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Morchella elata illust by Katie Syme The study of Australian fungi

The twentieth century

Daniel McAlpine (1849-1932), a Scot, came to Melbourne in 1884. He was primarily a plant pathologist who made fundamental contributions to our knowledge of the rust and smut fungi in Australia and wrote two books about these microfungi. While he is a major figure in Australian mycology, almost all his work was with the microfungi and so won't be described here. However, the first new fungal species he described (in association with the naturalist and school teacher, Johann Tepper) was a macrofungus, the polypore Laccocephalum basilapiloides - and the genus Laccocephalum was also their creation. McAlpine was also the first resident mycologist to publish a new mushroom species (Hebeloma frenchii) independent of any European help. In 1895 he made the pertinent observation that:

"There can be no doubt that the necessity for sending distant countries for identification has greatly retarded our knowledge of these important organisms, and I think the time has now arrived when we ought to make an effort to study and develop our own resources".

In the same year he published his Systematic arrangement of the Australian fungi. This was not a descriptive guide to the Australian species and at first glance it looks to be a dry and boring list of species. But it is an annotated list of the 2284 (macro and micro) fungal species reported for Australia to that stage, along with a bibliography that listed every taxonomic publication dealing with Australian fungi. This was a valuable reference tool for future mycologists, for it put all of that bibliographic material into one, easily accessible volume and so saved people much tedious library work. The entry for each species occupies a line spread over two pages and here is an example of a two page spread, The title page and the preface to McAlpine's catalogue are given here and in the preface you will find an explanation of the layout of each double page.

Leonard Rodway (1853-1936), a dentist, was Tasmania's Honorary Government Botanist from 1896 to 1932. In the 1890s Rodway sent collections to Massee in England, who published various new species, either by himself or jointly with Rodway. Later Rodway published many papers in the Papers & Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania and described many new species, especially in the polypores (with Cleland, of whom more shortly), truffle-like fungi and the smaller ascomycetes. Not surprisingly, much has happened since Rodway's time. Improved knowledge has led to changes in generic definitions, so that many of the fungi named by Rodway now have different names. However, all agree that he made a major contribution to Australian mycology. Moreover, he was an early example of the resident mycologist, so greatly desired by McAlpine, who published independently of the Europeans. The bulk of Rodway's collections (including many of his type specimens) are preserved in the Tasmanian herbarium and are still relevant to current research. He was honoured in the names of several fungi including Cystangium rodwayi click to view.

cartoonCurtis Gates Lloyd (1859-1926) was an American pharmacist whose great wealth made it possible for him to retire early and spend his time on the study of fungi. He worked on various groups of non-fleshy fungi, spending a few years on one group and then moving on to another. He had a worldwide network of collectors. In 1906 it was noted in the Victorian Naturalist (the journal of the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria) that: "Mr. C. G. Lloyd...who is devoting all his time to the study of the puff-balls of the world, has asked us to make known his desire for specimens of puff-balls and birds-nest fungi from all parts of Australia." He received specimens from many Australian correspondents including McAlpine, Rodway, Cheel and Cleland (more on the latter two below). He produced his own journal, well-illustrated with black-and-white photographs, in which he published the results of his research - a mix of conscientious work (which has stood the test of time) and slapdash conclusions which have been found wanting. He also used his journal to air his opinions on mycology and mycologists. He was controversial, sometimes contradictory and often trenchant in his opinions. For example, he described Cooke's Australian Handbook as "perhaps the worst textbook on fungi that was ever published". While he lampooned other mycologists (sometimes with the help of his fictitious creation, Professor N.J. McGinty of Pumkinville Polymorphic Institute) he was also critical of his own blunders.

