Luther Burbank

On this date in 1849, Luther Burbank was born in Lancaster, Mass. He found fame early when he single-handedly saved U.S. potato crops from the deadly blight by cultivating russet potatoes. The Burbank Russett is the most widely cultivated potato in the U.S. While running Burbank’s Experimental Farms in Santa Rosa, Calif., he produced more than 800 new varieties of fruits and plants.

Shaken by the Scopes “monkey” trial, Burbank wrote, “And to think of this great country in danger of being dominated by people ignorant enough to take a few ancient Babylonian legends as the canons of modern culture. Our scientific men are paying for their failure to speak out earlier. There is no use now talking evolution to these people. Their ears are stuffed with Genesis.”

In 1926, an interview about his freethought views appeared in the San Francisco Bulletin in which he declared “I am an infidel today,” adding,” I am a doubter, a questioner, a skeptic. When it can be proved to me that there is immortality, that there is resurrection beyond the gates of death, then will I believe. Until then, no.” He was inundated with mostly critical letters, which he felt he had to reply to personally. Friend and biographer Wilbur Hale attributed Burbank’s death in 1926 at age 77 after suffering a heart attack to the exertion of his replies: “He died, not a martyr to truth, but a victim of the fatuity of blasting dogged falsehood.”

A crowd estimated at 100,000 came to his memorial and heard the openly atheistic tribute by Judge Lindsay of Denver. California still celebrates Burbank’s birthday as Arbor Day, planting trees in his memory. He married twice: to Helen Coleman in 1890, which ended in divorce in 1896, and to Elizabeth Waters in 1916. He had no children.

Freedom From Religion Foundation