Age of Physiology, Ecology and Epidemiology: 1959-1979

It was the Cold War era, a period following World War II (1941-1945) and the Korean War (1950-1953), and spanned the Vietnam War (1960-1975). In those years the United States of America put emphasis on international relations. It helped impoverished countries with their agricultural and educational development. The U.S. efforts, along with those of other nations and philanthropic foundations, greatly enhanced agricultural production and led to what was known as the Green Revolution.

The department was involved in several of these international efforts, and it’s alumni played a seminal role in the Mexican Program, a key moment in the Green Revolution. Faculty, staff and graduate students participated; graduate students from assisted countries were educated in the department.

During this era facilities and space for the department were expanded to help with research initiatives and responsibilities. The culture was changing with an influx of new faculty who possessed specialized expertise. New state-supported faculty were hired with backgrounds in chemistry, plant virology, plant bacteriology, air pollution, genetics, epidemiology, disease physiology and plant nematology. The remaining faculty all had expertise in various aspects of mycology, including genetics. Several Extension faculty were added to fill needs in agriculture, urban forestry, turfgrass and urban landscapes. Various USDA-ARS adjunct faculty and staff were added to the USDA Cereal Rust Laboratory, to forest pathology in the USDA’s North Central Forest Experiment Station, and to the USDA alfalfa project. Adjunct faculty and their staff also were increasingly specialized.

In conjunction with a budding paddy-grown wild rice (Zizania palustris) industry, a wild rice domestication effort was underway. The department becomes deeply involved in identification and control of wild rice diseases through a funding mechanism known as the Minnesota Wild Rice Legislative Special.

A large metropolitan area grew around Minneapolis and Saint Paul. To accommodate the need for identification and control of plant diseases in the metro and in outstate Minnesota, the department creates a Plant Disease Clinic under the direction of Dr. Herbert Johnson. In addition, there were Extension plant pathologists assigned to assist glasshouse growers, the plant nursery business and to address urban shade tree disease problems.

The department creates its own endowment policy to help fund its activities. The department is greatly assisted by Professor Richard J. Zeyen who had served on an alumni board of directors at another institution and was familiar with institutional endowments. The department’s alumni relations efforts are recognized as a great departmental strength in this endeavor. Many alumni and friends contribute to the Plant Pathology Endowments which help support the Plant Pathology Library, scholarships, fellowships, graduate student travel, internships and social activities. These endowments are invested and designed to operate in perpetuity. The endowments elevate the department’s national and international reputation and help it weather federal and state cuts that begin in the late 1970’s and continue for decades to follow.

Plant Physiology becomes a separate department

The department now has several plant physiologists; among them are: Drs. Al Linck, Donald Taylor, Richard Durbin, Karl Fezer, Lucas Calpouzos and Ed Stadelman. Physiologists concentrate on the effects of fertilizers, herbicides, cold adaptation, and modes of action of fungicides. By 1963 the physiology group has grown and the department is renamed the Department of Plant Pathology and Physiology. However, by 1967 the demand for plant physiologists in other departments like Agronomy and Plant Genetics, Horticulture and Botany is so great that the physiologists are redistributed among other units. A temporary Department of Plant Physiology emerges in the College of Biological Sciences and its Chairman is Dr. Al Linck.

Eventually the temporary plant physiology unit is absorbed into the Department of Plant Biology in the College of Biological Sciences. Thus, plant physiology is no longer part of plant pathology. The Department of Plant Pathology is now a stand-alone unit, with Dr. Milton F. Kernkamp (MS, 1939; PhD, 1941) as its Department Head.

Additional buildings and facilities

Plant pathology undergoes rapid changes in facilities and in its research and teaching needs and directions. Three new buildings housing members of the department are built. They are: the Crops Research Building (1962), the Christensen Laboratory Building (1968) and the USDA-ARS Cereal Rust Laboratory building (1971). In 1973, two new greenhouses are added to the department’s allocation.

