Joseph ​Charles Arthur (1850  1942)

Joseph Charles Arthur  

Joseph Charles (“J.C.”) Arthur (18501942) was born in Lowville, NY on January 11, 1850. Early in his childhood, his family moved to a farm near Charles City, Iowa where he grew up. It was during this time that Arthur developed an interest in flowering plants. He was one of the first students to enroll at Iowa State College (now University) in 1869. Due to his interest in plants, he planned to study botany during college. Much to his dismay, no botanists were at Iowa State during his first year. In his second year, botanist Charles E. Bessey obtained a professorship at Iowa State and it was under his guidance that Arthur began his formal study of botany. To help facilitate Arthur’s studies, Bessey purchased a rust collection from the herbarium of Moses A. Curtis. Arthur graduated from Iowa State in 1872 (Mains, 1942).

Joseph C. Arthur
Joseph C. Arthur.

In 1876 Arthur took a position as an instructor at Iowa State. He published his first paper that year, which was a catalog of the flowering plants of Iowa. It was during this time that he met E.W.D Holway, another noted botanist and mycologist. The two became friends and colleagues until Holway’s death in 1923. In 1877, Arthur received his Masters of Science (M.S.) at Iowa State. After that, he studied briefly at Harvard and Johns Hopkins University. From 1879–1881 Arthur was an instructor at the University of Wisconsin and then at the University of Minnesota during the following year (Mains, 1942).

After his year in Minnesota, Arthur became the first botanist to work at the New York Agriculture Experiment Station in Geneva, NY. This appointment was the first of its kind in the United States (Mains, 1942). Here most of his work was with bacterial or fire blight of pear. He was the first to establish that bacteria can cause plant disease (Arthur, 1885). In a monographic review of fire blight Baker (1971), states “that Arthur, rather than Burrill, first presented convincing proof that bacteria could cause plant disease, and this was in 1884-1885." The convincing proof resulted from carrying out what came to be known as Koch’s Postulates.

In 1885, while still at the New York Agricultural Experiment Station, he went to an AAAS meeting in New York City. During a break, botanist L.M. Underwod took Arthur to a pasture in the Bronx that was to become the future site of the New York Botanical Garden. Underwood confided in Arthur that the Garden was spearheading an effort to publish systematic descriptions of the entire North American flora and Arthur was most likely going to be in charge of the section on rust fungi. Arthur was elated by this news, as was the New York Agricultural Experiment Station where he was granted increased freedom to study rusts (Arthur & Cummins, Bulletin of the Purdue University Herbarium) For his part, Arthur joined a consortium of collaborators to write 12 parts of the North American Flora, totaling 884 pages of descriptions, measurements, and host and distribution records of rust fungi. The first part was published in 1907 and the last in 1931 (Arthur, 1907).

The year after Arthur earned his Doctor of Science from Cornell in 1886 (a publication from his doctorate can be viewed here​), he was appointed professor of botany at Purdue University where he remained until his retirement in 1915. He was also the first botanist at the Purdue University Agricultural Experiment Station. Purdue continued to support his contribution to the North American Flora. One of his first accomplishments while at Purdue was determining that formalin could be used as a fungicide to control potato scab (Arthur, 1897).

Herbert Hice​ Whetzel, J. C. Arthur, and Harry Morton Fitzpatrick
Herbert Hice​ Whetzel, J. C. Arthur, and Harry Morton Fitzpatrick at Cornell Univeristy.

During his tenure at Purdue, Arthur accumulated over 40,000 rust specimens. Although he housed them at Purdue, Arthur considered these specimens to be his property because the collections were out of his own pocket. When Purdue disagreed, Arthur hired moving vans and quietly packed up the entire herbarium, including cabinets, and moved it to his house. This caused a standoff with Winthrop E. Stone, President of Purdue, who directed that he return all of the specimens, papers, drawings and notes related to his work with the North American Flora to the herbarium. Ultimately an agreement was reached between Arthur and the Trustees of Purdue University to reimburse Arthur for expenses he personally incurred to build and maintain the herbarium, paying him the grand sum of $1450 amounting to 3.5 cents per specimen! (Cummins, 1978)​, roughly $33,500 in today's currency.

It was at Purdue where Arthur began over 19 years of culture experiments with American species of rust (Arthur, 1921). He was faced with the task of identifying a species concept appropriate for rust fungi, many of which exhibit up to five different spore types and can alternate between two hosts, known as heteroecism (read more about the rust fungi here). The life cycle of rust fungi was not fully known for most species, so Arthur’s goal was to keep rusts under direct observation to note the succession of spore types. Heteroecism of North American rusts was unexplored at this point, so to find the alternate hosts for some species, he performed over 3750 innoculations with 2140 collections on potential hosts. Through these culture studies, Arthur realized the importance of host specialization to the delimitation of species. Arthur also introduced a greater emphasis on morphological, and especially microscopic characters, such as the number and arrangement of germpores on spores that had up to this point, not been considered in the taxonomy of rust fungi. Later, their taxonomic significance became shown (Cummins, 1936).

Interesting Facts

  • During his career, Arthur named 29 genera and 309 species in the North American Flora (Arthur, 1897), and described an additional 50 species from South America, India and the Philippines, many of which he obtained from the collections of Holway.
  • Arthur was a charter member of the Botanical Society of America (twice serving as President) (Tippo, 1952), the Mycological Society of America, American Phytopathological Society (where he also served as President), the American Association of University Professors, and many other learned societiey (Mains, 1942).
  • His first paper on the rust fungi was published in 1883 (Arthur, 1883) and he continued publishing on the subject for over half of a century, his final publication appearing in 1934 (Arthur, 1934).
  • He devised an exact method of estimating loss from oat smut, the first time a plant disease had been reduced to statistics.​
  • Dr. J. C. Arthur wrote of himself, “beside the love of scientific pursuits a decidedly artistc temperament gave strong leaning toward both music and art...musical composition received some attention.” At least one piece of music by Dr. Arthur was published, “Vive Purdue” (see below).
Vive Purdue sheet music  
Joseph Arthur's Diploma  


  • Arthur, JC. 1883. The interpretation of Schweinitzian and other early descriptions. American Naturalist 17: 77-78.​
  • Arthur, JC. 1885. Pear blight and its cause. American Naturalist 19: 1177-1185.
  • Arthur, JC. 1897. Formalin for prevention of potato scab. Purdue University Agriculture Experiment Station Bulletin 65: 17-36.
  • Arthur, JC. 1907-1931. Order Uredinales. North American Flora 7: 83-969.
  • Arthur, JC. 1921. Nineteen years of culture work. Mycologia 13: 12-23.
  • Arthur, JC. 1934. Manual of the Rusts of United States and Canada." Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue Research Foundation. 438 pp.
  • Bulletin of the Purdue University Herbarium 1: 2-4.​Cummins, GB. Dr. Joseph Charles Arthur.
  • Baker, K. F. 1971. Fire Blight of pome fruits: The genesis of the concept that bacteria can be pathogenic to plants. Hilgardia 40:603-633.
  • Cummins, GB. 1936. Phylogenetic significance of the pores in urediospores. Mycologia 28: 103-132.
  • Cummins, GB. 1978. Arthur: the man and his work. Annual Review of Phytopathology 16: 19-30.​
  • Mains, EB. 1942. Joseph Charles Arthur (1850-1942). Mycologia 34: 601-605.
  • Tippo, O. 1956. The Early History of the Botanical Society of America. American Journal of Botany 43: 852-858 ​​