William Boyce Thompson (1869 – 1930) was a rare combination of hardheaded realist and dreamer. Schooled in the rough mining towns of Montana – but also at Phillips Exeter Academy mining stocks on Wall Street and owning and operating mines. He was not only a shrewd man of business but also had great intellectual curiosity, particularly about science. He wished to be a force for good in the world and supported various philanthropies. Thompson’s life is chronicled in his 1935 biography, The Magnate.
He visited Russia in 1917, just after the overthrow of the monarchy, when civil war was raging and starvation was rampant. Thompson was a member of an American Red Cross relief mission that also hoped to encourage formation of a democratic government in Russia. He was awarded the honorary title of colonel by the American Red Cross.
The mission saw firsthand the suffering of the people and the inability of the social democratic government headed by Alexander Kerensky to feed the hungry. Although Thompson added over $1 million of his own to the relief funds provided by the U.S. government, he was unable to convince President Woodrow Wilson to do more. Soon after the Americans had returned home, the Kerensky government fell and the Bolsheviks came to power. Thompson’s hopes for a prosperous democracy in Russia were ended. The Russian experience convinced him that agriculture, food supply, and social justice are linked. World political stability in the future, he prophesied, would depend on the availability of adequate food. This conviction, along with his faith in science, helped to shape his next philanthropic project.
In 1920 he decided to establish an institute for plant research. Its purpose would be to study “why and how plants grow, why they languish or thrive, how their diseases may be conquered, how their development may be stimulated by the regulation of the elements which contribute to their life.” The study of plants, he hoped, would result in practical, substantial contributions to human welfare. The growing population of the United States would need a larger food supply. The study of plant diseases and the development of cures for them, the creation through genetic research of hardier, more nutritious, disease-resistant crop plants and more viable seeds, the study of insects that damage food crops, and the production of new pesticides all would contribute to this goal. Conservation would be another goal: “Men were too prone in America to destroy vegetation, especially forests and grazing surfaces,” he said. “They must learn now to conserve.” The effect of industrial pollutants on plants and the development of methods to protect plants would be studied. Thompson expected the institute to make valuable contributions to general scientific knowledge, to biology, and to medicine.
William B. Thompson endowed the institute with $10 million, a veritable fortune in the 1920s. He hoped
that this “seed” money would enable the institute to acquire the very best scientists, equipment, and
supplies and then to develop relationships with industry and the government to help finance research.
The licensing of institute patents with companies has helped balance funding during years of lean government support. Thompson believed that commerce and industry are beneficial to society and that commercial development of research results would spread the institute’s discoveries.
Laying the Foundation
By 1924 an interdisciplinary team of academic researchers had been assembled, and the facilities were
finished. Many luminaries attended the dedication ceremonies on September 24 for the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research (named, not for Thompson himself but for his parents, Anne Boyce Thompson and William Thompson).
William Crocker, an associate professor of plant physiology at the University of Chicago, became the institute’s first managing director. He, Thompson, and other academic advisers spent several years
planning the institute. Herbert H. Whetzel of Cornell urged Thompson to build the institute at a
university so it could cooperate with university research programs, but Thompson wanted to be personally
involved, and the institute was built across the street from his mansion in Yonkers, New York.
From 1924 to 1932, Louis O. Kunkel studied the yellows diseases of plants about which neither the causative agent nor the method of transmission was known but which could destroy crops, orchards, and ornamental plants. Kunkel discovered that yellows disease in asters, which he thought was caused by a virus, was transmitted by leafhoppers. (Many years later it was discovered that the infectious agent was a mycoplasma.) To assist him in his work on the phases of the yellows and virus disease problems, he assembled a team of young scientists. Among them were Francis O. Holmes and Helen Purdy Beale. Beale conducted pioneering studies of plant viruses and, over many years, compiled and edited the Bibliography of Plant Viruses and Index to Research, published in 1976, well after her retirement in 1952. Holmes devised the “local lesion” assay, which identifies certain virus infections in plants, and discovered that plant varieties differ greatly in their susceptibility to various virus strains. By crossing the plants, he made the significant finding that resistance to a virus is inherited and linked to a single gene.
Lela V. Barton studied seed storage and viability and became a prominent seed physiologist. For over forty years she compiled information for her Bibliography of Seeds, published in 1967.
