CA Mushrooms

Pioneers of California Mycology:
H. W. Harkness

© Peter G. Werner
Original publication: Mycena News, December, 2006

Of all the pioneers of California mycology, HW Harkness is most deserving of the title “Father of California Mycology”. Although a very few collections of California fungi were made by the Charles Wilkes expedition of 1841, no systematic identification and cataloging of California’s mycota had taken place before the work of Harkness.

Harkness came from a poor family in Pelham, Massachusetts. Nonetheless, he was able to apprentice as a physician, and in 1847 earned an MD at Berkshire Medical College. A year after graduating from medical school, news of the discovery of gold in California reached the East Coast, and Harkness joined the wave of emigrants heading west, taking the treacherous overland route to California.


Arriving at Bidwell’s Bar (on the Feather River) in October 1849, he tried his hand at mining, but soon turned to the more lucrative trade of tending to the miners as a physician. In 1850, he moved his practice to Sacramento. His social circle expanded greatly there, and his patients and friends included such luminaries as Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Collis Huntington, and Mark Hopkins.

It was through these connections, that he was chosen as a representative of California at the ceremony marking the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. On May 10, 1869, Harkness was in possession of the famous “Golden Spike” which was handed off to Leland Stanford, whose driving of the spike marked the connection of East and West by railroad. His role in this ceremony also led to his invitation by the Viceroy of Egypt to attend the opening of the Suez Canal several months later.

His real estate investments in the burgeoning town of Sacramento earned him a large fortune (it is said that he died with an estate worth $150 million in 1901 dollars) and allowed him to retire from his practice that same year, at age 48. This allowed Harkness to move to San Francisco and devote the rest of his life to his real passion – science, and in particular, mycology.

In 1871, he joined the recently-established California Academy of Sciences, becoming its president from 1887 to 1896. His tenure as president of the Academy was not always a harmonious one. One of his critics wrote, “When Dr Harkness joined the Academy, harmony and peace departed, as he conceived the idea that he was the supreme power who should direct its affairs, and all who differed from him he regarded as his personal enemies. This caused wide-spread animosity and ill-feeling among the members, which inharmonious condition prevailed until his death fifteen years later.”

In his years at the Academy, Harkness worked on a variety of questions concerning the natural history of the western US, writing on such topics as the age of the Cinder Cone near Mt Lassen or the mysterious fossil footprints discovered at Carson City, Nevada (which he thought were the tracks of a giant prehistoric man – actually, they belonged to a giant prehistoric ground sloth).

His greatest scientific contribution was in the area of mycology, and with his collecting partner Justin P Moore, he set out to catalog as many fungi as he could from throughout California. From 1876 until 1899, numerous publications were made of Harkness’ California collections, written either by Harkness himself, or by mycologists such as Mordecai C. Cooke, whom he was in correspondence with and contributed samples to. An early member of the San Francisco Microscopical Society, he sampled and cataloged microfungi with at least as much as enthusiasm as he did fleshy fungi.

Harkness wrote that his geographic sampling of California fungi extended from the Oregon border to Fort Yuma, and often into the other Pacific Coast States as well. His favorite collecting ground was Marin County, particularly the San Rafael area, near the home of Justin P Moore, as well as Mill Valley and Mt Tamalpais. He also collected a great deal in the Sierra Nevada, including Yosemite and the railroad stops along what is now the Highway 80 corridor – Auburn, Colfax, Blue Canyon, and Donner Lake.

His publication history charts his growth as a mycologist. The 1880 publication, Pacific Coast Fungi is simply a species list and largely describes western US fungi using established European and East Coast names. The more difficult-toidentify collections (typically microfungi) are passed along to his correspondents for identification and publication. By the 1880s, Harkness coauthors more of these publications. In 1899, two years before his death, he published his masterwork, California Hypogeous Fungi. This work, on which Harkness is sole author, is a complete monograph of the hypogeous fungi known from the state at that time, with full descriptions and color illustrations. The monograph describes 108 species, 55 of which are new to science.

Notable species described by Harkness include Tuber gibbosum, later called the Oregon white truffle, which Harkness describes finding under oaks in Mill Valley. He also was the first to describe Calvatia sculpta (or Lycoperdon sculptum, as he named it), which he found during one of his Sierra forays. His discoveries among the plant pathogenic fungi (an important topic in the emerging agricultural State) were equally notable. He was discoverer of western gall rust (Endocronartium harknessii), a pathogen of ponderosa and lodgepole pine. (In a bit of nomenclatural subterfuge, his close collaborator Justin P Moore published the species and named it after Harkness.) Harkness also first noted the presence of downy mildew (Plasmopara viticola) in California, a pathogen of wine grapes that was thought to be restricted to Europe and the eastern US.

Harkness’ writings also include several publications on the topic of biological nomenclature. His opinions on the subject are quite modern, arguing strongly for adherence to the principle of priority (the idea that new names should not be coined for an single established species). He also notes that the polymorphism of different life stages in the fungi tended to lead to a multiplicity of species names being applied to different life stages of the same organism. (An observation that was prescient given later discoveries about the sexual stages of “imperfect” fungi.) Harkness also took a jaundiced attitude toward too-strict application of Latin and Greek grammatical rules in Botanical Latin, stating, “The ‘classical’ terminology of any of the sciences would probably appear very barbarous to Cicero, and the most vigorous sticklers in this regard are usually those who, having acquired late ‘a little Latin and less Greek,’ wish to make of that little as great a display as possible.”

Harkness died in 1901, having provided a beginning to the project of describing California’s mycota. The plant pathogenic ascomycete genus Harknessia is named for him, as are the names of fungal species in 20 genera. His fungal herbarium remained part of the botanical collection at California Academy of Sciences for many years before being passed along to the New York State Museum, when the Academy divested itself of its fungal collections. Sadly, these important collections remain (uncataloged) on the other side of the country, rarely looked at by California mycologists today.

(A special thanks to the kind folks at the California Academy of Sciences Library and the History Collection, Main Library, SFPL for help in finding source materials for this article.)

Further Reading: