Popular Science Monthly/Volume 67/September 1905/The Science of Plant Pathology

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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.

In the last two decades of the last century, scientific effort concerned itself chiefly with accumulating knowledge concerning fungi and insects. Vast numbers of these were classified, catalogued and described. In other words, the means of diagnosis were perfected and diseases were grouped into natural classes according to their causal agents. Attempts toward the development of methods of treatment by the use of various sprays were more or less effective. Indeed, spraying had been advocated to some slight extent for a century or more as a remedy for insect and other plant diseases. The variety of spraying substances recommended ranged from clay, ashes and cow manure to sulphur, lime, salt, etc. One writer recommended "The applying around the base of the tree; flax, rubbish, sea weed, ashes, lime, sea shells, sea sand, mortar, clay, tanner's bark, leather scraps, etc."—evidently not a homeopathic prescription. The variety of substances recommended raises suspicion that the efficiency of no formula was demonstrated. In 1787 we find the heroic advice, 'just wet the trees infested with lice, then rub flowers of sulphur upon the insects, and it will cause them all to burst.' Some decided progress was, however, made. As early as 1842, a whale soap was used and retained favor; quassi, hellebore and tobacco were standard insecticides as early as 1855. Sulphur was used for the mildews and bluestone for wheat smut.

The last twenty years of the nineteenth century mark the beginning of a new epoch in plant protection. For this there are three reasons: first the increased aggressiveness of a certain fungous disease, the grape mildew, in Europe; second, the rapid spread of the potato bug, somewhat pedantically termed the Colorado beetle, and, third, resulting from these two, revolutionary changes in materials and methods for treating plant diseases, both fungous and insect, in the new world and in the old. It is a matter not entirely without interest that the revolution in European methods may be definitely traced to typical American aggressiveness, inasmuch as the activity arousing fungus was of American importation.

In Europe the invasion of the downy mildew of the grape in 1878 was unchecked by the most vigorous fungicides then used. All are familiar with the story of the great benefit conferred upon humanity through the predatory habits of the French boys in the vineyards that produce the famous Bordeaux wines. The rows lying nearest the roadway were sprinkled with verdigris or a mixture of lime and bluestone, to give the impression that the fruit was poisoned. In 1882 Millardet, of the faculty of the sciences, noticed that the vines thus treated held their leaves while others succumbed to the mildew. He ascribed this effect to its proper cause, and conducted carefully systematized experiments, which resulted in giving to the world bouillie bordelaise, Bordelaiser Bruhe, or Bordeaux mixture, a proved fungicide of great efficiency; one that has not yet been surpassed.

In the new world the extension of the potato belt westward connected the eastern potato belt with the region of the native food plant of the familiar potato bug. Finding the potato plant a more abundant and wholesome food than the wild solonaceous plants that it had formerly fed upon, the potato bug began its eastern migration. In 1859 it was found east of Omaha City, in 1868 it had reached Illinois, in 3870 Ontario, in 1872 New York and in 1874 it was upon the Atlantic seaboard. The potato bug ate ravenously and man was stimulated to new activity in the search for more effective means to overcome insect pests. The use of Paris green and London purple followed as a direct result of this stimulus.

The development of efficient fungicides and insecticides in Europe and America led naturally to the perfection of the machines used in applying these mixtures, and not the least important part played in the development of a practical plant pathology is concerned with the evolution of spraying machines. The first sprayer consisted of a bunch of switches. This was dipped into the spraying mixture which was distributed over the foliage by vigorous shaking. It gave place to an improved spraying broom or brush with hollow handle, the liquid flowing from a reservoir to the brush, from which it was applied to the leaves. Sprayers and pumps followed in turn. Then came the improvement of the nozzle.

We may recognize two periods in the development of plant pathology: the first or embryonic period extending from prehistoric times to the beginning of the truly scientific investigations in the middle of the eighteenth century, and contributing chiefly observations, collections, descriptions; the second or formative period, during which the foundations of the science were laid, the chief factors of it determined, and the chief lines of future progress marked out.