Another new building is in the planning for the Departments of Plant Pathology, Agronomy and Plant Genetics and Soil Science. It’s design will complete the unfinished 1941 building plan, resulting in the buildings known as Stakman and Hayes Halls. That 1941 plan was only 60% funded and therefore the two buildings, Stakman and Hayes Halls, were never physically joined together. The new building is projected to be finished in 1983 but will be delayed by two years. It will finally be finished in 1985 and named Borlaug Hall. Thus, Borlaug Hall will physically unite Stakman and Hayes Halls and will complete the missing portion of the original 1941 design, in addition to physically joining the Soil Science Building which was constructed after 1941.

To serve the needs of physiologists, virologists, cytogenetics, virus diagnostics, soil physics, genetics and other disciplines, electron microscopes and X-ray microanalysis are needed. An 11-room Cooperative Electron Optics Facility, funded by the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station, is built in former storage space on the ground floor of the Christensen Laboratory Building. It is built in stages from 1968 through 1976. Dr. Richard Zeyen (Ph.D., 1970) a plant pathologist/physiologist with a background in biochemistry and physiology, becomes its director and architect. In 1973 Dr. Zeyen is appointed to the faculty of the department. The Cooperative Electron Optics Facility in Christensen Laboratory Building operates from 1969 through 2001 and then is moved to Snyder Hall and joined with the biological imaging laboratories in the College of Biological Sciences.

Computers make inroads into the department. First to arrive are computers connected with other devices and a rather large computer for epidemiology. They are quickly followed by personal computers mostly in the offices of younger faculty.

Curriculum Changes

The department faculty, in response to having courses on the books that had not been taught for years, adopts a minimal core curriculum structure. Thirteen courses were dropped and six new core courses were added. The core courses are used for the new undergraduate Plant Health Technology Program (PHT) and for M.S. and Ph.D. students. Thus, in addition to Introductory Plant Pathology, all PHT and MS students, and Ph.D. minors are required to take a year’s series of ‘pathogen-oriented’ courses, featuring fungal diseases, plant bacteriology and plant virology, and plant nematology and abiotic diseases. Ph.D. students take a year-long course series in disease theory based upon biological levels of organization. They are: Plant Disease Theory at the Molecular and Cellular Level, Plant Disease Theory at the Whole Plant Level, and Plant Disease Theory at the Population Level.

Bending the Arc of History in Fighting World Hunger

Dr. Norman Borlaug wins the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for the Green Revolution

The department continues its association with elements of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Mexican Agricultural Project (MAP). The Mexican Project morphs into Mexico’s International Center for Maize and Wheat Research (CIMMYT) and its wheat program is extended to Asia and South America. Graduate students from Mexico, South America and India come to do advanced work and in turn Minnesota graduates become trainees and postdoctoral fellows at CIMMYT. Minnesota graduates go primarily to CIMMYT’s wheat program, under the direction of Dr. Norman Borlaug. Many are involved in the Green Revolution, which greatly increases the world’s food supply by improving crop plants, improving plant nutrition, fostering science-based agricultural education, and mechanization. This massive and unprecedented improvement in worldwide food production was termed the Green Revolution, because it dealt with improved, green, chlorophyllous plants.

The Green Revolution spread through a worldwide system of international plant improvement centers and advanced agricultural education systems. These centers are largely the brain children of Dr. J.G. Harrar (Ph.D., 1935), who Dr. E.C. Stakman recommended to lead the Rockefeller/Mexican Government’s Mexican Project. Harrar uses the success of the Mexican Project as a template for other crop improvement centers around the world. The products of the Green Revolution efforts diminish the threat of massive starvation as outlined in Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book, "The Population Bomb."

In 1970, Minnesota plant pathology alum Dr. Norman Borlaug is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He has worked in the Mexican Program since 1944 and he and his Mexican colleagues made Mexico self-sufficient in wheat production. They genetically dwarfed wheat, bred it to be high yielding and disease resistant, and eliminated its day length sensitivity. Because of these traits the "Miracle Wheats” were able to grow in many regions of the world. Borlaug accepts the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the Green Revolution and all those involved.. He instantly becomes the department’s most internationally famous alum.

