Colleagues and friends have established this award in honor and memory of Dr. Wheeler for the contributions that he has made to the science of plant pathology through his research, teaching, and service.
Harry Wheeler, professor of plant pathology at the University of Kentucky, died on July 12, 1999. He was born on January 25, 1919, in West Charleston, VT. Harry was awarded a Senatorial Scholarship to attend the University of Vermont, receiving a B.S. degree in 1941. Following World War II service as an Army Air Corps navigator, Harry undertook graduate training at Louisiana State University (LSU), earning an M.S. degree in 1947 and a Ph.D. degree in 1949, both in botany. From 1949 to 1950, he was a visiting investigator at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He returned to LSU in 1950 as an assistant professor, advancing to the rank of professor in 1959. Harry stayed at LSU until 1967, when he moved to the University of Kentucky, where he remained until retirement in 1984.
Dr. Wheeler was the author or coauthor of more than 100 papers in the areas of fungal genetics and physiology of parasitism, being best known for his research on sexuality in Glomerella and the sexual role of the pathotoxin, victorin. He was a pioneer in the field of fungal sexuality and in the use of radioisotopes to study host-parasite physiology. His various investigations of Glomerella involved concurrent research on sexual strains, sexual hormones, and the genetic factors involved in perithecium and ascus formation, including landmark cytological study of sexual development in the fungus. He and his colleagues were among the first to make routine use of tetrads in their analyses. Summarizing this body of research, which was highly respected by his peers as evidenced by its prominent treatment in many contemporary reviews of fungal sexuality. Dr. Wheeler proposed that cross fertility in Glomerella is regulated by several unlinked, multiallelic loci through a process called unbalanced heterothallism.
In 1952, Dr. Wheeler began to investigate the uncertain role of toxins in plant disease. Using victorin, produced by Helminthospotium victoriae, he tested the toxins theory and reasoned, moreover, that microbial toxins, substituted for microbes, would permit a quantitative approach to the study of the nature of disease. He and his students obtained conclusive evidence to validate the toxin theory of the nature of plant disease and developed new techniques to probe the basic nature of plant pathogenesis. Beyond this, using victorin as a screening agent, a method was developed to study mutation rates in higher plants. This study, which screened 100 bushels of oats, was the first to show that mutation rates in higher plants were similar to those of microorganisms. This work received wide recognition and was the subject of a 1956 article in Time magazine. Building upon his toxin studies, Dr. Wheeler developed the “pathotoxin hypothesis” and four rules of proof, reflecting his ability to conceptualize the total problem and reduce it to its simplest form. His 1975 book, Plant Pathogenesis, critically evaluated current knowledge in the topic and introduced the concept of the physiological syndrome as an ordered sequence of changes characteristic of many plant diseases.
Harry’s honors and positions in scientific societies included: Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of APS; John Simon Guggenheim Fellow; Southern Division of APS Outstanding Plant Pathologist Award; Membership on the Editorial Boards of Phytopathology and Myclogia; chair of the Research Grants Committee of the Mycological Society of America; and president of the Louisiana Academy of Sciences. He was listed in “American Men of Science” and “Gallery of Contemporary Noted Mycologists.” Harry was scrupulously honest and, typical of his Vermont heritage, had the courage to stand up for his principles. Harry was proceeded in death by his beloved wife, Naomi, an accomplished artist with whom Harry collaborated in developing “electron printing” as an art form.