The Veritas Project: The Story Behind Dean Pfister’s Fungi

Dean Pfister with an umbrella
Photo Courtesy of Sue Brown

UPDATED: July 30, 2014 at 2:55 p.m.

We met in the Herbarium, a large building at the end of Divinity Ave. that was once the Divinity School Library. Dean Pfister told me he wanted to meet in the space where he had spent his entire career. “My whole life at Harvard has been in this building, so it’s a place to reflect on how I got into studying fungi, and why I’ve done what I’ve done.”

Pfister spent his childhood amidst the beauty of plants, and loved the outdoors from a young age. “I grew up in a rural town in Ohio and my grandparents had a farm. So I was always attracted to being outside and tuned into gardening and plants; how they grow and what you can do with them.”

He first encountered fungi while exploring his grandparents’ farm. “Before I knew anything about fungi, I knew something about plant disease, by observing what was happening in the field. In some ways, I had a very free-ranging childhood: we were given freedom in ways kids these days aren’t.”

Grade school was never a highlight for Pfister. As we talked about it, he smiled, remembering “a lot of clumsiness” during years when schoolwork seemed purposeless. But that changed when he was an undergraduate botany major at Miami University in Ohio, and a professor introduced him to fungi.

One memory in particular comes to mind when he reflects on his growing interest in fungi during his college years. The Miami University campus has rural fringes. “One period in the spring, I had gone out. I went about along the trails, and found this absolutely beautiful large, red cup fungi. I was so excited and thought, ‘This is just wonderful! Nobody has ever seen anything quite like this ever before.’ So I took it back to my professor. He got out a field book, flipped to a page and there it was.”

Seeing the fungi he was holding on the page of that book sparked something in Dean Pfister. “It was kind of a combination of two thoughts. One was, ‘Isn’t it amazing? Isn’t this fungus really beautiful and fantastic?’ And the other part was, ‘Oh, somebody’s already figured this out. This isn’t unknown, it’s known.’” But there was so much to be discovered in the world of fungi: “I got hooked on this idea of the unknown.” Pfister continued studying this little-known organism as a graduate student at Cornell, and then as a botanist doing fieldwork in various parts of the world, from Patagonia to Iceland.

No matter where in the world Dean Pfister finds himself, there is something special about being out in the field. “To look at trees and think about them as architecture. All of nature is telling a story, and some of that is in the aesthetics. Some of it is the peace and quiet that you can find often in being out, and being away. And some of it is a sense of independence when you’re not tethered to a computer or a desk or a cell phone. You’re free in a different kind of way.”

Pfister believes that you can divide the world into the mushroom-lovers and the mushroom-haters. Mycophilic, mushroom-loving societies feel comfortable eating and collecting mushrooms, which leads to “a very different relationship than mycrophobic societies, where people are afraid of the mushrooms. They teach their kids to kick them over, and think, ‘Don’t touch it, because it might be poisonous.’”

In our mycophobic society, where some of us tend to regard fungus as just mold on bread, Pfister emerged as one of the mycophilic. Talking to him, it is clear that he is in such genuine awe of the beauty of nature, and the mystery of an organism we know so little about. He’s loves what he does, and cares about his work in a way that I really hope to one day. And with his years of fungi work, he has spread his wisdom to the College’s student body, whether it was reminding us why we had Yale beat before The Game had begun, or prompting us to look up into the trees to admire little wonders in the Yard.

When July 1st rolls around, we will all miss having him as our Dean. But Pfister will be able to return to the Herbarium, a place he calls his home at Harvard, where he can continue to study the mysterious, wonderful world of fungi.

Want more? Like Flyby on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @crimsonflyby!

This post has been revised to reflect the following corrections:

CORRECTION: March 25, 2014

An earlier version of this post misquoted Interim College Dean Donald H. Pfister as having described certain societies as microphobic, meaning they are afraid of small things. In fact, Pfister used the term mycophobic, meaning that the societies in question are afraid of mushrooms.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: July 30, 2014

An earlier version of a photograph accompanying this article was incorrectly attributed. In fact, the photograph was taken by Sue Brown, the College's associate director of advising programs.

Tags