National Academies Press: OpenBook

Biographical Memoirs: Volume 62 (1993)

Chapter: THE PROFESSIONAL YEARS: GENTLEMAN AND SCHOLAR

« Previous: Battlefield, Laboratory, Classroom
Suggested Citation:"THE PROFESSIONAL YEARS: GENTLEMAN AND SCHOLAR." National Academy of Sciences. 1993. Biographical Memoirs: Volume 62. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2201.
×
Page 46
Suggested Citation:"THE PROFESSIONAL YEARS: GENTLEMAN AND SCHOLAR." National Academy of Sciences. 1993. Biographical Memoirs: Volume 62. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2201.
×
Page 47
Suggested Citation:"THE PROFESSIONAL YEARS: GENTLEMAN AND SCHOLAR." National Academy of Sciences. 1993. Biographical Memoirs: Volume 62. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2201.
×
Page 48
Suggested Citation:"THE PROFESSIONAL YEARS: GENTLEMAN AND SCHOLAR." National Academy of Sciences. 1993. Biographical Memoirs: Volume 62. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2201.
×
Page 49
Suggested Citation:"THE PROFESSIONAL YEARS: GENTLEMAN AND SCHOLAR." National Academy of Sciences. 1993. Biographical Memoirs: Volume 62. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2201.
×
Page 50
Suggested Citation:"THE PROFESSIONAL YEARS: GENTLEMAN AND SCHOLAR." National Academy of Sciences. 1993. Biographical Memoirs: Volume 62. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2201.
×
Page 51
Suggested Citation:"THE PROFESSIONAL YEARS: GENTLEMAN AND SCHOLAR." National Academy of Sciences. 1993. Biographical Memoirs: Volume 62. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2201.
×
Page 52
Suggested Citation:"THE PROFESSIONAL YEARS: GENTLEMAN AND SCHOLAR." National Academy of Sciences. 1993. Biographical Memoirs: Volume 62. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2201.
×
Page 53
Suggested Citation:"THE PROFESSIONAL YEARS: GENTLEMAN AND SCHOLAR." National Academy of Sciences. 1993. Biographical Memoirs: Volume 62. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2201.
×
Page 54

Below is the uncorrected machine-read text of this chapter, intended to provide our own search engines and external engines with highly rich, chapter-representative searchable text of each book. Because it is UNCORRECTED material, please consider the following text as a useful but insufficient proxy for the authoritative book pages.

JOHN NATHANIEL COUCH 46 months in Jamaica, British West Indies, with the Johns Hopkins Botanical Group directed by Duncan S. Johnson. Typical of his curiosity and love of observation, he wanted to go just to see what fungi he could find. It was there in the steamy forests of Jamaica that Couch became interested in Septobasidium, a group of fungi found in abundance growing on trees heavily infested with scale insects. Previous to Couch's intrigue with the characteristics of these fungi, the commonly accepted assumption was that species of Septobasidium killed scale insects, thereby preventing them from destroying the trees they infested, and that the phenomenon was unique to the tropics. Couch's research described, however, a mutually beneficial relationship between the fungus and the scale insects, which combined to destroy the host tree or shrub. He also demonstrated that this pathogenic and symbiotic existence was widespread beyond the tropics into temperate climates as well. His findings were published in 1929 and garnered considerable interest. Later, these subsequent and related findings were to result in a round of accolades, including highest honors bestowed by his university and by the United States scientific community. But we're getting ahead of his story … THE PROFESSIONAL YEARS: GENTLEMAN AND SCHOLAR It could be argued that John Couch was a professional scientist earlier than some magical date on which he received a degree or began a career as an academician. Clearly, his work on Dictyuchus and Septobasidium, and his work with Coker on the Saprolegniaceae and Gasteromycetes, was conducted with the curiosity, thoroughness, and integrity of a professional. His discoveries already uncovered in his preparative training could be envied by scientists twice his age. Formally, however, John Couch returned to the

