Pioneers of California Mycology:
Lee Bonar

© Peter G. Werner
Original publication: Mycena News, November 2007

Although a number of authors have made strides in the study of California fungi in the early decades of the twentieth century, none of the California universities up to that point had full-time mycologists on their faculty. Berkeley professor William Albert Setchell had made some important contributions and taught the subject at the university; he was, however, predominantly an algologist with only a secondary interest in fungi. The distinction of being the first full-time mycologist at a California university instead goes to another member of the Berkeley faculty, Lee Bonar.

Bonar was born on August 26, 1891 in rural West Virginia, where he grew up on a farm as the fourth in a family of nine children. When he was 18, he began his career as a teacher at the same one-room schoolhouse he had graduated from only a year earlier. Over the next several years, Bonar found work as a traveling laborer, working at such varied jobs as farm worker, in a tire factory, and as a doorto- door book salesman.

Lee Bonar

After several years, he began his university studies, initially at Marshall College in West Virginia; and after two years, he transferred to the University of Michigan, playing on the football teams of both colleges. At Michigan, he became interested in botany and mycology, and spent the next several years as the student of mycologist C.H. Kauffman. He earned his living as a student assistant, which at that time not only included teaching assistant duties, but also living in Kauffman’s home and taking care of various chores. Bonar continued to study under Kauffman from his time as an undergraduate up to his PhD dissertation. (This was briefly interrupted by army service during the First World War, which he managed to serve out as a hospital lab technician at a Virginia army hospital.) While Kauffmann’s work was primarily with fleshy fungi, Bonar became more interested in plant pathogenic fungi, and wrote his dissertation on Curvularia trifolii, an anamorphic hyphomycete causing a wilt of white clover.

While still a graduate student, Bonar made his first trip to California as a field assistant in forest pathology for the USDA. In this capacity, he studied various timber rots in Sierra Nevada trees, a study that sparked his lifelong interest in wood-rot fungi. (Bonar also related that during a sightseeing tour of San Francisco that summer, he arrived in clothes more suited to a muggy summer day in Michigan than a cold, foggy day in San Francisco. Evidentially, Mark Twain’s old saw about San Francisco summers didn’t have as wide a circulation at the time.) After graduating from Michigan in 1922, he was hired to the teaching faculty of UC Berkeley. Bonar arrived just in time for the 1923 Berkeley Fire, and one of his early experiences in Berkeley was helping to protect the home of Professor Richard Holman, where he was living at the time.

Bonar’s studies of California fungi began with his initial trips to the Sierra Nevada and continued through the rest of his life. He made some of the first investigations of pathogens and epiphytes of California native species, as well as continuing studies of the extensive collections of fungi that H.W. Harkness had deposited at the California Academy of Sciences. Bonar also continued Harkness’ studies of California hypogeous fungi. In this endeavor, he was aided by Harold E. Parks, an early California truffle enthusiast with a particularly developed talent for finding underground fungi. Bonar noted that his sense of smell wasn’t nearly as good as Parks’; hence, his talent for truffling was never as developed.

Bonar also did a considerable amount of work on fungi sent by various colleagues. William Bridge Cooke, who carried out extensive surveys of the fungi of Mt. Shasta over several decades, passed along a number of pathogenic ascomycetes to Bonar for more detailed study. Bonar, in turn, would often send Cooke difficult-to-identify polypores for the same purpose. California Academy botanist John Thomas Howell made collections of fungal specimens for study by Bonar while part of the 1932 Templeton Crocker Expedition, which collected on the Galápagos, as well as other coastal Pacific islands, including Guadelupe Island. Some 80 fungal species were identified from this expedition, of which seven were considered new to science. Another colleague with whom Bonar collaborated was the University physician, Dr. Robert T. Legge, who sent Bonar samples of ringworm-inducing dermatophytes, which were in abundant supply among the students at the University gymnasium. Legge and Bonar published several articles on this group.

Bonar’s PhD students included plant and fungal physiologist David R. Goddard, forest pathologist Harold E. Bailey, and food microbiologist Emil M. Mrak. He also had several female graduate students, who, as was typical of the time, studied for MA degrees. These students included Elizabeth E. Morse and Vera Mentzer Miller, both of whom made significant contributions to California mycology in their own right.

Bonar served as UC Berkeley Botany Department Chair from 1942–1954. After his retirement from the teaching faculty in 1958, he took on the role of Curator of Fungi at the University Herbarium. The herbarium had already accumulated a large collection of specimens from Bonar and his students, as well as W.C. Blasdale’s collection of rust fungi. Later, the herbarium gained the personal herbaria of Harold E. Parks and Joseph P. Tracy. Bonar himself added collections through the rest of his life, mainly of pathogenic and endophytic fungi, but added the occasional fleshy fungi, as well. His collecting trips were typically short day trips to various spots throughout the Bay Area, but he would occasionally make longer journeys to the Sierra Nevada and the Mojave Desert. Bonar continued his work almost daily at the University Herbarium, literally up until the day of his death on March 1, 1977. He left behind a great unfinished work: a host index for the fungi of California, which sits to this day in an extensive series of ring binders at the University Herbarium.

In 1939, Bonar pointed out that a comparison of our knowledge of the mycota of California with that of that of its flora emphasized the overwhelming need for the systematic collection and study of fungi. Some 70 years later, this remains just as true.

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