The Department of Plant Pathology was established at the University of Minnesota out of necessity. It was formed to address plant disease epidemics causing economic losses to Minnesota's agricultural and milling economy.
In the 1800’s most farming in Minnesota was for mere subsistence. To earn cash farmers grew and sold wheat, barley, oats and flax; however, wheat was the ‘king’ of these cash crops. It could be harvested, bagged, sold and shipped by rail to flour mills in Minneapolis. These mills were powered by the Falls of Saint Anthony on the Mississippi River. In the 1880’s wheat, and the export of wheat flour, became the backbone of Minnesota’s economy.
The Minnesota Legislature formed a Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station (MAES) in 1855, additional funding for MAES would be supplied later in the federal "Hatch Act of 1887". MAES was originally located near the Minneapolis Campus, later it was moved to a better site, becoming part of the University Farm on the outskirts of Saint Paul. There were no plant pathologists so disease problems were foisted onto botanists, horticulturists, entomologists and agronomists. MAES did issue bulletins, comprised of information generated elsewhere, to inform farmers about control of their worst plant diseases -- late blight of potato and tomato, scab of potato, and wheat smut.
In 1890, Governor W.R. Merriam requested that MAES find the cause and cure for flax wilt disease. Station employees replied that they were neither equipped nor trained for this work. The same situation was true for the devastating outbreaks of stem rust of wheat, barley and oat.
At the University of Minnesota, the economic importance of wheat stem rust and other plant diseases was noted by Edward Freeman. Freeman was a Ph.D. student and instructor in the Botany Department of the College of Science, Literature and Arts on the Minneapolis Campus. His major professor, Conway MacMillan, had little interest in economic botany and no interest in plant pathology. In 1900, Freeman went to\ University of Chicago's Woods Hole Biological Station in Massachusetts. There Freeman's interest in plant pathology grew.
In 1901, Freeman went to Cambridge University in England where he studied host-parasite relations with renowned plant pathologist, H. Marshall Ward. Ward worked on coffee rust, a disease that rivaled wheat stem rust disease in the complexity of its fungal pathogen. Freeman returned to Minnesota and taught laboratory courses in botany. In the summers, he worked with the Minnesota Botanical Survey and completed a comprehensive study of Minnesota’s plant diseases.
In 1904, farmers, millers, railroads and banking interests in Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas were jolted by a disastrous epidemic of stem rust on all cereals. The epidemic focused Freeman, and in 1905 he finished both his Ph.D. thesis and a book - Minnesota Plant Diseases.
The stem rust epidemics of 1904 and ensuing economic turmoil resulted in heated discussions about stopping wheat stem rust disease. Grain merchants, millers, railroads and farmers needed a steady supply of wheat. An appropriation amendment to the "Morrill Act of 1862" (legislation that created the Land Grant Universities) provided a mechanism and funding for attacking the problem. Minnesota’s Senator, Knute Nelson authored that amendment. The appropriated funds designated for Minnesota were used to address stem rust of wheat and other plant disease issues by starting a Division of Vegetable Pathology within the University of Minnesota.
Meanwhile, Dr. Edward Freeman had been hired by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Office of Grain Investigations. In 1907, while on a cereal rust disease(s) survey in the western United States, Freeman got a telegram requesting that he return to the University of Minnesota and establish a Division of Vegetable (Plant) Pathology and Botany. He accepted and was given a year to finish his USDA work. Thus, 1907 was the founding year of Plant Pathology at Minnesota, but organizational issues were deferred until Freeman’s return in 1908.
The new unit was located on the University Farm in Saint Paul. It became the Division of Vegetable Pathology and Botany inside the College of Agriculture. Thus, there were two Botany units at the University, one in Minneapolis that addressed ‘pure’ botany and one at the University's farm in Saint Paul that addressed ‘economic’ botany.