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This history of the Plant Pathology Photo Lab was written by Prof. Carl Boothroyd for the 1993 Cornell Plant Pathology Newsletter.


When one reminisces about the history of Plant Pathology at Cornell University, that person cannot help but feel that a specific medium has served as a universal expression of that science over the years. That medium is Photography. The trite quip, "A picture says a thousand words", has never been more appropriate. From the time of hand colored photos of diseased plants on display in the Winter Course in Plant Pathology in 1907 to the sophisticated illustrated panels of research papers at recent national meetings of the Phytopathological Society, Photography has been the heart of Plant Pathology.

Willis R. Fisher, Departmental Photographer (1907-1950)

Mr. Fisher was born and raised in Spencer, N.Y., a short distance from Ithaca. In 1907 he applied for a job in Plant Pathology, a new department in the College of Agriculture at Cornell University. Its chairman, Professor H. H. Whetzel, interviewed him and put him in charge of the Stockroom. A short time later, when Fisher remarked of a photo of a diseased plant prepared by another campus individual, "I can do better than that", Whetzel said, "O.K., show me!". Mr. Fisher did, and was promptly named official Photographer and Stockroom Clerk. That began a career that spread over forty-three years. He retired in 1950 and was replaced by Howard Lyon.

W. R. Fisher was always "Mr. Fisher" to students and staff alike, at least as far back as any of the old timers in the Department can remember. He was dedicated to getting the best equipment available in his time, constantly experimented with new gadgetry, and maintained a strong interest in the newest technologies for films and cameras and their lenses. He published an article in an early issue of Phytopathology describing the way to photograph ascospore discharge from apothecia (one of the cover photographs for this issue is taken from that article). And he remained dedicated to the concept that a photograph not backed up by voucher material (in the case of disease material or of fungi) was unacceptable: before a lowly graduate student (or, for that matter, a tenured professor) could get Mr. Fisher to take the photograph they wanted, they had to fill out a full sheet on disposition of the specimen and also a herbarium.

Accession form to accompany the photograph(s) and specimen. There were understandable howls of anguish as to why a virus-infected leaf needed to be dried and deposited in the herbarium just to get it photographed. Why go to all that work when the herbarium specimen would never be of any use? (Of course, PCR was not even a gleam on the horizon.) But exceptions were not Mr. Fisher's way of life: deposit the specimen or go without the photograph. Mr. Fisher of course had to photograph everything from the latest spray machines (some were horse-drawn vehicles in the early days) to portraits of various members of the Department (a truly important heritage for history buffs). Mr. Fisher never seemed to lack the time to work with the scientists, from the most fledgling to the oldest codgers in the Department, never stinting of his time - a tradition that luckily the Department maintained through Mr. Fisher's successors.

The transition from Mr. Fisher to Howard Lyon as Departmental Photographer in 1950 was smooth. Howie made some interesting comments that reflect his admiration for Mr. Fisher as a photographer. Howie never did know Mr. Fisher, the man, during his graduate days and became acquainted with him for the first time in 1950. Fisher pointed out the dark rooms, and showed him where the backs of the copy camera and the home made 35 mm back that fit on the 5x7 camera were kept. He handed Howie the keys, wished him good day, and left for his new home in Florida. Howie did get to know, and appreciate, Mr. Fisher, the photographer, very well, however, over his own years of experience. He printed and examined thousands of Mr. Fisher's photos from the file. Fisher was an artist, an innovator, and an excellent technician and mechanic. No one realized how old and crude the equipment was that was being used, even by 1950. Howie's personal camera seemed light years ahead of what Mr. Fisher had been using. For example, the lens on the copy camera had no shutter. Exposures were made by removing the lens cap and counting one thousand one, one thousand two, etc., or by using a stopwatch. Knowing the type of equipment Mr. Fisher had been using, and working with his pictures, it didn't take long for Howie to realize that Mr. Fisher was a very talented photographer. Equipment, even today, may save time, but equipment does not take the picture.

Howard H. Lyon, Department Photographer (1950-1985)

Howie Lyon enrolled as a graduate student in Plant Pathology in September 1949 and was studying Forest Pathology under the direction of Professor Welch. One year later, in the fall of 1950, he was collecting fungi in the woods near Beebe Lake when he heard that Mr. Fisher, photographer in Plant Pathology, had given notice of his retirement. An avid photographer himself, Howie cut class and went up to Dr. Kent's office to apply for the job. He got the position, beginning a career as Departmental Photographer which did not end until his retirement in 1985, fulfilling a childhood dream which became a fun thing as his avocation became his vocation.

