William Hosea Ballou, Man of Science – Not!

by Leon Shernoff

The first person to bring this fungus to the attention of science was William Hosea Ballou, who found it in an Atlantic white cedar swamp in New Jersey in 1908 and 1909. He sent the fungus to Howard Banker at the New York Botanical Garden, and immediately it was considered a rare and interesting fungus.

Letter: Ballou to William Alphonso Murrill, then assistant director of the New York Botanical Gardens, May 8, 1908.

Letter: Ballou to William Alphonso Murrill, then assistant director of the New York Botanical Gardens, May 8, 1908.
The letter reads:
“Dear Dr.,
Found a cluster of several white cedars today with the new fungus, of which I send you several specimens. Sent the largest, nearly as big as my hand, to Banker, but have several located still larger. There were no bell shapes among these, but all had wide turned over edges. These all grew out from the trunks of the large, living trees along small dead limbs on the under sides. The largest ones were up under the canopies 40 to 50 feet above ground, increasing in size from the lowest specimens. Their great height explains why they have not been noticed before, besides, the largest is about the size of my hand and all are invisible from the ground except to the sharpest eye.
Yours, W. H. Ballou”
Photographed by Bill Neill. This letter appears by kind permission of the LuEster T. Mertz Library of the New York Botanical Garden.

Ballou lost no time in promoting the importance of his find. He parlayed his discovery into an article in Scientific American, trumpeting the opinion that the fungus “has wiped out many miles of Atlantic white cedar.” Larry Millman comments that “Both Ballou and Scientific American turned a somewhat blind eye to the fact that the species that was really wiping out Atlantic white cedar was not fungal, but hominid.”

Ballou was no stranger to strong but incorrect opinions. His unpublished biography, for instance, claims that he was “the first to define cancer as a fungus originating in reptiles and fish, and breeding by spores.” Of his cockamamie opinions that made it into print, perhaps the one that got the most exposure was his notion that Stegosaurus used the plates along its spine to fly, an idea that was picked up by Edgar Rice Burroughs for his book At the Earth’s Core, where the heroes encounter a number of dinosaurs, including a flying Stegosaurus. But what most upsets Larry is his claim to have been a member of the Greely rescue expeditions.

The Greely expedition was a 19th century Arctic expedition that came to grief in northwestern Greenland and was never heard from again. Two rescue expeditions left New York to try and find them, and Ballou’s little biography claimed that he had been along on one of those as a journalist for Harper’s Weekly. “If Google had existed a hundred years ago, he would have been roundly criticized,” says Larry. “But there was no easy way back then for people to check up on him, so he got away with it. But the Explorers Club in New York has a complete set of papers for the Greely rescue expeditions, and I’ve gone through all the ships’ manifests and there is no mention whatsoever of William Hosea Ballou.”

Ballou’s claim that “there is no fungus more beautiful – or more deadly” refers to Echinodontium ballouii’s presumed effect on Atlantic white cedar. But he seems to have rethought that in later year. “Ballou first found the fungus in center of Forked River, New Jersey,” says Bill. “It’s an old town, with logging roads, and only a remnant of the trees there are left. In a cedar swamp near Woods Hole, when the nearby area was developed, it changed the hydrology and the whole swamp dried up and killed the trees. I think that Ballou something saw something similar happening and blamed it on the fungus. He recants in later correspondence – says he’s rethinking this, because he’s found a bunch of dead trees but the fungus isn’t there.”

The E. ballouii discovery was the apogee of Ballou’s career, such as it was. Decades before, Ballou had been hired as a front man by Edward Drinker Cope in his “dinosaur feud” with Othniel Charles Marsh, a colorful episode in American scientific history that has been the subject of a few books now (Larry recommends The Bonehunters’ Revenge, by David Rains Wallace, a book which contains the only known photo of Ballou). While, then as now, personal feuds didn’t make for the best possible science, the dispute also (then as now) launched dinosaurs into the popular imagination and gave them the place in popular consciousness that they have held ever since. Cope hired Ballou, who seemed to be a reputable and competent science writer, to write nasty articles about Marsh – basically to feed anti-Marsh information from Cope into the public sphere, but to make it look as if it was coming from an objective third party.

