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A History of Plant Pathology in Virginia: The Moncure Era (1904-1908)

When William Alwood resigned on September 1, 1904, William Anderson Patterson Moncure was Instructor in Mycology. He was immediately appointed Assistant Mycologist for the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station (VAES) but he remained Instructor in the College. The College calendar was based on the semester system but this would change for the 1905-06 session.

According to the 1903-04 catalogue, Moncure taught Mycology, two lectures/wk. and Mycology Laboratory two three-hour periods/wk. Mycology was described as a study of fungus systematics and Mycology Laboratory as a study of fungi causing diseases of cultivated plants. Plant Pathology, three lectures/wk was listed for the first time in a VPI catalogue. It was described as "An elementary discussion of the diseases of plants caused by vegetable parasites, with especial reference to methods of prevention and treatment of specific diseases. Lectures and text criticism of literature of the subject.

Textbook - Plant Diseases (Massee)

(Class meets three times a week during second term).

The textbook was by the British author G. Massee, "A textbook of Plant Diseases" to which should be added "Caused by Cryptogemic Parasites", Macmillan, 1903, 472 pp.

Both Mycology and Plant Pathology were required courses for juniors majoring in Horticulture.

In 1905-06, VPI converted to the quarter system of instruction. This would remain in effect until fall of 1988. For the quarter system, some revision of courses was undertaken. Plant Pathology remained at three hours/wk but was offered in the first and second quarters. Laboratory Plant Pathology was given three hours three times/wk in the third quarter. Thus, plant pathology in some form required one year of instruction. Lecture was described as a study of diseases caused by insects and vegetable parasites, and Laboratory as clinics on plant diseases, etiology, and control.

In addition, Moncure offered Systematic Mycology, three lectures/wk first quarter described as fungus classification; Laboratory Mycology, also three three-hour labs/wk first quarter, included media preparation, isolation of fungi, identification, study of organisms causing plant diseases, fermentation, and putrefaction; Applied Mycology, two lectures/wk, described as the mycology of foods, food preservation, and industrial mycology; Advanced Work, a two-year advanced course, with hours by arrangement in the study of plant diseases, fermentation, and canning. These courses remained in effect through the 1907-08 session. Moncure was in charge of these through the spring of 1907. According to the catalogue for 1907-08, both plant pathology courses were taught by B. B. Ked and all other courses were taught by Meade Ferguson, the first Ph.D. in the department. On May 1, Moncure was appointed Investigator of Horticultural By-Products inthe VAES and his association with plant pathology ended.

In the catalogue for the 1906-07 session, there is the following introduction to the course descriptions.

"Department of Mycology:

The Department has a well-lighted and well furnished classroom and special laboratories arranged for the specific uses of mycology. Also available are compound microscopes, sterilizers, incubators, etc., necessary for the study of micro-organisms" and "a division of the greenhouses is used for the growing and treatment of plant diseases during winter months".

During the period 1904-08 as Assistant Mycologist for the VAES, Moncure studied vinegar fermentations, "aiming to bring it to the same state of development that has been reached in our experiments on ciders", and further "We have distributed among the farmers of the State a few cultures of ferments with the view of determining their values used under ordinary conditions, and by unskilled parties". In 1906, Moncure, R. J. Davidson (chemist for whom Davidson Hall is named), and W. B. Ellett published VAES Bulletin 160, The influence of selected yeasts upon fermentation.

There were also plans to cooperate with the Bureau of Plant Industry, USDA, to make a plant disease survey in Virginia. This is the only evidence that Moncure intended to give attention to plant pathology outside the classroom. Thus, it can be deduced that plant pathology in the VAES was essentially shelved during the Moncure era because the Director and President did not see fit to replace Alwood in plant pathological research. Moncure conducted useful and basic research in fermentation and oenology, thereby continuing a program initiated by Alwood, but for four years, plant pathology in the VAES was a dead issue. It was brought back to life with the appointment on September 1, 1908, of Dr. Howard S. Reed, Plant Pathologist in the VAES and Professor of Mycology and Bacteriology for VPI. Moncure resigned from the Station on March 1, 1910, to enter private employment.

During Alwood's tenure the "Southern Planter" magazine was frequently used as an outlet of information on plant diseases and their control. Moncure used this only once to publish an essay entitled "Sanitation as Applied to Plants" (Sou. Planter, Oct. 1905, pp. 755-756). This was his sole publication on plant pathology and it appears to have been based upon his lecture notes on disease control in the course "Plant Pathology". Several quotes from the essay are given below because they give us considerable insight into the status of plant pathology at VPI at the beginning of the 20th century. They are of considerable interest to this writer because he taught "Principles of Plant Disease Control" in the 1950's and 1960's. Moncure opened with:

"People quite generally are beginning to see the necessity of sanitation as applied to themselves and to lower animals; yet how few realize that these same conditions are necessary for successful growth of plants."

