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Nematology Lab History
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Cobb's drawing of a marine nematode, Enoplus sp.

Comments on the History of the USDA Nematology Laboratory

Prepared by A. Morgan Golden (October, 1995) 
and revised occasionally by D.J. Chitwood


Left - Cobb's drawing of a marine nematode, Enoplus sp.

The beginning of the present Nematology Laboratory traces directly back to 1907 when Nathan A. Cobb was employed by the Bureau of Plant Industry, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C. He in time became recognized as the Father of Nematology in the United States. Though hired initially to work on nematodes, his first assignment was the standardization of cotton grades. He worked primarily on this and related aspects of cotton for awhile, contributing significantly to this project and publishing two important papers on it. By about 1910 or earlier he was able to devote more attention to nematodes. From 1911 to 1914 he published 13 papers on nematodes, including the descriptions of 30 new genera and many new species among which were the citrus nematode, dagger nematodes and others. His extensive flow of research papers continued as long as he lived. About 1915 his facility was designated as the Division of Nematology, Bureau of Plant Industry. Only minor name changes have occurred since that time.Photo of N. A. Cobb 

N. A. Cobb - Research Leader 1907-1932

It is noteworthy that early in 1910, as the USDA Nematologist, Cobb was asked to assist in the inspection of cherry trees sent to Washington, D.C. in late 1909 as a gift from the Japanese government. First Lady Helen H. Taft had proposed a beautification project in the area now known for many years as the Tidal Basin. Cobb reported about 72% of the trees were infected with "root gall worm" (root-knot nematode) and other scientists found crown gall and some noxious insects. This presented a diplomatic dilemma; but at the highest levels of our government, the decision was made to destroy all these trees. A second shipment of cherry trees arrived in March, 1912, was found free of pests, and was planted. The significance and publicity of this situation and the support of the USDA scientists involved no doubt contributed to passage of the first extensive national quarantine law, the Plant Quarantine Act of 1912. (See reference below to Huettel and Golden, 1991).

One of Cobb's earliest associates was W. E. Chambers, artist and microscopist. Over a period of many years, together they produced the finest illustrations of nematodes ever made, and are still unequaled in detail, quality and accuracy. The Nematology Laboratory is fortunate to have many of these illustrations as well as nematode slides and other materials and equipment used by Cobb. (For more insight and details on Cobb, see Nathan Augustus Cobb: Father of Nematology in the United States. Huettel, R. N. and A. M. Golden. 1991. Ann. Rev. Phytopathol. 29:15-26). In the early 1920's Cobb was able to increase his staff significantly. Cobb's drawing of a plant parasitic lesion nematode, Pratylenchus sp.Edna M. Buhrer was employed in 1921, in 1922 Gotthold Steiner and Jesse R. Christie were added; and later some others also, including Grace S. Cobb (no relation), Helen H. Swanger, and in 1928, Benjamin G. Chitwood. During this early period research activities included the following: taxonomy; morphology; characterizing and naming structures observed on various kinds of nematodes; working out the life histories and economic importance of two mermithid parasites of grasshoppers in the northeastern United States with Christie and Steiner; and developing the equipment, techniques and procedures necessary for working with and studying nematodes, many of which are still used today. 

Cobb's drawing of a plant parasitic lesion nematode, Pratylenchus sp.

It should be mentioned that Gerald Thorne was employed in 1918 by the USDA Office of Sugar Plant Investigations in Utah to work on the sugarbeet cyst nematode in the western states. His laboratory was constructed in the U.S. Post Office in Salt Lake City and became the first permanent USDA nematology field station in the United States. In 1928 (or earlier) overall supervision/administration of this station was assigned to Cobb in Washington. Following this precedent, the establishment and administration of the many subsequent USDA nematology field stations opened in the United States heavily involved the leader of the Nematology Laboratory in Washington (and later in Beltsville). This policy continued until 1972, when a USDA reorganization shifted control of these stations to the regions and areas in which they were located.

