Mal Shurtleff was my gifted plant pathology professor. He was also my friend, my mentor and my inspiration. The American Phytopathological Society (APS) wrote of him: “Dr. Shurtleff is generally recognized as one of the preeminent plant pathologists in the world.”
I don’t know if Mal was a genius or if he was just extremely bright and highly disciplined; but the depth and breadth of his knowledge was intimidating. His academic specialty was Turfgrass Diseases, although he wrote over 1650 extension and research publications–including compendia, bulletins, and articles–on every type of plant, from geraniums to pine trees and everything in between. He also published nine scientific books and articles in 10 encyclopedias. To this day, most of the extension plant disease publications from the University of Illinois are still those written by Mal or updated from his original articles. Mal was working on yet another book at the time of his death.
Mal received his B.S. degree in Biology in 1943 from the University of Rhode Island. After the war, he completed his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Plant Pathology from the University of Minnesota in 1950 and 1953, respectively. He then spent the next 46 years as an extension professor, first at the University of Rhode Island for 4 years, then for 7 years at Iowa State, and, finally, for 35 years (including Emeritus status) at the University of Illinois. As an extension professor, he spent 100% of his time educating the public and helping others.
Mal was the first editor of Phytopathology News, the newsletter of the American Phytopathological Society, and he wrote the first APS compendium–on corn diseases, a knowledge he gained first-hand from being part of the team that helped prevent ongoing economic devastation from the massive Southern Corn Blight infestation of 1970-71. He also established the University of Illinois Plant Clinic, which today assists hundreds of Illinois homeowners, farmers and growers every year in identifying an incredible assortment of plant diseases. In honor of his contributions to the field of plant pathology, Mal received numerous awards, including being the first extension plant pathologist to receive the USDA Distinguished Service Award.
All that was the public side of Malcolm Shurtleff. The man I remember was the tall, lanky individual who still enjoyed running 5K races following his retirement. When he spoke of his three children–all adults by the time I first met Mal–it was with that special love and affection that comes from acceptance of each as an individual, although his pleasure was apparent in having a daughter who also chose plant pathology for a career.
Following his retirement and widowhood in the mid-1990’s, Mal entered a new chapter in his life. For his first vacation since 1982, he spent the month of February, 1996 traveling over 7200 miles across 17 states to visit friends, family, colleagues, national parks, and other places of interest to him. Happily, this vacation resulted in Mal meeting the woman who became his second wife. After moving to Texas so his new wife could remain in close proximity to her children, Mal became associated with Texas A & M University as an adjunct professor. He wrote of this later life period in the alumni news magazine of his alma mater, the University of Rhode Island:
“My wife and I have traveled to about 15 countries in 3 continents. Our trip next month is a transatlantic cruise on the QE2 followed by a week in London visiting friends I met while spending a year in Great Britain working with ADAS (U.K. environmental consulting firm). November-December will be spent visiting Australia, New Zealand and Fiji. Hobbies include writing on plant pathological subjects, photography, and travel.” (September, 2002)
Each of us has a few influential individuals in our lives whose belief in us makes us a better person than we might otherwise have been. For me, Mal was one of those special people. Who else but such a generous, energetic personality would have taken seriously a 50-year old woman determined to realize her dream of becoming a scientist? I am still honored that I was his top student in both courses I took from him, and his support was instrumental in encouraging me to pursue my academic goal. It was of Mal that I thought when I first began this blog, of his strong commitment to sharing and encouraging knowledge.
So Mal, this one’s for you. May your spirit continue to inspire even as you rest in peace.