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

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 and the 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, Vice President 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. The decades that follow the Mexican Program will involve many more Minnesota Plant Pathology alums, faculty, adjunct faculty, students and friends and 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 when 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. However, many students continue to get drafted into the military for the Korean War, with many eventually returning to the U.S. bt not 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 going 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. However, Moore argues that since the plot is inside the major city of Saint Paul, and that there are no fields of oats for miles around, the 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's 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 eventually becomes 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 had produced begin to change. In addition to changing leadership styles, the funding of research changes and the power of headship diminishes. 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.

The NSF’s mission is "to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense," and in Minnesota, the 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 the NSF’s lead. Eventually even the USDA goes to direct competitive grant funding of faculty. The culture of the Department, and departments of plant pathology nationwide change as new research groups of non-administrative faculty are formed. This type of funding is called ‘soft money’ funding since the grants are usually short-term, (two-three year duration) and must be rewritten and reapproved for renewal. Only ‘hard money’ is 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 brought 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.

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Highlights Through the Years and Degrees Awarded: 1938 - 1958


An American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting is held in Minneapolis. The American Phytopathological Society meets concurrently on the Saint Paul Campus. Departmental members present a reenactment featuring 200 years of phytopathological history.

Dr. J.G. Leach leaves the faculty to become Professor and Head of the Department of Plant Pathology and Bacteriology at West Virginia University.


Raymond Rose is the only Extension Plant Pathologist in the Department.

World War II begins in Europe; in many ways it is an extension of WW I. This war changes the composition and directions of the Plant Pathology Department at Minnesota. Due to the war in Europe, faculty exchanges between Germany’s University of Halle and Minnesota’s Plant Pathology Department end.

Norman Borlaug takes a protected war-time research position at the DuPont company in Delaware. He works on packaging deterioration and replaces Dr. Frank Kaufert who returns to become Dean of Minnesota’s College of Forestry. Borlaug finishes writing his M.S. and Ph.D. theses while at DuPont.

Thomas King receives his M.S. degree in Plant Pathology. He will enter the U.S. Army and rise to the rank of Colonel before returning to the Department.


With the country in the grip of The Great Depression, and state funding scarce, Plant Pathology uses a number of federal New Deal programs to survive.

The United States institutes mandatory military conscription (the Draft), requiring all men between the ages of 21 and 45 to register. Domestic students and young faculty register; uncertainty and change are in the air.

Norman E. Borlaug receives his M.S. degree while working for DuPont. His work on packaging and product deterioration is deemed necessary for the defense of the nation. He is not drafted into the military.

Dr. E.M. Freeman relinquishes the headship of the Division of Plant Pathology and his protégé, Dr. Elvin Charles Stakman becomes the second Head of the Division of Plant Pathology.


Immediately after the December 7th Japanese attack on Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor the United States declares war on Japan. The USA will also soon declare war on Germany and its allies. This global conflict profoundly affects the people and research directions of the Department. Many students enter the military both voluntarily and involuntarily, and research funding to support the war effort begins flowing into the Department.

Norman E. Borlaug, while working at DuPont, receives his Ph.D. degree for his study of flax wilt under Professor Jonas J. Christensen.

The new building for Plant Pathology is ready to occupy. Space for the official Plant Pathology Library, administration, the Seminar Library, the Fungal Herbarium, a seminar room and teaching laboratories are included. Only 65% of the original building plan were funded, thus the plant physiologists and the USDA Cereal Rust Laboratory remain in the old Drill Hall - the so-called Tottering Tower.

E.C. Stakman leads a USDA survey of rubber producing areas in northwest South America. He is working as a paid consultant to the Firestone Rubber Company.

The Rockefeller Foundation hires Elvin C. Stakman (Minnesota), Paul C. Mangelsdorf (Harvard University) and Richard Bradfield (Cornell University) as members of a Survey Commission to study crop production in Mexico. They go on a three month, 5000-mile agricultural survey. They draft a modest demonstration/research/education approach to increase food production for consideration by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican government.


