Department History

A Brief History of Plant Pathology at Minnesota

In 1907, the University of Minnesota formed the predecessor to the current Department of Plant Pathology, the Division of Vegetable Pathology and Botany. Thus began a rich, impressive legacy steeped in the land-grant university heritage. Tripartite research, teaching and outreach programs paralleled Minnesota's historical and economic development. Plant Pathology served the plant health needs of early Minnesota agriculture and forest resources. Internationally, its scores of talented faculty, staff and alumni, had a strong impact on plant health and agricultural development around the world.

Borlaug QuoteEarly departmental faculty, students and alumni (1910 through 1950) were renowned contributors to the science, theory and practice of plant pathology. In particular they excelled at research on variability and adaptability of microorganisms and in the understanding and use of genetic control of plant diseases. Minnesota research resulted in discoveries such as "physiological races" for rusts and other fungi that infected live plants, and led to the gene-for-gene theory put forward for understanding the genetic interactions of fungal races and plant resistance genes. Thus Minnesota became the "Mecca" of understanding the variability in microorganisms and the genetic control of plant diseases.

The department also established one of the longest, broad ranging, and most successful graduate education programs in plant pathology in the world. The first Ph.D. degree involving plant disease was awarded in 1905 to Edward M. Freeman. This was two years before the department's official inception. Dr. Freeman was then appointed head of the fledgling Vegetable Pathology and Botany Department. Since 1907, thousands of students and post-graduate visitors from all parts of the world have taken part in graduate education in plant pathology at Minnesota. To date, more than 400 Ph.D. and 400 M.S. degrees in Plant Pathology have been awarded. Stability, based on a sense of unity and tradition through mentoring and advising has sustained excellence and pride in our Plant Pathology Graduate Program.

Stakman Quote

"Plant pathology has helped reveal profound and useful truths." - E.C. Stakman

Departmental faculty also played an important role in undergraduate education at the University of Minnesota. Under the urging of former department head F.A. Wood they pioneered the first undergraduate Plant Health Technology Degree Program (PHT) in the United States. The initial PHT baccalaureate degree was awarded during the early 1970's and the last in the late 1980's. At its zenith, the PHT major enrolled more than 70 undergraduate students. More recently, department faculty members have played a role in several undergraduate majors in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS) as well as in the College of Biological Sciences. Individual faculty are also involved in CFANS' Undergraduate Honors Program and in the University of Minnesota's general distribution courses. Those courses are part of the philosophy of the University's Council on Liberal Education (CLE). Within that domain, both traditional and non-traditional students are served, respectively through daytime and evening classes open to all. Other department education and outreach efforts include faculty participation in the Minnesota Master Gardener program.

Alumni and faculty of the department have extended the legacy by their excellence and achievements. Thirteen alumni and faculty of the department have served as Presidents of the American Phytopathological (Plant Pathology) Society: E.M. Freeman (1918), E.C. Stakman (1922), J.J. Christensen (1944), J.H. Craige (1946), Helen Hart (1956), H.H. Flor (1968), T. Kommedahl (1971), J.Tammen (1974), J.F. Shafer (1979), W.N. Garrett (1981), Carol Windels (1999), Barbara J Christ (2009), and Carol Ishimaru (2012). In addition, scores of alumni and faculty have been elected officers and fellows of various scientific societies or held distinguished positions in their countries, in industry, in government and in the academic community. Some alumni were granted unusual international distinctions for plant pathologists, for example one was awarded the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize (Norman Borlaug, 1970), and one was granted Knighthood in Denmark (Bent Skovmand, 2003). The important historical and contemporary roles departmental faculty and alumni have played in protecting the world's wheat crop from disease was detailed in video documentary "Saving Wheat: Rusts Never Sleep". The video, co-produced by the department and Twin Cities Public Television, was awarded an Upper Midwest Emmy in 2012!