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 Minnesota, a 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 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.