A History of the Department | Plant Biology | SIU

Southern Illinois University



College of Agriculture, Life and Physical Sciences

Donald Bissing 1976

A History of the Department

By Daniel Nickrent

The beginnings of botany at SIU

Portrait of George HazenThe study of botany actually began at Southern Illinois Normal College (SINC) before there was a formal Botany Department. Indeed, instruction in this subject began in 1874 with Cyrus W. Thomas who was appointed as “Teacher of Natural History and Physiology”. As a member of the first faculty, Thomas taught botany courses as part of the teacher training curriculum that included both elementary and advanced treatments of plant form, reproduction, respiration, etc. In 1877 Thomas was joined by George Hazen French who worked under him as Assistant State Entomologist in the SINC museum. In the following year he began teaching subjects such as zoology, physiology and floriculture (botany). Upon the departure of Thomas in 1879, French was appointed Professor of Natural History and Physiology. French’s discovery of a new species of shooting star, which was later named for him by George Vasey as Dodecatheon frenchii, is also honored by the current logo for the Plant Biology Department at SIU.

Biological sciences had humble beginnings at SINC when John P. Gilbert joined the faculty in 1910 to teach biology and agriculture. In 1913 the Department of Biology and Agriculture split into the Department of Biology (with Gilberts as head) and the Department of Agriculture. The Biology Department further subdivided in 1926 when three additional programs were established: Health Education, Physiology and Botany. An independent Department of Botany was organized in 1929 with William M. Bailey as the first chair and with one additional faculty member, Martha H. Scott. As stated in Plochmann (1955):

“Dr. Bailey himself had a profound effect upon the teaching of botanic science at Southern Illinois University. He is remembered as a serious scholar, versatile and unrelenting in his search for facts and principles. The most enduring of his special concerns was for photosynthesis, and he made studies of the composition of chlorophyll. As an instance of his devotion to work, it may be recounted that in spite of a large family, he would remain in his laboratory long evenings, checking experiments or student papers, then turn in for the night on one of the tables, to rest before carrying on the labors of the next day.”

In the Southern Illinois State Normal University, Carbondale Bulletin (Vol. XXIV, No. I), July 1930 (Catalogue Number 1930-31), 13 courses were listed:

Course # Course Name
Botany 101 (Biology 20). Introductory botany.
Botany 102 (Biology 21a). Morphology of plants.
Botany 103 (Biology 21b). Systematic botany.
Botany 301 (Biology 22). Morphology of the Thallophytes.
Botany 302 (Biology 23). Morphology of the Bryophytes.
Botany 303 (Biology 25). Morphology of the Spermatophytes.
Botany 315. Genetics.
Botany 320 (Biology 26). Plant Physiology (soil, water relations, etc.).
Botany 325 (Biology 27). Plant Physiology (metabolism, nutritional processes in plants without chlorophyll).
Botany 330. Plant Physiology (digestion, respiration, fermentation, growth, movement).
Botany 340 (Biology 28). Plant Ecology (introduction).
Botany 345. Plant Ecology (community relationships).
Botany 350. Plant Geography.


By examining the present day course listing for the Plant Biology Department, it is satisfying to see that all of the above topics (and others of course) are still present in our curriculum!

In the 1932 Obelisk is found the following quotation:

“In the department of botany a teaching staff of two members offer fourteen courses, of which ten are open only to juniors and seniors. This department is equipped well enough to give graduate work. Botany is a subject of great importance in the high school, and such a well equipped department offers a real opportunity to prospective teachers of high school botany.”

In 1929, Bailey and Scott were joined by Mary Goddard (later Mary Goddard Steck) who had obtained a Masters degree from the University of Michigan in 1926. In addition, Willard M. Gersbacher, who had obtained his bachelor’s degree from SINC taught in the Botany Department during the 1929-30 school year. After earning his M.A. and Ph.D. he returned to SINC in 1936 as a member of the Zoology Department. In 1938 Mary Goddard received her Ph.D. and was listed in the Obelisk as being on leave of absence. Because she did not return to her position on the faculty, she was replaced in January of 1939 by Dr. Walter B. Welch, who was a John M. Coulter Fellow in Botany at the University of Chicago (1936-37). Also during 1939, Miss Martha Scott was on leave of absence as she was pursuing her graduate work at the University of Southern California.

