lapérouse after two years, French public sentiment demanded a response. A rescue mission was finally ordered by the French national assembly in February 1791.
Its leader, Rear Admiral Bruni d’Entrecasteaux, was not only to search for Lapérouse – his efforts should be “useful and advantageous for navigation, geography, arts and sciences”. D’Entrecasteaux departed France in September. Among the crew aboard two ships, La Recherche and L’Espérance, was an ambitious botanist named Jacques-Julien Houtou de Labillardière, who had worked with the most famous botanist of the era, Joseph Banks, whose work with James Cook on the Endeavour between 1768 and 1771 had made Cook and Banks celebrities. Now Labillardière had the opportunity to make his own name. During the voyage, which entailed the circumnavigation of mainland Australia and Van Diemen’s Land, Labillardiere gathered 4000 specimens, 3000 of them new to science, and wrote the first general description of Australian flora, Novae Hollandiae Plantarum Specimen.
By the time the expedition sailed on to the Dutch colonies of Indonesia, Holland and France were at war. The crew was imprisoned and its goods, including Labillardière’s collection, were seized. But by then war had also broken out between Holland and England. The Labillardière collection was again captured, this time by the English, and delivered to London as war booty on November 1, 1795.
Labillardière was devastated by the loss of his specimens. After his release, he appealed to Banks, hoping the botanist might use his considerable influence to have the collection returned by the British Museum. Angry letters were exchanged until Labillardière wrote to Banks: “Please my friend, make all possible efforts. You know how much could be lost for science if collections of this nature were not returned to those who made them.” With Banks onside, Labillardière’s Australian collection was returned, and eventually found its home to safety in the Jardin des Plantes. Just 89 of the crew of 209 who had set out on the voyage survived.
Later the collection would survive the violence of the French Revolution and the horrors of the 20th century. The terrible battlelines of World War I never struck Paris. In the next war, as the Germans retreated before the Allied advance in 1945, Hitler’s appointed governor, General Dietrich von Choltitz, disobeyed an order to reduce the city to rubble.
In more recent years, the budget cuts that ripped through similar institutions around the world were less marked in France, where the fruits of the Enlightenment have always been considered part of the fabric of the nation; infrastructure rather than indulgence. Labillardière’s collection was folded lovingly away into this gigantic national machine of arts and sciences, of relics and statues, of paintings, maps and songs, of pressed flowers, and there it lived other than when requests, such as the one from Queensland, came through.
On a warm afternoon the northern autumn, Jeanson sits in a meeting room overlooking the gardens first laid out under poor toothy Louis XIII, seeking to explain the value of the lost specimens. To a botanist, the story of Labillardière’s collection is extraordinary, but the samples carry a more intrinsic importance. The value of each specimen lies not only in the organic matter, but in the work of the botanist who collected it. Because scientists know precisely where and when a given specimen was collected and under what conditions, they can study how environments change over time, the impact of human development, of climate change. It is the act of scientific collection, linked to the collected material, that makes the specimens so important.
Among the 105 specimens destroyed in Brisbane were six known as “type specimens”. These were the first examples of a new species ever collected and recorded, and against which all other new specimens must be compared if we are to be certain that a new species has or has not been discovered. It appears this is what Bean had hoped to do in Queensland.
“Everything we understand about these plants after that type is identified relates back to that type specimen,” says Jeanson. “It is a base for us taxonomists to work on, describing the world of plants. But it’s a base for pharmacy, for agriculture, for any kind of science based on plants.” They are, as he once put it to Le Monde, “the memory of the planet”.
It gets worse. The museum believes that two or three of the specimens might have been species that were unidentified and new to science. The field of botany is huge. There are more than 391,000 species of vascular plants so far known to science. Career botanists can expect to become the leading experts in the plant species they choose to specialise in, and they can expect to find new species among the existing vast collections of herbaria that were gathered years ago, but never adequately studied.
“I work on palms from south-east Asia,” says Jeanson. “If you show me begonia from Ecuador, I’m going to tell you, okay, it’s a begonia. Is it new? I have no idea. Which species is it? I have no idea. You need the specialist of the group on the specimens to really add value to your specimen, and Tony Bean in this case is the world expert in those plants. He is basically the only one in the world you can show the specimen to and he’s going to tell you this is a new species, this is a good name, this is a wrong name.”
This is why, says Jeanson, the constant sharing of specimens among scientists is so crucial. Jeanson does not blame Bean or the Queensland Herbarium. He believes his Australian colleagues to be as horrified as he is that anything so valuable could be destroyed so cavalierly. “It is violent,” he says, grasping for words as we sit talking, overlooking the ancient gardens. “It should never happen.
“Mistakes happen. Sometimes we send specimens without the required form. Usually the people just get back to us and say, ‘Hey, we have this box that we’re keeping at the quarantine service, please send the associated document so that we can release it.’ They don’t let it come into the country, they just ship it back to the person who sent it.
“For us it’s unconceivable that you can just burn collections, without even sending a notice like, ‘Please send this document or we’re going to burn your specimens.’ We would have taken the phone and said, ‘What’s going on? I don’t understand.’ We never, ever faced such a drastic solution and definitive solution of burning. Who does that? Nobody does that. Would you burn the Mona Lisa if it was sent?”