It is in no way my purpose to call attention to the part the Carolinas have played in botany as a science, yet I can not refrain in passing from mentioning that prominent place in the history of American mycology is assured to de Schweinitz, a minister of Salem, N. C., who in 1818 published the first important paper on American fungi; to M. A. Curtis, a tutor in Wilmington, N. C., who in 1830, with Berkeley in England, described many fungi of the Carolinas; to Eavenal, of South Carolina, the first to publish exsiccati of American fungi, and to Louis Bosc, of South Carolina, who published a descriptive list in 1811.

The embryonic and formative period prepared the way for the third period, beginning about 1885, which may be called the period of growth. It is marked by the development and perfection of the rudimentary principles and discoveries of the preceding periods. It was during this period that the most spectacular conquests were made; that popularization and extension of methods occurred. So great, so numerous, so wonderful were the advances made during the past decade, that we frequently see the statement that little or no progress had been made in plant pathology prior to 1885. The present day student should, however, bear in mind that it was the persistent, arduous, patient work of the preceding years that rendered possible the progress of the closing years of the century.

My denomination of this period as 'the period of growth' indicates the nature of the changes which it inaugurates; growth in every direction and concerning every phase of the subject. There has been growth in the list of plant maladies. New diseases have been discovered by scores, and old diseases have been found to affect new plants, and diseases hitherto insignificant have taken prominent places as dangerous foes. The alteration of the plant constitution by high selection and breeding, the bringing of plants into new climatic or soil relations, the more intensive cultivation, the bringing of a susceptible plant into a region where a parasite is already growing upon one of its botanical relatives, thus exposing it to a possible new foe, are conditions that operate to admit of the evolution of new diseases. The growing of plants in large quantities in solid blocks, rather than sparingly in scattered gardens, brings about a congested condition comparable with the crowding of our cities, and favors the development of epidemics[1] by furnishing abundant material for the parasitic organisms to attack, abundant nutriment upon which they may multiply, and abundant opportunity for them to reach new hosts and spread the contagion. With potatoes, for example, raised merely as garden crops, the probability of an epidemic affecting the majority of gardens is not so great as when potatoes are raised in vast fields. A single field crop, once infested, so contaminates the air with spores that other fields are almost sure to become infected. The contagium becomes sufficiently multiplied to break the quarantine, and a general epidemic results. Any factor which tends to increase the occurrence of epidemics may quickly raise a given disease from obscurity to a position of commanding importance. So too does the increase in value of hitherto comparatively insignificant crops. The pecan and cranberry are at present objects of particular solicitude by the plant physician.

With the importation of plants from foreign countries and the transportation of plants from one part of the country to another comes the possibility of increased disease transference. Recent years have seen the San José scale spread from the Pacific to the Atlantic; the asparagus rust from the Atlantic to the Pacific; the hollyhock rust has invaded us from Europe; the chrysanthemum rust from the Orient; the watermelon wilt is now moving northward and the peach yellows southward. In nearly all cases where the soil is diseased the affected region is annually enlarging, so that soil diseases a decade ago insignificant in the territory of their occupation are fast assuming control of alarmingly large regions. The growing of plants in larger quantities also increases the amount of germ-bearing refuse to the ultimate end that the very air and soil become germ laden.

Civilization, higher culture and community life, especially if it verge upon congestion of population, exacts an inevitable forfeiture by increased mortality. Thus does the list of diseases that comes within the horizon of the practical men enlarge. Wonder, often skepticism, is expressed at the existence of unfamiliar diseases of man, other animals and plants, as though these afflictions were conjured up by the imagination of the over zealous practitioner. The increase of affliction is more apparent than real, as it is in the case of appendicitis, which is now recognized, named and cured, consequently, heard of, whereas under the old regime it was not recognized as a distinct disease, therefore it was unheard of, though the patient died. Parallel cases might be cited among the plants.

