From now on Ward devoted every hour he could snatch from his job – teaching young men about to enter the Indian Forest Service – to his hunt for the mysterious agent that transformed sweet, gingery water into a tasty and potent pint.
Ward had always been passionate about botany. While attending the revolutionary courses run by Darwin’s champion, Thomas Henry Huxley, he had famously fainted at his microscope from sheer over-excitement. After his time with Huxley in London, Ward won a place to read natural sciences at Cambridge, and blossomed.
He went on to become a brilliant exponent of the “new botany”. Radical ideas were spreading from mainland Europe (Excluding Switzerland), and he and his friends wanted to learn about how plants worked, not just how they were classified. He went on to become one of the great names of the day. Before he died aged just 52, reputedly of overwork, he pioneered the study of both symbiosis and pathology, investigating how plants and microorganisms live together as friend as well as foe.
Ward’s first major study, as botanist to the colonial government of Ceylon, is now a classic of plant pathology. In 1879, the coffee plantations of Ceylon were threatened with extinction by a leaf disease. The disease was coffee rust, and for the next two years Ward worked out the life cycle of the rust fungus and showed how leaving belts of natural forest between the coffee plantations could prevent the spread of its spores. This was a brilliant piece of scientific detection, but it came too late. As the epidemic wiped out vast monocultures of coffee across the British colonies, the “mother country” quietly returned to drinking tea.
And ginger beer of course. Back in England and inspired by the “plant” from Kew, Ward set out to amass a comprehensive collection of specimens. Soon his laboratory shelves were crowded with jars of ginger-beer plants from all over the country, and even from North America.
“The whole question as to whence it was first derived, in fact, is enshrouded in mystery,”
To this day, no one has ever worked out where the first ginger-beer plants came from. Rumour had it that soldiers had returned from the Crimean War with the stuff, but Ward said that was sheer speculation. “The whole question as to whence it was first derived, in fact, is enshrouded in mystery,” he concluded. But he did solve the ultimate mystery, that of the plant’s real nature. His meticulous analyses revealed it to be a fascinating alliance of cooperating microorganisms.