Another alumnus, Dr. J.G. Harrar, former leader of the MAP is now president of the Rockefeller Foundation. Harrar is recognized for his seminal role in starting the worldwide plant improvement centers that amplify the Green Revolution. Professor E.C. Stakman is very proud of his two protégés, Borlaug and Harrar, and all the many Minnesota alums who toil in the Green Revolution.

The ‘Moroccan Program’ and the ‘Indonesian Exchange’

In 1971 the University of Minnesota enters into a formal international contract with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). USAID is interested in helping North Africa, specifically Morocco. The objective is to assist the development of Moroccan agricultural scientists and institutions in order to ensure Morocco’s food security. Many faculty from the College of Agriculture at Minnesota are involved. Professor Roy Wilcoxson, a plant pathologist, is the program director. Morocco was formerly a French colony and French is used in their educational system. Therefore, courses in the French language are offered on the Saint Paul Campus for those who will or wish to join the Moroccan Project. Dr. Benham Lockhart, a plant virologist, is hired and stationed in Morocco.

A smaller and less formal exchange with Indonesia is begun in part by Professor Thomas King (Ph.D., 1946). King had previously taken leave from Minnesota to be part of a USAID program to increase rice production in southeast Asia.

Several Moroccan and some Indonesian graduate students study for advanced degrees in the department. They are joined by South Korean, Taiwanese and Chinese graduate students. Individual plant pathology faculty members have separate international research and teaching connections. These faculty attract students from several countries. During this era (1959-1979) many departmental graduates enter international agriculture and some remain in those careers for their lifetimes.

Faculty turnover, new challenges, mycotoxin research

Further changes in the department arise from growth and maturing of Minnesota’s own agricultural sector and urban areas. There is expansion of the vegetable processing in southern Minnesota and sugarbeet processing in the northwest’s Red River Valley. There is increased use of new commercial fungicides on many crops including cereals and for wild rice and tree diseases.

Another major change comes from how some fundamental research programs are funded and how some commodity based research is funded. The National Science Foundation’s direct funding of faculty research allows faculty to manage their own laboratories and employees. Commodity groups like the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association and the Malting Barley Association begin funding individual faculty. Thus, projects directed by individual faculty members expand, and the influence of the department Head in directing research declines.

The department’s core faculty, established under the leadership of professor E.C. Stakman in the 1930’s through the 1950’s begin to retire. Professors Helen Hart, J.J. Christensen, Clyde Christensen, Carl Eide, Thomas King, Herbert Johnson, Milton Kernkamp, and Mr. Matt Moore retire. Many of their replacements come from other institutions with other customs and traditions; the culture within the department continues to change.

The 1959 opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway allowed ocean-going grain ships from the Atlantic Ocean to access cold water harbors on Lake Superior at Duluth, Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin. Grain shipping by barges on the Mississippi River also increases. These two factors exacerbate grain storage problems and highlight grain deterioration due to molds during storage and shipping. Efforts to prevent microbiological deterioration of grains in storage facilities and during shipping accelerate. Mycotoxins associated with grain storage fungi are more prevalent. Dr. Clyde Christensen directs the grain storage research, and in the 1960’s, Dr. Chester Mirocha (Ph.D., University of California) is added to the faculty for his chemical expertise in mycotoxin research. The first mass spectrometer is installed in Stakman Hall to assist in the identification and analysis of mycotoxins. In the 1970’s Dr. Richard Meronuck (Ph.D. 1971) is added to the faculty for grain storage extension work.

Specialists - plant virology, plant bacteriology, nematology and air pollutants

Virus diseases, bacterial diseases, diseases caused by nematodes and those caused by air pollutants, which were previously left uninvestigated, now demand attention and expertise in their diagnosis and control. Dr. Ernest E. Banttari (M.S., 1959; Ph.D., 1962) is hired as a plant virologist, Dr. Bill Kennedy (Ph.D., California, Riverside) as a plant bacteriologist, and Dr. David McDonald (Ph.D., Cornell) as a nematologist. The vegetable canning and freezing industry expands and diseases of vegetable crops need attention; Dr. Francis Pfleger (Ph.D., Oregon State University) is added as an extension pathologist to help in this area. Dr. Sagar Krupa (Ph.D., Uppsala University, Sweden) is added for expertise in plant diseases caused by air pollutants.