cover: Toadstools and MushroomsJohn Burton Cleland (1878-1971) studied medicine and, after periods of work in several places in Australia and London, became Professor of Pathology at Adelaide University in 1920 and held that position until 1948. He had broad interests in natural history and made outstanding contributions to the study of Australian fungi, even though the study of fungi was a spare time pursuit. Cleland corresponded with other mycologists, both in and outside Australia, and collected widely in Central Australia (during his travels as a member of the Board of Anthropological Research) as well as closer to Adelaide and in the environs of Sydney. He described over 200 new species, many in conjunction with Edwin Cheel (1872-1951), a staff member at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney. In 1934 and 1935 Cleland published his two-part monograph Toadstools and Mushrooms and other Larger Fungi of South Australia, a work with relevance beyond that state. It contains a mixture of black-and-white photographs as well as paintings of various species. This was the first monograph on Australian (macro)fungi since Cooke's work and remained the only major Australian mycological work for several decades. While Cooke had worked with dried specimens and inadequate notes, Cleland worked with fresh material, so giving authenticity to his species' descriptions. Moreover, Cleland lived here and saw his fungi over many seasons, giving him familiarity with the variation within a species. Thus, his monograph was really the first scientific book to deal with the Australian species. For all intents and purposes, Cleland's mycological writings stopped soon after the publication of this monograph. However, he maintained many of his interests well into old age. Anthropology and forensic curiosity came together when, during a trip to New Guinea (at the age of 79), he acquired a collection of recipes for the cooking of human flesh. The bulk of Cleland's collections (including his type specimens) are kept in Adelaide at the South Australian herbarium.

Gordon Herriot Cunningham (1892-1962) was a New Zealand mycologist with broad interests, both microfungal (diseases of fruit trees, plant rusts) and macrofungal (especially the gasteromycetes, polypores and corticioid fungi). Before becoming a mycologist he had worked in various outdoor jobs at a number of places in Australia and New Zealand - including a brief stint in charge of a camel train in central Australia.

The focus of Cunningham's first major work in macrofungal taxonomy were the gasteromycetes (which, at the time, included the truffle-like fungi). He published numerous papers in the 1920s and 1930s, then brought all his findings together in his 1944 book The Gasteromycetes of Australia and New Zealand. Lloyd had already published a number of studies about the Australasian species, between 1898 and 1925, and while Cunningham agreed with many of Lloyd's conclusions, he also found that Lloyd had been unduly careless in many of his studies. Cunningham was definitely the more thorough worker. The 1944 book contains many critical comments, such as: "Lloyd was greatly confused as to the identity of the species", "Faulty work of this nature shows that Lloyd possessed scant knowledge of the genus", "He blundered more than usual in his examination".

Later he turned to the corticioid fungi and polypores, with a view to producing authoritative monographs on the Australasian species. While he completed one manuscript and almost all of the other before his death, the books appeared posthumously, the corticioids in 1963 and the polypores in 1965.

Cunningham was an outstanding, modern mycologist who fully realized the importance of the microscopic examination of fungal specimens and he was meticulous in his microscopic studies. He was a pioneer in the use of hyphal anlysis of polypores. During several trips to Europe he was able to undertake detailed examinations of the Australasian fungi at the Kew herbarium and several other European herbaria. In addition he was internationally recognized, elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1950 and corresponded (and exchanged specimens) with the leading mycologists of his day. In particular he received numerous specimens from various Australian collectors including Cleland, Rodway, McLennan and Willis (more about the latter pair below) - which gave a firm basis to his conclusions about the Australian species. Cunningham was also an active collector in New Zealand and saw many of his species in the field. Thus he brought to his work a solid combination of field and herbarium knowledge.

As would be expected, the three monographs mentioned above are now quite dated and no longer totally reliable, but this reflects the increase in knowledge since Cunningham's time. reference linkSome of his work has been modernised, but in many cases his books are still the only comprehensive accounts of these fungal groups. When used with care, the three books are still a source of much useful information.

Ethel McLennan (1891-1983) joined the University of Melbourne Botany School in 1915, retired in 1955 as an associate professor but continued her association with the school until she was almost 80. She had broad mycological interests (in both macro and micro fungi) and published on native ascomycetes (including the truffle-like species). She supervised about 20 graduate students, mainly on microfungal subjects but one of her students, Stella 'Maisie' Fawcett (later Carr), (1912-1988) published several papers on the Australian coral fungi in the 1930s - a group largely neglected before then. McLennan started a fungal herbarium at the university and corresponded with the prominent mycologists of her day, lending numerous specimens to the relevant experts. For example, the gasteromycete and polypore collections in the university herbarium were studied and annotated by Cunningham. She readily helped amateurs and it was through her encouragement that the artists Malcolm Howie and Thelma Daniell executed paintings depicting several hundred species of fungi.