Ballou was one of those half-professional, half-amateur all-around naturalists that were still quite common in that era. He worked quite a bit with fungi – in fact, one of the other mushrooms that he discovered, the bright orange Tylopilus ballouii, was featured in last issue’s installment of our series on boletes. It was natural for Cope to reach out to someone of this class in his efforts to discredit his rival, Marsh. But even the highly partisan Cope soon realized that Ballou was “very unreliable, and a bit over the top in his behavior,” as Larry puts it, and stopped working with him. Discovering the scourge of Atlantic white cedar was his last shot at scientific fame.

Letter: Ballou_to_Banker, page 1. 12/28/08

Letter: Ballou_to_Banker, page 1. 12/28/08
The letter reads:
““My dear Prof. Banker
Yours of the 25th, mailed the 26th, bearing Christmas greeting rec’d for which my sincere thanks. One also came from Charles D. Wolcott with similar greetings and congratulations on finding the hydnums [A general term for ‘tooth fungi’]. Dr. Britton [the director of the NY Botanical Gardens] says it takes a newspaper reporter to hunt out a criminal and Dr. Murrill laughs because he took a lot of the mire himself, “gazing upward,” without finding our villain. The editor of the American Lumberman, J. E. Defebaugh, writes me that he will shortly bring out my life history of Chamaecyparis thyoides and intends to add the Scientific American story to it. It was written just before I found the specific [sic] fungus of the cedar.
The under parts of the living fungus on the living tree are golden yellow, which speedily fades to buff on drying. I just opened my drawer and took out my dried specimens. The spines are still buff sufficient to indicate their original color. I also have very large specimens of Trametes versicolor, which on the trees had golden yellow”
for continuation of letter see below.
Photographed by Bill Neill. This letter appears by kind permission of the LuEster T. Mertz Library of the New York Botanical Garden.

“I think the article in Scientific American really went to his head,” says Bill. “You can see in the letters following the article that he starts making all sorts of wildly general claims about fungi that you’d really need years to test and prove. For example, in a letter to Banker [reproduced here, with permission of the NYBG], you see him saying that the original E. ballouii swamp in Forked River has uncommonly huge fungi in general because of the fog that comes in from the Jersey coast. It’s not the strangest idea in the world, but to test it you’d need to go up and down the coast, comparing foggy areas to others, and he clearly didn’t do that work. He just had an idea pop into his head, and he sent it off in a letter to a professional as if it were a fact.”

Letter: Ballou_to_Banker, page 2. 12/28/08

Letter: Ballou_to_Banker, page 2. 12/28/08
(continued from above)
“bases, resembling at a little distance gorgeous sunflowers. These bases have now faded to buff and whitish.
A living swamp cedar tree is always wet as if it were constantly sponged down. When you try to climb it, it is as slippery as an eel. This perpetual moisture accounts not only for the brilliant yellow of the spines but also for the brilliant olive of the backs when living. It may interest you to know, that all species of fungi in Ocean Co. NJ are abnormally large and abnormally brilliant in color, owing to constant fogs and rain from Barnegot Bay and the ocean, from innumerable springs and streams of the ground. For instance, and ordinary Boletus scaber [Leccinum scabrum] measures from 8 to 11 inches in diameter [This would indeed be colossal]. Many specimens of Pyropolyporus Everhartii [Phellinus everhartii] and Elfvingia megaloma [Elfvingia is a genus for the Ganoderma applanatum family of conks.] run from 10 to 15 inches in diameter. One Trametes unicolor [Cerrena unicolor] was 7½ inches across. Specimens of Tyromyces semipileatus, naturally a small species, were so large and showy as to make the really first intelligible study of them possible.
Sorry you don’t send me your works on hydnums as it might enable me to find some more new ones for you. I seem to have the proper nose for such stunts. I am, sincerely yours, W. H. Ballou”
Photographed by Bill Neill. This letter appears by kind permission of the LuEster T. Mertz Library of the New York Botanical Garden.

Whatever Ballou’s motivations, and however off-center he was as a person, at least we can appreciate his genuine discoveries, which in this case have added to our knowledge of the unique American ecosystem that is the Atlantic white cedar swamp.

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This article first appeared in the Fall 2007 issue of Mushroom the Journal