In April, 1930 Cobb requested Thorne to come to the Washington Laboratory, and, in cooperation with Helen Swanger and under his direction, prepare a monograph on the nematodes of the genus Dorylaimus. Cobb planned to contribute a section on related genera but died June 4, 1932. Thorne added three additional new genera; and this superb monograph by Thorne and Swanger was published in 1936. During his three year stay in Washington and through a mutual interest in archery, Thorne met Albert L. Taylor, a graduate student at George Washington University. With Thorne's encouragement, Taylor did his thesis on the ring nematodes (subfamily Criconematinae) and graduated in 1935. It was published in 1936 and was recognized at once as a classic monograph on this group of plant parasitic nematodes. Photo of G. Steiner 

G. Steiner, Research Leader, 1932-1956

Following the death of N. A. Cobb in 1932, G. Steiner was appointed Leader of the Nematology Laboratory, serving until 1956. Taxonomy, morphology and other research activities were continued, and Steiner's initiatives resulted in establishment of several new nematology field stations in the United States. A. L. Taylor was hired by Steiner in 1935 and sent to Tifton, Georgia where a new field station was established that year. He made many contributions in taxonomy, host interactions and especially pioneering work on chemical control. In 1937 Steiner transferred B. G. Chitwood to a laboratory on Long Island, New York where he conducted research on nematodes of ornamental plants. With the discovery of the golden nematode of potato (Globodera rostochiensis) on Long Island in 1941, Chitwood also worked on this major pest of potato in cooperation with New York State and USDA's Plant Quarantine Division. This was its first known occurrence in the United States, and the infested region was placed under federal quarantine.

In 1940 the Nematology Laboratory was moved from Washington to Beltsville, Maryland where it is still located. Chitwood was moved back to the Nematology Laboratory in Beltsville in 1947, where he produced a major contribution in 1949, a revision of the taxonomy of root-knot nematodes. This provided the foundation for modern classification of this important group of nematodes.

The Nematology Laboratory has always had many visitors, both domestic and foreign and for short and long periods of time. Beginning about 1946 and continuing into the mid 1950's, Steiner trained many students in nematology in cooperation with the nearby University of Maryland, usually for the Ph.D. degree. Most of these students were employed by the Laboratory, did their thesis research in it, and took required courses at the University. Among such students were Joseph N. Sasser, A. C. Tarjan, Eldon Cairns, A. M. Golden, and Bakir Oteifa; and they in turn trained subsequent students and workers in nematology who became prominent scientists and leaders.

In 1948 J. R. Christie was transferred from Beltsville to a new nematology field station in Sanford, Florida to investigate a problem of unknown cause of vegetables and other important crops. He and his assistant, Vernon G. Perry, showed the problem to be caused by a soil-inhabiting stubby root nematode. In doing so, they had discovered and established ectoparasitic nematodes to be of major economic importance on crops, thus opening a new area of research in nematology.

In 1949 A. L. Taylor returned to the Nematology Laboratory in Beltsville, performing research in taxonomy and especially chemical control. By this time chemical control of nematodes on a field basis had become a reality, resulting from the Shell Chemical Company's development of its DD nematicide in 1943 and Dow Chemical Company's release of its ethylene dibromide (EDB) in 1945. Both nematicides needed more studies to expand their uses, formulations, etc., Photo of A. L. Taylorand Taylor's work was primarily along these lines. By causing increased crop yields by nematode control in the field, these two nematicides had a marked impact on the recognition and importance of nematodes. 

