Growth Years of Plant Pathology: 1918 - 1937

As a result of the innovative scientific discoveries and advancements in wheat stem rust research, the Department of Plant pathology began to establish itself as a world leader in plant pathology and began to attract faculty, students and staff from around the globe.

Stem rust of wheat and the great Barberry Eradication Program

Wheat stem rust disease, caused by the fungus Puccinia graminis is a Minnesotan, national and an international wheat production problem. Wheat flour was desperately needed for both domestic and foreign markets and to feed U.S. troops and allied nations during World War I (1914-1918). No really effective fungicidal control of stem rust disease would be available for another 50 years.

To stop and slow epidemics of stem rust, Stakman and others propose eliminating barberry bushes upon which the fungal agent, Puccinia graminis, recombines its genes to form ever-changing pathogenic races. The United States Department of Agriculture and 13 States buy into this idea. A national Barberry Eradication Campaign begins; it is centered in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Minnesota. It is led by the charismatic E.C. Stakman. Hundreds of millions of common barberry bushes in wheat growing areas of 13 states will be identified and destroyed.

Private industry cooperation helps rust prevention effort

Stakman’s ideas and research encourage flour milling, railroads and other industries to help; they form the pricate sector's Rust Prevention Association based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This powerful and influential private sector association will lobby for federal funding. They will help support both the barberry eradication campaign and stem rust race identification efforts. Later this association will evolve into the Crop Quality Council and this private organization will help agricultural production and the Colleges of Agriculture in Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas.

National rust prevention laboratories in the United States and Canada

A United States Department of Agriculture’s Cereal Rust Laboratory (USDA - CRL) is established within the Department to track stem rust pathogen race development in North America. A true scientific basis for breeding stem rust resistant wheat is established. The Rust Prevention Association hires Stakman’s student and protégé, Donald Fletcher. Fletcher has a high emotional I.Q. and will develop into a potent and effective advocate for the Department and for regional agriculture. He is universally liked and admired. He will serve almost 50 years.

Canada forms its own Dominion Rust Research Laboratory on the campus of the University of Manitoba at Winnipeg, Canada. Many of its staff are educated and trained at the the Department of Plant Pathology in Minnesota. The Dominion Rust Research Laboratory will be known by insiders as “Minnesota North”; however, its members become world famous in their own right. The cooperation between Minnesota and Canada is genuine, sincere and very productive, it will last into the 21st century.

Aerobiology of the spores of stem and other cereal rusts on the Great Plains

Professors Freeman and Stakman, with help from the USDA, start a Great Plains aerobiology research effort to trace the movement of stem and other cereal rust spores on the North American Great Plains. They use grease coated microscope slides carried by airplanes at various altitudes and locations. Once the airplane is at the correct location and altitude the slides are exposed to the air. and airborne rust spores stick to the slides. The slides are later sent to Minnesota where they are ‘read’ using light microscopy. The findings will establish how spores move on air currents over the Great Plains. The result is the Puccinia Pathway, a concept that proves its worth and finds its way into Plant Pathology textbooks.

Mendelian genetics helps

Attempts to study the formation of pathogenic races of cereal rust fungi using Mendelian genetics are contemplated. However, this proves to be a daunting task because not all the biology of mating in the stem rust fungus is understood. What can be studied using Mendelian genetics  is stem rust resistance in plants. These studies identify Mendelian ‘resistance genes’ and lay the groundwork for scientific breeding of wheat and other cereals for practical rust resistance. Scientific breeding allows strategic placement of cereals with known rust resistance genes into the exact areas needed on the Great Plains.

Intellectual stimulation and excellence

There is a lack of educated and trained plant pathologists in the United States. Most expertize resides in Europe. Edward Freeman and Elvin Stakman decide that European connections and visiting scientists are needed to help develop a rigorous intellectual atmosphere. They take steps to ensure a flow of European intellectual talent comes through Minnesota and that these scientists interact with young faculty, staff and students.

Freeman and Stakman, themselves powerful intellects, make Minnesota’s graduate program very rigorous. Each PhD student is mandatorily required to be able to read and translate two foreign languages into English. Having European visitors makes the foreign language requirements much more meaningful. Freeman and Stakman will educate, train and develop many of their own faculty.

