Robert M. Harveson, Extension Plant Pathologist University of Nebraska, Panhandle REC, Scottsbluff
Author’s note: This is the second 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. An article focusing on Peltier was previously published in June, 2014. This article summarizes the work of Robert Goss and his career in Nebraska.
The reader of this article may wonder why a biographical sketch of a plant pathologist is being included in this edition devoted to corn production, but there is a connection. The most serious and widespread disease today of corn in Nebraska and other areas of the Central High Plains is a bacterial disease that has been known by several names over the years, including Nebraska bacterial wilt and leaf freckles, or leaf freckles and wilt. However, the most frequently used and currently most widely accepted name is Goss’ bacterial wilt and leaf blight or sometimes simply “Goss’ wilt”. This name was chosen in honor of Robert W. Goss, an early Nebraska plant pathology researcher and a former chair of the Department of Plant Pathology.
Education and Early Career
Robert Whitmore Goss was born May 28, 1891 in Fall River Mass. After high school, he earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at Michigan State College in 1914 and 1915, respectively. Between 1915 and 1919, Goss served for one year each as: 1) assistant plant pathologist for Michigan State College, 2) assistant professor for the University of Delaware and Agricultural Experiment Station, 3) the U.S. Army, and 4) USDA Cereal Office scientist before being hired in 1920 as an instructor of plant pathology and assistant plant pathologist with the Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of Nebraska, where he spent the remainder of his career.
He later completed the Ph.D. in 1923 in plant pathology from the University of Wisconsin, and became assistant professor of plant pathology at UNL. By 1929 he had advanced through the ranks to professor of plant pathology. His reputation as both a teacher and researcher was undisputedly stellar. Although his interest in the principles of basic science was inherently natural to him, he additionally strove to investigate and uncover their practical applications and how they could benefit the citizens of Nebraska. By all accounts he was a master of breaking down complex scientific concepts and translating them into language that was easily understood by the growers.
Plant Pathology Officially Begins in Nebraska
Plant diseases had been studied at the University of Nebraska by Charles Bessey and his students since at least 1885. Between 1885 and 1905, approximately twelve reports, bulletins, and papers pertaining to plant diseases were published. However, 1920 was a watershed year for plant pathology in Nebraska, as it was formally recognized with a separate and distinct presence apart from botany with the formation of a Department of Plant Pathology, and coincidentally both Peltier and Goss were hired in this same year.
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 being assigned 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. Goss then assumed the role as department chair.
The majority of Goss’ research focus involved potato diseases, although he also contributed by studying and publishing on the bacterial blights of beans, a serious leaf spot disease of cherries, and Cephalosporium wilt of elm trees. After 1930, much of the potato work was done at the newly established Box Butte Experimental Farm near Alliance, which had been developed to specifically study dryland crops in western Nebraska, with an emphasis on potatoes. He conducted research on alternative crops, studying the effects of these crops grown in rotation with potatoes and the role of soil microbes and the appearance and occurrence of soilborne diseases, particularly those caused by Fusarium and Rhizoctonia. He also demonstrated that Streptomyces scabies, the causal agent of scab was endemic to and widespread throughout western Nebraska soils.
Goss was instrumental in establishing a seed certification for potatoes in Nebraska, and was highly respected as a member for more than 20 years by personnel in the potato industry. He recognized the importance of a potato breeding program in the state and actively participated in the screening of varieties for disease resistance in collaboration with the breeder, W. O. Werner.
Pioneer of Virus and Viroid Diseases
Goss was among the first researchers in the U.S. to investigate the so-called “degeneration” or “running-out” diseases of potatoes, later shown to be caused by viruses. He further discovered that the spindle tuber disease (originally thought to be caused by a virus but eventually proven to be caused by a viroid) was spread among seed potatoes by cutting knives and from plant to plant by grasshoppers.
Viruses are essentially very simple infectious molecules consisting of nucleic acid (RNA or DNA) covered with a protein coat or envelope. The identity of viroids was not determined until the 1970s and proved to be a completely new pathogen group consisting of a piece of naked, infectious RNA with no protein covering.
Goss served as Chair of the Department of Plant Pathology (with the departure of Peltier) from 1937 to 1949. In 1941, he was jointly appointed as the first full-time Dean of the Graduate College, reducing his commitment to plant pathology to one half-time. He held this appointment until 1956. While in this position, he raised the standards of the entire University by laying a foundation for the improvement of teaching, research, and public service in the Department of Plant Pathology. He resigned as chair of the Department of Plant Pathology in 1949, but continued on in the department with a quarter-time appointment investigating the relationships between mycorrhizal fungi and pine trees until retiring in 1959.
He died unexpectedly in Honolulu, Hawaii on January 10, 1970 while visiting family, but is buried in Geneva, NE with his wife, Betty, who predeceased him the year before. As a further example of his dedication to students and staff at the University of Nebraska, he bequeathed a substantial sum of money to the Department of Plant Pathology, establishing the Robert Goss Memorial Fund which has been used over the years to help graduate students and purchase books for the departmental library.
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 Department of Plant Pathology 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 Cooperative Extension publication, 40 pp.
Schuster, M. L. 1970. Robert W. Goss, 1891-1970. Phytopathology 60: 1156.