The Beginning Years of Plant Pathology: 1907-1917

As the Department began to grow by recruiting its first graduate students and staffing the unit, E.C. Stakman made a pivotal discovery that would change the field of plant pathology forever.

Division of Vegetable Pathology and Botany 

The precursor of the modern Department of Plant Pathology was the Division of Vegetable Pathology. It was formed in on August 1, 1907. Edward M. Freeman was hired as Chief of the Division. It is arguably (contested by Cornell University) the first Plant Pathology unit in the nation.

Freeman, a 1905 Ph.D. graduate of the Botany Department, had written a thesis entitled “The seed fungus of Lolium temulentum” (ryegrass). He had also published the 1905 book Minnesota Plant Diseases. Upon graduation he became a special agent of the United States Department of Agriculture in the Office of Grain Investigations. He was surveying rust diseases of cereals on the Great Plains when, in 1906, he received a telegram offering him the job of establishing a vegetable pathology unit at the University of Minnesota. He accepted and was granted a one-year leave to finish his USDA work. Freeman returned to the University of Minnesota in 1908 and set to work.

Many thought the new Vegetable Pathology unit should be housed in the Botany Department on the Minneapolis Campus. However, Freeman believed it should be a Division of Vegetable Pathology and Botany (Economic Botany) housed in the Department of Agriculture (College of Agriculture) on the Saint Paul Campus (University Farm). Freeman’s idea prevailed.

Thus, there were two “Botany” units in the University of Minnesota – the classical Botany Department housed in the College of Science, Literature and Arts on the Minneapolis Campus, and the Division of Vegetable Pathology and Botany unit on the Saint Paul Campus, in the College of Agriculture. This made sense because the elements of Economic Botany and Plant Pathology belonged on the Saint Paul Campus’s University Farm, which housed the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station, the College of Agriculture and the School of Agriculture (high school level).

Plant Pathology’s growth and importance paralleled Minnesota's agricultural and economic development. Freeman, a great scholar and administrator, was also appointed Assistant Dean of the College of Agriculture in 1913. In 1917 Freeman became Dean of the College of Agriculture while remaining the Chief of the Division of Vegetable Pathology and Botany. Freeman put Elvin Stakman in charge of the day-to-day activities of the plant pathology unit and later, in 1940, made Stakman head of the Plant Pathology department.

The Tottering Tower

The Division of Vegetable Pathology and Botany was initially housed in the Horticulture Building. This building was across the street from an old, under-utilized Military Drill Hall and Armory Building. In 1913-14 a legislative appropriation of $10,000 was used to renovate the Drill Hall, and it became the Plant Pathology Building. The building's infirmities, strange creaking noises and quirks resulted in a nickname, the Tottering Tower.

Recruiting Graduate Students

Freeman taught Botany courses at the University (1903-1905) and had a talented undergraduate student for one course, Elvin Charles Stakman. Stakman, from humble beginnings, was not an unknown. Freeman's sister had taught Elvin Stakman high school mathematics at Saint Paul’s Cleveland High School.

Stakman, a 1906 Phi Beta Kappa graduate ( B.A., Liberal Arts) taught high school in Red Wing (one year) and Mankato (one year). At age 23 he became Superintendent of Schools in Argyle, Minnesota. In 1908-09 the German Department, the Botany Department and the new Division of Vegetable Pathology all recruited Stakman as a graduate student. Stakman took Freeman's more generous offer and later became the first Assistant Professor (teaching) in Plant Pathology. Stakman was a wise choice. Three other graduate students also enrolled in the new Division; all were MS students.

Staffing the New Unit

In 1908, Mr. W.L. Oswald, from the College of Agriculture, transferred into the unit and he and Freeman taught all classes in 1908. In 1909, Mr. E.C. Stakman was hired as an instructor and with help from occasional graduate students, those three were the only teaching faculty for several years.

Expertise Brought By Visitors

Freeman and Stakman recognized the need for outside expertise to enrich the fledgling department. Thus began a long history of invited visitors; among the first were H.T. Gussow, W.A. Orton, and O. Apple. They were accomplished plant pathologists and experts in potato diseases and gave ideas for writing seed potato certification law in Minnesota. Many visitors from across the globe with varied expertise followed and greatly enriched and spread the fame of this young unit.