JOHN NATHANIEL COUCH 47 University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill as an assistant professor in 1927. John's return from his postdoctoral studies was with more than a keen eye for new fungi. While at Cold Spring Harbor, his eyes had fallen on something else with attractive appeal and intellectual stimulation, which would keep his interest for the rest of his life. This young woman, whom John met and married, was Else Dorothy Ruprecht, a recent Wellesley graduate who had started her first job working at the Carnegie Institution studying animal genetics—mapping genes in fruit flies—with Dr. Charles Metz. Thus, John Couch, the gentleman, brought his gentle lady with him to Chapel Hill where he was to become, over the next fifty years, the scholar as he is known today. The partnership that was established between John and Else was strengthened during these years by her complementary interests, allowing her to understand and appreciate his long hours in the laboratory, absence from home, and enthusiasm for scientific discovery. Mrs. Couch's skills in foreign language were periodically put to use in translating papers for Couch and many of his students. Her artistic skills are reflected in many of his publications that she helped illustrate. With his formal training complete, and his home established, Professor Couch embarked on forty additional years of teaching and research, advancing to associate professor in 1929 and to full professor in 1932. The first students to receive graduate degrees under his direction, Andrew G. Lang, Ph.D., and John R. Raper, M.A., completed their work in 1936. In 1937, Couch began a long history of service to the several professional organizations to which he belonged by serving as president of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society and as an associate editor of Mycologia. Also commenc

JOHN NATHANIEL COUCH 48 ing in 1937 was what was to become a steady stream of awards, with receipt of the Jefferson Medal and Poteat Award from the North Carolina Academy of Sciences. In 1938, Couch received the Walker Prize of the Boston Society of Natural History for his contribution to clarifying and correcting the natural history of the fungi/scale insect/host relationship in his work on Septobasidium. This was a fitting tribute to Couch's efforts and correlated with the publication of his classic book, The Genus Septobasidium, which represented the culmination of over ten years of research that elucidated the fungus-host-plant relationships, redescribed about ninety known species, and described for the first time eighty-two new species. The semidiagrammatic transverse sectional view, depicted by Couch in 1931, of the mycelial mat of S. burtu parasitizing a scale insect that in turn is parasitizing the cambial tissue of a tree continues to this day to be a standard illustration in most mycology textbooks. The ten-year span between 1935 and 1945 was packed with increasing activity, responsibility, and honors for Couch. Yet he continued to carry on in his modest way, eager to contribute directly and indirectly to mycology in whatever way he could. By 1940, Couch was serving as secretary-treasurer of the Mycological Society of America, a track that would take him through the vice-presidency to president in 1943. He also served that year as a special adviser to the chairman of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development and was elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences. In 1945 the University of North Carolina named him Kenan Professor of Botany. It was mainly during this period that Couch made a series of observations that ultimately led to a complete rethinking of the relationships existing among the diverse organisms known collectively at the time as the Phycomycetes or the

JOHN NATHANIEL COUCH 49 lower fungi. Starting with an abstract in Science in 1938, and followed by his classical paper in 1941 in the American Journal of Botany, Couch first clearly demonstrated the presence of at least two kinds of flagella in fungi, the tinsel type and the whiplash type. He then proposed for the first time that the flagellation patterns exhibited by the zoospores and some gametes of certain fungi were reflective of phylogeny. This insight, in my opinion, remains to this day one of his most important legacies to mycology. His observations clearly represented the starting point and basis for the eventual replacement of the class Phycomycetes with a number of major taxa, which today are each given ranks as low as classes or as lofty as phyla. Couch's work with graduate students during this same ten-year period continued as intensively as ever, with an additional twelve master's and three doctoral students (George A. Christenberry, James A. Doubles, Jr., and Alma J. Whiffen) completing their degrees. The breadth of their activities and of Couch's interests at the time is reflected in the titles of these students' theses and dissertations, which indicate efforts ranging from taxonomy to cytology and physiology, and with fungi and related organisms as diverse as Octomyxa, Blastocladia, Pythium, the Mucorales, some yeasts, Aspergillus and some myxomycetes. By the end of these ten productive years, Couch turned fifty, an age when many scientists begin to reevaluate their career goals, often begin to slow their research efforts, and even begin to rest on past laurels. Certainly with his scientific record and stature secure, Couch could have done the same. However, the laurels continued, and so did his own research and that of his students. Colleagues in his adopted home state honored him between 1945 and 1950 with additional awards, such as an honorary doctor of science from Catawba College, electing him president of the North