A. L. Taylor, Research Leader 1956-1964

In 1956 Steiner retired and went to Puerto Rico for a few years, training some workers and developing nematology there. A. L. Taylor was appointed Leader of the Nematology Laboratory. Though the leadership and administrative duties were heavy, he continued research activities, especially chemical control. Taylor also maintained a training program, received many visitors, and made strong efforts to increase the funding and staff of the Beltsville laboratory. Upon completion of his Ph.D. in 1956, A. Morgan Goldenwas transferred to Salinas, California to establish a new nematology field station and develop a new program on nematodes of sugar beets. Late in 1959 he was transferred back to the Beltsville laboratory to initiate taxonomic research. In 1960 he established the USDA Nematode Collection. Victor H. Dropkin spent two years in the Nematology Laboratory in the mid 1950's working on root-knot nematodes with A. L. Taylor; and in 1960, he returned to this laboratory where he performed highly productive research primarily on this group of nematodes for the next 10 years when he accepted a position with the University of Missouri. In 1963 Burton Y. Endo was transferred from the USDA field station in Jackson, Tennessee to the Beltsville laboratory, where he conducted extensive research on host relations and ultrastructure of the soybean cyst nematode, root-knot nematode, and others for many years. After an illustrious and dedicated career in nematology Edna Buhrer retired in 1962. She was also active in and highly honored by the Helminthological Society of Washington, including serving as Corresponding-Secretary Treasurer for an unprecedented 37 years (1934-1971).

In 1964 A. L. Taylor accepted an appointment with the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations at which time Joseph M. Good was named leader of the Nematology Laboratory at Beltsville. Prior to this Good worked several years in chemical and other control means at the nematology field station in Tifton, Georgia. In Beltsville Good was primarily involved in supervisory and administrative duties and maintained his interest and activity in chemical control. At this point, earlier efforts to obtain additional funds and more research positions for Nematology Laboratory paid off. In 1965 three new scientists were hired: William R. Nickle and Donald G. Murphy for taxonomy research (making three, with A. M. Golden) and Richard M. Sayre for a new program on biological control of nematodes. Nickle worked primarily on nematodes of insects, initially on taxonomy and identifications, and then almost exclusively on the use of nematodes for control of insects. He also edited two important books on nematodes. For two years Murphy performed taxonomy of Dorylaimida and free-living nematodes and then left for a position at the National Institutes of Health. After a career at NIH, Dr. Murphy retired to New Mexico and then the state of Washington, where he maintains his interest in nematodes. Carol Hechler was employed in Murphy's position, also for about two years, and then left to devote her full-time attention to family responsibilities. In biocontrol, Sayre tested a few soil organisms, including tardigrades, but his major research was on the bacterial parasites in Pasteuria.

William Friedman, though an employee of Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), was relocated from the New York area to the Nematology Laboratory in 1966 to utilize the laboratory's facilities in his identification of nematodes for his organization.

In 1967 Grace Cobb retired after many years of dedicated service. In 1968 Julius Feldmesser was transferred from a nematology field station in Florida to the Beltsville laboratory where he continued for the next 15 years to perform his research primarily on chemical control, including new materials, encapsulation, new formulations, dosages, etc. About 1970 Raymond V. Rebois was moved from a nematology field station in Alabama to the laboratory in Beltsville. He developed a productive research program on especially soybeans including host relations, resistance, physiology and ultrastructure. He worked considerably on the reniform nematode, a major parasite of soybeans and many other crops, and he discovered and described for the first time the "feeding plug" in this or any other plant nematode.

