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A History of Plant Pathology in Virginia: The Pre-Alwood Era

It is difficult for one to look back over 100 years and portray the world as it really was before 1888. Fungi had been demonstrated to cause some plant diseases, but there was much skepticism and mystery about most, and there were virtually no remedies for any. Sulphur was useful for the powdery mildews, and copper salts had been found useful for controlling grain smuts and downy mildews. Many plant diseases had been recognized, even named, but their parasitic instigators were not yet recognized. Bacteria were known from the time of Leeuwenhoek in 1683; Koch (1867) and Pasteur (1877) had demonstrated them to be animal pathogens, and Burrill (1877) demonstrated that bacteria caused fire blight of apple and pear. Many fungus diseases were known from the efforts of Berkeley, DeBary, Kühn, and Farlow; viruses were unknown but diseases later attributed to viruses were recognized; the wheat gall nematode was known since Needham found it in 1743 but was not known as a cause of a plant malady until Roffredi's work in 1775-6. Cabbage club root had been studied by Woronin (1876). In 1882, Robert Koch invented the poured plate method, an assistant substituted agar-agar for Koch's gelatin and a second assistant named Petri devised the culture dishes that bear his name. Thus, four simple innovations, cotton plugs, poured-plates, agar-agar, and Petri dishes became the greatest contributions of all time to the advancement of bacteriology and mycology. Also in 1882, Robert Hartig's textbook of tree diseases appeared. DeBary published his magnificent book whose title translates to "Comparative Morphology and Biology of the Fungi, Mycetozoa, and Bacteria." Although Millardet realized the possibilities of copper sulphate and lime for control of grape downy mildew in 1882, he experimented with various mixtures until 1884, and in 1885 published his discovery. Thereafter it was "demonstrated everywhere to be a sovereign remedy not only for the ravages of grape Peronospora (= Plasmopara) but also for many other diseases of cultivated plants, including black rot of grape and the devastating mildew (Phytophthora) of the potato. This was the first great advance in plant therapeutics" (Smith, 1926). In 1885, the Section of Mycology was established in the U.S. Department of Agriculture with F. L. Scribner as Chief. Smith was appointed his first assistant in 1886, and in the same year Mayer demonstrated that tobacco mosaic was an infectious disease. Spray equipment was being developed and the world's grape, orchard, and potato crops were being blued with Bordeaux mixture. In 1887, the U. S. Department of Agriculture renamed its Section of Mycology the Section of Vegetable Pathology; essentially, that was the birth of Plant Pathology in the United States, although Burrill had included plant pathogenic fungi in a botany course at the University of Illinois beginning in 1873, and Farlow at Harvard in 1875 had emphasized fungi causing diseases of plants. However, through 1890, American Plant Pathology, as Smith (1926) said, "was little more than sublimated mycology." In 1887, the Hatch Act was passed by Congress; this paved the way for establishment of state agricultural experiment stations. Oscar Rierson of Glendover, Virginia, first used Bordeaux mixture for grape black rot (Wingard, 1951).

In 1888, Jensen described the hot-water treatment for control of barley and wheat loose smuts, but most significantly for Virginia, the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station was organized and staffed with funds entirely of federal origin in consequence of the Hatch Act. William B. Alwood, Botanist and Entomologist; Walker Bowman, Chemist; and D. O. Nourse, Agriculturist (Young, 1975) were the first staff members appointed to get research programs under way. The Alwood era had begun.

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Last Modified on: Thursday, 21-Oct-2004 12:52:45 EDT