Book Review: Mycological

The Nature of Disease in Plants. Scheffer, R. P. 1997. ISBN 0-521-48247-X (cloth US$64.95) 325 pp. Cambridge University Press, 40 West 20th Street, New York NY10011 .
It would seem that the other four Kingdoms of Life are at war with the plants. Almost all plants are subject to one kind of disease or another. Plant disease is a poorly understood array of phenomena that include biotic and abiotic factors which may affect the organism at any stage in its life cycle. Plant diseases are a complex set of interactions of host (or hosts) and their pathogens. These interactions are mediated by toxins, recognition processes, and ecological conditions. Of the myriad vectors that transmit plant disease, the profound, long-term disturbance that humans have introduced to the planet is perhaps the most influential factor. Yet we know too little about how to control plant disease.

Of course, I was excited when I received my copy of Disease in Plants for review. "What a wonderful idea," I thought, "teaching plant disease from the vantage point of natural history." Leafing through the book I was thrilled to see that the history of discovery was another theme in the book. We scientists need to teach more about history in our courses! There were the photos of some of my old mycology favorites. There was Anton deBary, the great microbiologist and discoverer of the causal agent of late potato blight (Phytophthora infestans). And there on page 157, a portrait of Elvin Charles Stakman, whose elucidation of the "Puccinia pathway," based on dogged determination and true research grit, explained the seasonal northward movement of wheat rust through the North American plains. The giant figures in botany, like plant disease itself, are the mainstay of many a mycology class. If they are taught well, they provide the real thrill that draws students to seemingly arcane courses in botany, microbiology, and plant pathology. Unfortunately, they are not taught especially well in this book.

While the author (who died shortly after finishing this book) held his direct and indirect mentors in the highest esteem, he did not present their work with the kind of verve that could bring them to life. After a short ad lucid introduction, the prose in this volume gets bogged down in the dense, sometimes unclearly articulated facts of plants diseases and their history. The research of the author's mentors, Armin Braun and John Walker, are highlighted in the first chapters. Their work, while important and thoroughly documented here, simply does not grab the reader's interest. I found myself tempted to put the book down, wishing things would move along a bit faster. Later chapters tell the story of various diseases under headings that suggest a unifying theme loosely based around natural history, for example, ecology, aliens, and adaptation. Yet the themes are not amplified. The chapter headings seem almost arbitrary. Some disease processes are explained, others are not. We learn little about the biology of chestnut blight but Dutch elm disease is explained down to the molecular level. What is worse, Koch's postulates, which are central to plant pathology, are mentioned on page 86, as though we had already made friends with them, but this is their first introduction in the book. They are found again on page 106, but only parenthetically! The book starts to look like a collection of class lectures, but there is no professor up there to ask where to look up the Koch postulates or the life cycle of Endothia parasitica. We are left with a pretty mundane, somewhat inconsistent re-telling of the old stories, which is a shame.

There are some positive points, however. Throughout the text, the author repeats a disclaimer that the book is not encyclopedic and to his credit, many diseases are nevertheless considered and discussed. The book is richly cited, which should help students find primary sources if they are so inclined. Although the natural history of plant disease is not really grappled with, the possibility is suggested here, at least. This book represents an enormously rich field of inquiry. It could have offered much more. Samuel Hammer, College of General Studies, Boston University.

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