JOHN NATHANIEL COUCH 50 Carolina Academy of Sciences, and appointing him editor of the Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society (a post he held until 1961). He returned these honors by graduating another doctoral student (Arthur W. Ziegler) and seven more students with master's degrees. He also began to describe for the first time a number of sporangial bacteria that he had discovered. The first of these new organisms had been isolated from soil collected by Lane Barksdale, the husband of his former student Alma Wiffin, while he was in the Philippine Islands in 1945. Couch isolated the first species of these bacteria by the classical fungal procedure known as the sporangial push technique, recognized that it represented a filamentous bacterium of the bacterial order Actinomycetales, clarified its uniqueness by observing the production of vesicles at hyphal tips in which flagellated motile reproductive cells originated, and then described it in 1950 as Actinoplanes philippininsis. Ultimately, Couch described five genera and ten species and erected the family Actinoplanaceae, which today contains a number of additional genera and species. The momentum increasing instead of decreasing, Couch passed through the 1950s at full tilt—continuing throughout the decade to teach; to practice bench science; to administer the Department of Botany; and to serve as an officer, committee chair, editor, mentor, husband, and father. Recognition of his contributions continued in the United States by his receipt of a Meritorious Teaching Award in 1955 from the Association of Southeastern Biologists and a Golden Jubilee Merit Citation in 1956 from the Botanical Society of America. The latter was awarded to him as one "whose studies of the small, the intricate, and the odd among fungi and their relatives have come to fructification in the vivid, the significant, and the delectable."2 During this decade, Couch's influence was also recognized

JOHN NATHANIEL COUCH 51 beyond the United States as well. Admiration of his work, presentations, and personal demeanor by colleagues in the international arena resulted in election as an honorary foreign member of India's National Academy of Sciences. Remarkably, John Couch's guidance of advanced graduate students during this same period intensified instead of diminishing, with the number of his students receiving degrees increasing by nine, with five of those receiving doctorates (Elizabeth K. Goldie-Smith, Maeburn B. Huneycutt, William J. Koch, Charles E. Miller, and J. Thomas Mullins). He also significantly contributed to graduate education in India by serving on numerous Ph.D. committees of Indian graduate students. Not infrequently he would receive bound theses for review and hand-carved slide boxes containing preserved documenting evidence for the conclusions reached by aspiring Indian Ph.D. candidates. It is well known that he judiciously reviewed these items, and, consequently, no doubt significantly influenced the current cadre of Indian mycologists. By the 1960s, Dr. Couch was in constant demand as a scientific speaker, consultant, or adviser, serving on the North Carolina Governor's Science Advisory Commission, as adviser for the U.S. Public Health Service's Communicable Disease Center, and on a review committee of the University Grants Commission of India. The State of North Carolina honored him with a Gold Medal Science Award in 1964, and the university where he began his undergraduate studies, Duke University, awarded him an honorary doctor of science degree in 1965. He continued his service to the many professional organizations to which he belonged as vice-president and chairman of the Botany Section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as vice-president of the Botanical Society of America, and as a member of the editoral board of Mycopathologia et Mycologia Applicata.

JOHN NATHANIEL COUCH 52 During the final decade before his retirement, numerous students continued to pursue degrees under Couch's direction and in his laboratory. Thus, at the venerable age of sixty-five-plus years, he graduated his final three master's students and five more doctoral degree students (Clyde J. Umphlett, Miriam K. Slifkin, Paul J. Szaniszlo, William A. Sherwood, and Charles E. Bland). These were his golden years—and also transition years for Couch and these students who elected at such a late date in his scientific life to learn from a master biologist, microbiologist, and mycologist who had five incredibly productive decades of experience. They were transition years for him and his students because both were keenly aware that biology was changing, whether one liked it or not (Couch never confided that particular opinion to me). The change was from a predominantly organismal orientation in such fields as botany, mycology, algology, and zoology toward the more detailed study of fewer and fewer model organisms at the most sophisticated physiological, biochemical, and genetic levels. Thus, Couch had to convey to his last students his consuming enthusiasm for organisms in general, and fungi in particular, without discouraging their interest in or need to study systems at more ''modern" levels, a sometimes difficult, but in his case, not impossible task. In my own experience, as Couch's third-to-last Ph.D. student and as one having interests not only in traditional mycology but also in the application of newer technologies to mycological questions, I found my mentor surprisingly receptive to forward thinking. As long as students with tangential scientific interests attempted to appreciate and master traditional mycological concepts based on morphology and cytology, Dr. Couch would enthusiastically embrace their attempts to use the then-new biology. In fact, although he did not require his last students to master