At the beginning of the spring term 1939, Mr. William Marberry was added to the personnel of the Botany Department. He is best remembered now as having helped improve the physical appearance of the campus by planting many trees and shrubs and for helping plan the hiking trails at Giant City State Park. In 1939 Mr. Marberry acquired 24.7 acres of land (an old peach orchard outside Carbondale), to pursue his hobby of collecting trees. In 1940 he planted Ponderosa Pines and Incense Cedar, some of which he had collected as a ranger at Yosemite National Park. During World War II Mr. Marberry served in India, Burma, and China. On his return flight he carried with him eighteen coffee cans of seedlings that were planted on the property that he affectionately called “the farm.” Over the next three decades his spare time was devoted to developing the arboretum, eventually planting over 20,000 trees. These specimens came from all around the globe, as Mr. Marberry used his personal contacts to trade with botanists in Europe. One of the early additions was the rare Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), an ancient species discovered in China and distributed in the USA via the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. Under his care the property eventually contained one of the largest collections of exotic trees in Illinois, aside from the famous Morton Arboretum in Chicago. The current Marberry Arboretum on Pleasant Hill road is owned and operated by the Carbondale Park District.

It is clear that a major mission of the Botany Department ca. 1940 was towards teaching both college students and local teachers. The 1941 Obelisk (p. 198) said:

“Mr. William Bailey, head of the Botany Department, and Mr. Fred Cagle of the University High School staff have been collaborating in a course in Methods in Biology for the training of high school biology teachers. The student is given actual experience in laboratory and field studies and projects suitable for high school biology classes. Another feature of the course is the visiting of Southern Illinois high schools for the purpose of seeing work being done in high school biology classes.”

This paragraph almost perfectly describes outreach activities being conducted by current faculty in Plant Biology!


The transition years: from teachers college to graduate courses

The Botany Department was included as one of the original components of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 1943. In this year Martha Scott switched from Botany to the Zoology Department (and later joined the military), thus the faculty consisted of Drs. Bailey, Welch, and Mr. Marberry. In 1946 William Bailey retired and was succeeded as chair by Walter B. Welch. In the same year Miss Irma Tate Ward joined the Botany Department as a Faculty Assistant. During the next decade, under the direction of Dr. Welch, saw the Department grow to seven members. Dr. Margaret Kaeiser, a plant anatomist who earned her Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, joined the faculty in 1947. The first graduate degree (M.S. 1948) was given to Amy M. Jones who worked under the direction of Dr. Welch. The thesis, which dealt with the anatomy and physiology of a local mint with "dittany" as its vernacular name, was entitled "A study of the anatomical structures of the stem of Cunila origanoides as it forms 'frost flowers'". The next M.S. degree was awarded in 1950 to Nora K. McManus who conducted a physiological study of Telanthera bettziekiana Regel [= Alternanthera bettzichiana (Regal) Nicholson - Amaranthaceae]. Also in 1950, Dr. Leo Kaplan, a mycologist, as well as Dr. John Voigt, an ecologist, joined the Botany faculty. Because the Department had now acquired sufficient faculty with Ph.D. degrees to offer graduate courses, their status advanced beyond that of a teachers college. This change can be seen by comparing the 1941 Obelisk description of the department (above) with the one printed in the 1958 edition (p. 196) which stated:

“The purposes of the Botany Department are to prepare students in Botany for teaching biological science on the secondary college level, to educate Botanists for careers in research with the U.S. government and private enterprise, and to offer a general course requirement to all college students to give them a background of life as illustrated through plants. In co-operation with other departments in the University the department is working on the Mississippi Valley Research project.”

In 1955, two more faculty were hired, Dr. Lane Wilson, a plant physiologist, and Dr. Albert Hendricks, a taxonomist. Dr. Hendricks was on leave from the University in January of 1957 and Dr. Robert Mohlenbrock, who had just completed his Ph.D. at Washington University, was hired as a temporary replacement. Because Dr. Hendricks chose not to return to the department (and instead moved to Guam), Dr. Mohlenbrock was appointed as permanent taxonomist later that year. In 1959 Dr. Ladislao V. Olah joined the department bringing expertise in cytology. Interestingly, Dr. Olah published a paper in 1960 documenting the chromosome number of Rafflesia arnoldii, a parasitic plant from Indonesia with the largest flower in the world. These data are still relevant and useful today to another SIU botanist (Nickrent) who conducts molecular studies of this same plant. Dr. Olah also provided cytological, morphological, and ecological evidence that indicated reproductive isolation between Mead’s and French’s shooting stars (Dodecatheon spp.), thus indicating they represent distinct species.


