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 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 pathology unit and later, when the unit became a Department, made Stakman Chief of the Plant Pathology unit.

The Tottering Tower

The Division of Vegetable Pathology and Botany was initially housed in the Horticulture Building. It 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. Its 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 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 Economic Botany, transferred into the unit and he and Freeman taught all classes in 1908. In 1909, Mr. E.C. Stakman was hired as an assistant 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 found 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 within pathogenic forms. 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.