The work of DeBary on polymorphism among the fungi is being extended. Knowledge of the life histories of various pathogenic fungi is being slowly expanded. Summer forms are connected with winter forms, and thereby the hibernating condition, often the most vulnerable point of attack, exposed. The discovery of heteroecism in the rusts, the alternation from wheat to barberry, from apple to juniper is of classic antiquity in the annals of plant pathology. It emphasized the need of close study of life histories of all parasites. Such study has given abundant fruit, notably in disclosing the relation between the apple cankers and the ripe and bitter rot of the apple, and revealing the winter condition of the brown rot of the peach. The lead so fortunately made in the discovery of the Bordeaux mixture has been assiduously prosecuted. The original Bordeaux mixture has been greatly modified, changed, indeed, from a thick paste to a thin solution, and so thoroughly tested in all its modifications, that it has now probably reached its ultimate perfection. Hundreds of other chemicals, both dry and wet, have been tested as fungicides, with the adoption of a few adapted to special conditions, e. g., sulphur and sulphides for powdery mildews and the ammoniacal copper carbonate for use as the fruit ripens, thus avoiding unsightly spotting. A happy combination of insecticide and fungicide has been found in the various sulphur washes. There has been very remarkable growth in the perfection of spraying appliances; pumps and dusters of many kinds are upon the market. Particularly is the improvement in nozzles to be noted. Nozzles constructed upon scientific principles, capable of applying the liquid in the form of the finest spray to the tops of the highest trees. In the place of the old hand pump and pail, we find barrel pumps on wheels, tanks on wheels with pumps operated by gearing attached to the wheels, and finally for the larger fruit farms and for municipal care of shade trees are multiple pumps driven by steam power.

The treatment of seeds to kill adhering spores has been improved upon in many details. It illustrates especially well the nature of the development during the present epoch of plant pathology. Originally the treatment for wheat smut was based purely upon superstition. Pliny, for example, says that c if branches of laurel are fixed in the ground the disease will pass from the field into the leaves of the laurel.' Tull in 1730 says that there are but two remedies proposed, brining and changing the seed. The avoidance of certain kinds of manure because of their effect upon the host plant and because they carried the smut spores was also advocated about that time. The scientific demonstration by Brefeld that the plant is susceptible only when very small, gave rise to the thought that by hastening the early growth the period of susceptibility could be shortened, and methods of planting and tilling in accord with that idea were advocated. In addition to cultural methods mechanical treatment of seeds, such as passing the wheat loosely between millstones, violent fanning, etc., were suggested about 1786. The chemical treatment of seeds, says Tull, was accidentally discovered about 1660 by the sinking of a shipload of wheat at Bristol, and afterwards, finding it unfit for breadmaking, it was used for seed wheat. The following harvest in England was very smutty except in the case of this accidentally brined seed, which made a clean crop. Then followed brining with liming and liming without brining, soaking in lime, arsenic, salt, arsenic and lye, and various other treatments, none of which, however, came into general use. Accident coupled with acumen again aided in hastening a discovery. Provost while attempting to germinate some spores placed some of them in water distilled in a copper vessel. These failed to germinate, though similar spores placed in water which had not touched copper germinated well. Following this lead he and numerous other investigators experimented extensively with copper compounds during succeeding years.

Such is the history of the development of a treatment effective for smut of wheat and barley, but not for that of oats. The next marked advance was made by Jensen, a Dane, who in 1887 developed the famous Jensen hot water treatment, a treatment which though requiring considerable accuracy of manipulation was thoroughly effective. This method, if no easier were to be had, was well worth to practical agriculture all that the experiment stations of the world have ever cost. Within only a few years, however, the Jensen treatment was supplanted by the formalin treatment; a treatment so simple, inexpensive and effective that, save for minor improvements of detail, the end seems to have been reached in the search for preventives for the particular diseases to which the method applies.

Growth of knowledge concerning bacterial diseases has occurred, beginning with the pear blight which baffled all horticulture prior to the assertion of its bacterial nature by Professor Burrill. The proof that bacteria can and do cause plant diseases has been definitely adduced, and a large number of such diseases have been recognized upon many plants. Not only from the scientific side have these ailments been studied, but from the practical as well, and preventive and palliative measures have in many instances been found.

