Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 67.djvu/405

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THE SCIENCE OF PLANT PATHOLOGY.

THE SCIENCE OF PLANT PATHOLOGY.
By Professor FRANK LINCOLN STEVENS, Ph.D.,

NORTH CAROLINA COLLEGE OF AGRICULTURE.

FROM the time men first had interest in plants, knowledge of their imperfections or premature death has existed, without, however, definite conception that the imperfections in question really constitute a condition of disease.

The Bible and the early writings of the Greeks and Romans contain references to what we now recognize as wheat rust, fig blight, insect galls and other of the more strikingly conspicuous plant ailments. Such references are more abundant in the literature of the seventeenth century, and in the latter part of that and the eighteenth century a few papers giving careful descriptions of malformations due to insect invasion appeared. Even the law was invoked to aid in combating the wheat rust in France as early as 1660. Prior to the nineteenth century, however, knowledge of plant diseases can hardly be said to consist of more than mere observation of the fact that such diseases occur, and the little real knowledge that did exist was swamped by rampant superstition.

It is natural that the first attempts to explain imperfections were founded upon climatic and soil relations. Vestigial beliefs prevail to this day throughout the country among the untutored to the effect that the various blights, rusts, rots, mildews, etc., are caused solely by untoward conditions of weather, or the unpropitious position of celestial bodies or some other occult influence.

The significance of one great factor in the production of plant disease, namely the parasitic fungi, remained quite unrecognized until the second decade of the nineteenth century. Fungi had been seen upon the plant and had been described in some detail during the preceding decade, but instead of being recognized as causal agents of disease they were, as was the fate of bacteria in the case of animal diseases, by many regarded as products of disease. Before the study of plant diseases could be scientifically undertaken, the basic facts of plant nutrition were to be discovered, the parasitic habit of the fungi proved, the minute anatomy of the plant disclosed. Epoch-making in the disclosure of these desiderata, which may be said to have given birth to plant pathology as a science in the second decade of the nineteenth century were the investigations of the early Dutch, French, German and English botanists. Like bacteriology, plant pathology is an infant science of the last century, owing its being to the perfection of the microscope.