Notes from Underground - by David Rose

The Politics of Ascospores

This column originally appeared in the Summer 2001 issue of Spores Illustrated, the newsletter of the Connecticut-Westchester Mycological Association (COMA).

            Bernard Ogilvie Dodge (1872-1960) was a mycologist who worked as a plant pathologist on the staff of the New York Botanical Garden from the late 1920s through his retirement to 1957. While responsible for controlling plant diseases and pests he also conducted cytological and genetic research on Neurospora, a common bread mold, and established the Mendelian nature of inheritance in three species, Neurospora crassa, N. sitophila, and N. tetrasperma. Dodge’s interest in the fungi stemmed from a chance encounter in his youth with an elderly Bohemian tailor collecting mushrooms. Devoted to assisting his father in the upkeep of his family farm, he did not gain his Ph.D. until he was 40 years old. At the Garden he pursued his studies of Neurospora apart from his official duties, with limited assistance and equipment. Reputedly, he was capable of manipulating a single ascospore on a slide with the finely honed tip of a sewing needle. A curiosity of his personal history was that the Dodge family genealogy included Rebecca Nourse, who was hanged for witchcraft on Gallows Hill in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. Recent theories have postulated that the so-called Salem “witches” were victims of convulsive ergotism induced by eating bread infected by the fungus Claviceps purpurea (ergot). It’s tantalizing to speculate Dodge’s reaction had he known that a parasitic ascomycete was responsible for such a critical event in his family’s history.

Dodge’s quest to identify the genetic mechanisms of inheritance in Neurospora formed the basis for subsequent research by George Beadle and Edward Tatum, Nobel Prize winners of 1958 for their work in biochemical genetics. William Robbins, then NYBG Director-in-Chief, explained Dodge’s work in the following way: “At the time Dr. Dodge made his first contributions to the genetics of fungi no one believed (in fact, most scientists did not believe) that the fungi obeyed the same laws of inheritance which were effective for higher plants and animals. [He] convinced the scientific public of the validity of Mendelian gene theory for the fungi.” His breakthroughs in genetics even had repercussions in international politics, as we shall see in the story that follows.

The historical moment is 17 July 1950; the setting is the International Botanical Congress in Stockholm, Sweden, of which Dodge served as vice-president. Before us is Professor Ivan E. Glushchenko, a Soviet botanist given to bombastic condemnations of Western genetics. Glushchenko was a loyal student of Trofim Lysenko, whose preposterous fallacies about heredity became official state ideology in Stalin’s Soviet Union. An attendee of the Congress, L. M. Black of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, in a letter to William Robbins, wrote an account of a confrontation between an audience of biologists and the Russian delegation that revolved around questions arising directly from Dodge’s findings on the fungus Neurospora. Black described Glushchenko as “a big man who gave the impression of being unscrupulous, tricky, ingratiating, tough and fastened to the party line like Gibraltar to Europe.”

After Glushchenko had delivered his own paper at the Congress, a chairman announced the Russian botanists would respond only to written questions, an unconventional procedure at best. The audience so swamped the Russian delegation with slips of paper that it announced the questions would be answered “tomorrow.” Laughter of the audience prompted the Russians, now embarrassed, to respond forthwith, but Glushchenko held forth at such great length that many realized he was in fact avoiding their questions altogether. Some interrupted and demanded answers to specific questions. Glushchenko grew defensive, and a lengthy and provocative confrontation ensued. Here is a portion of Black’s account:

“Glushchenko tried to dispose of Mendelian ratios by saying that they were statistical averages. As a result, the meeting centered around a question which had to do with the segregation of genetic characters in the eight spores in an ascus. Here, of course, no statistics are involved. Glushchenko claimed there was difficulty in translating the question. Then, he said there were two translations, implying that the question was somewhat ambiguous. When members of the audience returned his attention to the question about ascospores, he claimed he knew nothing about the experiment. This did not satisfy the audience. He said the experiment should be repeated. This caused a burst of laughter. Then he said he should visit the laboratories where the work was done; the scientist who did the work [Dodge] would give his interpretation and he would give his. He asserted that he did not deny facts. The audience rejected all of these evasions. At one embarrassing moment, Glushchenko wiped the sweat from the top of his bald head with his handkerchief. He never did answer the question.”

In concluding his letter to Robbins, Black drew the obvious lesson that science flourishes best in a democratic society. Sensitive to the situation of the Russians, Black had even promised himself that he “would not ask any questions that might embarrass men whose freedom and fortunes might depend on their answers.” And yet, he confessed to Robbins, “if the questions had not been asked, it would have simply meant that the Russians would have expounded their views at an International Congress without opposition. This would have been interpreted to mean the triumph of their point of view.”

We surely have no quarrel with this conclusion, which demonstrates how, in the fever of the Cold War, the struggle for scientific understanding was politically charged. And yet, when I am out hunting mushrooms in the forest, these concerns are furthest from my mind. I then tend to view the world within a paradigm of nature as window to the imagination. And so it should be. To consider, then, a story like the above is to re-connect present pleasures of mushroom hunting with the paradoxes of past events in the history of mycology. The synthesis of such differing realities is truly an effort in historical realization, an educational enterprise that always stretches the mind. This is why it seems so startling that the crux of this historic meeting in Stockholm was a simple question about the segregation of the genetic characters among the spores of an ascus.

Note: the story above is based on correspondence from the archives of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library of the New York Botanical Garden; Records of the Laboratory (RG5); Bernard Ogilvie Dodge Records and William Jacob Robbins Records.

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