Practicing virology: making and knowing a mid-twentieth century experiment with Tobacco mosaic virus. Academic Article uri icon


  • Tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) has served as a model organism for pathbreaking work in plant pathology, virology, biochemistry and applied genetics for more than a century. We were intrigued by a photograph published in Phytopathology in 1934 showing that Tabasco pepper plants responded to TMV infection with localized necrotic lesions, followed by abscission of the inoculated leaves. This dramatic outcome of a biological response to infection observed by Francis O. Holmes, a virologist at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, was used to score plants for resistance to TMV infection. Our objective was to gain a better understanding of early to mid-twentieth century ideas of genetic resistance to viruses in crop plants. We investigated Holmes' observation as a practical exercise in reworking an experiment, having been inspired by Pamela Smith's innovative Making and Knowing Project. We had a great deal of difficulty replicating Holmes' experiment, finding that biological materials and experimental customs change over time, in ways that ideas do not. Using complementary tools plus careful study and interpretation of the original text and figures, we were able to rework, yet only partially replicate, this experiment. Reading peer-reviewed manuscripts that cited Holmes' 1934 report provided an additional level of insight into the interpretation and replication of this work in the decades that followed. From this, we touch on how experimental reworking can inform our strategies to address the reproducibility "crisis" in twenty-first century science.

published proceedings

  • Hist Philos Life Sci

altmetric score

  • 5.55

author list (cited authors)

  • Scholthof, K., Washington, L. J., DeMell, A., Mendoza, M. R., & Cody, W. B.

citation count

  • 0

complete list of authors

  • Scholthof, Karen-Beth G||Washington, Lorenzo J||DeMell, April||Mendoza, Maria R||Cody, Will B

publication date

  • January 2022