It’s 2013 and scientists are working to untangle the precise identity of the pathogen that caused Ireland’s devastating Great Famine, which killed a million or more in the 1840s. Potato blight is known to have precipitated the famine, but only now can scientists pinpoint the specific strain of the disease. And the answer has come as a complete surprise.
Humans first cultivated the potato between 7,000 and 10,000 years ago in what is now the border area between southern Peru and northern Bolivia. It was the Spanish who introduced the potato to Europe after they’d conquered the Incas in the later 16th century. Some estimates state that the crop was responsible for around 25 percent of European population growth between 1700 and 1900.
The potato first appeared in Ireland in the gardens of the upper classes. Initially, it seems, it was not particularly popular with the common people of the country. But gradually it caught on more widely, though the level of dependency reached by the mid-19th century took many decades to establish itself.