Due to wartime needs and available funding, Clyde Christensen turns his focus from Forest Pathology to finding new strains of fungi for the production of penicillin and other antibiotics. After WWII Christensen does not return to forest pathology but rather investigates the control of grain storage fungi and fungal mycotoxins.

The Rockefeller Foundation (RF) accepts its Mexican survey team’s report, largely written by E.C. Stakman. It calls for a modest demonstration/research/education program in Mexico. The RF enters into negotiations with Mexico.


With many students and young faculty in the military, and with a lack of funding from the state of Minnesota, progress in research and extension on Minnesota plant diseases slows and class sizes shrink.

Dr. E.M. Freeman retires as Dean of the College of Agriculture and Head of Plant Pathology; Elvin C. Stakman becomes Head of the now Department of Plant Pathology, however, this department also contains plant physiology and economic botany units as well as the USDA’s Cereal Rust Laboratory.

The Rockefeller Foundation/Mexican Government project, the ‘Mexican Project’, is formalized. Its goal is to make Mexico self-sufficient in food production. A research/demonstration station outside Mexico City will be used to demonstrate how to improve production of maize. There are smaller crop improvement programs in wheat, beans and potatoes. Dr.J.G. ‘Dutch’ Harrar (Ph.D. 1935) becomes the onsite leader of the entire Mexican program and the wheat improvement leader.


Dr. Jonas. J. Christensen (M.S. 1933, Ph.D. 1935) is elected President of the American Phytopathological Society.

Dr. Norman E. Borlaug is recruited away from the DuPont Company and to the ‘Mexican Program’ by Drs. George ‘Dutch’ Harrar and Elvin C. Stakman. Norman Borlaug moves to Mexico as the program’s plant pathologist/wheat breeder so that George Harrar can concentrate on administration and overall program leadership in this rapidly growing program.

Professor R.B. Harvey the section leader of Plant Physiology dies unexpectedly.


In May, World War II ends in Europe. In September, after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, WW II ends in Japan. It is a time of joy, confusion and turmoil in the Department.


J.H. Craigie (M.S. 1925) is elected President of the American Phytopathological Society.

Thomas King and Milton Kernkamp return to the Department to finish their graduate work after serving as officers in the U.S. military.


A detailed informative history of the Department’s first 50 years is published as Volume 23 (Supplement) of the Departmental Newsletter the Aurora Sporealis.

Soybeans begin replacing wheat and other cereal crops in south and south central Minnesota.

Academic exchanges between Louisiana State University’s Plant Pathology Department and Minnesota’s department begin.


E.C. Stakman is part of a post-WWII scientific mission to Japan for improvement of Japanese agriculture. He has a high-level government security clearance. This mission is requested by the Supreme Command for Allied Powers in Japan, General Douglas MacArthur.

Stakman is also appointed a member of an Advisory Committee on Biology and Medicine for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.

John Rowell receives his Ph.D. He will spend his career at Minnesota and become the leader of the USDA-ARS Cereal Rust Laboratory. He will be an adjunct faculty member in the Department.

David W. French receives his M.S. degree under Drs. Frank Kaufert and Clyde Christensen.


The Department of Plant Pathology gets its own farm when with the formation of the Rosemount Experiment Station. After WWII the United States Military, for the sum of one dollar, deeds 8000 acres of land near Rosemount, Minnesota to the University and its Agricultural Experiment Station. The Department gets its own 80-acre experimental farm. It is 25 miles from campus and is a tremendous asset.

Professor E.C. Stakman is elected President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


E.C. Stakman becomes a member of a National Commission concerned with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Stakman is a delegate to UNESCO General Conferences representing the Rockefeller Foundation.

Race surveys by the Cereal Rust Laboratory determine that a virulent race,15B of wheat stem rust is becoming more prevalent on the Great Plains.

