John Reader: The Fungus That Conquered Europe, Led to the Irish Migration, Started in the US

Roundup: Talking About History

[John Reader is the author, most recently, of the forthcoming “Propitious Esculent: The Potato in World History.”]

... Americans may think of the disease that destroyed Ireland’s potato crops, late blight, as a European phenomenon, but its devastations actually started with them. The origin of the fungal organism responsible, Phytophthora infestans, has been traced to a valley in the highlands of central Mexico, and the first recorded instances of the disease are in the United States, with the sudden and mysterious destruction of potato crops around Philadelphia and New York in early 1843. Within months, winds spread the rapidly reproducing airborne spores of the disease, and by 1845 it had destroyed potato crops from Illinois east to Nova Scotia, and from Virginia north to Ontario.

It then crossed the Atlantic with a shipment of seed potatoes ordered by Belgian farmers. They had been hoping that fresh stock would improve their yields. Unhappily, it brought the seeds of devastation.

The warm damp spring of 1845 enabled late blight to become an epidemic. By mid-July, the disease had spread throughout Belgium and into the Netherlands. It went on to infect an area from northern Spain to the southern tips of Norway and Sweden, and east to Northern Italy. It moved inexorably through the British Isles and reached Connemara, on Ireland’s west coast, in mid-October. The ruin of Europe’s potato crops was complete.

Nothing like it had been known before. Neither the Vandal hordes nor the bubonic plague had penetrated Europe so deeply and so fast. The failure of the crop was a disaster for every farmer, market gardener and family in Europe that relied on potatoes. Few were unaffected; in Ireland, a population that in 250 years had grown from one million to more than eight million, solely because of the potato’s unrivaled quality as a staple food, was threatened with starvation....
Read entire article at NYT op ed

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