The soil is often spoken of as the living earth. Not only may it live, but it also partakes of those chief accompaniments of life, viz., health, sickness and death. A healthy soil may, from an agricultural point of view, be regarded as one capable of fulfilling all its vital functions; a sick soil, one in which some such functions are impaired. Of only one class of soil sickness may I speak, namely, that which results in producing sick plants by harboring pathogenic germs. The cotton wilt, the Texas root rot, the watermelon, tobacco, tomato and cabbage wilts, the cabbage club foot and the onion smut are conspicuous examples of disease so propagated. Diseases of this type not only destroy the crop, but they preclude the possibility of successful culture of the plant in question, or of its close botanical relatives for many years. Such foes to agriculture have completely destroyed the possibility of tobacco growing on many farms otherwise eminently adapted to this crop and ill adapted to any other, resulting in great depreciation in the value of the land. This encroachment upon valuable soil will proceed yearly, and with geometrically increasing rapidity, until means of prevention are discovered, as they have now been in some instances, and the method of prevention becomes common knowledge. Soil diseases, the most dreaded of all dangers to the plant, are prevalent to much greater extent in the south than in the north. One field is known to exist in South Carolina upon which neither melons, cotton nor cow-peas can be grown. It is conceivable that many other germs could infest one and the same field, but no greater affliction concerning such staple crops seems possible.

Growth in popular appreciation of the importance of plant diseases and of the value of remedial and prophylactic measures is perhaps the most striking characteristic of plant pathology in the last twenty years. At the beginning of this period spraying was in no wise general. It was of rare occurrence. Man suffered unresistingly the attacks of the molds, mildews, rots and blights. The circulation of thousands of state experiment station bulletins and similar bulletins from the national department of agriculture, the vigorous campaign of farmers' institutes, farmers' reading circles, farmers' extension courses, and the extended use of farmers' periodicals and agricultural papers have served to bring the latest discoveries of science to the use of him who will heed. As is to be expected, it is the man who most closely studies his business, he who has most at stake, the large specialist in the culture of any crop, who first embraces the offered aid. The large orchardist or vineyardist leads the way in the adoption of new methods and new machinery. The revolution looking toward recognition of the value of plant treatment is now so thoroughly inaugurated that the treatment of such diseases, both insect and fungous, in the case of fruit and trucking crops is of general occurrence. The movement, too, is world-wide.

The practical outcome of all the investigation and propaganda up to the present time is that many hundreds of plant diseases have been recognized; for a hundred or more have been prescribed remedial or preventive measures, many of which are eminently successful; witness, the treatment of cereal smuts, the peach curl, the grape black rot, the powdery mildews. The saving occasioned by any one of these, as is true of scores of others, would amply suffice to pay all the expense of investigation and propaganda incurred in the development of the whole field of plant pathology. By oat smut alone the estimated damage in the United States yearly is $26,766,166, a loss avoidable by an annual expenditure of less than four cents an acre. The saving actually made in Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin in one year is placed at $5,000,000.

The future problems of plant pathology are manifold. The period of growth must continue long before the work now undertaken is done. Many diseases of even the cultivated plants are not yet recognized. The diseases of wild plants, particularly the weeds, must too be studied to ascertain the possibility of intercommunication of diseases between weeds and crop plants. The life histories of all disease producing fungi must be closely studied, particularly to determine their hibernating condition. As yet the merest beginning has been made. The interrelation of host and parasite must be studied, the periods, points and modes of infection made known. The biology of the fungi, their life habits, conditions of spore formation, characters of growth, relation to light, heat, moisture, nutriment, etc.; their resistance to adverse conditions, their longevity under various conditions of environment are all problems of ultimate practicality. The question of species is unsettled and the recent demonstration of biologic varieties among the rusts, mildews and fusariums opens a large and important field of research. The agencies operating as disease distributors, the wind, insects, soil, man, water or what not must be known that such distribution be more readily controlled. The causes of resistance and susceptibility to certain diseases rest in obscurity, except in a few cases where the responsibility has been fixed upon some particular structure or chemical. The breeding of plants resistant to specific diseases not readily amenable to other means of control must proceed. Such work is now in progress with cotton, melons, tomatoes, tobacco, grains, flax and other plants. The relation existing between many root fungi and bacteria and the roots they inhabit remains to be studied. Aside from parasitism there is also mutualism, a kind of beneficial disease falling to the province of plant pathology. It needs much further study.