Stakman establishes a relationship with Halle University in Germany, and several young faculty are sent there and other places for professional development before returning to Minnesota. The wisdom of these efforts will soon be proven. The faculty of the Department and its graduates obtain world class status. The strategy is a case study in building ‘human capital’, much before that concept is in vogue.

The Department is more than just stem rust research

Wheat stem rust and other cereal rust diseases dominate the Department’s research and thinking; nevertheless, other diseases and their causal agents, important to Minnesota’s agricultural, forest and horticultural interests are studied. The Plant Physiology unit, inside the Department, proves its worth. Work on seed pathology, weed control and on cold hardiness of plants for Minnesota is especially useful.

Members of the Department are heavily involved in the development of the "American Phytopathological Society"  (APS) whose headquarters are in Saint Paul, Minnesota. During this era Freeman and Stakman are elected Presidents of APS. The acknowledged excellence of Minnesota’s Department grows and its national and international reputation soars.

Intense industrial development and financial speculation following World War I (WWI) leads initially to great prosperity in the 1920’s, but ends in a horrific worldwide economic collapse in the 1930’s. This collapse will be called The Great Depression. Both the prosperity of the 1920’s and the depression of the 30’s impact the Department. Government spending to stimulate the economy during The Great Depression results in many staff and students being employed using federal dollars. Much of this funding is directed toward the worthy goal of rust prevention and speeds the barberry eradication effort. Millions of barberry plants are destroyed and the number of pathological races of wheat stem rust begins to decline.

Government programs help undergraduate students achieve and go beyond

Undergraduate students are helped by summer jobs with the Civilian Conservation Corp and during the academic year by National Youth Administration, an early work/study program. A future Nobel Peace Prize winner, the farm boy/athlete from Iowa, Norman Borlaug is helped by both programs while majoring in Forestry. He, like many other undergraduates, is impressed and influenced by Professor E.C. Stakman, Dr. Clyde Christensen and others in Plant Pathology. He enters Plant Pathology graduate program. Administrative rules require that almost all graduate students have Elvin Stakman as their advisor of record, although in practice other faculty do most of the day-to-day advising and mentoring.

Success results in greater need for space and more advanced facilities

The growth of the Department requires more and better equipped space, the same pressure is felt by it’s sister department, Agronomy and Plant Genetics. A new building for Plant Pathology and Agronomy and Plant Genetics is planned even as The Great Depression deepens. War looms between Germany and other European nations, and Japan goes to war with China. These conflicts will lead to World War II and greatly influence the Department’s activities, its staff and its research programs.

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Highlights Through the Years and Degrees Awarded: 1918 - 1937


World War I ends and the national Barberry Eradication Campaign begins. Stakman is loaned by the University to the USDA to begin the campaign. The campaign is based in the Plant Pathology Department at Minnesota. See the Preliminary Report on Barberry Eradication prepared by Stakman.

Stakman and his colleagues identify prominent stem rust races, and this accelerates rust resistance breeding. A USDA Cereal Rust Laboratory (now the USDA-ARS Cereal Disease Laboratory) is established in the Department; its members will monitor rust populations for the United States; USDA plant breeders are added to help with rust resistance breeding in cereals.

Professor Edward Freeman (PhD, 1905) is elected President of the American Phytopathological Society.


Stakman turns the Barberry Eradication Program over to F.E. Kempton but remains a special agent of the USDA and a University of Minnesota faculty member. Stakman, unlike state supported faculty members, can travel freely in North America on rust surveys.

A section of Plant Physiology and Agricultural Botany within the Division is organized, with Dr. L.I. Knight its first plant physiologist.

The administration of the Seed Laboratory and Seed Potato Certification is transferred to the Minnesota State Department of Agriculture, with Arnold Toolas in charge.

Research on flax wilt, fruit tree cankers, tree rots and vegetable diseases begins. Wheat scab, root rot and flag smut of wheat are diseases investigated at several levels.


The aerobiology of stem rust research intensifies on the Great Plains.

Variation within fungal pathogens and corresponding plant resistance genes is central to departmental research.

