James Gordon Horsfall
Distinguished Scientist Award 1974
On 17 June, James Gordon Horsfall received the Award for Distinguished Service in Biology at the 25th Annual Meeting of the American Institute of Biological Sciences. The next day he left the 115 degree heat of Tempe, Arizona to travel to Russia as part of the new US-USSR scientific exchange program. Starting in Moscow, Horsfall was to spend one month visiting various Russian laboratories as part of a 10 member pest management team sent by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In diplomatic gift-giving tradition, he carried excess baggage weighed down with classic papers in plant pathology to bestow upon his Soviet counterparts (he also tucked in trinkets such as corncob pipes, bobby pins, ballpoint pens, and bubble gum).
Participation in the scientific exchange with Russia adds one more line to Horsfall's long list of contributions to science and society. Some of his accomplishments include: president of the American Phytopathological Society and of the Society for Industrial Microbiology; editor-in-chief of the Annual Review of Phytopathology for almost a decade; author of Fungicides and their Action and Principles of Fungicidal Action; and coeditor of a three-volume work, Plant Pathology-An Advanced Treatise. He has been honored not only in this country but around the world. Italy made him an honorary member of the Italian Society of Fitoiatria and of the Italian National Academy of Agriculture. France awarded him its highest agricultural honor, the Order of Merit of Agriculture. The University of Vermont conferred its honorary doctorate of science, and the Connecticut General Assembly passed a resolution last February congratulating him on his achievements past and present.
Horsfall has established a "worldwide reputation through fundamental research on the chemical protection of plants," said the AIBS citation in his honor. "Horsfall's pioneer work in the use and mode of action of protective fungicides and his unique 'worm's eye view' research approach to vascular chemotherapy have led directly to the development of some of our most widely used and most effective fungicides. In the firm belief that knowledge is of value only as it serves the interest of mankind, Horsfall always saw to it that his fundamental discoveries in laboratory and field were available to his colleagues for translation into practical application."
Horsfall was born in Mountain Grove, Missouri in 1905, but grew up in Monticello, Arkansas. After getting his BS degree at the University of Arkansas, he went on to a doctorate in plant pathology at Cornell University. Horsfall spent the bulk of his career-32 years-at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven, where he was chief of the Department of Plant Pathology and Botany, then Station director, and upon retirement from that position in January 1972, he was named "Samuel W. Johnson Distinguished Scientist" of the Station.
Horsfall appreciates the philosophy of his predecessor Johnson, who was a professor at Yale and director of the Station from 1877-1900. In an interview with BioScience, he recalled that 105 years ago Johnson wrote a book called How Crops Grow. "This married the theoretical and the useful, appealing to both the academics and the farmers," says Horsfall (he prefers the word "useful" because "applied" has a bad connotation among scientists). Horsfall admired Johnson's early work so much that he organized a symposium called How Crops Grow a Century Later, and he's taking the preceedings of this with him to Russia.
"If scientists had followed the 'how crops grow' principle, we wouldn't have been in trouble with Johnson and Nixon," claims Horsfall, referring to the slump in funding and the antiscience outcroppings in the late 1960's and early 1970's. He feels that scientists brought a lot of this on themselves by failing to see that one day the public would rebel. "Change had to come," says Horsfall, "because taxpayers were bound to demand quid pro quo-what did you do with what I gave you? Science will be subsidized to the degree that taxpayers are convinced that overall it's paying its way."
Horsfall thinks Washington D.C. is a "briar patch," but his agricultural prominence has often pulled him into its tangles. He has been a member of the Atomic Energy Commission's Advisory Committee on Biology and Medicine, a member of the National Advisory Commission on Food and Fiber, and a consultant to the President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC).
Horsfall remembers his role on an advisory committee on pest control set up by PSAC after the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962. The committee came out with a "balanced report" recommending that persistent pesticides ought to be phased out as soon as possible. "If I were writing it now, I'd write the same things," says Horsfall. But, "persistence is a requisite so often, and there have to be tradeoffs."He points out that since the report was published, DDT has been phased out and phased back in again. "Control of pests is becoming a prescription process. I don't say that's bad-just expensive."
A member of the National Academy of Sciences since 1953, Horsfall has chaired the Academy's Agricultural Board, its committee investigating the genetic vulnerability of major crops, and its committee on agricultural production efficiency. He has long been concerned with the possibility of a food crisis, writing a decade ago that there was a "tsunami on the agricultural ocean," meaning that we couldn't see the big wave coming until it hit. He worried then that U.S. researchers would neglect the food problem, but hoped policy would be changed and the tsunami dampened. It was not. "I hardly visualized it would be within 10 years," he laments. "Now it's reached the shore, and everybody wants to do something about the food crisis."
Horsfall recently talked the problem over with Emilio Q. Daddario, head of Congress' new Office of Technology Assessment and a former Connecticut congressman. Horsfall outlined three options for heading off the food crisis: (1) get rid of some of the people, (2) improve manufacturing and buy food from someone else, or (3) get more food from each acre. "We've got to follow number three," asserts Horsfall. And again he points out that current science policy must balance useful and theoretical research. "All I ask is that each scientist ask himself when he gets up in the morning, 'How could what I do be used somewhere?' Up to now, this has not been fashionable."
But Horsfall also cautions that the criterion of usefulness should not compromise the freedom of the scientist, and he paraphrases an old saying-"You can lead a scientist to water but you can't make him think." Unfortunately, he says, "politicians sometimes look upon the production of science like the production of an automobile."
Is Horsfall optimistic that the food shortage will be solved? He hesitates, then answers, "It's going to get worse, I think, before it gets better. Yes, we'll beat it. But it ain't going to be easy."
A description of his service to biology and his reputation as an eminent scientist does not complete the image of James Horsfall, the 69-year-old "cornfield philosopher," as he calls himself. The AIBS Distinguished Service Award recognized his wisdom and praised "his picture-making imagination, his historical and philosophical bent of mind, and his irrepressible sense of humor." The Horsfall wit is best demonstrated by example. "Who but Horsfall," asks the citation, "would compare the process of learning to the necessity of carving a cow into 'chewable bites?' Who but Horsfall would observe that definitions can both 'clarify and befog thinking,' and then dare to describe a chemical assay as 'weighing an elephant on baby scales?' . . . . His students and colleagues can quote their own favorite passage from this phrase-making phytopathologist who has always managed to make the toxic intoxicating!"