January 21, 1854
Today is the birthday of the Washington DC-based USDA botanist Erwin Frink Smith.
Erwin had attempted to solve the problem of the peach yellows - a disease caused by a microorganism called a phytoplasma, and it was affecting Peach Orchards. It was called the Peach Yellows disease because the main symptom was that new leaves would have a yellowish tint.
Now, if Erwin had solved the Peach Yellows' problem, he would have become world-famous - but he didn't. Years later, it was actually the botanist Louis Otto Kunkel who discovered it was a type of leafhopper that was carrying the disease.
Although Erwin didn't solve the Peach Yellows problem, he was a peach of a guy. In researching Erwin, I discovered a rare combination of kindness and intellect. And Erwin was ahead of his time. Erwin developed a reputation for hiring and promoting female botanists as his assistants at the Bureau of Plant Industry in Washington DC. After giving these women tasks based on their strengths instead of their job descriptions, Erwin's team was able to work on projects that charted new territory for female botanists.
The happiest day in Erwin’s life was no doubt when he married the pretty Charlotte Mae Buffet on April 13, 1893. Together, Erwin and Charlotte shared an epic love for each other and for reading and poetry. Tragically, after twelve years of marriage, Charlotte was diagnosed with endocarditis. She died eight months later, on December 28, 1906.
Erwin dealt with his grief by putting together a book of poetry, stories, and a biography of Charlotte. The book is called For Her Friends and Mine: A Book of Aspirations, Dreams, and Memories. Erwin wrote,
"This book is a cycle of my life— seven lonely years are in it. The long ode (on page 62) is a cry of pain."
There's one passage from Erwin describing Charlotte’s fantastic ability to attune to the natural world, and I thought you'd find it as touching as I did when I first read it:
“Charlotte’s visual powers were remarkable. They far exceeded my own.
Out of doors, her keen eyes were always prying into the habits of all sorts of living things...
Had she cared for classification, which she did not, and been willing to make careful records, she might have become an expert naturalist.
Whether she looked into the tops of the tallest trees, or the bottom of a stream, or the grass at her feet, she was always finding marvels of adaptation to wonder at...
She made lists of all the birds that visited her neighborhood. She knew most of them by their songs, and some times distinguished individuals of the same species by little differences in their notes...
She knew when they nested and where, how they made their nests, and what food they brought to their young.
In studying birds, she used an opera-glass, not a shotgun.
She was, however, a very good shot with the revolver.”