Tree diseases, corn diseases, wild rice diseases - epidemiology

In the growing Minneapolis/Saint Paul metropolitan region there is need to work on shade tree and landscape plant diseases. An epidemic of Dutch elm disease devastates American elms in Minnesota. There is also a slower moving pandemic of oak wilt disease that kills several oak species from Texas to Minnesota. The southern corn leaf blight epidemic of the early 1970s and the maize dwarf mosaic virus epidemic in the late 1970’s focus more attention on field and sweet corn production. The domestication of wild rice begins in earnest. Dr. James Percich (Ph.D., Michigan State) joins the faculty and specializes in diseases of wild rice. Fungal brown spot disease in paddy-grown wild rice (Zizania palustris) causes massive problems related to lack of silicates in organic soils. Leaf rust disease epidemics in cereals occur, and common rust of maize and diseases of dry beans all demand attention. There is a clear need for an epidemiologist on the faculty to help understand these epidemics and predict yield and economic losses due to plant diseases.

The epidemiology era begins with the arrival of Dr. Francis Aloysius ‘Al’ Wood as Department Head in 1972. He is a 1961 Ph.D. graduate of the department who became a faculty member at the Pennsylvania State University. Dr. Wood is an expert in air pollution and very interested in quantitative epidemiology. Dr. Robert Shrum (Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University) is hired in 1974 as the first quantitative epidemiologist; he resigns and is replaced by Dr. Paul Teng ( Ph.D., the University of Christchurch in New Zealand). Dr. Teng will eventually enter international agriculture and then become Dean of Graduate Studies and Professional Learning at the National Institute of Education in Singapore.

In 1977 Professor and Head, Dr. F.A. Wood leaves to become Dean of the College of Agriculture at the University of Florida. Professor David W. French (Ph.D., 1952) is appointed Head of the Department of Plant Pathology.

Hosting the International Congress of Plant Pathology

In 1973 the Department of Plant Pathology and the University of Minnesota host the Second International Congress of Plant Pathology (the first was at the University of Cambridge, England). It is an enormous responsibility and success. A special edition of the Aurora Sporealis is published and photos from the International Congress are archived. 

The Plant Health Technology Undergraduate Program

Dr. Al Wood’s vision of a viable undergraduate program for the Department begins to take shape. In 1973 the Plant Health Technology (PHT) major is unveiled, with Professor Thomas King as its Director. Professor King retires in 1975 and the department’s ecological geneticist, Dr. James V. Groth (Ph.D., University of British Columbia, Canada) takes charge. Professor Groth uses the year’s series of plant pathogen courses as the core of the major. Under Groth’s capable leadership there soon are 70 undergraduates enrolled in PHT. PHT graduates easily find employment and some go onto graduate work and obtain advanced degrees in plant pathology. The history of the PHT program can be found in Volume 54 of the Aurora Sporealis.

Professor E.C. Stakman passes - Endowment funds expand

In January 1979 the iconic Professor Emeritus Elvin Charles Stakman passes away at age 93. He was considered by many to be among the most important 100 individuals of the 20th century.

Dr. Stakman’s life and accomplishments are remembered by the University of Minnesota, the state and the nation. Minnesota’s Governor, Albert Quie declares May 17, 1979 as E.C. Stakman Day in Minnesota and visitors and friends congregate on the Saint Paul Campus for a two-day celebration of Stakman’s life. A special 1979 edition of the Aurora Sporealis entitled E.C. Stakman Day is issued.

Stakman leaves his estate to the department. It is supplemented by gifts from friends and faculty. Drs. Richard Zeyen and David French place the proceeds from the Stakman estate in an endowment fund and formulate an Endowment Policy for the department. The endowment funds are invested and only the interest is used, thus ensuring funding in perpetuity. A Plant Pathology Library Endowment Fund and an E.C. Stakman Visiting Professorship Fund are initiated. These two funds now join several other funds in the departmental Endowment.