Frank E. Denny, a plant physiologist from 1924 to 1950, headed a project on overcoming bud dormancy in potato. He was assisted by Lawrence P. Miller, a plant biochemist at the institute from 1929 to 1966. Miller was the first institute scientist to receive a government grant, from the Atomic Energy Commission (now the Department of Energy), that resulted in the first use of radionuclides at the institute. In 1960 a National Science Foundation program was established to enable selected high school teachers to spend eight weeks working in a laboratory at the institute. In 1962, a similar program composed of third-year high school honor students was established. Miller directed both programs for several years. After his retirement he edited the three-volume series Phytochemistry, published in 1973.
Percy W. Zimmerman and Alfred E. Hitchcock joined the institute in the late 1920s and conducted research on plant growth regulation. They realized that halogenated aryloxyacetic compounds must play a role in regulating plant growth. The synthesis of 2,4-D and the discovery of its hormonal activity were significant advances in the understanding of plant growth that led to the development of rooting hormones and hormone-based weedkillers that kill weeds but not grass. Credit for the discovery of 2,4-D’s hormonal action is variously ascribed to (among others) Zimmerman and Hitchcock, DuPont researchers, a British team, and a gifted teenager, J. Carleton Gajdusek, who later won the Nobel Prize. No doubt with some supervision, Gajdusek synthesized 2,4-D during his summer job in a BTI laboratory. Zimmerman and Hitchcock published the first report of the hormonal activity of 2,4-D. They were also pioneers in studying the effects of air pollution on plants. Both of them won many scientific awards for their achievements.
S. E. A. McCallan won recognition for his research on fungicides and air pollutants. He participated on the team that studied fungicidal action and effects of the pollutants sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide on plants and microorganisms. He served as secretary and president of the American Phytopathological Society and received the society’s Award of Merit. In 1975, he authored A Personalized History of Boyce Thompson Institute, which covers the period from 1924 through 1974. McCallan served as corporate secretary from 1959 to 1973 and was affiliated with the institute for fifty-two years, from 1929 to 1981.
50′s & 60′s
George L. McNew became the second managing director in 1949, when Crocker retired. A plant pathologist, McNew did distinguished research concerning the chemical processes responsible for disease in plants. He was an able administrator who improved salaries and pensions at the institute, hired young researchers to join the aging staff, purchased modern equipment, and for the first time actively sought government (rather than just industrial) sponsorship for research.
Leonard H. Weinstein, Jay S. Jacobson, Delbert C. McCune, David C. MacLean, Richard H. Mandl, and, later, John A. Laurence carried on the air pollution research begun by Crocker, Zimmerman, and Hitchcock. In the 1960s they undertook a very large program in this field that is still ongoing. Their research has encompassed many areas, including the effects of pollutants on the biochemistry, physiology, growth, and yield of plants and the development of air monitoring methods and air quality standards for numerous state agencies in the United States and several foreign countries.
In 1978, Weinstein was recognized for his many years of leadership by being nominated as the institute’s first named scientist, the William B. Thompson Scientist. For over two decades he directed research on the effects of fluoride on plants that was the foundation for the development of the largest scientific group dedicated to studying the effects of air pollution on crops and trees in the nation and perhaps the world. He continues to help industries comply with air quality standards around the world. Weinstein served on the institute’s Board of Directors from 1973 to 1997, when he became an emeritus director.
By 1967 the pollution of the Hudson River had become of great concern to conservationists. Edward H. Buckley, a researcher in Hudson River ecology for over twenty years, was the project leader of the institute’s Estuarine Study Group, which compiled information on the biological status of the river and published it in 1977 in An Atlas of the Biologic Resources of the Hudson Estuary. Samuel S. Ristich and David L. Sirois were staff scientists on the project. This publication, edited by Weinstein, became an international resource on estuarine systems.
Richard C. Staples joined the institute in 1952. He did pioneering work on the mechanisms that induce rust fungi to infect the leaves of host plants. He was part of an earlier team that described the first self-inhibitors of germination in rust spores. He later demonstrated that many but not all rust fungi can sense and respond precisely to the ridges of the stomatal guard cells through which they enter their hosts. During his career, Staples received the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s Senior U.S. Scientist Award and the Ruth Allen Award of the American Phytopathological Society (APS) and was elected a Fellow of the APS. In 1987 he was named the George L. McNew Scientist. He retired in 1991 and continues collaborative research with scientists at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station.
Zohara Yaniv came to BTI in 1967 to work with Staples as a postdoctoral research fellow. To gain a better understanding of the mechanism of obligate parasitism, Yaniv and Staples studied the ribosomal activities in uredospores of the bean rust fungus and their role in spore germination and senescence. For ten summers, Yaniv worked as an instructor—and later the director—in BTI’s NSF Student Science Training Program. She left the institute in 1978 when it moved to Ithaca.
