C.J.A. The Last Mycologist Who Was BSA President
At the American Institute of Biological Sciences meeting in San Diego in 1995 I learned that earlier strong ties that had existed between botanists and mycologists were severed. BSA members wondered who was the John S. Karling, who had made a generous bequest to the BSA (and also MSA)? That incident has been rectified by a short Karling biography and the notice of the Karling Award that was established with the gift on the BSA web site. I recalled this incident after I discovered that C. J. Alexopoulos was the last person to have served as president both of the BSA (1963) and of the MSA (1958-1959), marking a lost connection. Also gone is the Department of Botany at the University of Texas and the diverse group of botanists who had written all the textbooks I used there as a student in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Plant Biology/Botany graduate program link on the Texas web site leads to "The page cannot be found." Mycology, however, is still present at Texas in Paul Szaniszlo's lab in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology. As I recall that is where it was (as the Department of Microbiology) before Jim Maniotis, and then Dr. Alex, inhabited the Department of Botany. Dr. Alex was happy at Texas, commenting on the luxury of walking out on a December day without a top coat, having lunch with Harold Bold, having lunch and coffee with his students, and with Mrs. Alex, taking advantage of the musical programs available on the campus certainly not the music of the Austin scene that was becoming so popular nationally around him.
One item on the Texas web site was a happy discovery:
Dr. Alexopoulos was a lucid, enthusiastic and inspiring teacher of both undergraduate and graduate students. During his career he supervised nine M. A. students and twenty-eight Ph. D. students, eighteen of the latter at The University of Texas. He was greatly respected and beloved by his graduate students who demonstrated their loyalty clearly and to an unusual degree.
— Harold Bold, Jerry J. Brand, and R. Malcolm Brown
The quote is from the memorial resolution, prepared by a committee made up of Dr. Alex's good friend and former BSA president [see below], as well as two younger faculty members, one a graduate student in Dr. Alex's time (who involved him in an air-borne spore project that was the beginning of my own association with Dr. Alex), and the committee designed a cogent resolution ! Today his students are mostly mycologists; one, a lawyer; many retired or nearing retirement; several untimely dead; none resides in a botany department, although one mycological grandchild comes close as the member of a Department of Botany and Plant Pathology. Most of the students followed him as academics, six followed him as MSA president, and one, as IMA president —but not one has been a BSA president. All of the students remain loyal "to an unusual degree," but it is only the later Texas students that could be contacted easily, making this piece very Texacentric. The Texas students, however, were linked to earlier students from the University of Illinois, Kent State University, Michigan State University, and University of Iowa, because we saw their photographs on Dr. Alex's office wall daily a rogue's gallery he referred to with great affection
In addition to the memorial resolution that appears on the University of Texas web site, two biographies were published soon after Dr.Alex's death (Brodie, 1987; Blackwell, 1988). The Brodie biography was published in Mycologia at a time when society notables oftenmade a last appearance on the first page of an issue of that journal. The other biography in the journal of the British Mycological Society memorialized the society's Honorary Member. His last, slightly updated CV is posted at <http://lsb380.plbio.lsu.edu/LabPersonnel/cja.html>. He name was given to the MSA Alexopoulos Prize "awarded annually to an outstanding mycologist early in their [sic] career. The nominees will be evaluated primarily on the basis of quality, originality, and quantity of their published work." His students established the prize at the time of his retirement from teaching at Texas, and over the years some students continue to contribute to the gift. In fact one year the fund mysteriously swelled, and I learned later that Henry Aldrich (Ph.D. Texas (1966) contributed the excess profits he had had to accept as a principal of the "non-profit corporation" of organizers of the Second International Mycological Congress at Tampa. There also is an MSA student travel award named for Dr. Alex, again mostly with contributions from former students.
Almost 20 years after his death (15 May 1986) in the month of the ninety-ninth anniversary of his birth (17 March 1906), the assignment is to bring Dr. Alex to life for a new generation of botanists. His students remember him vividly with true affection. Below you will find a collection of anecdotes, excerpts from Christmas letters and notes "from the desk of C.J. Alexopoulos notes," being his usual form of written daily communication with the students in his lab some kept more than 35 years.
