Smith, Erwin Frink


Dates:         b. 1854; 1890's‑1910; d. 1927

Locations:    Harvard?; Pathologist in Charge of Laboratories of Plant Pathology, Division of Vegetable Physiology and Pathology, Bureau of Plant Industry, USDA (1886‑); Dir. Div. Plant Pathology, BPI (1910's‑1920's)

Training:      BS Univ. Mich. 1886; PhD or D.Sc. Univ. Mich.

Fields:        botany; plant pathology; BACT‑NOM;

Publications: "The Bacterial Diseases of Plants," American Naturalist 30 (1896): 626; "Destruction of Cell Walls by Bacteria," Science 15 (1902): 405;  Bacteria in Relation to Plant Diseases (Washington:  Carnegie Inst., 1905‑1907); "Studies on the Crown Gall of Plants, it Relation to Human Cancer," J. of Cancer Res. 1 (1916): 231‑302;  Bacterial Diseases of Plants (1920); "Crown Gall and its Analogy to Cancer," J. Cancer Res. 8 (1924)

SAB Involvement:  Charter SAB member; Member SAB Comm. on Method for the Ident. of Bact. Species 1904‑; Member SAB Council 1905, 1908; Pres. SAB 1906 (but absent at meetings); SAB Delegate to AAAS 1907, 1910; Member and then Chair of the Committee on the Identification of Bacterial Species and SAB delegate to Int'l Botanical Congress 1910; session chair on phytopathology 1916 SAB meeting; Pres. Botanical Society of America 1911; Pres. Am. Association for Cancer Research 1915; Pres. Am. Society of Phytopathology 1916

Presidential Address: Title listed as “Advances in Bacteriology;” Smith didn’t attend due to the death of his wife (Rodgers)

Archive Files: L.R. Jones, "Memoir of Erwin Frick Smith," NAS Biog. Memoirs 21 (1939): 1‑71; Paul Clark, Pioneer Microbiologists in America (Madison:  Univ. Wisc. Press, 1961), 229; Andrew D. Rodgers, III, Erwin Frink Smith:  A Story of North American Plant Pathology (Philadelphia, 1952); ANB; The Official Record (USDA) VI:19, April 20, 1927; Mycologia XX:4, 1928; Nat. Cyc. American Biog. 20, 1929; ANB; DAB; DSB; J. Bact. XV:1, 1928



     In his 40th Anniversary address before the SAB, Winslow described Smith as the "father of plant pathology in the United States."

     Smith was originally employed in the Section of Mycology of the Division of Botany of the USDA in 1886, assigned to the problem of peach yellows.  His method resembled that of the cancer surgeon, cutting out diseased parts of the orchans and grafting them on healthy plants. 

     Smith worked on the organism responsible for yellow disease of hyacinths and olive rot.  He also worked out the cause of black rot of cabbage, and other diseases of melons, cotton, cowpeas, potatoes, tomatoes, and bananas.  In 1893, Smith studied the wilt of cucumbers, squashes, and other cucurbits, caused by a bacterium Bacillus tracheiphilus which was spread by a beetle.  He also identified Bact. savastani as the cause of a tubercle disease of olives, and in 1907 Smith and Townsend studied crown galls and Bacillus tumefaciens.  Smith was often embroiled in controversy with European pathologists who maintained that bacteria were not causative agents of plant diseases.  Alfred Fischer was his most vocal opponent, and Fischer later committed suicide. 

     At the 1899 meeting of the SAB, Smith presented a paper on the "Generic Nomenclature of Bacteria," and another on "Dependence upon the Supposed Antiseptic Properties of Thymol and Chloroform as a Source of Error in Certain Biochemical Investigations."  He returned to this topic at the 1900 meeting, in "Growth of Bacteria in the Presence of Chloroform and Thymol," (discussed by Harris) and presented a paper in the joint session with the Society of Botanists on "The Morphology and Physiology of Bacterial Diseases of Plants."  At the 1904 meeting of the SAB, Smith and Swingle discussed "The Effect of Freezing on Bacteria," in which they suggest that the "effect of very low temperatures has been greatly overestimated."  At the same 1904 meeting, Smith proposed the "Exhibition of Cultures on Starch Jelly and on Silicate Jelly," which was read by Prescott, and discussed by Conn, Winslow, Kinyoun, Prescott, Sullivan, Marsh, and Harding.

     At the 1908 SAB meeting, Smith presented a series of demonstrations on "The Etiology of Plant Tumors," "Seed Corn as a Means of Disseminating Bacterium stewarti," "Occurance of Bacterium pruni in Peach Foliage," and "Two Sources of Error in the Determination of Gas Production by Micro‑Organisms."

     By 1920, Smith listed some twenty plant diseases of bacterial origin, including:  Bacillus tracheiphilus (1893‑1895) for bacterial wilt of cucurbits; Bacillus solanacearum (1896) for the brown rot of cabbage; Bacillus phaseoli (1897) for bean blight; Pseudomonas sterwarti (1898) for bacterial wilt of maize; Bacillus tumefaciens (1907‑1926) for crown galls.

     A less successful debate led Smith to argue for a similarity between plant and animal tumors.  In fact, his presidential address before the 1911 meeting of the Botanical Society of America (joint with SAB) was on "the Relation of Crown‑Gall to Human Cancer."