Frank Frolik is succeeded as Extension Pathologist by Mr. Ray Rose, a Stakman protege. Rose will remain the only Extension plant pathologist for many decades.


Ray Rose introduces a hot formaldehyde seed potato treatment to control potato scab (caused by the filamentous bacterium Streptomyces scabies) and to control Rhizoctonia fungal infection.

Cooperative work with the USDA’s Office of Cereal Investigations expands as the Barberry Eradication Program gains momentum. In Minneapolis a private sector Conference for the Prevention of Grain Rust is formed to facilitate cooperation with Federal and State governments.

Laura Mae Hamilton is hired by the USDA as Stakman’s personal secretary and amanuensis. An extraordinary individual, she remains Stakman’s private secretary and a much-beloved driving force in the Department until her retirement in 1968.

The famed Russian geobotanist/ pathologist and plant collector, Nikolai Vavilov visits Minnesota. He and Stakman form a friendship. Vavilov’s ideas about the centers of origin of plants and their disease agents heavily influence teaching in the Department.


The Rust Prevention Association, outgrowth of the Conference for the Prevention of Grain Rusts is headquartered in Minneapolis. It was formed by flour milling, grain, railroad, farm equipment and others with enlightened self interests. The Association politically and financially supports federal and state Barberry Eradication Campaigns.

Franklin Crosby (VP of Crosby Mills - now General Mills) hires Donald Fletcher, a student of Stakman’s, to run the Rust Prevention Association (later the Crop Quality Council).

E.C. Stakman is elected President of the American Phytopathological Society.

At the USDA’s request, Stakman and wife Louise Jensen Stakman travel to Europe to evaluate barberry eradication efforts there.

Louise Dosdall receives her PhD and is hired as the Department’s mycologist, replacing Louise Jensen Stakman. Much later she will use her estate to create the prestigious Louise T. Dosdall Fellowship for Women in Science at the University of Minnesota.

Margaret Newton, a superb and iconic Canadian rust researcher, receives her PhD.

Dr. Rodney B. Harvey a USDA plant physiologist joins the Department.

Julian G. Leach receives his PhD and retained as a faculty member. He often fills in as Chief of the Division when Stakman travels.


Ray Rose introduces Bordeaux mixture for controlling foliar fungal diseases and some insects on seed potato fields.

Robert Noble from Australia receives his PhD. He is the first of several Australians to come to Minnesota.

Dr. Knight resigns as the leader of the Plant Physiology and Agricultural Botany section and is replaced by Dr.Harvey.

The Lake States Forest Experiment Station (LSFES), a federal laboratory, is established on the Saint Paul Campus under the direction of Russian-born Raphael Zon, an exceptional scientist. The LSFES (now the Northern Research Station) is involved with forest tree diseases and forest product deterioration.


Vol. 1 of The Aurora Sporealis, the departmental newsletter is published and will be published continuously thereafter.

Harold H. Flor and Helen Hart get MS degrees; Moses Levine received his PhD. All are Stakman protégés. Flor and Hart will become Presidents of the American Phytopathological Society.


Jonas J. Christensen received his PhD degree and is hired as a faculty member. He will prove extraordinary and will become a President of the American Phytopathological Society and Stakman’s successor.

In total, forty-two advanced degrees (MS and PhDs) in Plant Pathology have now been awarded.

The Dominion Rust Research Laboratory of Canada is started at Winnipeg. It is staffed by Thorvaldur Johnson and John Craigie, both Stakman protégés. This marks the beginning of 90 years of exchanges and cooperation between Canada’s Dominion Rust Laboratory “Minnesota North and Minnesota’s USDA Cereal Rust Laboratory.


The Firestone Tire and Rubber Company opens a huge rubber plantation in Liberia, Africa. They seek help from E.C. Stakman, now among the world’s preeminent plant pathologists. Stakman becomes a consultant. Firestone finances fellowships to support graduate students in the Department at Minnesota.


J.H. Craigie (MS 1925) discovers how the sexual cycle of the stem rust fungus, Puccinia graminis, functions on barberry bushes.