John E. Peterson (Ph.D. Michigan State University, 1957) was Dr. Alex's first Ph.D. student, although he did not finish first; that honor was won by Sung Huang Sun, who was the first illustrator of his textbook, Introductory Mycology. Former Dean and Professor, Emporia State University, Emporia, Kansas, wrote a tribute to Dr. Alex that appeared with a photograph in "Life of the Mind, the Newsletter of the Emporia State University Honors Program," No. 54, December, 1985 "The original of the picture you see on the reverse side of this page hangs on the wall directly above my desk. I see it whenever I raise my eyes. It has hung above whatever desk I have worked at for a good many years. It is a picture of one of my teachers my main teacher, I would say
Joanne (Judi) Tontz Ellzey remembers her first meeting with Dr. Alex. "My first year in Austin I was walking down the hall of the building near Dr. Alex's office. I stopped to look at a specimen that was displayed on newspaper. He walked by and asked me to identify the fungus. I did not hesitate —I believe that it was a Daldinia. Dr. Alex became very blustery and asked me if I had read the identification written on the newspaper. I said "No, this fungus grows in my parents' backyard in North Carolina. My mother-in-law has elaborated on this often told story and told friends and relatives that this was a test for acceptance in the Botany Department!" —JTE
Also, the first year that I worked with Dr. Alex, I was standing in a narrow walkway outside of his office door talking with him about my research when one of my contact lenses popped out of my eye and landed on the floor between us. I had to bend down and retrieve it before someone stepped on it. His reaction was "Vanity, vanity!" —JTE
Dr. Alex was a wonderful teacher, lecturing with only an occasional glance at a 3 X 5" note card, urging us on to greater accomplishments with the use of sardonic humor, and holding to the highest standards. We all remember his classes, especially the fact that he was always in the laboratory the entire four hours. Learning was so much fun.
"In a lab in the clas on ascomycetes some students were tittering about the scientific names of some organisms that had been described by Karl Fuckel. The species names were followed by the reference to the author minus the last two letters of his surname. Alex was, or pretended to be, totally oblivious to the reason for the students' amusement." S.B.
"On his exams in general mycology* he occasionally asked for drawings of various things. On one my drawing was perhaps a little less than accurate, prompting a written comment: `What is this? some psychedelic art!!'" S.B.
[* CJA taught an introductory and three advanced (myxomycetes, zygomycetes, and ascomycetes mycology courses) there was no course on basidiomycetes, because he said often confused them with paint splotches.]
"While taking introductory mycology from Dr. Alex, the class had a field trip to collect slime molds near Bastrop, Texas. We were to meet outside the botany building at a certain time and ride over in a van. All of us were milling around the van when Dr. Alex appeared. He had on tan riding pants with knee high brown leather boots, a black beret*, a pair of thick magnifying glasses that flipped down from under the beret, and a huge knife with a 10 inch blade in a scabbard on his belt. Needless to say, the class was in shock about going out in rural Central Texas with him dressed like that. However, we loaded in the van hoping that no one would see us. Things went well until we started home and he announced that he wanted to stop at a little eating place to get some buttermilk pie. The parking lot was filled with pickup trucks the biggest "redneck place" you've ever seen! We bit our tongues and went inside the best pie I've ever had in spite of all the looks we attracted!" C.W.M.
[*His black wool beret was standard cool weather grab.]
Wayne Rosing remembers, "As a Myxomycete class project, Dr. Alex had us check the identifications of myxos in the Creager collection by bringing the specimen, our slide, and our ID to him for his perusal before specimens were placed in the UT Herbarium. I brought him a beat up specimen that both Creager and I had identified as Comatricha typhoides. When Dr. Alex looked at the boxed specimen, he said, `NEVER!' When I said, `It has the spores.' He replied, `If this is C. typhoides, I'll take everyone to coffee.' He looked at my slide and I presume he felt that I'd somehow mixed up slides from different specimens. He made his own slide from the boxed specimen, examined it microscopically and said, `Tell everyone to get their coats, we're going for coffee.' As a young know-it-all, I oft times disagreed with Dr. Alex. But, in the five years I knew him, he was right perhaps 1000 times to the 3 times that I can vividly recall, I was right. I think that he actually liked the fact that I'd disagree with him on occasion (in an agreeable way of course)." —W.C.R.
