“That’s not logical.”
“Of course it is,” I replied. “You just don’t like thinking outside the box.”
It was a busy night at the Confused Chromosome Club. Slamdunk Callahan and I were nursing a couple of root beers, and I had just suggested, as politely as possible, that he could identify genetics for fast growth by breeding for slow-growing lambs. I had reckoned that with his flock, he would have lots of choices. He did not agree.
“Box, what box? Where do you come up with such hare-brained ideas?” Slamdunk then launched into a string of invectives that would cause genes to turn blue.
Finally, when he paused for breath, I said quietly, “It’s not just me. Remember Dr. Dry?”
Slamdunk stopped and looked at me thoughtfully. Then he took a long swig of root beer and said, “You mean the geneticist F.W. Dry who worked at Massey University in New Zealand from the 1920s into the 1950s? Didn’t he work on the N-gene?”
That stunned me. I had no idea Slamdunk had even heard of Massey University, let alone the N-gene. Sometimes even friends keep dark secrets. But I quickly recovered.
“Well, yes, in fact he did work on the N-gene. But the real story was not what he did, but how he did it. I’m referring to Dr. Dry’s logic, the way he went about solving a problem and the flak he took for it.”
“Well, Dr. Dry was trying to solve a very practical problem: removing excess kemp from Romney fleeces. I know that, today, wool may not be worth much – but remember that once upon a time, not too long ago, people really put high value on good-quality coarse wool.”
I continued, “Kemp is a contaminating fiber in wool. Kemp fiber is a larger diameter than wool fiber, and it’s also medullated, which means it has a hollow center. Kemp is kind of like hair, with no crimp, and it doesn’t take dyes the same way as true wool fiber. Anyway, belly wool often contains kemp fibers, but some Romneys grow kemp up their sides, into the high-value sections of the main fleece. Romney is a major breed in New Zealand, and back then good Romney wool brought high prices in the London markets. Even a little bit of kemp was a big financial problem.”
Slamdunk is not easily impressed. “That’s nice,” he said, “but so what?”
“Well, Francis Dry was an interesting fellow. He had a reputation as a good geneticist, but I suppose he was fairly strong-willed and perhaps a bit eccentric, even for a college professor. His students sometimes called him ‘daddy.’ In any case, he certainly approached this kemp problem differently than other scientists. Most geneticists would have gone about the problem by making lots of matings and backcrosses and triple-crosses and such, and then carefully selecting progeny that showed the least amount of kemp or even no kemp.”
“Dr. Dry, on the other hand, took the standard logic and inverted it a bit. Instead of breeding animals for less kemp, he bred for more kemp. The N-gene was in the news at that time because it was a new mutation, a dominant gene that caused very hairy fleeces. A ram carrying that gene had been donated to Massey. Professor Dry mated that N-gene ram with other Romneys and selected sheep that showed the most kemp. He deliberately culled his flock to increase the amount of kemp in the wool. His reasoning was really quite logical – he was looking for those unique individuals who, even under this relentless selection pressure for more kemp, did not show any kemp in their wool.”
The room clatter around us died down. Dr. Dry had always been an interesting rumor, but now people wanted to hear the rest of the story. Even Slamdunk stopped cracking his peanuts.
I continued, “Dr. Dry quietly conducted his genetic research through the 1930s. I say quietly, but maybe it wasn’t so quiet, at least not in complete obscurity. It definitely attracted the attention of the university administrators. Apparently, the deans weren’t overly happy with his work because those sheep looked very strange. They had weird, hairy fleeces, and they also had horns – on Romneys, no less. The administrators reacted by banishing his research flock to a paddock in a far corner of the research farm. In their view, those sheep were an embarrassment, and it was obvious Dr. Dry was despoiling the beautiful Romney breed. Farmers visiting campus saw those animals, laughed and made pointed comments like, “See, that’s what happens if you don’t do a good job with your Romney breeding” – which didn’t exactly boost the school’s reputation.
“Dr. Dry continued his research through World War II. New Zealand was closely tied to England, of course, but the war prevented much science or commerce between the two countries. After the war, the international wool trade finally started up again, and the all-important British wool buyers traveled to New Zealand looking for quality products.”
“Of course, they had to visit Massey, which was a premier research farm. I suspect the administrators were not too keen about showing those weird animals to anyone, but the wool buyers were important people, and they wanted to tour the campus. And when they got to Dr. Dry’s flock, they looked at those sheep ... and looked and looked. They hefted the fleeces and ran their hands through the wool. Then those buyers stared at each other in amazement, turned to the administrators and announced that those sheep had produced some of the finest carpet wool in the world.”
“The rest is history. That research flock became the foundation stock for sheep now prized throughout the industry as the Drysdale breed. Dr. Dry eventually received many honors for his work, including the prestigious OBE from England, and today his name is proudly displayed on a memorial award at Massey.”
I looked around the quiet room. Everyone was smiling. A lone person’s judgment had been vindicated, and the world was a better place for it. Slamdunk lifted his glass of root beer and said it cleanly, “A toast to thinking outside the box.”