cover: Willis' Toadstools and Mushrooms

James Hamlyn 'Jim' Willis (1910-1995) studied at the Victorian School of Forestry and developed an interest in fungi early in his life, publishing an account of the Victorian mushrooms in 1934. After a brief time with the Victorian Forestry Commission, he joined the Melbourne herbarium in 1939 and stayed there until his retirement, by which time he had become Assistant Government Botanist. The Melbourne herbarium was von Mueller's old institution, but between his death and the employment of Willis, little mycological work had been undertaken there. The main focus of Willis' work was the vascular flora, but he published numerous semi-popular fungal articles in the Victorian Naturalist, always with a view to educating the interested naturalist and making specialist knowledge available to a wider audience. The several editions of his small book on Victorian fungi gave the interested amateur a good introduction to the fungal world.

Jim Willis was an indefatigable field worker and collected fungi in many areas of Australia, lodging the collections in the Melbourne herbarium and also supplied Cunningham with numerous useful collections. Willis was a prolific correspondent (in impeccable handwriting that would often fill every scrap of space on a page) and a great encourager of amateur activity. Through his active involvement with the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria he was able to instil much fungal enthusiasm in its members and so create a network of collectors, which helped to build up the mycological collection at the Melbourne herbarium. While Willis was a careful observer and could recognize numerous species in the field, he never really took up the detailed microscopic examination of specimens and so didn't go deeply into modern taxonomic research. Thus, while a contemporary of Cunningham and alive in the 20th century, he was much closer to the early mycologists of the 19th century in his approach to fungal studies. He published a paper on the Australian Cordyceps species which brought together much scattered information and disentangled much of the confusion about the native species in that genus. In another pair of papers he compiled extensive, reference linkannotated bibliographies for Polyporus mylittae, the so-called Native Bread, and Omphalotus nidiformis, the luminous "Ghost Fungus".


In 1960 the South African Patrick Henry Brabazon Talbot (1919-1979) came to Australia, to be employed as a systematic mycologist at the Waite Institute in Adelaide, possibly the first instance of the appointment of a fungal taxonomist in Australia, for McAlpine had been employed as a plant pathologist. Talbot was an outstanding taxonomist who, as well as publishing a number of new species, took a great interest in fungal microstructure and the principles of fungal taxonomy.

cover: Cribb's TrBy profession Gordon William Beaton (1911-1988) was a motor mechanic and garage proprietor, resident in central Victoria. He had no mycological training but from the 1960s on he took a great interest in fungi - first the ascomycetes (especially the species with small fruiting bodies) and later the native truffle-like fungi. He obtained a good quality microscope, fungal literature and made contact with mycologists in Melbourne and London. In collaboration with these colleagues Beaton published significant discoveries in the ascomycetes and truffle-like fungi and he is an excellent example of the contribution an amateur can make. Amateurs, both in Australia and overseas, have contributed (and continue to contribute) immensely to fungal knowledge. While modern techniques, such as DNA analysis, require laboratory facilities, there is still much that can be done by the keen, observant amateur - especially if such a person has access to a good quality microscope.

Joan Winifred Cribb , born in 1930, has spent several decades studying and documenting the fungi of Queensland. In particular she has paid much attention to the puffballs, stinkhorns and the truffle-like fungi.

The Field Naturalists Club of Victoria (FNCV), founded in 1880, has played an important role in maintaining a community interest in fungi from the late 1800s until the present. Club meetings and outings have provided opportunities for interactions between professional and amateur mycologists, while the FNCV journal (The Victorian Naturalist), has carried numerous fungal articles and served as a conduit of information from mycologists to the interested public. McAlpine's description of his new mushroom species, Hebeloma frenchii, was published in the Victorian Naturalist in 1899. The journal has also provided the means through which members could record their fungal finds and the Club published the various editions of Jim Willis' book on Victorian fungi. Many FNCV members have contributed herbarium specimens (so filling the same roles as the 19th century networks of collectors noted above) and Fungimap records. (see FUNGIMAP SECTION) Indeed, without a group such as the FNCV it is hard to imagine Fungimap getting off to such a good start.


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