Robert M. Harveson, Extension Plant Pathologist University of Nebraska, Panhandle REC, Scottsbluff
Rollins Adams Emerson (1873-1947) was born in upstate New York, but his family moved to Kearney, NE when he was seven to homestead new farmland on the prairies. After completing high school, he enrolled in the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in the Agricultural College, graduating in 1895 and afterward joining the department as assistant horticulturalist. He resigned after two years and spent another two years as an assistant editor of horticulture with the Office of Experiment Stations of the USDA in Washington DC. He was unhappy working in this sedentary role so he returned to Lincoln, accepting a position as Horticulturalist with the Nebraska Experiment Station and Professor and Head of the Horticulture Department in 1899.
During the early years at Nebraska he was required to spend a great deal of time on solving practical problems of importance to Nebraska agriculture. He produced a number of papers and bulletins on useful topics such as mulching of vegetables in gardens, and proper care and handling of fruit trees, while also finding time to conduct more fundamental experimental work as well. Emerson was dedicated to developing and using the Farm Campus as a classroom for the university's horticulture students. With his former undergraduate mentor, the eminent botanist Charles Bessey, he created a botanical garden and arboretum on east campus.
Emerson Initiates Dry Bean Genetic Studies
Emerson began a career of research in genetics on his return to Nebraska, concentrating first on the common bean, thus becoming one of the early dry bean researchers in the U.S. In fact this work occurred 20 years prior to a dry bean industry even beginning in the state. His first experiments with dry beans resulted in a paper published in 1902 entitled: “Preliminary Account of Variation in Bean Hybrids” with a second paper on bean hybrids appearing in 1904. He additionally published a number of additional papers later pertaining to the inheritance of seed color and other character traits of the common bean.
He was one of the first American scientists to understand and embrace the ideas of Gregor Mendel (also referred to as Mendelian genetics). These principles state that certain genetic traits are inherited or passed on to progeny from their parents. Mendel discovered and noted these characteristics after carefully conducted experiments with garden peas. Emerson’s early landmark papers focused on dry beans illustrated his firm grasp of the newly discovered laws of inheritance and indicated his interest in testing the validity of Mendel’s laws using the genus Phaseolus (common bean) as his experimental model.
Emerson’s Conversion to Corn Genetics
An unexpected turn of events spurred Emerson’s new interest in corn as an experimental crop. During one of his genetics classes at Nebraska, as a lab exercise, he prepared the F2 generation of a cross between a sugary strain of Rice popcorn and self-pollinated F1 plants. It was expected that the resulting progeny would serve as an example of monogenic segregation in a 3:1 ratio (typical expected Mendelian inheritance ratio – three progeny possessing starchy kernels and one possessing sugary kernels). To Emerson’s surprise and embarrassment, the offspring showed a pronounced shortage of sugary kernels from these expected ratios. He was puzzled by this development yet it created an obsessive interest to investigate why this curious result was obtained, and thus began his passion for corn genetics.
Emerson took leave from the University of Nebraska in 1910-1911 to pursue the Ph.D. at Harvard. Following this achievement, he returned to Lincoln but accepted an offer to become head of Cornell’s Department of Plant Breeding in 1914. It was here over the next three decades that he achieved his world renowned reputation as a pioneer corn geneticist. He eventually built a corn breeding and genetics dynasty, mentoring dozens of graduate students, many that went on to become famous geneticists in their own rights, including another Nebraskan, George Wells Beadle.
George Beadle, from Wahoo NE, was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in 1958 with another geneticist for their work in discovering the role of certain genes in producing enzymes that regulate biochemical pathways in cells. He was honored in 1994 when the University of Nebraska’s Center for Biotechnology was named after him (George W. Beadle Center for Genetics and Biomaterials Research).
Emerson’s contributions to genetics came at a time when support for genetics was minimal and many prominent scientists doubted the validity and utility of this new science. According to recollections from George Beadle, Emerson moved from the University of Nebraska to Cornell University in 1914, in part because he felt his work was judged by the Nebraska authorities to be too theoretical ever to be useful agriculturally. Thus it is of considerable interest to note that in addition to his remarkable work in basic genetics, which of course indirectly but significantly furthered the art and science of plant breeding, Emerson conscientiously assumed direct responsibility for more than his fair share of plant breeding.
During the last decade of his career he increased his efforts in plant breeding. The great depression and droughts of the 1930s resulted in decreased funding for research, but also highlighted the needs for practical agricultural education and enhancing agricultural production. From his days in Nebraska, he was always interested in horticultural crops, so his research in these later years additionally included more breeding work with dry beans in addition to melons and celery. As an example, he was able to transfer resistance to the disease anthracnose into new dry bean cultivars and was thus credited with saving the dry bean industry in New York State from complete disaster and collapse.
In addition to being the Head of the Department of Plant Breeding at Cornell, he was also Dean of the graduate school for 6 years (1925-1931) and Faculty Representative on the Cornell Board of Trustees for another three years. In fact his administrative duties would sometimes frustrate him as it often prohibited him from spending more time with his passion for basic research.
Emerson’s Personality Traits
R. A. Emerson was of robust character and always physically active. He was an avid hunter and walker who did not purchase a car until the 1930s (well into his 60s). By all accounts, he was a charismatic and an extraordinary scholar and teacher with prodigious energy and work ethic. He was described as the first to arrive and last to leave the corn breeding nursery every day during the growing season. He believed strongly in and practiced collaborative relationships with other scientists, today often termed as “team efforts” by administrators.
Emerson was considered by many to be the greatest geneticist of his day and. Most of his work was in theoretical genetics, yet he also maintained an interest in the practical applications of these basic studies to help solve producer problems by plant breeding. He and his students published many groundbreaking papers on corn genetics and cytogenetics (study of the structure and function of the cell, particularly the chromosomes).
Among his voluminous achievements, perhaps his greatest was his role as an influential leader gifted with the skills for stimulating and encouraging promising students to take up this new field of science. His leadership was further exemplified by being the President of the American Society of Naturalists and the Genetics Society of America in 1923 and 1933, respectively. He was additionally elected into the National Academy of Sciences 1927.
Emerson’s Legacy in Nebraska
The name of Rollins Emerson has lived on in the annals of Nebraska agricultural history, although his innovative investigations or even his existence during the early years of dry bean research in the U.S. is largely unknown. The bacterial wilt-resistant Great Northern dry bean cultivar, “Emerson”, developed by UNL breeder Dermot Coyne in 1971, was named in honor of the eminent Nebraskan geneticist. Although many citizens and producers today are generally aware of the dry bean variety (still being used in Nebraska 40 years later), few know the actual identity of the honored individual or of his early contributions to the state of Nebraska and its agriculture.
Beadle, George W. 1974. Recollections. Annual Review of Biochemistry 43: 1-13.
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.
Nelson, O. E. 1993. A notable triumvirate of maize geneticists. Genetics 135: 937-941.
Murphy, R. P., and Kass, L. B. 2011. Evolution of plant breeding at Cornell University, a centennial history (1907-2006). Internet-First University Press, Ithica NY,
Rhoades, M. M. 1949. Biographical memoir of Rollins Adams Emerson (1873-1947). National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoirs 25: 312-323.