It’s been an exciting week. On April 13, 2009, we held a ceremony to give a set of very special Chinese fungi to the people of China. We’ve been taking care of these fungi for a long time–since about 1940. They have a poignant story tied to the brave heart and scientific dedication of S.C. Teng. He was a graduate student at Cornell in the 1920s, and went on to become one of the fathers of mycology in China. You can get a sense of the determination of the man from this Associated Press article. A little more about Teng is in this 2005 article (PDF) from our Department Newsletter.
The Fungi of China is a special collection of the Cornell Plant Pathology Herbarium (CUP). As Director of the Herbarium, I am in charge of something between 300,000 and 400,000 specimens plus about 60,000 archival photos. My Curator Robert Dirig is the one who does all the hard work. Many treasures make up our collections, including the mushrooms of George F. Atkinson, over 7000 type specimens (the first of their species to be named; bearers of the names of their species), the occasional seashell, and a lot of other things we love or have barely even noticed.
The guest list for the April 13 repatriation ceremony was impressive. Presiding was Madame Yandong Liu, State Councilor of China and China’s highest ranking female official. The delegation included Mr. Ji Zhou, Minister of Education; Mr. Xueyong Li, Vice Minister of Science and Technology; Mr. Wenzhong Zhou, the Chinese Ambassador to the US; and many other high ranking and accomplished Chinese leaders. With the help of a translator, Cornell’s President David Skorton read a carefully crafted letter pledging our gift, and Madame Liu read back her letter of acceptance and appreciation. Pretty elevating.
Now take a break and give yourself a tour of our photo gallery of some of the Fungi of China specimens. The images were created by Kent Loeffler (Photographer, Department of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology). The problem is, herbarium specimens aren’t beautiful things. The Associated Press quotes me as saying they often look like “something you would sweep off your kitchen floor,” which I can’t believe I actually said. We know better, of course, because up close they are heart-breakingly ordered and organic and exquisitely functional and dear. I asked Kent to photograph the fungi in a way that shows them in their best light, and I think you’ll agree he’s been quite successful. Kent’s photographs, printed up handsomely large, are another part of our gift to China.
So our gift to China is 2278 specimens, out of about 2300 that we hold. The difference is in specimens that could not be divided without destroying them, which we’ll keep at Cornell. We make this gift freely, out of good feeling. China has a most impressive group of taxonomic mycologists–the group within the Chinese Academy of Sciences forms one of the largest and most productive mycological centers in the world. We hope our gift will facilitate an understanding of the diversity and systematics of Chinese fungi by Chinese mycologists, who will now have much easier access to study these historic specimens.
What will happen next is not quite settled yet. We expect that during an upcoming visit of President Skorton to China, the 2278 specimens will be handed over in another splendid and solemn ceremony in Beijing. In the meantime we’re feeling both proud and humble to be a part of it.
Some news coverage and more info
- Associated Press news release by Ben Dobbin (Photos by Heather Ainsworth). This is the story that appeared in over 400 news outlets worldwide, like here (often filed under “strange,” alas)
- Xinhua news service story
- Cornell University News story
- National Public Radio’s interview with our own inestimable Professor Emeritus Richard P. Korf
- National Geographic News
- Kent Loeffler’s photo gallery of selected Fungi of China specimens
- Early article about the repatriation and Teng’s travails published in the Dept of Plant Pathology newsletter, 2005. [Plant Path Newsletter article, 2005]
Image of Trametes cinnabarina (CUP-CH 1921) by Kent Loeffler, © Cornell University.