Pioneers of Plant Pathology in Nebraska (Part I) – George L. Peltier

Robert M. Harveson, Extension Plant Pathologist University of Nebraska, Panhandle REC, Scottsbluff

Author’s note: This is the first of a two part series summarizing the works and careers of two of the first and most influential plant pathologists in Nebraska. George Peltier (1888-1975) and Robert Goss (1891-1970) were both extraordinarily accomplished scientists who together engineered the early development of modern plant pathology in Nebraska in the 1920s.  Interestingly, they both were hired in the same year, Peltier as the Experiment Station Plant Pathologist and Goss as a researcher and instructor in the newly formed department. They both additionally made significant contributions to the University later in their careers as administrators.  This article will focus on George Peltier, with a second article documenting Robert Goss coming later this year.  

Education and Early Career

George Leo Peltier was born in Merrill, Wisconsin, on May 8, 1888.  He obtained his early education in the public schools of Merrill and Grand Rapids.  He then entered the University of Wisconsin and in June, 1910, received the degree of Bachelor of Arts from that institution.  The following year he spent as a high school science teacher in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.  During the year of 1911-12 he held the position of Teaching Fellow in the Shaw School of Botany (Missouri Botanical Garden) while working on a Master’s degree.  In June of that year, he received the master of arts (M.A.) from Washington University in St. Louis, MO.  Between 1912 and 1916, he was employed by the University of Illinois as Associate Professor of Floricultural Pathology.  After completion of the requirements for the Ph.D. at Illinois, Peltier was hired in 1916 as professor of plant pathology at the Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University) and plant pathologist with the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station where he remained before being lured to Nebraska.  In 1920 Peltier became the Nebraska Experiment Station Plant Pathologist, and also served as department chair from the time of his arrival until 1937 when he moved to the bacteriology department (see below).

Plant Pathology Officially Begins in Nebraska

Although plant disease studies had been conducted at the University of Nebraska by Charles Bessey and his students since at least 1885 (approximately twelve reports, bulletins, and papers pertaining to plant diseases were published between 1885 and 1905), 1920 was a watershed year for plant pathology in Nebraska.  This was the year when it was formally recognized as a separate entity apart from botany with the formation of a plant pathology department.   At this time, two major lines of research in the state were begun, including investigations into the cereal rusts and studies involving soilborne potato diseases.  Research responsibilities were further divided into two major areas with Peltier taking the grain and forage crops while Goss conducted investigations on the horticultural crops, primarily potatoes.  This arrangement continued for the next 17 years until Peltier’s departure in 1937.

Peltier’s Work with Rhizoctonia

Peltier was an unusually versatile scientist, trailblazing the discovery and investigation of several new diseases and areas of plant pathology, including root rots caused by Rhizoctonia, bacterial wilt of alfalfa, wheat streak mosaic, and citrus canker.  His doctoral dissertation from the University of Illinois was one of the first major monographs in the U.S. involving Rhizoctonia, (a similar study was published contemporarily by Benjamin Duggar at Cornell).  This work was a comprehensive, comparative treatment characterizing and differentiating the two species, R. solani and R. crocorum; it thus become a landmark in plant pathology literature, ultimately providing a much better understanding of this important pathogen.

Bacterial Wilt of Alfalfa

Alfalfa wilt, caused by Clavibacter michiganensis subsp. insidiosus, was first noted as a distinct disease in the river valleys of Nebraska and Kansas and from southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois in the mid-1920s, but had undoubtedly been present in the U.S. for many years prior to that.  Indeed, Peltier stated in 1930 that the disease had been identified in mature plants from fields containing alfalfa stands that were more than 35 years of age, suggesting that wilt was not a new disease in the state but only recently recognized in the 1920s. 

As the forage pathologist in Nebraska, George Peltier was one of the first plant pathologists to work with the disease, and hypothesized that it was the primary factor responsible for dramatic decreases in alfalfa acreage in Nebraska in the 1920s.  In fact, enough concern was raised that the Nebraska Legislature created a special appropriation of $25,000 for research dedicated to this disease (equaling more than $350,000 today).  One of the successful results stemming from this research was the production of the first cold-tolerant, bacterial wilt-resistant alfalfa cultivar, “Ranger”, developed jointly by the University of Nebraska and USDA, and Peltier was actively involved with its development.