Specific problems also abound, the peach yellows and rosette, the mycoplasm theory of rusts, the grape Brunnisure. Differences of opinion now exist or the technique or scientific data are insufficient for an adequate solution of these questions and many other similar ones. Work on timber protection, while not strictly a question of disease, but rather a post-mortem problem, falls to the lot of the pathologist for the want of a more appropriate place. That intensive study of a disease, however thoroughly it may seem to have been studied before, may lead to important development is well illustrated in the case of the familiar pear blight, which, though known for ages and the topic of masterly classic research, has recently, under trained observation and critical interpretation and experimentation, revealed new secrets leading to more masterful and complete control. The large fields of plant pathology, grouped under the term 'physiological disorders' are still practically unworked; diseases due to false nutrition, absorption or assimilation, or to impaired carbon assimilation owing to improper environment, to crowding or shading or to hereditary inabilities. A start has been made sufficient to show the importance of the results awaiting.

The recent discovery of the so-called ultramicroscopic organisms or filterable enzymes which has robbed the bacteria of the distinction of being the smallest of living things opens a new field in both plant and animal pathology comparable in kind, though probably not in magnitude, with the creation of bacteriology by Pasteur. It is yet unknown whether we have to do here with organisms or enzymes, and contemplation of the problems awaiting in this realm places us in a position to appreciate more fully than ever before the great controversy of spontaneous generation as fought in the sixties. The announcement in a recent periodical of the discovery of soluble protoplasm emphasizes the existence of a vast unknown covered by the words protoplasm, enzymes, invisible organisms. Is it coincidence of fate that with the growing importance of the problem of the invisible organism there comes the invention of a microscope of surpassing excellence with which the seeing of molecules is a hoped for possibility?

The science of plant pathology is indeed young. It has yielded much, and it is still full of promise. In the achievement of the results to come draught will be made upon the sister sciences even more than in the past. Plant physiology waits upon chemistry; plant pathology upon plant physiology, and chemistry in return receives valuable contribution from both. Mathematics, physics and geology all contribute to the general upbuilding. The sciences, though becoming more divergent instead of becoming more independent, are yearly becoming more dependent, each using the discoveries of the others to gain new foothold or new tools in the search for truth. Often it is the frontier territory lying between two sciences which, belonging distinctively to neither, is least worked, and therefore presents most promising territory for conquest. Such is the history of the comparatively new sciences of physical chemistry, physiological chemistry and biometrics.

Nor does the field belong exclusively to either the devotee of pure science, so-called, or of applied science. The study of problems seemingly most remote from any practical ends has often proved fundamental in the upbuilding of vast industrial growth. Bacteriology was born of crystallography. The father of galvanic electricity was derided as the frog's dancing master. Nor does the avowed object in view give a sure key to the ultimate outcome. Alchemy, though never attaining the end sought, hastened immeasurably the era of industrial chemistry. Nor may it be said that applied science is inferior, for without the application the fundamental principles are of no avail in the promotion of the welfare of man.

Intensive laboratory study with no object other than the increase of knowledge of molecular construction has led to the commercial production of many important compounds. The present oat smut treatment by formalin owes its practicability equally to pure science in the chemical study that rendered the production of formalin practicable at moderate cost, and to pure science of the botanist who from mere interest in fungous growth discovered the nature of parasitism, and to the practical scientist who applied the knowledge of the chemist and the botanist to the solution of a definite agricultural problem. The distinction between pure science and applied science is invidious. It is not a difference based upon the nature of the knowledge; rather upon the motive of the worker. All true science is practical, either remotely or directly, and the man of applied science is but completing the work of the pure scientist. Especially does the future of plant pathology rest with both.

  1. The use of the word epidemic in relation to plant diseases while etymologically incorrect, seems justified since no other word conveys the desired meaning and the meaning of this word is clear to all.