Years of Trial and Change: 1938-1958

The Great Depression, World War II, The Mexican Program, another stem rust pandemic, a new building, and changing faculty and staff greatly influence Plant Pathology during this era of trial and change.

During this era there are many positive changes in facilities and in teaching and research. Some changes are driven by internal forces, but many are driven by external forces. There are two resurgences of destructive races of stem rust of wheat on the Great Plains. The second pandemic will lead to a large international cooperative stem rust program with Canada and Mexico. The Great Economic Depression continues early in the era. The United States of America is involved in two major wars, World War II and the Korean War and military conscription of staff and students causes interruptions and shifts in research directions to help with the war efforts. Gardening and urban growth focus research and control efforts on garden crops, perennials and tree species.

Cooperation with the Rockefeller Foundation’s Mexican Program begins with heavy involvement by Departmental members, especially E.C. Stakman. Toward the end of the era Mexico becomes self-sufficient in wheat production. Microbial destruction of grain in Minnesotan and regional storage facilities and during shipping on the Great Lakes demands research into control measures.

A new building for the Department (Stakman Hall)

By the late 1930’s a core teaching/research faculty is fully formed in Plant Pathology. It consists of Drs. J.J. Christensen, C.M. Christensen, Louise Dosdall, Carl Eide, Helen Hart, Thomas King, E.C. Stakman, and Mr. Matthew Moore. All are Minnesota graduates and all have experiences outside Minnesota. They will serve as the core faculty for many decades; other non-core faculty will come and go during this era.

In 1941 new buildings for the Department of Plant Pathology and Botany (now Stakman Hall) and for Agronomy and Plant Breeding (now Hayes Hall) are finished. Due to incomplete funding only 65% of the entire building plan is built. However, this plan will be revisited and finished in 1985 with the construction of Borlaug Hall.

Thus the two departments, Plant Pathology and Agronomy and Plant Genetics, are in what appear to be separate buildings. For administrative and record keeping reasons they are connected by a symbolic retaining wall and are considered by the University to be one building. There is no space for Plant Physiology and Agricultural Botany faculty offices and laboratories, so these departmental units and the USDA Cereal Rust Laboratory remain housed in the old ‘Tottering Tower’.

The Department and the Rockefeller Foundation’s Mexican Program

A decades-long association with the Rockefeller Foundation’s Mexican Program begins. In 1940, Vice President-elect of the United States and former Secretary of Agriculture, Henry A. Wallace (of Pioneer Hi-Bred International, and the newspaper The Wallace Farmer) is sent to Mexico to represent the United States at the inauguration of Mexican President, General Manuel Avila Camacho. Mexico needs help with food production as they are net importers of food. Mexican officials ask Wallace for advice and assistance. The United States of America is preparing for war and is in the middle of The Great Depression. The US Congress will not provide any assistance. Thus, Henry Wallace asks the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) to consider food production problems in Mexico.

Minnesota’s Dr. Elvin C. Stakman is asked to be a part of a RF Survey Commission to Mexico. After three months and five thousand miles of in-country Mexican travel and investigation the Commission makes a modest proposal to RF. The RF likes the proposal and negotiates a crop improvement demonstration project and an educational program with the Mexican government. Thus began the Mexican Program which will benefit from decades of involvement by Minnesota’s Plant Pathology Department, especially from Dr. E.C. Stakman, now a Rockefeller Consultant.

Dr. J.G. ‘Dutch’ Harrar (Ph.D. 1935), a Stakman protégé, becomes the on-site leader of the Mexican Program. He resigns as Head of Plant Pathology at Washington State University and moves to Mexico. Harrar is charismatic, intelligent, persuasive and speaks fluent Spanish. He is an exceptional leader. In the decades that follow the Mexican Program will involve many more Minnesota Plant Pathology alums, faculty, adjunct faculty, students and friends. In addition, many Mexican and Latin American students from and related to the Mexican Program will receive their Plant Pathology educations and advanced degrees at Minnesota. The success of the Mexican Program will enable the 20th century’s Green Revolution in agriculture and result in another Stakman protégé, Norman Borlaug (MS, 1941; Ph.D., 1942) receiving the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize.

The brain drain - World War II (1941-1945) and the Korean War (1950 - 1953)

Plant Pathology at Minnesota experiences a traumatic brain drain. Many students and young graduates are drafted into the military for World War II, and then shortly thereafter for the Korean War.

Graduates like Milton Kernkamp and Thomas King return to Minnesota after WW II, but others leave before or after WW II. Still other students are drafted into the military for the Korean War, which is an outgrowth of WW II. Students involved in the Korean War will return to the United States but many will not return to the University of Minnesota.

