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William Alphonso Murrill (1869-1957)
by NYBG Herbarium Intern Thalyana Smith-Vikos

William Alphonso Murrill (1869-1957), “Mr. Mushroom,” was a famous mycologist, taxonomist, and writer from the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) in Bronx, NY. From 1909 to 1924 he was the assistant director and second-in-command of the Garden. Murrill traveled around the world in search of new species and studied a plethora of herbaria collections. He most notably expanded mycologists’ knowledge concerning the agarics, boletes, and polypore mushrooms (Rose 1).

The Naturalist

William Alphonso Murrill was born to Samuel and Virginia Murrill on October 13, 1869. He grew up in a Scotch-Irish-British family with three brothers and three sisters on Pammell Farm near Lynchburg, Virginia (Kimbrough 1). As described in the autobiographical novel Billy the Boy Naturalist, in addition to helping out on the farm, Murrill went on many excursions as a young child around the land, which developed his interest in nature (Murrill). In school, Murrill studied science, agriculture, mechanics, literature, and languages (Rose 1). He graduated from Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College in Blacksburg, Virginia in 1887 with a degree of Bachelor of Science at the mere age of 16! Murrill received a second Bachelor of Science degree (1889), a Bachelor of Arts degree (1890), and a Master of Arts degree (1891) from Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia. While teaching at the Bowling Green Female Seminary and at the Wesleyan Female Institute in Virginia, Murrill was exposed to new aspects of biology. His increasing interest in the field gave him the nickname “The Naturalist,” and at this time he pursued doing graduate research in biology (Kimbrough 2). He was awarded a fellowship in botany and studied under George Atkinson at Cornell University. Murrill prepared specimens of parasitic fungi, particularly polypores, to be placed in the Cornell Herbarium. He held the position of Assistant Cryptogamic Botanist until he received his Ph.D. in 1900. Murrill’s dissertation thesis was titled “Development of the Archegonium and Fertilization in the Hemlock Spruce (Tsuga canadensis Carr).” He met his wife, Edna Lee Lutrell, during this time; sadly, their son died in infancy.

The Mycologist

In the early 1900s, the New York Botanical Garden was becoming very popular in the world of botany. Murrill became a biology teacher at DeWitt Clinton High School, located near the Garden. After joining the Torrey Botanical Club, he began publishing articles titled “Polyporaceae of North America” in the club bulletin. The director of the Garden, Nathaniel Lord Britton, was also a member of the Torrey Botanical Club. Impressed with Murrill’s work, he hired Murrill to be Assistant Curator of the Garden in 1904. Murrill would later become Assistant Director (1908-1919) and Curator and Supervisor of Public Instruction (1919 to 1924). Murrill’s career had officially begun as a professional mycologist (Rose 1). He would even be known as one of the world’s most experienced field observers of Hymenomycetes (Weber 545).

Murrill was said to have had the “suave and charming” speech of a Southern gentleman, which proved helpful in working with the board of directors at the Garden and contributors to the Garden (Rose 1). Dr. Fred J. Seaver recalled, “I can yet see [Murrill] as he strode the halls of the Botanical Garden with deliberation, dignity and poise” (Weber 550). Murrill worked at the New York Botanical Garden during an important period in its history because Nathaniel Lord Britton had just introduced the American Code of Botanical Nomenclature, so that taxonomists in the U.S. would no longer need to abide by the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature. Many taxonomists called Murrill a “splitter” because his use of the American Code was not widely approved: “Botanists were irritated by the changed names and new systems and [Murrill] was roundly criticized, if not reviled, for his temerity” (W.H. Snell in Weber 551). However, this did not cause Murrill to alter his beliefs about nomenclature. In fact, he was so adamant about using the new Code that he had many arguments with Britton concerning fungal names, most notably the usage of the name Venenarius in place of the genus Amanita (Rose 3).

Murrill was a “born namer” because he would often determine a specimen as a new species if he could not immediately identify it himself (“William Alphonso Murrill” 2). This was in part due to a lack of research materials, but also because Murrill was genuinely intrigued by his work and found naming new species quite “exciting” (5). Murrill also took bold steps in grouping these new species into genera; he followed the system of Karsten and Quélet, which was relatively new at the time and somewhat controversial, opposed by more conservative botanists (7). This system used smaller genera rather than large generic groups with many subdivisions.