Wheat Streak Mosaic

In 1922, Peltier first observed a mosaic of wheat from Lancaster County, Nebraska.  He was able to inoculate and successfully reproduce similar symptoms in both corn and wheat by mechanical transmission using the juice from infected plants, proving definitively that its cause was of biological origin and not an environmental problem.  Although we are uncertain today with exactly which virus with which he was working, Robert Staples and William B. Allington (UNL entomologist and plant pathologist, respectively) later opined that it was probable he was working with what is now called wheat streak mosaic virus, thus Peltier is generally credited with the first report of the disease, initially occurring in Nebraska.

Citrus Bacterial Canker

The first observation of a plant disease considered to be bacterial canker was from Texas about 1910.  Canker is thought to have been introduced into the U.S. from Japan on trifoliate orange seedlings, sometime between 1908 and 1911.The bacterium quickly became endemic in the Gulf States of Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Florida.  Peltier was one of the original investigators of citrus canker during his time in Alabama, conducting the seminal work on determining those environmental conditions that best promoted disease development and evaluating potential citrus cultivars and breeding lines for disease resistance.

Change of Duty in Nebraska

In 1933, Peltier accepted a half-time appointment as chair of the bacteriology department while also fulfilling his job requirements in the plant pathology department.  Four years later (1937), he resigned from the plant pathology department to assume the full time role as chair of bacteriology, which he held until his retirement in 1953.  Interestingly, Peltier was also involved with military research in 1944-45 investigating the mass-production of penicillin for the war effort.  The primary objective for conduction of the experiments was to ascertain the most effective strains of Penicillium and most favorable media for cultivation of the fungus that would produce the greatest yields of penicillin.  Under Peltier’s charge, the bacteriology department produced more than 100 quarts of penicillin in crude form with virtually all the product being used in Lincoln hospitals for experimental purposes.  

Retirement  

After retiring from the University of Nebraska in 1953, Peltier relocated to Wisconsin Rapids, where he freelanced as a consultant for the cranberry growers in the area for a number of years.  He was also recognized for co-authoring “Laboratory Manual for General Bacteriology “ with C.E. George and L.F. Lindgren.  This was a widely used lab book nationally designed for nursing students, and was first published in 1938, with a further 6 editions being published, the latest in 1967.  George Peltier died in Tucson, AZ in 1975 from bronchial pneumonia at the age of 86.

References

Boosalis, M. G. 1984.  History – 1964-1984.  (Unpublished departmental report on file in the Dept. of Plant Pathology), IANR, UNL.

Frolik, E. F., and Graham, R. J.  1987.  College of Agriculture of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the first century.  Published by the Board of Regents, University of Nebraska, 493 pp.

Goss, R. W.  1964.  The Development of the Plant Pathology Department in the Nebraska Agricultural Experiment Station. (Departmental report on file in the Deparment of Plant Pathology)  College of Agriculture, UN, Lincoln.

Harveson, R. M.  2010.  Plant Pathology in Western Nebraska.  Pages 10-11 in: A Century of Change and Progress in Service to Western Nebraska.  D. Ostdiek, R. Harveson, C. D. Yonts, R. Wilson, and T. Holman, eds.  University of Nebraska Extension Circular, ?? 40 pp.

Hunger, R. M.  2010.  Wheat streak mosaic.  Pages 115-117 in: Compendium of wheat diseases and pests.  W. W. Bockus, R. L. Bowden, R. M. Hunger, W. L. Morrill, T. D. Murray, and R. W. Smiley, eds. APS Press, St. Paul, MN, 171 pp. 

Peltier, G. L.  1916.  Parasitic Rhizoctonias in America.  Illinois Agric. Exp. Sta. Bull. 189: 283-390.

Peltier, G. L.  1918.  Overwintering of the citrus-canker organism in the bark tissue of hardy citrus hybrids.  J. Agric. Res. 14: 523-524.

Peltier, G. L.  1920.  Influence of temperature and humidity on the growth of Pseudomonas citri and its host plants and on infection and development of the disease.  J. Agric. Res. 20: 447-506.

Peltier, G. L., and Jensen, J. H.  1930.  Alfalfa wilt in Nebraska.  Nebraska Exp. Sta. Bull. 240. 35 pp.

Published: June, 2014