Moncure listed three general causes of disease:

"In the plant kingdom there is no known system of internal treatment, therefore plant pathologists have to confine their efforts to treating the plants externally and to disinfecting the surrounding premises. Because of this advantage," (i.e. treating animals internally), "one can often cure a germ disease attacking an animal, whereas in the plant kingdom the best that can be hoped for in many cases is to prevent the disease or to hold it in check if it has already gained a foothold."

"Sanitary conditions ... are usually controlled in communities, and as a result contagious or infectious diseases are confined to comparatively small localities. In respect to plants, one can control only his own premises. No matter how careful an individual is with his own plants, they are always open to infection from his less careful neighbors."

Moncure then cited ways by which sanitation might be implemented:

Some fungi infect plants months before symptoms appear, as in the case of wheat smut. "The only way to treat such a disease is to prevent the infection of the wheat and this is accomplished by thorough disinfection of the wheat seed before planting." (Note: Disinfection would apply to wheat loose smut, but disinfestation would apply to the bunt fungi.)

Moncure listed several "recognized sanitary rules", some of which are paraphrased below:

Moncure's comments about wheat "rust" are the first published in Virginia literature relating to black stem rust and the eradication of barberry. However, it would take legislation before progress would be made in Virginia toward eradication of alternate hosts, either barberry or cedar.

No publications on plant diseases were issued by the VAES from 1904 to 1908. However, J. L. Phillips, the State Entomologist stationed in Blacksburg, published a number of Virginia State Board of Crop Pest Commissioners Circulars on plant diseases and items or letters sometimes lengthy, about diseases in the "Southern Planter." Phillips' office embraced plant pathology although his title suggested he was strictly an entomologist. He was empowered to enforce laws pertaining to peach yellows, San Josť Scale and healthy nursery stock. Enforcement of laws pertaining to plant diseases has been the function of the State Entomologist for many years. He wrote several items emphasizing the importance of destroying peach trees as soon as the early symptoms of yellows appeared. He cited a program conducted by Michigan peach growers who, by conducting a careful survelliance of their orchards, discovered and immediately destroyed yellowed trees and thereby greatly reduced the incidence of the disease. He also warned purchasers to examine nursery stock and reject any showing crown gall. In addition, fire blight, peach yellows, peach rosette, little peach and black knot were described as being disseminated in nursery stock.

The editor of "Southern Planter" also contributed items on plant disease. In December 1906 (p. 963) they described the serious problem of apple bitter rot, its distribution, symptoms, and the best schedule of pesticide usage for its control. W. M. Scott, B.P.I., U.S.D.A., and a former student of Alwood's had worked out the schedule by experimenting in orchards near Charlottesville. Simply, it involved 4 applications of 5-5-50 Bordeaux mixture applied biweekly beginning 5-6 weeks after bloom.

Each year in the March issue, "The Southern Planter" published a spray calendar and formulas for preparation of sprays. Diseases addressed were apple scab and bitter rot, bean anthracnose, bramble rusts, grape anthracnose, black rot, downy and powdery mildew, peach fruit rot, pear fire blight, plum fruit rot and shothole fungus, Irish potato blights, sweet potato black rot, strawberry rust, mildew, and blight and tomato fruit rot. By 1908 only peach leaf curl had been added. Materials were Bordeaux mixture and lime sulphur, and ammoniacal copper carbonate; there was little else from which to choose. Up to five applications were prescribed. Specific recommendations for management were also included.

Finally "The Southern Planter" published an Enquirers Column; queries about plant diseases appeared in nearly every issue. These queries about diseases can, in limited way, provide a record of commonality of some diseases and in some cases the first record for Virginia.

The most frequent inquiry was about fire blight of pear and apple, followed by dodder in clover. There were single inquiries about peach brown and leaf curl, potato scab, cucumber wilt, apple bitter rot, alfalfa leaf spot. Wheat scab in 1908 and smut in 1905 and tobacco ringspot in 1906 were mentioned for the first time; ringspot was the first tobacco disease mentioned since the VAES was established. The cause would not be known for nearly two decades.

The Moncure era was hardly one of note in plant pathology. No bulletins regarding diseases were issued by the Experiment Station. The State Entomologist and the editors of "The Southern Planter" provided the published literature. Hopefully, plant pathology in Virginia had bottomed out. There were signs that this was true; the Virginia Truck Experiment Station was established in 190 , and the VPI administration would hire a plant pathologist for the first time in September 1908.

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Last Modified on: Thursday, 21-Oct-2004 12:55:23 EDT