Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Radical Brambles

At the beginning of the month I took a stroll down by Nottingham Canal to the annual Riverside Festival on the Trent and met my sister and her family. Along the way I passed lots of wild bramble bushes heaving with blackberries almost ready for picking. I was reminded of my childhood when I lived in the countryside. My Dad cultivated several blackberry bushes and summer was always enhanced by the summer fruit salads Dad put together every Sunday.

As I was walking back home along the canal the brambles triggered a memory about something I read a while back about a member of the lgbt community who did a lot of research into brambles/blackberry bushes. So I trawled through my notes when I got home to find out more about him.

His name was Bengt Lidforss (1868-1913) and he was born in Lund, Sweden, into a wealthy academic family. Primarily known for his radical socialism Lidforss was also a leading figure in botanical studies. Both of these aspects of his life were fostered at Lund University which, with Uppsala University, was described by Swedish historian Jens Rydström to have “…a special place in the history of same-sex sexuality in Sweden.”

Lidforss entered Lund University in 1885 and studied botany. There he became a leading member of a group of students with radical socialist views. They published a pamphlet expressing their views. Lidforss was also critical of some of his professors, or at least critical of what he regarded as their elitist and out-dated methods and attitudes. He preferred a more populist approach to science which he adopted later when he became a botany professor, similar to that seen more increasingly in our own time in the media.
Bengt Lifross
Because of its proximity to cities which had well-established and large gay subcultures, such as Copenhagen and Berlin, Bengt Lidforss regularly visited them. His sexuality was common knowledge at Lund, even when he was a student there, and in later years when he was Professor of Botany. He revelled in being someone who didn’t conform to society’s expectation and his sexuality and political ideas made him a role model for a younger generation of radical-thinking students. But he was not without his dark side. He was undoubtedly racist and anti-semitic, as many of the early socialists were.

Lidforss’s first botany professorship was at Uppsala University in 1909, and then at Lund from the following year. He had gained a lot of field experience during his trips to Germany and at several German universities. He specialised in plant physiology and Lund University published several of his research papers which were among the most important academic papers on botany at the time.

Lidforss specialised even further by studying the various species of brambles which were native to Scandinavia. Through his research he became a pioneer of batology. No, that’s not the study of bats, but of brambles. The name comes from the Greek word for blackberry, “baton”. Botanically speaking brambles are referred to by the scientific name for their species, Rubus, and Lidforss identified several that were unique to Scandinavia. He also experimented with methods of cultivation and cross-breeding of various Rubus species. From his research he produced four academic papers on brambles between 1899 and 1907.

The collected works on botany produced by Lidforss provide evidence that this side to his career cannot be overshadowed by his political views and activities. But allied to his politics is the influence he exerted upon his students at Lund University. The students who gathered around him were from different academic disciplines not just botany, and some of these students were influenced by his sexual and political openness. One of these young acolytes was languages student Karl Schlyter who, as the Swedish Minister of Justice in the 1930s, who was an early advocate for the reform of the country’s laws on homosexuality.

Its strange how something as mundane as a walk passed bramble bushes growing on the canal bank can have such a link to political radicalism, homosexual openness, and homosexual law reform.

Bengt Lidforss died in September 1913, just when the blackberry season is coming to a close. Considering his very vocal opposition to religion and the Church of Sweden in particular it is ironic that he was buried in the graveyard of St. Peter’s Monastery Church. What is even more ironic, by choice rather than accident, is that from his grave grows, what else, but a bramble bush.

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