The exodus from the University of Minnesota was also hastened by the Great Depression’s effects in Minnesota and by the expansion of higher education in other states. Dr. E.L. LeClerg goes to Louisiana State University, Dr. Andrew Downie to Colorado State University, Dr. R.H. Bamberg to Montana, and Dr. Robert Cassell to Illinois. Dr. E.G. Sharvelle leaves for Purdue, Dr. Ian Tervet goes to the University of Nebraska, and Dr. Earl W. Hansen to the University of Wisconsin.

At the University of Minnesota there is an influx of older students at all levels. Many are funded through the federal government’s Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, also known as the G.I. Bill

These veterans will swell the University’s undergraduate ranks and by the mid-1950’s a small but significant number find their way into graduate work in Plant Pathology.

A controversial Oat Crown Rust resistance screen

In 1953, faculty member Matthew Moore stirs great controversy when he proposes planting a buckthorn nursery on the Saint Paul Campus. Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica L.) is the alternate (sexual) host of the fungus Puccinia coronata, which causes Oat Crown Rust Disease. Many fear that the recombination of the fungus on buckthorn will produce new pathogenic races that will threaten oat production in Minnesota. Moore argues that the plot is inside a major city, Saint Paul, with no fields of oats for miles around. He argues that new pathogenic strains will be confined to the University plots inside the city.

Mr. Moore plants his buckthorns in very wide-spread rows, and ‘inoculates them with year old infected oat straw. In between the rows of buckthorn bushes he plants rows of oat lines to be tested for Oat Crown Rust Disease resistance. In the spring the rust fungus from the oat straw infects young buckthorn leaves where it undergoes genetic recombination (it goes through its sexual stage). Thus the buckthorn bushes produce many new pathogenic races that attack oat seedlings if they are not genetically resistant. This proves to be most effective and a ‘hot’ screen for detection of high levels of genetic resistance to Oat Crown Rust Disease. Oat breeders from around the world send their oat lines and varieties to Matt Moore at Minnesota to be tested for Oat Crown Rust resistance. The legendary Matt Moore Buckthorn Plots are a big success and are still in use today on the Saint Paul Campus of the University of Minnesota.

E. C. Stakman’s retirement - a new era begins

In 1953 E.C. Stakman retires as Head of the Department of Plant Pathology (mandatory at age 65). He retains an office in the Department and remains engaged. Stakman is in great demand as a speaker and as Rockefeller Foundation consultant, especially to the Mexican Program. Friends of Dr. Stakman create and fund the E.C. Stakman Award. The funding is in the form of a permanent endowment and enables the E.C. Stakman Award to be given in perpetuity. The E.C. Stakman Award will become the Department’s highest and most prestigious award.

Dr. Jonas J. Christensen, another Stakman protégé, is appointed Head of the Department of Plant Pathology. Stakman’s influence and the social and intellectual culture he produced begin to change. In addition to changing leadership styles, the funding of research changes and the power of headships diminish. The National Science Foundation (NSF) begins to directly award grants to individual faculty and groups of faculty. This profoundly changes the direction of research and indirectly the head’s control in departments with NSF funding.

NSF’s mission is, ” to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense." In Minnesota, NSF’s funding priorities align mainly with the plant physiologists in the Department. The Department Head is no longer the Principal Investigator on every grant. Other granting agencies will follow NSF’s lead. Eventually even the USDA goes to direct competitive grant funding of faculty directly. The culture of the Department, and departments of plant pathology nationwide, changes as new research groups of non-administrative faculty are formed. This type of funding is called ‘soft money’ funding since the grants are usually of short-term, (two-three year duration) and must be rewritten and reapproved for renewal. Only ‘hard money’ for plant breeding programs funded by noncompetitive grants and a few other 'legislative special’ research funds now go solely through department heads.

Radioactive isotopes and use of chemical control of plant diseases come of age

WW II brings about research in nuclear weapons; a spin-off of the research is the arrival of radioactive isotopes. These can be used as tracers of metabolic processes and in biological conversions of labeled compounds. This favors fundamental research in mycotoxin formation by fungi, fungal metabolism, plant defense response metabolism and new fungicide and herbicide research directions. These greatly increase the depth and breadth of plant physiology research in the Department.

Chemical researchers, primarily in industry, discover new compounds useful as systemic fungicides, herbicides, and nematocides. The control of plant diseases through chemistry and the prophylactic prevention of plant diseases using chemicals begins. Chemical control, largely by fungicides, greatly influences the direction of Extension plant pathology.