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Women in Plant Pathology — Three Women Who Led the Way

Marie A. C. Langham,
South Dakota State University

The history of plant pathology includes the accomplishments and achievements of many scientists who molded the science that we know today. Among these pioneering scientists in plant pathology are three women who helped to establish the role of women in plant pathology. They are Flora Patterson, Effie Southworth, and Margaret Newton.

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Flora Waumbaugh Patterson (born 1847 in Ohio) studied fungi as a childhood hobby and later, earned an A. B. degree from Antioch College in 1865. Flora married (1869) Capitan Edwin Patterson, and they had two sons. However, her husband was disabled in a steamboat explosion. Flora faced being the breadwinner for her family in an age where women’s career opportunities were limited. For ten years until her husband’s death, Flora provided for her family and cared for her injured husband. During this period, she also earned an A. M. degree from Wesleyan College ( Cincinnati) in 1883. Following Edwin’s death, Flora moved her sons to the East Coast for enrollment in college preparation schools. Her personal goals focused on becoming what we term today “a nontraditional student.” Flora moved East believing that all arrangements had been made for her to attend Yale, but when she arrived, she found that Yale did not accept women students. So, Flora changed her plans and enrolled in Radcliffe College ( Cambridge) to continue her botanical studies and to serve as an assistant in the Gray Herbarium at Harvard University. After taking the civil service exam in 1895, she was hired as an assistant pathologist in the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA) Division of Vegetable Pathology. Flora was 48 years old when she began her career with the USDA. During her 27 years of service, Flora significantly contributed to the young science of plant pathology and to its future. One of Flora’s most lasting contributions was her work with the U. S. National Fungus Collection. This collection maintains fungal specimens for reference and analysis. During Flora’s work with the collection, it grew from 19,000 specimens to 115,000. In her work, she also clarified the taxonomy of several plant pathogenic fungal groups. Additionally, Flora was active in helping establish the need to inspect imported agricultural and other commodities. Her work in this capacity involved her in trying to prevent the introduction and spread of chestnut blight and potato wart. She was also involved in the controversial decision to reject the first set of cherry trees presented to Washington, D. C. by Japan due to pathogens found on the trees. A second set of cherry trees was fumigated before sending and have become the beloved symbol of spring’s arrival in Washington.

figure 2Effie Southworth was born in North Collins, New York during 1860. She attended both Allegheny College and the University of Michigan, receiving her B.S. in1885. Effie accepted an appointment at Bryn Mawr College as a Fellow in Biology and instructor in botany. In 1887, Effie was hired on the recommendation of Erwin F. Smith as an assistant mycologist for the USDA Section of Mycology making her the first woman researcher in plant pathology hired by the USDA. Effie was an active researcher. In the USDA’s National Fungus Collections, 69 fungal specimens and 4 oomycete specimens can still be found that were collected, identified, and deposited by Effie. She researched ripe rot of grape and apple, anthracnose of hollyhock, chemical treatment of apple scab, and etiology of a destructive oat disease. Her most widely recognized contribution was in providing the first description of cotton anthracnose and identification of its cause, Colletotrichum gossypii. In 1892, Effie ended her career with the USDA when she accepted a position as an assistant in botany with Barnard College in New York. She resigned this position when she married Volney Spaulding in 1895 as married women were not employed by Barnard at this time. Volney Spaulding served as head of the Botany Department at the Univeristy of Michigan, and Effie worked as his assistant for nine years. Between 1905 and 1911, Effie worked at the Desert Botanical Lab for the Carnegie Institute studying the desert Saguaro cacti (Cereus giganteus). After her husband’s death in 1918, Effie moved to the University of Southern California and became part of the botany faculty. In 1922 at the age of 62, she received a Master of Science degree in botany. Effie continued to serve as Professor and was named Honorary Curator of the Herbarium in 1938. Her last records were added to the Herbarium in early 1947, shortly before her death in April 1947 at the age of 87.

figure 3Margaret Brown Newton was born April 20, 1887 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Although her father did not encourage higher education, Margaret, her sister, and three brothers pursued higher education with four of them receiving Ph. D. degrees in agriculture. Margaret began her career and her education in teaching. She began teaching at the school that she attended in North Nation Mills before attending the Collegiate Institute in Vankleek Hill, Ontario. After four more years as a teacher, Margaret enrolled at McMaster University in an art program, but after visiting her brother at Macdonald College, home of the agricultural faculty for McGill University, Margaret changed her major and was admitted to Macdonald College with a major in agriculture. During her studies, Margaret and W. P. Fraser (a rust mycologist) petitioned the Dean of the College to grant Margaret an exception that would allow her to use the laboratories during the evening hours as this was forbidden for female students. They were successful in getting permission for Margaret to use the laboratory, but she still had to obey the curfew that demanded all female students must be in their rooms or other residences by 10 p.m. During her second year of studies, Margaret became interested in Fraser’s work on cereal rusts. The following summer while Fraser collected specimens from across Canada, Margaret maintained his fungal collection and tested the new specimens that he sent. This summer, Margaret also met Charles Saunders who provided her with seed of his new spring wheat, Marquis. When she included Marquis in her rust testing, Margaret found that not all stem rust isolates had the same reaction on Marquis. Soon, Fraser and she developed the theory that stem rust fungi are genetically variable and are composed of more than one strain. Margaret had independently demonstrated the concept of physiologic specialization recently proposed by E. C. Stakeman. In 1918, Margaret became the first woman to graduate from Macdonald College with a degree in agriculture and would also receive an M. S. in 1919. Margaret worked jointly with W. P. Thompson, wheat breeder at Saskatchewan, and E. C. Stakman at the University of Minnesota to receive a Ph. D. in 1922 with the dissertation “Studies in wheat stem rust (Puccinia graminis tritici).” She was the first Canadian woman to receive her doctorate in agricultural science. Margaret would continue to be instrumental in cereal rust research throughout her career. Her research included identification of wheat stem rust races, effects of light and temperature on spore germination and establishment of infection, the first genetic studies on P. graminis, heterozygous nature of rust virulences, Mendelian inheritance of virulence in rust fungi, independent segregation of their virulence genes, and genetic distinctiveness of different isolates within the same race. She also researched stripe rust caused by P. striiformis and leaf rust caused by P. triticina. She was elected to the Royal Society of Canada (1942) and received the Flavelle Medal (1948). Margaret worked at the Dominion Rust Research Laboratory at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg from 1924 until she was forced to retire in 1945 due to ill health caused by long term exposure to rust spores. When the Canadian government was undecided about granting her a full pension due to her early retirement, the western Canadian grain farmers petitioned the government on her behalf stating “This woman has saved the country millions of dollars.” Margaret was granted a full pension. She remained active with many interests until her death in 1971. Her latest award came in 1991 when she was elected to the Science Hall of Fame in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

Flora Patterson, Effie Southworth, and Margaret Newton represent women who forged the pathways into science for others to follow. Their contributions to plant pathology were distinctive and vital during the early development of plant pathology and its role in agriculture. Although their careers as scientists were complicated by the concepts of appropriate women’s roles at the turn of the century, their accomplishments shine clearly through the years to contribute to today’s science and to continue inspiring others to follow their path.

For more information about these women and other women who have had a role in science, please see the following websites:

The violet colored line is a line pattern symptom being expressed in a variegated African violet that is infected with Impatiens necrotic spot virus (ISNV). Click image for an enlarged view and more information.