Projects to find ways to control bark beetles that were killing pine trees in western and southern forests were begun. To support this work, the institute acquired acreage in Grass Valley, California, and Beaumont, Texas. Jean Pierre Vité joined the staff in 1957 to direct research at the Grass Valley Forestry Laboratory. Beginning in 1963, Vité also directed the Beaumont Forest Laboratory. J. Alan Renwick and Patrick R. Hughes, then graduate students, joined Vité’s team. Together they discovered that male and female beetles (depending on the species) give off pheromones, chemicals that attract beetles of the other sex. The researchers used this knowledge to develop a form of nontoxic control that was produced commercially and is still in use. Renwick continued his work in chemical ecology, and his research in taste modification in crop-eating insects may lead to control measures that will protect crops by changing insects’ food preferences. Hughes studied insect viruses with a view to developing a nontoxic pesticide that will kill crop-eating insects. In the course of his work, he has developed an efficient, inexpensive system for rearing insect larvae at high density that may be of value in pharmaceutical production.
Karl Maramorosch joined BTI in 1961. He is internationally known for his research in the transmission of plant viruses and mycoplasma-like agents by insects. In addition, he was an early pioneer in invertebrate cell culture. He won many awards, including the Wolf Prize for Agriculture in Israel, edited many volumes, and fostered many young scientists. In 1998, at the age of eighty-one, he received an Honoree Award from the Society for Invertebrate Pathology in Sapporo, Japan.
Robert R. Granados, the Charles E. Palm Scientist, started at the institute in 1964. He was influenced to come to BTI by the research of Louis Kunkel and Karl Maramorosch. Granados established novel insect cell-culture lines that are in common use for recombinant protein production worldwide. He made important contributions to our knowledge of insect viruses and the molecular biology of the insect midgut. This work involved identifying new gene products for use in developing insect-tolerant transgenic plants.
Jun Mitsuhashi and Eishiro Shikata did outstanding work in the 1960s. Mitsuhashi collaborated with Maramorosch in research in tissue cultures of insect carriers of plant diseases. Shikata became well known for his early research on pea enation mosaic, a disease of pea plants, and for his studies of plant viruses and their insect vectors, especially those associated with plant wound tumors.
Donald W. Roberts joined the institute in the 1960s. Roberts’s research on fungal diseases of insects worldwide included establishing new insect pathology teams in Brazil and the Philippines. In 1980 Roberts organized the Insect Pathology Resource Center, which included scientists from the USDA, Cornell, the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, and the institute. The center supported training for national and international scientists, maintained a repository of insect pathogens, and performed basic and applied research. In 1996 Roberts became the Roy A. Young Scientist.
Also in the 1960s, H. Alan Wood began his research on the physical and biological properties of plant and fungal viruses and then moved into the area of insect virology. His research has played an important role in the study of the basic biology and molecular genetics of insect viruses and in the designing and field testing of insect virus pesticides. On August 9, 1989, in Geneva, New York, he conducted the first field release in the United States of a genetically engineered virus. In the 1990s Wood researched methods to optimize the production of pharmaceutical proteins with insect viruses and to define the attachment of sugars to proteins by insects.
Vlado Macko joined the staff in 1969. He and his colleagues discovered the chemical nature of host specific toxins including victorin, HS toxin, and peritoxin. The work on plant disease models in which toxins play a central role led to the discovery of protectants and latent toxins and to the finding of victorin binding protein and its location in mitochondria and guard cells. He also characterized the chemical nature of self-inhibitors of spore germination in plant pathogenic fungi. Macko received the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s Senior U.S. Scientist Award.
Dewayne C. Torgeson began his professional career at the institute in 1952 as a plant pathologist, working on an industrial project related to discovery and development of pesticides. Torgeson served as program director of the Bioregulant Chemicals Program from 1963 to 1985, as corporate secretary from 1973 to 1991, and as a member of the Board of Directors from 1978 to 1996, when he became an emeritus director.
The Move to Ithaca
A new chapter in BTI research began in 1978, when the institute moved to facilities built for it on the campus of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
The advantages of cooperation with university research programs had been argued from the time the institute was being planned. Managing Director McNew favored such affiliation, and by the 1970s property taxes in Yonkers, now urbanized, had become burdensome. Both Oregon State University and Cornell University were considered. Each had relevant research programs and was anxious to have the institute, and both the states of Oregon and New York appropriated funding. Ultimately, it was decided that affiliation with Cornell offered the most varied research opportunities. New York State’s offer of $8.5 million for construction of facilities on the Cornell campus was accepted. In 1978 the facilities were ready, and the move was made. Although affiliated with Cornell, the institute maintains its independence with a separate endowment, Board of Directors, business office, and employee benefits program. Close ties between BTI and Cornell foster many collaborative relationships that are beneficial to both institutions.
