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Early Research

history_6From 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 that 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 phytoplasma.) 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 more than 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.

history_7Percy 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.

1923_2002 lists articles published by BTI scientists beginning with William Crocker in 1923.