A Seminal Discovery That Echoes Through The Ages

For his Ph.D. research Stakman set out to study The Bridging Host Theory, a common concept in rust fungus pathology. This theory stated that the stem rust fungus was a monolithic fungal disease that could adapt and move from one host, like wild barley, to another host, like cultivated wheat. If correct, the Bridging Host Theory would mean that it would be impossible to breed for stem rust resistance in cereals because the rust from wild native grasses would move to the newly bred wheat.

Because spores of the stem rust fungus were morphologically indistinguishable under the microscope, Stakman reasoned that they differed only in physiological (pathogenic) properties. Using a single spore isolation/purification procedure, Stakman found that pathogenic forms, formae speciales of the fungus were stable. These forms did not move from one grass species to another, nor did they move from wild grasses to cultivated wheat and other cereals. Thus, Stakman proved The Bridging Host Theory to be false.

Furthermore, Stakman confirmed that wheat stem rust contained ‘physiological races’. These had special pathogenic proprieties on different wheat varieties, and were stable once introduced into the environment. By identifying the prevailing pathogenic (physiological) races of wheat stem rust in a given wheat-growing region, this meant there was a sound scientific basis for breeding rust-resistant wheat for that region.

Stakman’s work also confirmed that new pathogenic forms and races of stem rust arose when the fungus infected common barberry bushes (its alternate host) where it recombined its genes for pathogenicity. Stakman and others reasoned that eliminating the common barberry from wheat growing regions would greatly reduce the ability of the stem rust fungus to alter its pathogenic forms and form new pathogenic races. Thus, wheat stem rust was not a monolithic disease, but rather was an infinite series of rust diseases whose variability was caused by the fungus passing through the common barberry. Taken all together, the facts pointed toward the need for a massive, nationwide effort to eliminate common barberry.

Stakman’s was a landmark discovery for not only plant pathology but for microbiology in general. Stakman’s findings had broad implications for human and veterinary medicine. These discoveries, and Stakman’s innate ability to communicate his findings to both scientists and non-scientists thrust him onto national and international stages at a very early stage in his career. He became one of the twentieth century’s most important and influential scientists, and was an articulate and beloved statesman for science.

Expand all

Highlights Through the Years and Degrees Awarded: 1907 - 1917


Dr. Edward M. Freeman was hired as Chief of the Division of Vegetable Pathology. He had a simple philosophy - “botany could and should function in improving and insuring agricultural production.”

Freeman begins a tradition of Thursday Night Seminars, this informal seminar series is run by graduate students and survives until 2002.


The American Phytopathological Society (APS) formed during a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and is headquartered in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Members of the Department volunteer their time to help this fledgling professional society function.

Mr. Oswald, from the School of Agriculture, transfers into the unit for teaching purposes.

A course in Wood Technology is taught by Freeman, later by Stakman and even later by Clyde Christensen and was taught until 1958.


Elvin C. Stakman receives an M.A. Degree under Dr. Edward Freeman. Stakman worked on germination of smut fungal spores from cereal grains.


New University President George E. Vincent transforms the University. He doubles appropriations for the new division. Vincent’s wit and energy were contagious.

Freeman publishes The Rusts of Grains in the United States, as Bulletin No. 216 of the USDA Bureau of Plant Industry.


Arnold G. Tolaas receives his M.S. Degree under Freeman. He researches cultivated mushrooms. He is hired as a potato/seed pathologist and remains in the Department his whole career.

The Southern Experiment Station at Waseca, Minnesota is formed. It is in the corn and commercial vegetable growing region. A School of Agriculture will later be established on site. The Southern Station will become very important to plant pathologists working on processing vegetable diseases.


The name Vegetable Pathology Unit is changed to Plant Pathology. The unit is now in the Division of Plant Pathology and Botany, within the College of Agriculture.

Elvin Stakman, at age 28, receives his Ph.D. His thesis is A Study in Cereal Rusts - Physiologic Races and disproves the Bridging Host Theory. It will prove to be a most important discovery in Plant Pathology and microbiology with broad implications for medicine and other biological sciences. It will propel Stakman onto the world stage early in his career.

Dr. Freeman and Mr. Oswald draft Minnesota’s first pure seed law requiring labeling of seed for purity and germination. A State Seed Laboratory is established with Oswald as head. It is located in the Department.

Freeman is appointed Assistant Dean of the College of Agriculture. Stakman becomes Chief (head) of Plant Pathology within the Division of Plant Pathology and Botany.