Richard H. Wellman became managing director in 1974 and served until 1980. He was well qualified for the position, having spent his first fourteen professional years at the institute, followed by a management position with industry that culminated in a vice presidency. Previous to his directorship, he served on the institute’s Research Advisory Committee, the Board of Directors, and a 1973 committee that reviewed the proposals from Oregon State University and Cornell University. During his tenure, the institute’s research focused on global agricultural problems.
A. Carl Leopold joined the staff after the affiliation with Cornell and before the new building on campus was completed. He worked in various labs at Cornell while waiting for new colleagues to arrive. His distinguished career has included studies on plant growth and development, seed viability, seed storage, and desiccation tolerance. Today his preservation method is being commercially tested to dry insulin that can be administered by inhalation. He became the William Crocker Scientist in 1979.
Thomas A. LaRue came to the institute in 1978 from the National Research Council of Canada. He created pea plant mutants deficient in symbiotic nitrogen fixation which are a major resource for identification of the plant genes needed for biological atmospheric nitrogen fixation by cereal plants.
Allan R. J. Eaglesham, from the Rothamsted Experimental Station in England, joined the institute in 1976. He discovered the photosynthetic rhizobia that form stem nodules on certain legumes and opened the opportunity for energy self-sufficiency in the use of atmospheric nitrogen.
80′s & 90′s
Roy A. Young served as managing director from 1980 to 1986. He came to the institute from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, where he was chancellor. His experience in university administration helped him further the institute’s professional collaborations with Cornell University. Young initiated a capital fundraising campaign during his tenure that resulted in the establishment of the Boyce Schulze Downey Scientist position.
Robert J. Kohut joined the institute in 1980. He led a research project sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency that assessed the effects of ozone and other pollutants on agricultural production. The institute was one of five research sites for this nationwide program. By the early 1980s concern had increased about the effects on forest growth—of acid rain alone and combined with other pollutants. From 1986 to 1992 Kohut, John Laurence, and Robert G. Amundson were co-investigators, with Laurence as the leader, on a project to evaluate the responses of red spruce and sugar maple trees to these pollutants. Kohut continued his air quality and forest-related studies until his retirement at the end of 2004.
Stephen H. Howell, the first Boyce Schulze Downey Scientist, joined the institute in 1988 and has distinguished himself in molecular-genetic studies of plant-virus interactions, hormone responses, and aluminum resistance in plants.
Robert L. Last was at the institute from 1989 to 1998. He investigated the regulation of amino acid biosynthesis, using the techniques of genetics and molecular biology to study the genetic control of metabolism in Arabidopsis plants. In 1990 he received the National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator Award.
David B. Stern came to the institute in 1989; his research has focused on the regulation of gene expression in plant chloroplasts and mitochondria. Stern was awarded a National Science Foundation Young Investigator Award in 1992. He is now the president of BTI.
Ralph W. F. Hardy, president from 1986 to 1995, contributed significantly to the institute by aggressively protecting its intellectual property, which was beginning to expand. His leadership led to an important patent portfolio. In 1988 he founded the National Agricultural Biotechnology Council, a consortium of major not-for-profit agricultural teaching and research institutions that meets annually to discuss key issues in biotechnology.
In the 1990s many new scientists joined the institute and further expanded research in molecular biology of plants and insects, biodiversity, and environmental biology. Charles J. Arntzen served as president from 1995-2000, who garnered media attention for his work on plant-based vaccines. He was succeeded by Daniel F. Klessig, who held the presidency until 2004 and continues to study plant disease resistance at BTI.
William B. Thompson’s hopes for BTI have been more than fulfilled. During the course of the twentieth century, plant scientists—with institute scientists often among the leaders—have contributed to the development of disease- and pest-resistant crop plants, helping to ensure food surpluses in our country. They have been leaders in environmental research, working to provide the necessary knowledge to balance the need both for industry and for preservation of the natural environment. They have demonstrated the unique advantages of plant biology for medical research, revealing that disease, fundamental physiological processes, and genetics are, in some cases, more easily studied in plants and insects than in animals. Their research in plants has contributed unique insights to medical knowledge and will lead to new experimental techniques and valuable plant-derived medicines.
