Plant pathology book

Bob Harveson
Extension Plant Pathologist Bob Harveson with a copy of his book, “the Bacterium of Many Colors.”
Panhandle Center's Harveson writes stories of discoveries of plant diseases that has history, science, more

By Dave Ostdiek, Communications Associate
Panhandle Research and Extension Center

Does a reader need to be scientist – specifically, a plant pathologist – to appreciate a book about the history of discovering and treating plant diseases?

Not if the reader has an appreciation of history, science, and the broader lessons they have to offer.

The book’s author, in this case, is Dr. Bob Harveson, Extension Plant Pathologist at the UNL Panhandle Research and Extension Center. The book is “The Bacterium of Many Colors” published by APS Press of the American Phytopathological Society.

The APS Press catalog says Harveson’s book “… imparts lessons of the past through a fascinating collection of stories behind plant pathogen and disease discoveries, as well as the important lessons plant pathologists learned while researching them.”

“This book was written for a diverse audience that includes historically minded plant pathologists, agricultural and biological science students, and enthusiasts.”

The 288-page book has 290 images. In addition to the plant disease stories, there are sidebar articles with biological profiles. It lists for $185.

The book grew out of Harveson’s interest in history. A course assignment during graduate school required him to choose a plant disease and explain its social significance. He chose Stewart’s wilt of corn that resulted in the first plant disease forecasting system. Scientists discovered that Stewart’s Wilt, first found in New York State, was transmitted by flea beetles. To forecast the severity of a growing-season outbreak, the researchers used the mean temperatures of the preceding months December, January and February, which corresponded with flea beetle winter survival. That story is included in the book.

“I had fun doing it, and thought to myself it would be fun to look at other diseases and explain how they’ve affected our lives,” he said.

The book’s 23 chapters address various diseases, some common and some rare, and are tied together by the thread of what larger lesson was imparted by studying each disease. Harveson said the research conducted into these diseases has left society with lessons about science or disease control that have broader implications for life.

Another chapter explains the origins of breeding crops for disease resistance. In the early 20th century, plant breeders were faced with several different diseases in cotton, watermelon and cowpeas. The breeders responded by exposing plants to the diseases on purpose. Those that survived were crossed with other lines, and the progeny possessed improved resistance to the diseases. Essentially the same techniques developed in different states in response to different diseases.

Harveson said the book is not dense with scientific jargon. It was written for audiences at a college or advanced high-school level. “It’s more history than science, I guess, but it’s a combination of both,” he said.

The book was several years in the making. Harveson submitted the idea in the fall of 2010 and started writing in the winter of 2011, working on the book during his annual leave and on weekends while carrying out his plant pathology duties at the Panhandle Center.

Source material for the new book came from Harveson’s 25 to 30 years of experience in plant pathology. Turning all that information into a coherent narrative involved a good deal of sitting and thinking the project through, then researching additional information.

Writing manuscripts took about two years, followed by a review process that took about 8 months. Then came the corrections and rewriting, along with all the other tasks that go into publishing a book: selecting and finding images, page design, further revisions, and going to press.

The book was published in May 2015. The publisher is considering eventually making it available electronically. Teachers could use all of it or individual chapters in their classrooms.

Harveson said students will make up a big share of the book’s audience, including graduate students who are preparing to defend their theses. The book is full of the type of trivia-driven, historical information that professors like to ask during oral exams.

Not only is APS the publisher of Harveson’s book. He also sits on its editorial board, working with other authors and finding external reviewers to review entire manuscripts.

“The Bacterium of Many Colors” is the first book that Harveson has authored by himself. He has co-authored a series of compendia related to crop diseases. He was lead editor and wrote several chapters on a sugarbeet compendium eight years ago, and also on a newer sunflower compendium. He also has written chapters on plant disease in dry bean and sugarbeet production guides.

There’s a copy of the new book in the D.A. Murphy Memorial Library at the Panhandle Center. The library is supported by an endowment by the estate of D.A. Murphy, president of the L.B. Murphy Co. Department Stores, a third-generation retailer and managed several stores in Nebraska and Wyoming. Murphy, a graduate of the University of Nebraska, was a powerful force in the Panhandle for many years.

The library has a number of books, journals and periodicals related to general science, numerous agriculture topics, nutrition, and business. It is open to the public on weekdays from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m.

Whatever audience the book attracts, Harveson said, he’s glad he wrote it. And he has a whole list of diseases that could provide material for future books.

“It was a labor of love. I had a lot of fun doing it.”