Louise E. Jensen (B.A., University of Minnesota; M.A. Smith College) daughter of a prominent Minneapolis businessman, is hired to teach Mycology. She will later marry Elvin Stakman and she will greatly influence a unique esprite de corps which permeates the culture of the Department.

The Northeast Experiment Station is established near Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Later it will be named the North Central Experiment Station. It is in a large forest products and dairy producing region. Forest Pathology benefits greatly from this station. The station will later become the center of Minnesota’s paddy-grown wild rice research.


Congress passed the Smith Lever Act. It provides federal support for cooperative agricultural extension in Land-Grant Universities and Agricultural Experiment Stations. The Department will soon get its first Extension Plant Pathologist.

Freeman becomes Dean of the College of Agriculture and Home Economics.  His influence is heavily felt in the Department.

The implication of Stakman’s Ph.D. thesis for scientific breeding of rust resistance is recognized; the Minnesota Experiment Station makes the thesis available as a printed Bulletin.

World War I breaks out in Europe. The flour milling industry at the Falls of Saint Anthony on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis (the “Mill City”) is booming, with a strong European export market, which is largely war driven. This strong export market will later be damaged by wheat stem rust epidemics.


The Division of Plant Pathology and Botany gains more land and glasshouse space for conducting research.

Stakman’s classic paper “Relation between Puccinia graminis and plants highly resistant to its attack” is published in the Journal of Agricultural Research.

The number of graduate students in the Division expands.

Frank Piemeisel and Ray Rose are Stakman’s first M.S. graduate students. Piemeisel’s study of the corn smut fungus, Ustilago zeae is the first of its kind in Minnesota. This fungus will be studied in depth for six decades. Piemeisel suffers permanent combat impairment in World War I and dies in the 1920’s.


Arnold Tolaas is appointed the first Extension Plant Pathologist in the Division.

Moses Levine earns an M.S. degree under Stakman. He will remain in the Department as an important researcher for his entire career.

A catastrophic epidemic of wheat stem rust cuts yields on the Great Plains by 300 million bushels. This endangers both domestic and European flour market contracts. The dominant bread wheat, Marquis,is decimated. Durum wheats, resistant to stem rust, will replace bread wheats.

The Federal government tries to eradicate wild Ribes species (gooseberries being the predominant species in Minnesota) in white pine growing areas. Ribes species are alternate hosts for white pine blister rust fungus. The program runs from 1916 through 1967. Freeman heads Minnesota’s initial Federal/State program.

Julian G. Leach receives his M.S. degree under E.C. Stakman.


April 6th, the United States enters World War I. Stakman is a member of the American Phytopathological Society’s War Board, and Freeman is associated with the National Research Council Committee on Biology and Agriculture. Both entities aim to increase agricultural production for the war effort.

Minnesota’s great flour milling industry hosts intense discussions on the role of common barberry (Berberis vulgaris) in wheat stem rust epidemics. Common barberry is the alternate host for the wheat stem rust fungus, Puccinia graminis. North Dakota State University plant pathologist, Henry L. Bolley, urges Stakman to lead the charge in eliminating barberry. Stakman accepts and is very adept at getting support of governments (Federal and State) and the private sector.

Stakman is appointed a temporary special agent of the United States Department of Agriculture for rust epidemiology on the North American Great Plains.

Edward Freeman is elected President of the American Phytopathological Society. This adds national and international recognition to the Department.

Louise Jensen, the Department’s mycologist, marries Elvin Stakman. Unfortunately, Louise must resign her faculty position due to the University’s nepotism rule. She retains her ties with the Department and helps weave its unique social fabric.

A.H. Reginald Buller, the dynamic Professor of Botany at the University of Manitoba, visits Stakman. He is concerned about the 1916 rust epidemic which devastated Manitoba’s wheat production. Buller becomes a frequent visitor and sends many Canadian graduate students to study under Stakman. Buller exerts great influence on the Department’s research and culture.

Degrees Awarded:

  • Robert A Jehle, Ph.D. 1910
  • Jane Nisbit, M.S. 1910
  • Elvin Stakman, M.S. 1910
  • A.G. Tolaas, M.S. 1912
  • Elvin Stakman, Ph.D. 1913
  • F.J. Piemeisel, M.S. 1915
  • R.C. Rose, M.S. 1915
  • Felix J Schneiderhan, M.S. 1915
  • Moses N. Levine, M.S. 1916

Click for more information about graduates from this era.