The Boyce Thompson Institute has, in many respects, always been ahead of its time. Today, because of its strong investment in some of the most quickly developing and promising scientific fields, including genomics and gene profiling, the institute stands uniquely poised to provide leadership in research that will be of value to human welfare for many years to come.
In plant science there are enough unsolved riddles to tax the best scientific genius for decades to come.
— William Crocker
We are grateful to Leonard H. Weinstein for his assistance with this history section. Much of the information in this history was taken from S. E. A. McCallan’s book, A Personalized History of Boyce Thompson Institute, published in 1975; William Crocker’s book, Growth of Plants: Twenty Years’ Research at Boyce Thompson Institute, published in 1948; and the Contributions of Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, 1925-71.
80 Years of Discovery in Plant Science
Basic Biology Discoveries
- Discovered how fungal spores can inhibit their own germination. This knowledge made it possible to produce spores more efficiently and in higher quantities in the laboratory, which, in turn, led to advanced studies on the metabolism of germinating spores.
- Proved that fungal pathogens (those that cause disease in plants) begin their development as a pathogen when they recognize the surface of a host plant. This knowledge may lead to innovative ways to protect plants from fungal disease through genetic modification.
- Developed a rooting hormone now used extensively in the nursery industry to propagate plants quickly and efficiently. The hormone is a stable derivative of a natural hormone, called indole acetic acid.
- Developed a serological procedure to identify plant viruses that is now used worldwide.
- Discovered that the genome of a plant virus is divided into two parts.
- Developed advanced techniques in paper and column chromatography for separating and identifying the biological components of mixtures.
- Discovered that insects can become addicted to certain constituents in food plants. This knowledge, which helps explain why some insects feed only on specific plants, may lead to new kinds of insect-resistant plants and a reduction in the use of insecticides.
- Discovered insect viral enzymes, which can be used to overcome an insects intestinal immune system. This advance has led to new concepts in animal-specific viral adaptations.
- Established insect cell lines, which are acknowledge as superior for the production of viral pesticides and recombinant proteins. One cell line called High Five is used worldwide for the production of human therapeutics and vaccines.
- Developed an assay (test) to determine the presence of tobacco mosaic virus in a plant a discovery that, in turn, led to the ability to detect and determine the amount of other pathogenic viruses of plants.
- Discovered that insects are vectors that carry disease-causing pathogens from plant to plant and that plant pathogens multiply using the insect as a host. These discoveries led to new ways to control plant diseases.
- Discovered the biological and chemical basis for selectivity in herbicides and developed the first herbicide that could control specific weeds without harming other plants.
- Proved that ethylene, a natural product produced by plants, is a hormone. Ethylene, which encourages ripening in fruit and vegetables, is now used throughout the food processing industry.
- Identified sex pheromones in bark beetles that make it possible to control these pests without chemical insecticides.
- Developed computer modeling techniques for predicting forest growth/decline over long periods of time.
- Contributed to PCB decontamination of the Hudson River by developing ecologically important data on the plant and animal life of the region.
- Contributed to the development of EPA ambient air quality standards for ozone by providing data and information concerning the impact of ozone on U.S. crops.
- Formulated worldwide air quality standards for fluorides, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.
- Developed analytical methods now accepted as the global standard for detecting fluorides in biological materials and monitoring fluorides in the air.
- Generated data used by the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program to evaluate the biological impact of ozone and acid rain.
- Developed first computer models for testing the combined effect of ozone and acid rain on mature forests.
- Developed a computer software package that enables the EPA to evaluate ozone injury to U.S. forests.
Human Health Discoveries
- Discovered the role of a naturally occurring substance, called sugar-glass, that stabilizes dry, stored seeds. This discovery led to new technology for stabilizing insulin, enabling it to be delivered to diabetics through an inhalable dry aerosol spray instead of injection.
- Discovered that vaccines against human diseases can be delivered orally through food and that plant-delivered vaccines are effective in protecting people against disease.
- Developed modified plants that deliver “edible vaccines” against three human diseases, including hepatitis B.
Personal Views of Boyce Thompson Institute (1974 – 2000)
Emeritus scientists Leonard H. Weinstein and Richard C. Staples recently completed a first-hand account of the Boyce Thompson Institute spanning a quarter-century. This retrospective covers the move to Cornell and the people who contributed to the affiliation between Cornell and BTI. This colorful, “unofficial” account also covers breakthrough research from BTI’s recent history.