The Quarterback Botanist

November 10, 1956 
Today is the anniversary of the death of the American botanist and plant pathologist responsible for eradicating crop diseases and so much more, Henry Luke Bolley.

A son of Indiana, Henry was the youngest of twelve children in his family. He went to Purdue, where he was a student-athlete playing baseball and tennis. In 1887, Henry helped put together the first Purdue University football team, where he played quarterback. In their first and only game, the team lost to DePauw University.

In 1890, after receiving his Master’s Degree, Henry started teaching at the North Dakota Agricultural College, now North Dakota State University, as well as working as a botanist at the North Dakota Experiment Station. Henry was a dogged research botanist. Listen to these Henry Bolley accomplishments - any one of which would have been a lifetime accomplishment for most of his peers:

  • Henry brought potato scab under control by isolating the organism responsible and developing an effective treatment.

  • Henry authored North Dakota’s 1908 pure seed laws and advocated for crop rotation.

  • Using a formaldehyde treatment, Henry successfully defeated a fungus disease called smut that destroyed oat crops in the upper Midwest during the late 1800s.

  • Henry worked with manufacturers to develop sprayers for crops, and he developed chemicals that would kill weeds but not harm the crops.

  • Henry eradicated the fungus that caused flax wilt, which meant that farmers could grow flax year after year instead of only sporadic plantings on newly broken land. This work earned him the moniker, “Savior of the Flax Crop.”

  • In 1902, Henry brought back a hard red variety of spring wheat from Russia. Unbeknownst to Henry, his Russian hard red spring wheat was resistant to rust, and the plant breeder Lawrence Waldron used it to create a superior variety of American wheat known as Ceres.

  • Henry created a disease-resistant Flax that more than sextupled US Flax production in just four years. By 1940 North Dakota was producing 31 million bushels of Flax.

  • Finally, Henry discovered that barberry bushes harbored Black stem rust, which nearly wiped out North Dakota wheat crops.

In 1911, after Henry wrote an article and used the term “wheat-sick soil” to describe the over-planting of wheat, the Better Farming Association was formed by a group of bankers and businessmen who felt that Henry was threatening their profits from wheat farmers. The powerful BFA group acted quickly, and they installed a new director at the Experiment Station to do their bidding. In short order, Henry was stripped of his funding and locked out of his labs. The stalemate lasted for six years until the BFA-backed director finally resigned.

In his life, Henry always managed to balance work and play. As he helped build the botany department at North Dakota State University, he also created the football program. It took him three years to recruit enough students to put together a team. And, there’s a marvelous photo of Henry taken in 1935 when he played on the plant pathology softball team at the University of Minnesota. The image shows Henry at the plate, bat in hand, and behind him is the catcher, a man from the USDA, Harry B. Humphrey, who was an uncle to Senator Hubert Humphrey.

After Henry died on this day in 1956, his colleague, Harlow Walster, gave a moving tribute to his old friend, saying that,
 

“[Henry was] a fearless trailblazer who cut deep and lasting blazes in the forest of ignorance about plant diseases."


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Henry Luke Bolley
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