Rapid Growth in the 1960s

In 1960 three additional faculty were hired to bolster the Graduate program in botany: Dr. Aristotel J. Pappelis, a cell biologist, Dr. Howard Applegate, and Dr. William Clark Ashby. Dr. Applegate, who received his Ph.D. from Michigan State University, was studying the effects of halogens on plants. Dr. Ashby came onboard contributing a research program focused upon restoration and reclamation of land disturbed by strip mining. A student of Dr. Ashby's, James N. Cummins, received the first Ph.D. in the Department in 1965. His dissertation was entitled "Some physiological and anatomical aspects of rhizogenesis in stem tissues of the apple." Although Dr. Applegate left SIU after only two years, Dr. Ashby and Pappelis retired after devoting 32 and 43 years of service to the Department and University, respectively. Dr. Ralph Kelting, a grassland ecologist was hired in 1961 and, like Dr. Applegate, left in 1962. At the end of 1963 Dr. Welch stepped down as Chair and was succeeded by Dr. Robert H. Mohlenbrock in 1964. One factor that apparently drove such volatility in personnel was professional and personal conflict among faculty, a factor that continued to play a role in shaping the future composition of the Department. For example, Dr. Donald A. Eggert was hired in 1961 but left in 1965 to continue his productive career as a paleobotanist at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle.

In 1962 Dr. Walter E. Schmid, a physiologist, was hired and two years later Drs. William D. Gray and Jacob Verduin joined the Department. As senior faculty, the latter two were hired specifically to assist the Department grow and develop its doctoral program. Dr. Gray was a mycologist whose research focused upon the use of fungi for producing protein as well as alcohol tolerance in yeast. Dr. Gray spent six years in the Botany Department before accepting a position at Northern Illinois University. Moving from his position as professor and chair of Biology at Bowling Green State University in 1964, Dr. Verduin spent 21 years as a productive scientist and teacher in the Botany Department at SIU. His published extensively in the field of aquatic biology, some of which appeared in the prominent journal Science.

The late 1960s saw continued growth of the Botany Department through acquisition of new faculty lines. Dr. Lawrence Matten, a paleobotanist, was hired in 1965 to replace Dr. Eggert. Dr. W. Hardy Eshbaugh, a taxonomist, was on the faculty from December of 1965 to June of 1967. He left for a position at Miami University (Oxford, OH) where he spent a productive career until retirement. Dr. Donald Tindall, a phycologist, was hired in 1966 and two years later Drs. Oval Myers Jr. (plant genetics) and Donald Ugent (taxonomy and ethnobotany) also joined the Department. In 1969 Mr. John Richardson was hired as a photographer and in the same year Drs. Raymond Stotler (bryology) and Philip Robertson (ecology) also joined the Department.


The peak years – 1970s and 80s

In 1970 Dr. John Yopp (physiology) and Dr. Barbara Crandall-Stotler (bryology and cell biology) came on board. With the loss of Dr. Gray in 1970, the Department wished to retain mycology as an academic discipline and therefore hired Dr. Walter Sundberg in 1972, fresh from his Ph.D. at the University of California Davis. On January 1, 1973 SIU initiated the College of Science with the Botany Department being one of its six original components (the others being Chemistry and Biochemistry, Geology, Physiology, Physics and Astronomy, and Zoology). In 1976 Dr. Donald Bissing, a plant anatomist, was appointed as Assistant professor in the Department and remained until 1990. In 1977 the Department had 70 undergraduate Botany majors (second in size only to the University of Maryland) and 45 graduate students. During the 1970s and 80s, over 50 graduate students received Masters or Doctoral degrees with Dr. Mohlenbrock, most of which involved floristics or taxonomy. These works helped establish this time period as an era when the flora of Illinois was being most thoroughly studied and documented. In 1979 Dr. Mohlenbrock stepped down as chair of the Department and this administrative position was then taken by Dr. Voigt who remained chair until his retirement in 1990. The 1980s saw two additional hires, Dr. John Bozzola (electron microscopy) and Dr. Kathleen Clark (cell and molecular biology). By the late 1980s, the Department of Botany reached its greatest size with 17 faculty members.