JOHN NATHANIEL COUCH 53 biochemistry or genetics, he certainly encouraged such efforts by students who felt compelled to learn and conduct research along those lines. This attribute of his character was particularly important because it allowed some of his students to work at a leading edge of microbiological science, within the framework of his years of experiences with numerous fungi and bacteria. In fact, in my case he formally established that my Ph.D. would involve cosupervisors, himself and Harry Gooder of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the UNC Medical School. Couch's foresight regarding my scientific future and training ensured that my Ph.D. research would be microbiologically competitive, a gift for which I thank him to this day. When I look back into my own past and his influence on my scientific career, I realize that John Couch provided me with a number of other gifts in the form of a venue of very important philosophical approaches to teaching and academic research. These can be identified in retrospect as guiding principles that at first unknowingly influenced my research activities and my interactions with graduate students and subsequently seemed to solidify somewhat into my own philosophy. Foremost among these is the need to encourage students to understand the nature of relevant whole organisms and their relationships prior to committing them to detailed study of their isolated parts and functions. For Couch this seemed to allow students to appreciate better their observations and discoveries and to put them into the context of broader issues. In my own case Couch encouraged me first to study a whole fungus at the research level before attempting to investigate cell-wall biochemical aspects of Actinoplanaceae, the bacteria he discovered and on which I originally went to his laboratory to work. I am very grateful for this particular guidance because it encouraged me early in my career to study in some detail

JOHN NATHANIEL COUCH 54 one of those wonderful eucaryotic microbes he loved so well and at a time when one could still pay attention to their morphological and cytological beauty, in an environment of true organismal appreciation, without any trace of embarrassment. It was this experience, coupled with my love of microbiological approaches, that prompts me to this day to continue to return to the fungi as research resources after brief and frequent excursions into other systems. Among the other approaches used by Dr. Couch, as unwritten guides in his research activities and interactions with students, I think I recognized at least three that are additional legacies from his philosophy of academic science. Most important of these may be to allow students beginning their research activities to find their own problems within the context of the major professor's interests and within the feasibility of the funds available. Couch always suggested that from his experience those students who defined, or thought they defined, their own M.A. or Ph.D. problems were the most committed to and interested in the outcome of their research. Next in importance may be to allow students to study their research questions using the methodologies most commensurate with their interests, talents, and background. Certainly it was obvious that he did not require students to be clones of himself, although as already mentioned he did require them to be mycologically literate and to do competitive work. Finally, he had one somewhat selfish approach that seems to have served him well and hopefully will do the same for those of us who continue in his footsteps. On a number of occasions he confided that he tried consciously to change his research emphasis about every ten years. Most likely he did this to learn new things, maintain enthusiasm, and avoid the trivialization of his own efforts. It is clear by any

Next: THE LATER YEARS: RETIREMENT »
Biographical Memoirs: Volume 62 Get This Book
×
Buy Hardback | $107.00
MyNAP members save 10% online.
Login or Register to save!
Download Free PDF

Biographic Memoirs: Volume 62 contains the biographies of deceased members of the National Academy of Sciences and bibliographies of their published works. Each biographical essay was written by a member of the Academy familiar with the professional career of the deceased. For historical and bibliographical purposes, these volumes are worth returning to time and again.

  1. ×

    Welcome to OpenBook!

    You're looking at OpenBook, NAP.edu's online reading room since 1999. Based on feedback from you, our users, we've made some improvements that make it easier than ever to read thousands of publications on our website.

    Do you want to take a quick tour of the OpenBook's features?

    No Thanks Take a Tour »
  2. ×

    Show this book's table of contents, where you can jump to any chapter by name.

    « Back Next »
  3. ×

    ...or use these buttons to go back to the previous chapter or skip to the next one.

    « Back Next »
  4. ×

    Jump up to the previous page or down to the next one. Also, you can type in a page number and press Enter to go directly to that page in the book.

    « Back Next »
  5. ×

    To search the entire text of this book, type in your search term here and press Enter.

    « Back Next »
  6. ×

    Share a link to this book page on your preferred social network or via email.

    « Back Next »
  7. ×

    View our suggested citation for this chapter.

    « Back Next »
  8. ×

    Ready to take your reading offline? Click here to buy this book in print or download it as a free PDF, if available.

    « Back Next »
Stay Connected!