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History of the Department of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology

The department of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology has roots in Geneva and Ithaca, originally two separate departments that merged in 2010 to form a single institution for the study of plant disease. Activity in Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology at each of these campuses began in the late 19th century. 

The history of plant pathology at Cornell began when the university opened its doors in 1868. A.N. Prentiss, a mycologist who held the titles of Professor of Botany, Superintendent of Grounds, and Director of Manual Labor, offered a course titled "Parasitic Fungi" that first year. Some variation of the course has been offered ever since on the Ithaca campus.

The New York State Agricultural Experiment Station was established at Geneva by an act of the New York state legislature with the mandate to promote agriculture in New York through scientific investigation.

The doors officially opened to the Geneva agricultural station, the sixth facility of its kind in the nation. The station included 125 acres of land, a laboratory building, living quarters for researchers and several farm buildings. It employed four faculty members and one staff member who acted as the janitor, stable boy, receptionist and maintenance man.

Joseph Charles Arthur was hired as a botanist to study plant diseases in Geneva, making him the first plant pathologist hired by a state agricultural experiment station in the United States. 

One of Cornell's first Doctor of Science (D.Sc.) degrees was granted to J.C. Arthur for his work on the fire blight disease of pear.

H.H. Whetzel1906
H. H. Whetzel is appointed assistant professor and head of Botany in the recently established New York State College of Agriculture. 

Whetzel establishes the Ithaca department.  At his request, the name of the department was changed to Plant Pathology and Whetzel was advanced to Professor. Several other departments of plant pathology were established in 1907 in the United States, each claiming to be first.  If the Cornell department was not the first, it was certainly among the first. 

L.M. Massey became head of a plant pathology department in Ithaca, which had grown to eight faculty members who had attained a worldwide reputation for research on fungi and plant diseases and for training students.

The Geneva Station officially became a unit of the College of Agriculture at Cornell University.  At that time professional staff at Geneva became members of the faculty, but it was not until 1943 that they received professor titles.   

The president of Cornell University officially approved the Geneva Station "subject-matter units" being designated as departments.

G.C. Kent became chair of the Ithaca department. By the mid-1950's, demands on the faculty had grown such that there were 22 professors focusing on individual or related crops or pathogen types.  Among many significant events in Kent's term was the recruitment of D.F. Bateman (1970), the first person hired to study the fundamental nature of pathogenesis rather than to work on a specific crop or group of pathogens.

Faculty members in Geneva participate in an interdisciplinary team to develop the Integrated Pest Management Program, which has resulted in a 30 to 80 percent reduction in pesticide use on crops in New York through the use of disease forecasting, insect monitoring, and the conscious implementation of cultural and biological controls.

Geneva virologist Dennis Gonsalves developed and released two new papaya cultivars genetically engineered to resist Papaya ringspot virus. Dr. Gonsalves used the gene gun, also developed at Geneva, to "vaccinate" the plants. All previous worldwide efforts to obtain resistant varieties had failed, and these new lines were credited for saving the $47 million Hawaiian papaya industry from ruin.  For this work, Dr. Gonsalves was awarded the 2002 von Humboldt Award for Agriculture, one of the world's most prestigious agricultural science awards.  

The departments on both campuses changed their name from the Department of Plant Pathology to the Department of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology. The new name is a more accurate reflection of modern research and teaching than runs the gamut from applied work on diagnosing and managing plant diseases to the molecular bases of interactions between plants and their pathogens and symbionts.

The Departments of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology in Ithaca and Geneva merge to create a single academic powerhouse for the study of the causes and management of plant disease and the fundamental interactions between plants and microbes. The newly-formed department includes 38 faculty members and 84 support staff on two campuses.

Five departments at Cornell – Plant Biology, Horticulture, Plant Breeding and Genetics, Crop and Soil Sciences, and Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology  –  were integrated into one administrative unit.  The department name was changed to the Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology Section, School of Integrative Plant Science.