Transitions and faculty changes

As mentioned above, the Botany Department had attained a reputation during the 1970s and 80s as a hub for floristic and taxonomic work. Indeed the phrase “descriptive botany” could be applied to the research programs of many of the faculty including Mohlenbrock, Ugent, Sundberg, Matten, Stotler, Crandall-Stotler, and Bissing. As was done at other universities in the mid 1980s (such as the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign), the Department changed its name from Botany to Plant Biology, supposedly to better reflect a more “modern” vs. “traditional” scientific emphasis. In 1990 Drs. Mohlenbrock and Voigt retired, two botanists who had devoted their careers to the study of the southern Illinois flora. The former position was filled by Dr. Daniel Nickrent who came from the University of Illinois and the latter by Dr. Beth Middleton, a wetland ecologist who had just completed her Ph.D. at Iowa State University. Also in this year Dr. Matten assumed the position of chair of the Department from the retiring Dr. Voigt.

The decade and a half from 1990 to 2005 witnessed more change in faculty composition than any other time in the Department’s past history. During this period 14 faculty members retired: 1990 (Mohlenbrock, Voigt), 1992 (Ashby), 1999 (Matten, Yopp), 2002 (Schmid, Stotler, Tindall, Ugent, Richardson), 2003 (Pappelis, Robertson), and 2005 (Crandall-Stotler, Sundberg). In addition, four faculty left SIU for various reasons: 1990 (Bissing), 1993 (Clark), 2003 (Middleton), and 2004 (Ferreira). Thus in 2005, after this attrition, only one of the “old guard” faculty members remained – Dr. Bozzola. Hires from 1992 to 2006 totaled 11 faculty (with the loss of Ferreira this added 10 faculty): 1992 (Dr. David Gibson), 1996 (Dr. Andrew Wood), 1999 (Dr. Stephen Ebbs), 2000 (Dr. Dale Vitt), 2001 (Dr. Sedonia Sipes), 2003 (Drs. Jorge Ferreira and Loretta Battaglia), 2004 (Dr. Sara Baer), 2005 (Drs. Aldwin Anterola and Karen Renzaglia), and 2006 (Dr. Matt Geisler). In 1999 Dr. Tindall assumed the position of chair of Plant Biology and held it for two years. In 2001 Dr. Dale Vitt was hired which represented the first time the Department obtained an outside chair, i.e. not one from the ranks of existing faculty. From 2001 to present the Department has undergone major changes with the addition of eight new faculty and reorganization of its undergraduate and graduate curriculum.

From the above tabulation, it is clear that the Plant Biology Department underwent a complete transition that began in the early 1990s. This transition in faculty has also been accompanied by a change in the biological disciplines represented by the Department. Whereas during the 1970s and 80s descriptive botany predominated among faculty research activities, the most recent hires have helped the Department keep pace with modern advancements such that newer fields are now represented. Our current three node structure (Ecology, Systematics & Biodiversity, and Molecular & Biochemical Physiology) was originally conceived to guide hiring during the period after 2001 when many retirements were taking place. One revolutionary change in biology that began in the 1990s was the rise to importance of molecular biological methodologies that have become important tools in essentially all subdisciplines. Six of the twelve current faculty directly employ molecular methods in their laboratories and many of the remaining faculty utilize these methods indirectly. Another significant observation is that the Plant Biology department has a strong component that involves ecological studies. Such classification of faculty research expertise is useful only to a point, for indeed many could be more accurately placed in intermediate or central positions on the nodal Venn diagram. But looking at the Plant Biology Department with an historical perspective, one can see that despite major changes in methodologies, philosophies and faculty composition, the goals of the Department as reflected by the current curriculum bear a striking similarity to those shown in the 1930 catalog! For example, the Department still offers classes in introductory botany, plant morphology, systematics, plant physiology, genetics, ecology and phytogeography. Newer offerings such as biostatistics, restoration ecology, biosystematics and phylogenetics, medicinal plants, mineral nutrition, plant biochemistry, ecophysiology, and systems biology complement and expand upon traditional concepts and together aptly demonstrate that plants can provide the raw material for a lifetime of fruitful inquiry. The notable quotation from George Santayana, that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it", is apropos with respect to academic Departments. It is hoped that this historical account will help with understanding where we have been so that we might best plan future directions.