In 1973 J. M. Good accepted a job in another USDA agency; and B. Y. Endo then served as Leader of the Nematology Laboratory from 1973-1974. During this interim, he continued his research. In 1974 Raymond V. Rebois was appointed Research Leader, Nematology Laboratory. William P. Wergin worked in the Laboratory 1974-1976 primarily in cooperation with Endo. In 1981 James Lauritis was hired to work with Rebois in his program but after a little more than two years, he resigned and moved to Brazil. Zafar A. Handoo worked with A. M. Golden as a Staff Research Associate under a USDA Cooperative Agreement with the University of Maryland 1981-1986 and as a USDA Collaborator in 1987, performing principally taxonomy, morphology and identifications of plant nematodes. He accepted a position with the University of Missouri in 1988. Robin N. Huettel joined the Nematology staff in 1982. Her extensive research involved biochemistry, taxonomy, biochemical genetics and molecular approaches to define certain species and races (biotypes), development of cultures for root explants, in vitro resistance tests, behavioral studies of the soybean cyst nematode (SCN), pheromone bioassays, isolation and further testing of the first sex pheromone for SCN, and other related research. From 1988-1980, the late Leonard Francl worked in the laboratory, primarily devoting his efforts to modeling soybean cyst nematode population dynamics. He then went to North Dakota State University, where he became an authority on the epidemiology of wheat diseases. In 2002, he accepted a position as Head of the Department of Plant Pathology at Pennsylvania State University. Unfortunately, his untimely death in 2005 brought an end to his accomplishments.

In 1984 R. V. Rebois retired and R. N. Huettel was named Acting Research Leader 1985-1987 and then Research Leader in 1987. She handled these added responsibilities and continued her research program as above in a vigorous and highly productive manner. In 1985 J. Feldmesser retired. Susan L. F. Meyer was hired in 1986 to develop a biological control program using fungi to control nematodes, especially the soybean cyst nematode. This program included isolating and testing various fungi for pathogenicity of the nematode, devising techniques to improve strains of fungi that showed some antagonism to the nematode, and combining the recently isolated pheromone with fungi to obtain possibly synergistic effects.

Although A. M. Golden retired at the end of 1989, he continued to be quite active as a Collaborator, thus continuing the taxonomy program and curation of the USDA Nematode Collection. In September, 1990 Zafar A. Handoo returned to the Laboratory to serve as Curator of the Collection as well as to perform nematode identifications and research on nematode taxonomy and morphology.

David J. Chitwood arrived as a postdoctoral associate at Beltsville in 1981, where he joined the staff of the Insect Physiology Laboratory, which was soon renamed the Insect and Nematode Hormone Laboratory. His research then and now has focused on the isolation and identification and biological importance of steroids and other lipids of nematodes. In 1989 he was transferred to the Nematology Laboratory.

R. N. Huettel departed early in 1992 to accept a position with APHIS. (She recently retired from Auburn University.) Shortly thereafter, D. J. Chitwood was named Research Leader of the Laboratory. In 1993, W. Friedman retired, and arrangements were then made for Z. Handoo to handle the APHIS nematode identifications done by Friedman in the past. In 1995 three scientists in this laboratory retired: R. M. Sayre, W. R. Nickle, and B. Y. Endo.

Although suffering the loss of several eminent scientists, the Laboratory was strengthened by the hiring of new staff as well as the transfer of others into the Laboratory. In October 1995, 19 years after leaving the Nematology Laboratory to conduct research in another laboratory, W. P. Wergin and his support staff returned to the Laboratory in order to conduct research on the ultrastructure of nematodes and nematode-plant interactions. He retired in 2000. In October 1996, Edward P. Masler, formerly of the Insect Neurobiology and Hormone Laboratory at Beltsville (a laboratory formed by the merger of Chitwood's former laboratory with another), joined the Laboratory and brought his experience with insect peptides. A few months later, Lynn Carta was hired as a research systematist. Andrea Skantar joined the Nematology Laboratory in 1997; her program focuses on the molecular biology of nematodes and nematode-plant relationships. In 2003, Inga Zasada accepted a position to further the development of pasteurized municipal wastes and other amendments as nematode management tools. In 2008, she accepted another position in ARS at the Horticultural Crops Research Unit in Corvallis to develop sustainable plant-parasitic nematode management systems for the small fruit industries.  The six remaining permanent research scientists in the Nematology Laboratory are joined by a scientific staff that enthusiastically looks forward to finding solutions to the agricultural problems caused by crop-feeding nematodes.  

Additional Historic Information:
       Nathan Augustus Cobb: The Father of Nematology in the U.S.
       Nathan A. Cobb Publications List