Fungi Saved From War Returned To China

Richard P. Korf, professor emeritus of mycology at Cornell University, talks about a collection of fungi brought from China to the U.S. in 1937. A Cornell-educated mycologist feared it would be destroyed in the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Part of the collection was repatriated Monday.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

It is rare that we get a chance to report on the significant fungal repatriation, so here it goes. In Ithaca, New York yesterday, the president of Cornell University gave a high-level delegation from China a very rare mushroom - Lentinus tigrinus. It was a ceremonial token of a larger gift to come, the return to China of an incomparable fungal treasury collection that has been at Cornell for decades.

Richard Korf is professor emeritus of mycology at Cornell and joins us now. Welcome to the program, Professor Korf.

Professor RICHARD KORF (Mycology, Cornell University): Thank you. I'm pleased to be here.

SIEGEL: And as I understand this, a Chinese mycologist - a scientist of mushrooms, I guess…

Prof. KORF: Yes.

SIEGEL: …named Shu Chun Teng went to Cornell in the 1920s and then went home and started collecting. What did he collect?

Prof. KORF: He collected fungi, molds, mildews, mushrooms, rusts, smuts, yeasts, whatever, all over China. He went mostly by horseback and collected avidly. He was the first major mycological pioneer in collecting and determining the fungi that exists in China.

SIEGEL: And how did his collection go from China to upstate New York?

Prof. KORF: Well, he wrote a couple of books on the fungi of China based on his collections. And those collections were moved from various places where he worked, but finally ended up in Nanking at the National Herbarium just about the time that the Japanese army in the Sino-Japanese War was approaching and he was worried that these would be destroyed by the armies.

He managed to get those smuggled out of China on ox carts that went to Indochina. And eventually the shipments were sent to the U.S. by sea and arrived. Four of those shipments came directly to Cornell University, the others went to Washington, D.C. to what is now the National Herbarium in Beltsville, Maryland. The total collection is something over 2,000 specimens.

SIEGEL: Wow. Now, this is all going to go back later in the year to China?

Prof. KORF: Yes it will. And it will be returned to China. We are splitting the collections that we have and sending half back so that they can easily access this material.

SIEGEL: Professor Korf, could you just describe a bit the mushroom, the Lentinus - no, Lentinus tigrinus or Lentinus tigrinus…

Prof. KORF: That's all right, that's a good name.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Why was it chosen as the species that was the first to be returned?

Prof. KORF: I have no idea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Well, does it look good? Is it a…

Prof. KORF: It's an interesting looking fungus. Yeah, it was chosen probably by my successor, Kathy Hodge, because it was large enough to look at.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. KORF: And interesting.

SIEGEL: You mean it had a…

Prof. KORF: Of course, fungi are minute, actually. When we see mushrooms and so forth, they are large, compared to the great majority of fungi.

SIEGEL: So if you're going to have a photo opportunity at a university ceremony, you might as well have a mushroom that you'll be able to see in the photo.

Prof. KORF: That would be preferable, I'm sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Well, Professor Korf, thank you very much for talking with us about this.

Prof. KORF: Great pleasure.

SIEGEL: That's Professor Richard Korf, who is professor emeritus of mycology at Cornell University.

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