Wayne also remembers the only impersonation he ever heard Dr. Alex do —Ernst Athern Bessey. "According to Dr. Alex, Bessey's reputation at Michigan State University was legend. He knew everything botanical there was to know. A young colleague was going to test Bessey and had planted some grapefruit seeds in a flat. These had germinated and the junior faculty member was taking them to campus intending to tell Bessey they were weeds that had come up in his Michigan back yard. The flat of seedlings was on the floor of the car behind the driver's seat as the young Ph.D. drove to campus. As luck would have it, Dr. Bessey was walking to campus. His young colleague pulled up to the curb and asked Bessey if he'd like a ride. Bessey then got into the car. Suddenly, his nose began to twitch. It was at this point that Dr. Alex told us that Bessey lisped. When Bessey's young colleague asked him, `What's wrong Dr. Bessey?' Bessey replied, `I thmell grapefruit theedlings.'" —W.C.R.
Ralph Gustafson was one of several students impressed by the buzzer. "Dr. Alex's office was some distance from the two labs where the graduate students had their desks and research space. He installed a buzzer* in each of two the labs and posted list above the buzzer button that all of our names on it and the number of times he would press the button for each of us. We all lived in fear of that system as getting buzzed meant that we were to immediately go to his office to `get the word' about something, usually bad news for the student buzzed. It was not a quiet buzz and all would jump when it went off." R.G.
[*The buzzer code was dependent on the total number of graduate students, and some students were signaled by no fewer that seven buzzes. We always had to remain alert to count the number of buzzes accurately.]
"I got buzzed into Dr. Alex's office one day and found him conversing with a long-haired, bearded fellow. The guy had brought bits and pieces of dried mushroom to Dr. Alex. These were being sold on the street as Psilocybe mexicana. The guy was from a drug-counseling center in Austin. He wanted to know if they were the genuine article. Dr. Alex looked at the debris under his dissecting scope and made a slide or two. He told the fellow that he thought that the mushroom remains were indeed those of P. mexicana but that he wasn't going to tell anyone to eat them. When the fellow left, I heard Dr. Alex swear for the first and last time. He said, `Damn hippies*, I wish they'd leave the fungi alone.' And so it goes…." —W.C.R.
[*Dr. Alex was conservative about certain things! He did, however, coauthor a paper on a species of the genus of hallucinogenic mushrooms that certainly helped to insure correct identification (Jackson, R. E. and C. J. Alexopoulos. 1976. Psilocybe cubensis (Agaricales): A comparison of Mexican and Texas types. Southwestern Naturalist 21:227-233)]
Don Reynolds wrote, "Dr. Alex's European manner was part of his demeanor. One of the "imperial" attributes was to have a call buzzer for the graduate students. The room buzzer* was just under my foot space. It seemed to buzz all day with a signal of from one to several blasts depending who was being summoned. Once I just got tired of it and kicked it off the wall. Within what seemed like a very short while, he was down the hall finding out what was wrong for a quick fix. The Grand Old Man was soon again being served by those he deemed could do his bidding." D.R.R.
[*Again, there goes that buzzer!]
In his second year at Stephen F. Austin State University Charles Mims invited Dr. Alex to come over to give a seminar. "There was no way to fly in to Nacogdoches, so he and Mrs. Alex drove over —about a 5 hour drive. They were very late in arriving, and we were getting worried. When they finally pulled up to my home after dark, he explained that they had had two flat tires on the way over and that various kind people had helped them with the flats —the last man had suggested that they needed to get new tires right away but Alex wanted my advice on the matter. The next morning I looked at the tires and none of the four had any tread left —the worse looking tires I'd ever seen! When I pointed this out to him his response was that he was too busy with his work to worry about getting new tires! The next day I went with him to the tire store to have four new tires installed before they started home." C.W.M.
It was not only tires, but also Dr. Alex's car engine that was often not in good condition. I once recognized it parked on the side of a road that I also used each morning. I headed for the nearest service station and there he was with his guest, G. W. Martin*, who was visiting as outside committee member for Mary Henney's (Ph.D. Texas, 1966) dissertation defense. Dr. Alex stayed to deal with the car and I had the great privilege of driving Dr. Martin in to the university.
[*George Willard Martin was long retired from the University of Iowa at the time, but was still active and was at the time collaborating with Dr. Alex on the Myxomycetes.]
