H. David Thurston
David Thurston has been selected for the APS International Service Award. It is hard to imagine a more deserving candidate for this honor. Thurston has dedicated his long and distinguished career to service in international agriculture with a central focus on plant pathology. His many contributions include service as a plant pathologist in Colombia, research and publications on tropical crops and their diseases from a position as faculty member at Cornell University, and the training of graduate and undergraduate students from the United States and many developing countries. He has been an inspired champion of sustainable agriculture and a tireless advocate for the world’s poor.
Thurston’s website entitled, “Smokin’ Doc Thurston’s Greatest Hits,” reflects both the substance and the spirit of his career. The site’s title captures Thurston’s sense of humor and irreverence; the contents reflect his dedicated service, generosity, and vast knowledge and experience gained from decades of engagement with practical plant pathology in the international context. The site features over 2,500 photos, which Thurston collected during a half-century of travels to many parts of the world. Thurston has used these photos in courses on general and tropical plant pathology, international agriculture and sustainable development, and traditional farming practices. The photo collection is provided to the public, free of charge, with a searchable database, in the hopes of encouraging others to use the materia(http://www.tropagfieldtrip.cornell.edu/docthurston/smokin home.html).
Thurston is a pioneer in the area of sustainable crop management. Well ahead of most of the rest of us, Thurston recognized the relationship between traditional and indigenous cropping practices and the conceptual basis for the design of more sustainable cropping practices for contemporary times. He has documented the principles and practices employed in indigenous cropping systems in his 1992 book entitled, Sustainable Practices for Plant Disease Management in Traditional Farming Systems. While his interest has been the agricultural practices of resource-poor farmers in developing countries, his book and the 3,200-entry literature database he compiled have clear and critical implications for the design of sustainable modern agriculture in the United States and elsewhere. Thurston has written several other books (two with Spanish translations) on tropical plant diseases, slash/mulch agricultural systems, and other topics related to sustainable agriculture and contributed chapters to many more.
Thurston spent 11 years with the Rockefeller Foundation as a plant pathologist with the Colombian potato program in the 1950s and 1960s. He began as an assistant plant pathologist, and after a brief return to the United States, was reappointed as director of the Colombian Plant Pathology Program, and then as director of the Potato Program. He also served as the director of the Department of Plant Science of the Colombian Agricultural Institute. He has continued to support the Latin American Phytopathological Society and to engage actively with issues of relevance to the region. In Colombia and subsequently at Cornell University, Thurston’s research contributions have focused mainly on disease resistance in root and tuber crops (potatoes and cassava), and on the sustainable practices for managing plant diseases in traditional farm systems. Thurston guided 22 students through their advanced degrees in plant pathology and served on the committees of dozens more. A substantial proportion of his students have been international students who have gone on to influential positions. Others were young Americans who went on to develop illustrious careers of their own in international agriculture. His former student Bob Zeigler, for instance, is now the director general of the International Rice Research Institute.
One of Thurston’s research interests has been in mulch-based agriculture. This is a topic that is central to the larger issue of sustainable agriculture. Thurston’s vision added to interest in the topic has had wide-ranging impact. He and his colleagues organized an interdisciplinary working group on mulch-based agriculture and organized a meeting (in Spanish) on slash/mulch agriculture with over 90 participants in 1992. This activity continues at Cornell through the MULCH-L listserv, which brings together and serves a dynamic community endeavoring to improve the use of cover crops and green manures to enhance soil health and agricultural productivity of those who have little access to other sources of fertilizer. One active and effective proponent of green manures is Steve Sherwood, one of Thurston’s many former students.
In addition to guiding many international scientists through their advanced degrees, Thurston has, via eight different courses, provided enormous numbers of U.S. undergraduates with a glimpse into tropical agriculture and an understanding of the key issues. For example, for over 30 years, Thurston supported a course involving a 2-week trip to a developing country, in which over a thousand Cornell students have participated. Even now, at 79 years of age, Thurston is packing the house: as an emeritus professor, he fills a 40-person classroom to its capacity in a course he originated on Traditional Agriculture.
Thurston has served on a great number of international committees, panels, consortia, and the like. For example, he served as a member of the National Academy of Science’s 1976 World Food and Nutrition Study, and served for a decade as a member of the FAO Panel of Experts on Integrated Pest Control. He spent many years as a member of the Tropical Plant Pathology Committee and the International Cooperation Committee of APS. He was chair of the Board of Directors of the Consortium for International Crop Protection (CICP) from 1985 to 1990.
In summary, Thurston has been a dedicated contributor to and supporter of international plant pathology for decades. He has influenced generations of U.S. students to pursue careers in international agriculture, and has prepared generations of international students for leadership positions in their respective national programs. He has raised awareness of policy makers and the public with regard to issues of world hunger and sustainable agriculture, and his legacy of books and photos will serve as key resources for future generations of U.S. and international plant pathologists.