Panhandle Perspectives: Career relationships with an early woman plant pathologist

Panhandle Perspectives
September 21, 2020

Lincoln, Neb. —Over the last decade, I have researched and composed dozens of articles on the history of plant pathology in Nebraska. As a result, I have uncovered information on a native Nebraskan, named Venus W. Pool, and her work in the early 20th Century. Her career was short but very notable as one of the first woman plant pathologists in the United States.

Curiously, these efforts have also revealed several incidences where our academic paths have crossed, although they have occurred a century apart. Pool’s largely unknown story and these comparable relationships between our respective careers are the topics of this article.

Venus W. Pool and her accomplishments

Venus Worrell Pool was born in Table Rock, Neb., on May 8, 1882. She attended the University of Nebraska, receiving a bachelor of science degree in 1904, and was awarded the master’s in botany in 1908 with her thesis entitled “Tomato Fruit Rots.” She was the first assistant in plant pathology on the Nebraska Experiment Station staff, serving in this role from 1906-11.

As a research assistant she co-authored several seminal experiment station publications with both department chairs over this six-year period, Frederick D. Heald and E. Mead Wilcox. She was also an accomplished artist, contributing beautiful line drawings of fungal structures and spores included in the publications.  

One of these early papers she authored with Heard (1909) was unusual and entitled “The influence of Chemical Stimulation upon the Production of Perithecia of Melanospora pampeana”. It was the first report demonstrating the enhancement of growth and sporulation of one fungus by another. They discovered that Melanospora pampeana (syn. M. zamiae) formed abundant numbers of spores within a mixed culture with Fusarium moniliforme, but only produced sparse mycelial growth in pure culture.

In the summer of 1909, Pool was assigned to lead a project studying storage diseases in potatoes in western Nebraska from a new lab established in Alliance. This research focused on a serious disease called dry rot caused by several species of Fusarium.  George K. K. Link continued research on this disease, which then became his master’s thesis in 1912. This work resulted in the first research bulletin (No. 1) of the Nebraska Experiment Station, authored by Wilcox, Link, and Pool.

In 1911, Pool left Nebraska and began with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) in Washington, D.C. She was hired as assistant pathologist ($1,620 per year) with the Cotton and Truck Crop Disease and Sugar Plant Investigations unit stationed at Rocky Ford, Colo.  Impressively, this made her the first woman to be given complete charge and responsibility for field experimental work in the BPI.  In this position, she published several papers on foliar diseases of sugar beets, with her assistant, Marion Bertice McKay, concerning Cercospora and Phoma leaf spots. McKay later became her husband.

Another foliar disease she encountered was an unusual rust disease called sugarbeet seedling disease, caused by the pathogen Puccinia subnitens. In 1914, she and McKay published the first report of this disease on an economic crop (sugarbeet), where it was found occurring widespread over a two-year period (1912-13) in Colorado. 

Pool married McKay in 1915 and they relocated to Oregon, where he served as a research assistant in botany with Oregon State College’s Agricultural Experiment Station in Corvallis, Ore. They had two children: Muriel, born in 1918, and Maurice in 1922. Sadly, Pool must have retired at that point as I could find no evidence of further research from her after 1916. 

Coincidentally similar relationships

The first of these relationships with her work began in January 1999. I was a graduate student in Florida and accidentally discovered the novel report published by F.D. Heald and V.W. Pool in 1909 pertaining to the stimulation of growth of one fungus by another. I referenced it in my doctoral dissertation without understanding its context, because they both involved related topics.

My project identified several closely related fungi (Melanospora, Sphaerodes, and Percisiospora) and characterized their parasitic relationships with the Fusarium oxysporum pathogens causing wilt diseases in tomatoes and watermelons. I identified and documented how these fungi grew and sporulated significantly better in the presence of their Fusarium hosts and their potential use as biological control agents.

The second incidental connection involved the sugarbeet seedling disease ten years later. Pool’s report in 1914 provided a reference, aiding us in identifying, and then publishing new reports on the outbreaks of this extremely rare disease of sugarbeets during the 2009-10 seasons in Nebraska. My reports were the first ever for the natural occurrence of this disease in Nebraska and the first from beet production fields since the original communication by Pool and McKay 100 years earlier. We have not seen it since, and it is now humorously referred to as “the century rust disease.”

I find it remarkable that both of these serendipitous events have occurred at two different stages in my career, involving the same obscure, forgotten Nebraskan plant pathologist, as well as being affiliated with the same fungus (Melanospora), the same crop (sugarbeets) and the same institution, the University of Nebraska. What are the chances?

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