Whether we were his research assistants or teaching assistants, we worked hard. I remember that I was required to work 20 hours a week on his NSF grant-related research not my own slime mold research. At that time the IRS apparently did not require R.A.s to pay taxes as long as they were paid to pursue their own research. We envied Dr. Bold's R.A.s who not only got more of their thesis work done during the day, but also escaped paying taxes on the meager wages. Ralph and Wayne remember how hard they worked as T.A.s.
Dr. Alex taught graduate introductory mycology every fall term at UT-Austin. He wanted living cultures ready for the labs and he wanted them to be axenic and ready to show whatever they were to show at the lab that day. Timing was essential!
That meant having:
Allomyces male gametangia ready to open and spew forth the male gametes when the students added water to the culture
Mucor and Phycomyces + and strains in the same dish with zygospores where they met in the center of the dish.
Myxomycete swarm cells swimming in the dish at the start of the lab.
Sordaria perithecia ready at the moment that they had mature ascospores.
Pilobolus ready to shoot off their sporangia as soon as the students put the culture under the lights of their dissecting microscopes.
And the list went on and on. He wanted the cultures in his office one hour before the class session so that he could examine them before he used them in the lab. Was there pressure? He was very disappointed when I came in and said so-and-so is not ready or I could not recover it from the culture collection. The T.A. was also responsible for maintaining the culture collection that contained well over 200 cultures of myxomycete mating types and molds.
Don Reynolds, the T.A. before me had developed a calendar with the days indicated as to when one needed to start the cultures so that they would be ready a week or so later for lab. I followed his calendar and modified it to meet the next term's class schedule. Yes, I was probably the one that Dr. Alex alluded to in his memo to the graduate students about using too much agar (see below) because I started at least a dozen plates of each culture to make sure that I had at least one dish with the organism ready to go." R.G.
First job --Searching for peach yellows with the Illinois Natural History Survey,
[Wayne to Ralph as they were discussing Alexopoulos anecdotes "Remember, I followed you as Dr. Alex's T.A. He would always tell me, "Ralph had cultures of Pythium with sporangia releasing a vesicle." When I consulted you, you'd say something like: "Like hell I did." I was the T.A. the semester Dr. Alex went into the hospital with his first brain tumor*. I not only did the labs ALL semester (he wouldn't come downstairs), I had to teach the last 1/3 of the lectures as well since some of Bold's and Delevoryas' grad students were taking the course. The grad school looked the other way while someone with only a B.S. taught a significant part of a graduate-only class. For all my efforts, the department gave me the Bold Teaching Award and a check for $50 - talk about slave labor. I had two botany labs to teach as well. Ralph, thanks for the memories!!!!!!!!!!!!!!]" W.C.R.
[*Dr. Alex had medical tests in fall 1963. The diagnosis of myasthenia gravis, a neuro-muscular disease, was discovered to be incorrect more than ten years later when he suddenly could not find his way home after a day's work actually a benign brain tumor, the "first" brain tumor. There was at least one more to be removed and several spinal tumors as well. A terrible infection caused him to be very slow to recover from the second brain tumor surgery, and a square portion of bone was removed from the front of his skull. After that he had a square depression in the front of his head. Because he had spinal arthritis in the last few years of his life he and was bent over, and the depression could not be missed.]
Soon after a second brain tumor surgery, Dr. Alex wrote to a student, "I am recovering slowly, but I am sure I will be unable to come to Indiana [MSA Fiftieth Anniversary meeting, Bloomington, Indiana, August 1981] for the meetings. I had counted on it but the gods willed otherwise. I guess I should be glad to be alive…."
["From the desk of C. J. Alexopoulos" memo pads were a staple on his desk. He used these memos in the way we use Post-it notes today. These are from the collection of Ralph Gustafson]
October 10, 1969
All mycology graduate students:
I have reason to believe that very few of you make an effort to keep up with current literature in mycology.
I suggest that you set a definite time once a week to visit the Biology Library and read articles related to research or to mycology in general and scan the new issues of all periodicals received. It is imperative that those of you working on physiology or biochemistry of fungi or myxomycetes consult Chemical Abstracts in the Chemistry Library.
Perhaps we should meet weekly to discuss current literature.
October 21, 1969
CJA (far right) and students at Austin, Texas. Left to right, Judy Tontz Elzey,
Wallace M. Lestourgeon, Janet Winstead, Charles Mims, Robert Koehn,
and Meredith Blackwell, Circa 1965
Four editions and many translations (Spanish, German, Arabic, Chinese)
of Introductory Mycology