Monday, March 22, 2010

An Interview with Donald Huffman: Part 1

What was the catalyst—the magic moment—that brought you to appreciate mushrooms in the first place? How long have you been studying them?

I grew up as one of seven children of a father who was a high school biology teacher, but I didn’t pay much attention to mushrooms until I encountered them in a college course called Plant Morphology. I can remember being fascinated with the varied novelties in life cycles of the fungi we studied, and I wondered at that time why the life cycles of other “plants” were less interesting. At the time I was preparing for graduate work in plant pathology, and I kept this as my goal throughout my graduate work.

At Iowa State University, I enrolled in a three-quarter-term sequence of mycology taught by Dr. Joseph Gilman. Lois Tiffany, a recent PhD who had studied mycology under Gilman, was in a lab with 3 other graduate students and me. Professor Gilman increased my interest in morphological variability in fungi with lots of time spent on the microscopic aspects of fungi. Lois assisted most of us grad students with more exposure to mushrooms, and by the time I finished my PhD in plant pathology I found fungi to be more interesting than plant pathology. 

Two years after taking a position at Kansas State University in plant pathology, I accepted a position as biologist at Central College in Pella, Iowa. Teaching botany and genetics, I spent a lot of time in the field and found some interesting mushrooms. It became clear to me that in my teaching position, it was advantageous to work more with fungi and less with plant diseases, which required extensive field studies. In 1961 I accepted an National Institutes of Health postdoctoral position at Columbia University with the well-known mycologist Lindsay Olive. After that I began studying mushrooms seriously.
So the “magic moment” for me was spread over quite a period of time. Appreciation of mushrooms really gelled for me while working on the 1st edition of Mushrooms and Other Fungi of the Midcontinental United States, with the very supportive collaboration of Lois Tiffany and George Knaphus.

Agaricus campestris L.: Fr. (plate 7); edible
Meadow Mushroom, Pink Bottom
    Cap 3–10 cm broad, convex to nearly flat at maturity; white, becoming light brown or darker; smooth to fibrillose. Flesh firm; white or brownish, unchanging or slowly turning brownish when cut.
    Gills free, crowded, narrow; pink, maturing to purple brown.
    Stalk 3–6 cm long, 1–2.5 cm thick, equal; white and smooth above annulus, white and hairy below; same color as cap at maturity.
    Annulus one single layer, thin, sometimes disappearing.
    Spores 6–7.5 x 4–5 µm, ovoid to elliptical; spore print dark chocolate brown.
    Scattered to abundant in lawns, meadows, and pastures following rains and cool weather; spring, summer, fall.
    This delicious common mushroom is closely related to the cultivar A. hortensis, which is grown commercially. The characteristic bright pink, free gills and the brown spore print clearly distinguish this mushroom from the white-spored Amanitas.

Beyond mycology, what other plants and animals are you especially interested in?
I’ve been interested in only a few other organisms, and for the most part I had these interests well before I became a biologist. I did not find much interest in green plants or in birds, both of which my father enjoyed studying.

When I was 4 or 5 years old, my brothers and I kept pet box turtles. We painted our initials or numbers on the top of each shell. This made it possible to have turtle races in the basement in winter and in the backyard in warmer weather. I don’t really think I was much interested in them except for the thrill of the races. From about age 12 until 16, I was quite interested in snakes. I kept a few in captivity, mostly blue racers, milk snakes, garter snakes, and black snakes.  One of my prize snakes was not a snake but a glass snake, a legless lizard with a shiny body that broke off its tail section when threatened. I kept the glass snake for more than a year, but the regrowth of the tail was very slow. Later in life I really had no interest in snakes, though I encountered them plenty of times while hiking. I was never very happy to be bitten by a snake.

Our family had a series of bulldogs—Boston bulls—and I really was interested in them, not only as pets but as companions in the hiking and camping we did in the summers. My main interests were in training the dogs to do specific tasks. I’m still fond of dogs and can’t imagine being without one. 

It has always amazed me how interested some people can be in a given group of organisms. I’d bet most of this interest came from an outstanding teacher who emphasized experimental studies in research efforts.

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