History of phytopathology

  • Plant diseases have been knowns to human since the Roman empire (270 BC – 476 AD). They worshiped Robigus (God of wheat) in a great festival Robigalia to protect the wheat from destructive red dust (now known as rust of wheat). In this festival they scarificed a red dog to the god of wheat.
  • This misleading thought was also encouraged by religious leaders. People thought that diseases were because of displeasure of gods, evil spirits or unfavorable positions of stars or moons. Mildews, blights and blasts are also described in early Biblical writings (in the books of Amos, Deuteronomy and Kings I in the Old Testament).
  • Aristotle, Plato's student, recorded plant diseases as early as 350 B.C., and his colleague Theophrastus observed and speculated about diseases of cereals, legumes, and trees.
  • Since Aristotle’s time for up to 2000 years little was known about the plant pathology. Many naturalists have come from time to time in western world, but these naturalists were hampered by the Christian churches.

  • It was in 1665, Robert Hooke illustrated the rose rust, a plant-pathogenic fungal disease.
  • The scientific knowledge of plant diseases started only after the invention of the crude microscope in 1675 by a Dutch cloth merchant and lens grinder, Antony van Leeuwenhoek. He had observed bacteria in 1683 and his microscope had opened the eyes of the world to see through the galaxy of microbes.
  • In 1728, Duhamel de Monceau described the saffron disease of crocus in France caused by fungus Rhizoctonia. He describes this as contagious, which could spread among the plants and cause epidemics (basis of germ theory of disease). Unfortunately, his work received almost no attention and his theory was fade-out.
  • In 1743, J. T. Needham first described plant-parasitic nematodes in wheat galls.
  • In 1729, P. A. Micheli in Italy studied many fungi. He has conducted germination experiments and showed that, "seeds" of fungi grew and produced more "seeds."
  • In 1755, Mathieu Tillet, in France, proved experimentally that wheat bunt is a contagious disease. He observed that the disease could be prevented by treatment of seeds.

  • In 1807, Isaac Benedict from Switzerland proved conclusively that bunt of wheat can be controlled by dipping seed in copper sulfate. Just like Duhamel he was unfortunate and his great contribution was rejected by the authorities.
  • During 1830 to 1850 late blight of potato appeared in the United States and Western Europe. It destroyed potato crops in Ireland during 1845 to 1849. As a result, a million people died of malnutrition and starvation. Also, a similar number of people emigrated from Ireland to the United States and Canada. This tragedy forced the scientists to investigate the late blight of potato and find measures to control it.
  • It was Heinrich Anton De Bary, a medical doctor, who had studied about the late blight of potato. He had studied and elucidated the life cycle Phytophthora infestans (earlier known as Peronospora infestans) causing devastation of late blight of potato. He is considered as Father of Mycology and Plant Pathology

  • In 1858 the first plant pathology text was published by Julius Gotthelf Kuhn in Germany.
  • Robert Hartig, another German, devoted his life to the study of forest tree diseases and published two books in 1874 and 1882. He is also called as Father of Forest Pathology.
  • In 1884, Robert Koch provided a series of rules to prove that a disease is caused by microbes, which is known as Koch's postulates. In 1885, Frenchman P. M. A. Millardet discovered Bordeaux mixture/Bordo mix (first fungicide) to control the downy mildew of grapes.
  • Recently in December 2023, Christine Strullu-Derrien alongwith co-wrokders from the  Science Group, The Natural History Museum, London, UK reported a fossil  lycopsid plant Asteroxylon mackiei infected with fungal pathogen, Potteromyces asteroxylicola. This fossil evidence belongs to the Rhynie Chert (407 mya). 

Fossil plant pathogen Potteromyces asteroxylicola
a Tuft of conidiophores arising from beneath the cuticle of an aerial axis of the plant Asteroxylon mackiei. b Higher magnification of a. Arrowhead showing animal remains. c, d Higher magnifications of b in different focal planes. Sporodochium-like stroma made of vertically aligned hyphae visible in d. e Higher magnification of the framed zone from b. f Higher magnification of e showing conidiogenesis; first-formed conidium holoblastic (arrowhead); conidia in chain (double arrowheads). Scale bars: 300 µm (a), 125 µm (b), 55 µm (c, d); 45 µm (e); 30 µm (f).
(Image and caption were reused uder Creative Commons CC BY from the source: A fungal plant pathogen discovered in the Devonian Rhynie Chert)  


Content first created on 19-08-2021
last updated on 10-12-2023