The United Nations declares a ‘police operation’ to separate warring factions on the Korean Peninsula. Overly simplified, the warring factions are communism in the north vs. capitalism in the south. China and Russia back the communists and the UN troops led by the USA back the capitalists. This is the ‘Korean War’ - it is an undeclared war, but still a major conflict - 54,000 US military lives are lost.


The Department of Plant Pathology has now awarded 258 advanced (M.A., M.S. and Ph.D.) degrees.

D.W. French receives his Ph.D. degree. In the 1970’s he becomes Head of the Department of Plant Pathology. He discovers the cause of paper machine felt deterioration. It is an extension of his product deterioration in forest pathology.


E.C. Stakman retires (mandatory) as Head of the Department of Plant Pathology. He retains an office in the Department and is fully engaged. He travels because he is in demand as a speaker and statesman for science, and as Rockefeller Foundation consultant.

The E.C. Stakman Award is created. Friends and associates of E.C. Stakman form an endowment to fund an E.C. Stakman Award. Funding is in the form of an endowment and. The E.C. Stakman Award is the Department’s highest and most prestigious award.

Matthew Moore plants buckthorn, the alternate host for Puccinia coronata, on the St. Paul Campus. He creates the best ever screening nursery for Oat Crown Rust Disease.

The Korean War grinds to a stalemate and an armistice is signed and divides the Korean Peninsula at the 38th parallel. Two separate countries are established, North Korea and South Korea. More students return to the University.


Race 15B of the wheat stem rust fungus, Puccinia graminis, causes a major pandemic on the North American Great Plains. Previously resistant varieties like the iconic Minnesota wheat variety Thatcher are now susceptible. Wheat growers from Canada through Mexico are economically damaged; wheat breeders, millers and plant pathologists are greatly alarmed.


Norman Borlaug and Mexican colleagues are close to making Mexico self-sufficient in wheat, but wheat stem rust is again a big threat. Donald Fletcher of the Minneapolis-based Rust Prevention Association proposes a major three-nation effort/agreement to stop race 15B of the stem rust fungus. Borlaug and Mexico readily agree.


The Department’s Plant Disease Clinic opens. The clinic is under the direction of Dr. Herbert G. Johnson (Ph.D., 1953). The Disease Clinic becomes a great teaching and outreach asset, especially in the urban and metropolitan area.

Professor Helen Hart (B.A., 1922; M.S., 1924; Ph.D., 1929) is elected the first woman President of the American Phytopathological Society.

An international effort agreement involving Canada, the United States and Mexico is formulated at a Rust Conference in Manitoba, Canada. Donald Fletcher (Rust Prevention Association from Minneapolis) and the USDA’s Herman A. Rodenhiser (M.S., 1925; Ph.D., 1929) are instrumental in putting the formal, three-nation agreement together. The USDA-ARS Cereal Rust Laboratory in the Department, and the Dominion Rust Laboratory in Winnipeg Canada are heavily involved. Drs. Helen Hart, Elvin Stakman and students from Minnesota’s Department join in the effort.

Roy W. Wilcoxson receives his Ph.D. degree under J.J. Christensen. He will spend his career as a faculty member and will eventually lead the Department’s Morocco Project.


E.C. Stakman and J. G. Harrar publish their book - Principles of Plant Pathology.

Soybeans become a major crop in southern Minnesota, they replace wheat and barley growing which moves to northwestern Minnesota.


The American Phytopathological Society celebrates its Golden Anniversary. A half-century of progress is recorded in the book, Plant Pathology: Problems and Progress, 1908-1958. Minnesota alums E.C. Stakman, J.G. Harrar, H.H. Flor, and C.S. Holton contribute chapters. 

The Department is part of a University of Minnesota, College of Agriculture plan for an additional building on the Saint Paul Campus to accommodate needs for upgraded research facilities. The plan will result in the construction of the Crops Research Building and the Crops Service Building. They are located across Gortner Avenue from what is now Stakman Hall.

The National Science Foundation begins funding grants that go directly to individual faculty members as Principal Investigators.