Herman Alonzo Rodenhiser, another Stakman protégé, receives his PhD and joins the USDA’s Office of Cereal Investigations in Washington D.C. For decades he will be an invaluable cooperator in the effort to control cereal rusts in the Americas.

Elvin Stakman receives the prestigious Emil Christian Hansen Gold Medal in Denmark.


Harold H. Flor receives his PhD. In the 1940’s, while working with flax rust in North Dakota. Using flax rust as a model he will develop the “Gene-for-Gene” Theory. The Gene-for-Gene Theory is a seminal achievement in plant pathology and in host-parasite relationships in general.

The multitalented Helen Hart receives her PhD. She becomes a USDA scientist in the Department working on slow rusting; later she joins the University faculty. Hart will become the first woman Editor-in-Chief of Phytopathology and the first woman President of the American Phytopathological Society.


Clyde M. Christensen, Frank Kaufert, and Thorvalder Johnson receive PhDs; all will become prominent nationally recognized scientists.

Extension pathologist Ray Rose encourages grain elevator operators to chemically treat wheat seed to control covered smut.

Stakman and wife Louise, go to the University of Halle in Germany. He lectures in German and begins a relationship with the University of Halle. Young Minnesota faculty members, including Clyde Christensen, Helen Hart, Frank Kaufert and Jonas Christensen spend sabbaticals at Halle.

Stakman spends three months in Liberia on behalf of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company and five weeks at various institutions in Great Britain.


Several British and domestic graduate students, supported by Firestone, come to study in Minnesota’s Plant Pathology Department.

The vegetable canning industry in Minnesota is growing. There is more and more emphasis on diseases of vegetables and fruits grown for commercial purposes.

Matthew Moore received his MS degree and is appointed instructor. For 40 years he is the iconic introductory plant pathology teacher at Minnesota.


An Iowa farm boy, Norman E. Borlaug, enrolls as an undergraduate to study forestry in the College of Agriculture. He is athletic, intelligent, practical and quiet.

The Great Economic Depression stimulates growing of fruits and large vegetable gardens. This brings to light many diseases of fruits and vegetables and triggers research for disease control.


Jacob George (Dutch) Harrar leaves his faculty position at the University of Puerto Rico and accepts a Firestone PhD fellowship at Minnesota.

Carl Eide receives his PhD, and after a year at Louisiana State University he returns and spends his career on the faculty. He teaches the iconic capstone course - “Principles of Plant Pathology”.


Another massive epidemic of wheat stem rust sweeps the North American Great Plains. The USDA-ARS Cereal Rust Laboratory, Canada’s Dominion Rust Research Laboratory and the private sector Rust Prevention Association intensify their activities.

The Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station releases the rust resistant wheat variety, Thatcher. It rescues wheat production. It is a great source of rust resistance genes.

Dr. Julian G. Leach of Minnesota’s faculty publishes a seminal book entitled “Insects in Relation to Plant Diseases”.

Jacob George ‘Dutch’ Harrar, a Stakman protégé, receives his Ph.D. Harrar is athletic and has a commanding intellect combined with a forceful, charismatic personality. He will play a seminal role in the Green Revolution, become President of the Rockefeller Foundation and be a driving force in creating international crop research centers that undergird the world’s food production.


The aerobiology research of wheat stem rust spores traveling on air currents up and down the North American Great Plains reveals the infamous Puccinia Pathway. It is also the basis for understanding aphid and leafhopper aerial migration on the Great Plains.

Norman Borlaug, the Iowa farm boy, now with a BS degree in Forestry and recently married, asks Professor Stakman for a job. He becomes an MS student under Clyde Christensen in forest pathology.


In its first 30 years the Department awards 121 graduate degrees (MS, MA and PhD). Many students from sister disciplines minor in Plant Pathology. Plant Pathology students generally minor in plant physiology, entomology or plant breeding.

Japan invades China and Germany builds its military might.  War clouds gather.

Expansion and subdivision of the old Drill Hall (Tottering Tower) reaches its limits. A request goes to the state legislature for a new building to house the Department of Plant Pathology and Botany along with the Department of Agronomy and Plant Breeding.  Despite The Great Depression the Minnesota Legislature will approve and partially fund the request.

 See the full list of degrees awarded