The Photo Lab in Plant Science became increasingly more popular after 1950, when Howie Lyon arrived, servicing students and staff in Plant Pathology, then more members of other departments in the Plant Science Building, other departments in Agriculture, and even of departments on the Arts and Science campus. Howie introduced changes in procedure that were copied in other laboratories; e.g., reduction in the size of black and white prints from 5"x7" to 4"x5", hand colored 35 mm data slides previously only available in 3"x4", and color prints by the positive/negative process.

The contributions of Howie to the professional staff and many graduate students who began their careers at Cornell will long be remembered. Their illustration of their work reflects the historical changes that took place over the years. In the early 1950's it was the Golden Nematode of Potato. Howie, Bill Mai, and Bob Dickey put together an excellent film on that pest, a film requested by Nematologists nationally and internationally. Time-lapse photography was being introduced. Artie Browning will remember sleeping all night on a cot in the photo lab to check on a movie of Coprinus growing on dung. It was taken with a Rube-Goldberg type of bicycle wheel equipment concocted by Howie. Ginny Rogers (Ferris) wowed the audience at a national Phytopathological Meeting with a film of zoospores popping out of zoosporangia of the potato blight fungus, a part of her thesis material caught on Howie's camera. Another popular movie was that of the powdery mildew fungus on apple, which Howie prepared with Ken Parker, well justifying the funding supplied by Gordon Brandes of Rohm and Haas. Many are the aerial photographs taken by Howie while flying over New York State or by his passengers as Howie flew the plane.

The photographs, tables, charts, diagrams, etc. that embellished the oral presentations, publications, and theses of the Plant Pathology Department members at Cornell helped immeasurably to maintain a reputation of excellence. Many staff and students will remember the striking data slides that Howie prepared for scientific presentations. A "Pictorial Key of Nematodes" published in 1959 by Bill Mai and Howie has gained worldwide acceptance. A revised edition has recently been sent to the press. In 1976, another widely accepted publication, "Insects that Feed on Trees and Shrubs", by Warren Johnson and Howie, appeared, and a companion volume, "Diseases of Trees and Shrubs" by Wayne Sinclair and Howie, was completed in 1987, after Howie retired.

These are only a very few of the accomplishments that came out of Plant Pathology while Howie was in charge of the photographic laboratory. Truly, they represent the very core of our science, and reflect the art of photography upon the development of our history.

Kent Loeffler, Departmental Photographer (1985-Present)

Kent Loeffler completes the trio of photographers who have staffed what may be one of the oldest, if not the oldest, photographic laboratories in Plant Pathology. Kent was born in California but has put down roots in Ithaca, N.Y. A part of his early experience was taking pictures, of all things - eyes of animals. After that, a degree in Biomedical Photography makes Kent admirably suited for much of our modern approach to Plant Pathology, things microbiological.

On July 1, 1985, our third photographer in the long period of picture taking in Plant Pathology began his work. Kent got a B.S. degree on the Colombia, Missouri campus, and was selected to replace Howie Lyon. Kent was fortunate in having Howie around for some time to help him. Howie was officially retired but was finishing up the photography work for the Johnson-Lyon manuscript on "Insects of Trees and Shrubs". Kent had had little experience with plants, having received a degree in Biology at the University of Missouri, and four years of experience at an Eye Bank establishment in Colombia. At the time the Cornell position became available, Kent had just completed a second B.S. degree, in Biomedical Photography, at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

The photography laboratory physical plant in the Plant Science Building at Cornell now is much the same as it has been for many years, although the services have increased and the nature of those services has changed. Over twenty other departments and units of the Cornell campus are now being served, although Plant Pathology still receives priority. Media Services of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences still retains a Photography unit, and Boyce Thompson Institute, and the Veterinary College each have their own shops. The work, which Kent does primarily, is in the area of microbiology, as research centers upon biochemical reactions, and their photographic expression; e.g., gel formation, autoradiograms, etc.

Photography in Plant Pathology at Cornell has kept pace with the times and still remains the center of activity for staff and, students. Although serving only a relatively short time compared to Mr. Fisher and Howard Lyon, Kent Loeffler has demonstrated that he is the right person for a position that will continue to be considered as the "heart" of Plant Pathology.