Erwin Frank Smith (1854 – 1927)

Father of Bacterial/Mycotic Plant Pathology

by King-Thom Chung, Department of Biology, The University of Memphis

There is always a building called Smith Hall in many American universities, especially those with an agricultural college. That is in memory of Erwin Frank Smith. There is a bacterial genus called Erwinia, that also is in memory of Smith. From these instances, microbiologists would probably understand why Smith is an important figure in the history of microbiology.

Smith was born in Gilbert Mills, New York, on January 21, 1854. The town was one with many flour mills. A very keen interest of his boyhood was the functioning of these mills. He wondered how God could run the mills. When he heard the grinding of the mill wheels he pictured in his mind a "prisoned God" at work! The mills also often had adjacent mill ponds. He liked to spend time on these mill ponds and their streams in the countryside. He always felt a consciousness of the presence of the Creator here, as well as in the grinding of the mill wheels. He also felt an obligation to serve his Creator, who had furnished the world and all that was in it.

Smith was left without his father at the beginning of the Civil War as his father, Ransellor King Smith, enlisted in Co. K. of the New York 184th Infantry. During those years, young Smith had the blessing of assistance by a schoolteacher friend, Miss Ida Holmes. Noting his love of nature, she guided him with the loan of books and magazines of a scientific nature. In addition, he read works by Tennyson, Dickens, and Longfellow. He chose science as his major interest, but his reading was so broad and his interest in all subjects so great that he had a difficult time selecting a major among such sciences as botany, chemistry, medicine, physics and geology.

He moved with his family to Hubbardston, Michigan, in 1870. He now was 16 years old and entered the public schools there. Later, the family moved to a farm near Ionia, the county seat. Smith now was 22 and appeared mature for this age, wearing a full beard. He entered the Ionia High School and was immediately recognized by the principal, Anson P. DeWolf, as an exceptionally intelligent student. In addition to his regular high school courses, he was granted permission to "come and go as the spirit moved him." In this way he soon mastered French on the side and also learned solid botany through tutoring by the local pharmacist, Charles F. Wheeler. (Wheeler was a gifted amateur botanist). His botany was so sinecure as just a year after graduating from high school, he published his first book, "The Flora of Michigan."

After some studies at the Michigan Agricultural College, he entered the University of Michigan and obtained his bachelor’s degree in 1886. He immediately began graduate work and was granted the doctor’s degree in 1889. His Ph.D. research work was on a plant disease, "peach yellow." He continued work on this for several years. At all times Smith was fortunate in having advisors and colleagues who recognized his abilities. They gave him encouragement in his often irregular method of study and research. During this period he also married. His first wife was Charlotte May Buffet Smith, who had an extensive period of illness, dying in 1906. With her, he had a great love of nature, as well as the study of mycology and bacteriology. In 1915 he privately published a book dedicated to his wife entitled, "For Her Friends and Mine: A Book of Aspiration, Dreams and Memories."

In 1913 he again married. His second wife was Ruth Warren Smith. She was his confidant and assistant until he died.

In his initial work on peach yellows, he was not able to isolate and culture the mycotic agent. In 1892, he was greatly influenced by Dr. M. B. Waite, who had been an assistant in the laboratory of Dr. Jonathon Burrill and had learned from him the methods of pure culture in bacteria. He also studies the papers of Pasteur and in addition, learned to read papers in German and Italian. He also learned from Theobald Smith and Veronus A. Moore, who worked near him in the U.S. Department of Agriculture on diseases of animals.

This was early in the development of microbiology and not all scientists, especially botanists, were convinced that the diseases of plants were caused by bacterial and mycotic agents. One eminent scientist from Germany, Alfred Fisher, wrote a book entitled, "Vorlesungen uber Bakterien," (Lectures in Bacteriology). In this he stated that bacteria and molds had not been proven to cause plant diseases. Smith had both the needed experimental knowledge and the ability to write in German. He did not hesitate to engage Fisher in scientific debate. The debate, at this time, did not settle the question, but greatly enhanced the world opinion of Smith. The situation was that European scientists distrusted the American papers, while Americans accepted them and did not go along with the hypothetical ideas of the Europeans.

Smith’s work covered a wide range of plant diseases and was done with very painstaking exactness. His work and that of his assistants was later proven to be essentially correct and was accepted. He had a highly analytical mind and great ability to organize and synthesize knowledge. His work in plant pathology culminated in a three volume treatise published in 1905, 1911 and 1914. The later part of his life was devoted to cancer, particularly that of crown gall. He worked on all phases of its tumorisity and morphology. He was far ahead of his time and convinced that both plant and animal tumors and cancers had similar etiologies. In 1913, he received a certificate of honor from the American Medical Association for his work on "Cancer in Plants." This is worth noting. Recognition of cancer in plants has often not received the interest of either scientists or the public.

Smith was not only a scientist but also a leader in his field. He was president, at different times, of the following associations: Society for Plant Morphology and Physiology (1902); Society of American Bacteriologists (1906); American Association for the Advancement of Science, Section G (1906); Botanical Society of America (1910); American Phytopathological Society (1916); and the American Association for Cancer Research (1925). He also was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and made a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Although others worked on microbial diseases of plants, his work, under the auspices of the USDA was the most outstanding. Great credit should be given to him for leadership and ingenuity in furthering the work in agriculture.

Typical of the honors given him was the dinner given in his honor by the American Phytopathological Society. One hundred and seventy-two signatures of scientists were affixed to a plaque which read, "To Erwin Frank Smith, scientist, linguist, poet and friend, who for forty years has devoted his life’s service to the broad field of pathology, in grateful appreciation we the members of the American Phytopathological Society dedicate this testimonial."

Smith thought of himself as the "Pasteur" of plant microbiology. He was a deep student of Pasteur’s work and also published material on Pasteur. He wrote several papers on Pasteur and translated into English Emile Duchlaux’s, "Pasteur: Historie d’une," (Pasteur: History and Spirit). (It is believed that evidence of his love of Pasteur is reflected in the beard that he wore).

Smith died on April 6, 1927, in his own home in Washington DC. He was 73 years old and survived by his second wife of 13 years. His interest in science is demonstrated by his desire to have his ashes scattered over the waters of Woods Hole Laboratory, from a promontory where he loved to sit and think of science. He wrote his own epitaph, "Be the my scroll; lies one beneath this sod to whom all nature voiced the living God."

His work continues as the pioneering foundation of plant pathology.

 (Courtesy of Dr. King-Thom Chung, The University of Memphis)