This section is from the book "The Potato: A Compilation of Information from Every Available Source", by Eugene H. Grubb, W. S. Guilford. Also available from Amazon: The Potato: A Compilation Of Information From Every Available Source.
The year 1845 was a fateful one in the history of potato-growing. In that year the dreaded disease Phytophthora infestans (late blight) wrought sad havoc among the potato crops throughout the country.
The disease,' as it is called by potato growers other diseases in potatoes are always indicated by a specific name,but this one is 'the disease' - was by no means a new pest, for, according to numerous old records, it had year by year done more or less damage to the potato crops of the United Kingdom and the Continent. But the disease had rarely, if ever before, been so virulent as it was in 1845. But worse was yet to come, and in the following season, which was wet and ungenial, the disease fell like a pestilence on the crops and practically ruined them. The ruin of the potato crop of that year had one most important permanent effect on the agriculture of the kingdom, for it led to the abolition of the protective duties which had up till then been levied on all foodstuffs imported from abroad.
The potato growers of Great Britain suffered heavy financial loss through the failure of the crop in 1846, and for a time they lost confidence in their own ability to fight the battle against the dreaded disease, so that the area under this crop was for some years greatly reduced. But just as a crisis of any sort in public affairs usually brings to the front some strong man capable of dealing with it, so this crisis in the history of the potato-growing industry in the United Kingdom brought to the front a man who rendered incalculable service to his country and his fellow-men. This was William Paterson of Dundee.
As a market gardener and potato-seed grower on a large scale Mr. Paterson had been experimenting for twenty years previously in the raising of new varieties of potatoes; but all the new varieties which he had brought out prior to 1846 had gone down before the disease, like all the others in that disastrous year. But the failure of his exertions in that way only caused him to redouble his energies, with the fixed determination to discover the means of either preventing the scourge altogether or at least of checking its ravages to a material degree. With the zeal of a devotee he set himself to investigate the nature and cause of the disease, while carrying on at the same time his experiments in the way of raising new varieties which should show sufficient constitutional vigor to hold the disease at bay.
For several years Mr. Paterson worked on with little success and less encouragement, but at length, in the second half of the '50's, he brought out the Paterson's Victoria, which proved to be not only a splendid cropper of excellent quality, but practically immune against the disease. The success of the Victoria was immediate and outstanding, and very soon it was largely grown all over the country. The late Queen Victoria wrote with her own hand a letter to Mr. Paterson ordering a quantity of Paterson's Victorias for planting on the royal farms at Windsor, and that letter is one of the most treasured possessions of his family to this day. By way of doing honor to the man whom the Queen had thus delighted to honor, the landowners and farmers of Forfarshire presented him with a solid silver epergne and a claret jug, which are also carefully treasured in the family.
In his 'Report on Experiments in Propagating New and Superior Varieties of the Potato Plant,' for which he was awarded the gold medal of the Highland and Agricultural Society in 1869, Mr. Paterson tells the story of his long-continued and costly struggle to produce a variety which should be distinguished by its heavy-cropping, good-cooking, and disease-resisting qualities. From this report, which is published in the society's 'Transactions' of 1870, we quote the following extract:
My own conviction regarding the potato blight is that there is no direct cure for it, but that it is entirely owing to atmospheric action in the plant, and that it will be always more or less subject to it. From this time (viz., 1853) I determined on carrying out my original idea of raising and improving seedling varieties from the plum or apple of vigorous and healthy tubers. The initial difficulty was very great. Potatoes in this country had almost ceased to flower, and at considerable expense I imported them from England, the Cape of Good Hope, Australia, America, and Calcutta, from which, as well as from our own standard kinds, I selected the healthiest tubers and planted them in a field of newly taken in land, with reed manure, by the side of a stream where the atmosphere was damp. All produced flowers, and most of them "apples." The experiment was successful, and from the seed or "apple" I produced those new and improved varieties which I have given to the public, and which are acknowledged to be at home and abroad of so much benefit to the community.' As already noted, the success of Paterson's Victoria, and several other new varieties raised by him in the way described above, was remarkable and immediate. But the scientific methods of booming new varieties of potatoes were not known in his days, and Mr. Paterson himself was more concerned about doing an incalculable and permanent service to his fellow-men than he was about using even legitimate means of snatching a chance of making a fortune for himself; and notwithstanding all the tokens of public appreciation bestowed on him by the Queen and his fellow-agriculturists, he actually was a heavy loser financially through his efforts to bring out a potato which should realize his ideal.
It is claimed that Mr. Paterson, the raiser of the Victoria, was the first to hybridize or cross-fertilize different varieties of potatoes. It is impossible to say whether that claim be well founded or not, for some of the older writers refer in a vague way to crossing different varieties of potatoes, and Mr. Paterson, in his report to the Highland and Agricultural Society, makes no specific mention of hybridizing. But as the science of botany was well understood in his day, and as he devoted so much attention and skill to the propagation of different varieties, it is quite likely that he followed the principle of cross-fertilization. It may be well, therefore, at this stage to give a brief account of the system which is now so largely followed in the cross-fertilization of potatoes.