William & Mary is home to a living piece of one of the most well-known scientific legends: a descendent of the apple tree that inspired Sir Isaac Newton’s concept of universal gravitation.
The William & Mary tree was cultivated from a cutting of another Newton tree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT got its Newton cuttings from a tree in Britain’s Royal Botanical Gardens. In time, three Newton trees were planted outside Small Hall.
The trees are William & Mary’s second tangible link to the life and work of Newton. The Special Collections Research Center of Swem Library is home to a first-edition 1687 copy of Newton’s masterwork Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica.
The apple story relates to Newton’s conception of universal gravitation — set forth in the Principia — in which Newton asserted that the same force that pulled an apple towards the center of the earth was also responsible for keeping earth’s moon in orbit.
Whatever its role in the conception of universal gravitation, Newton’s apple grew on a tree of variety known to horticulturalists as the Flower of Kent.
The three trees planted outside of Small Hall are often described as “descendants” of Newton’s inspirational tree, but it’s more proper to think of them as clones of the original tree. If you allow for the minute changes accumulated over a few hundred years of natural mutations, the William & Mary trees are genetically identical to the tree that Newton saw.
Like most apple trees, it requires another tree — genetically compatible, but not the same variety — for pollination. The pollinator also has to bloom at the same time. Martha Case, College Conservator of Botanical Collections, had a hard time finding a pollinator match for the Flowers of Kent.
Case found what she thought would be a suitable crabapple cultivar and it was planted near the Newton trees. The crab she picked turned out to be a prodigious bloomer and — most importantly — came into flower at the same time as the Newton trees.
“I went over to the crab and snipped a couple of blossoms,” using just her fingernails, she said. She carried the flowers over to the Newton tree and hand-pollinated three or four blossoms, all on the same branch. She said that a couple of students saw what she was up to. Case swore them to secrecy and began keeping an eye on the branch.
“It wasn’t very scientific,” she admits. “But I wasn’t worried about that — I wanted apples.”
So far only a modest crop has been produced, but W&M’s physicists are unanimous on what should be done with the university’s first Newton apples.
That pie, if it’s ever baked, should be consumed with an equal measure of celebration and gravity.