Murrill took special care in studying North American mushrooms because he felt that most international mycologists “lacked attentiveness” to these species (Rose 2). He published Northern Polypores and American Boletes in 1914, Southern Polypores, Western Polypores, and Tropical Polypores in 1915, and Edible and Poisonous Mushrooms in 1916. In 1918, Murrill’s and Saccardo’s Names of Polypores Compared, a guide to polypore genera, was published. Interestingly, the Italian mycologist Saccardo had identified 20 genera while Murrill identified 71, displaying Murrill’s somewhat controversial approach of having smaller and more numerous genera (3). Murrill also wrote a variety of children’s books with themes about nature, including Three Young Crusoes, Their Life and Adventures on an Island in the West Indies (1918). He also talked about fungi and wrote books for the Girls’ Scouts, such as Success Stories for Girls.

The NYBG Legend

Murrill’s work at the New York Botanical Garden included identifying the fungus that was killing many chestnut trees in the Bronx Zoo, Diaporthe [Cryphonectria] parasitica, resulting in a number of trips to forest preserves to speak about the pathogen (“William Alphonso Murrill Records…”). He also published “The Spread of the Chestnut Disease” in the Journal of the New York Botanical Garden and “The Chestnut Canker” in Torreya in 1908. Murrill’s discovery was monumental because chestnut blight virtually destroyed our country’s chestnut trees on nine million acres of forest by 1950.

Murrill was also a famous author on mycology. In 1909, Murrill and The New York Botanical Garden founded the journal Mycologia, to which he contributed many articles throughout his career, as well as commissioning various illustrations. He remained editor of the journal until 1924. He was also editor of the Journal of the New York Botanical Garden from 1906 until 1908 and contributed to North American Flora from 1907 until 1916, as well as being published in the Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society and Lloydia.

Murrill administered an exhibition on plants found in the Metropolitan Museum of New York and gave lectures, such as at the Chicago Art Institute (Rose 3). Murrill also represented the New York Botanical Garden at conferences of plant pathologists and farmers. He founded a mycological club in 1920, the Yama Farms Mycological Club, based in the Catskills, and spent much time organizing activities for the club (Rose 4). In 1923, Murrill received a gold medal from the Holland Society of New York for his service in mycology.

Although Murrill was a very influential person at the NYBG, his rather eccentric personality caused problems with his job. He went on annual collecting trips to Mexico, the Caribbean, Europe, and South America, sometimes without informing any of his colleagues prior. For eight months in 1924, Murrill went on another trip to Europe but seemed to disappear; no one was even sure if he was still alive! The Garden filled his position, and his wife divorced him; it was later discovered that Murrill had a kidney condition and was actually in a rural French hospital during these eight months. Nevertheless, Murrill was extremely upset upon his return to learn that he had neither a job nor a wife. He disappeared again for several years. During this time, he was hospitalized for “nervous instabilities and physical exhaustion” and then returned to Virginia to live in a log cabin, financially and mentally troubled (Kimbrough 3).

The Renewed Mycologist

In the late 1920s, Murrill “reappeared” in Gainesville, Florida; he had been traveling somewhat frequently to Gainesville over the last few years, and his visits became longer and longer as he gained more interest in the natural environment (Weber 548). One year there was a mosquito control problem Murrill was helping with, which required him to stay in Gainesville during the summer months for the first time. Florida’s mushrooms were in full flush, and “the richness of the endemic biota and the vast opportunity to study the varieties and abundance of the fleshy fungi caused him to stay in Gainesville throughout the entire year thereafter” (548). As stated in the novel Autobiography, “Fairer and sunnier fields beckoned [Murrill] southward” (Murrill 137). Since Murrill often travelled to the North to collect during the summer, he was interested in the variety of species found in Florida and collected hundreds of new species. He became extremely enthusiastic about studying these new forms (549).

A turning point in Murrill’s life occurred in 1926, when Dr. George Weber, plant pathologist of the University of Florida at Gainesville, recognized him playing piano at a tourist resort (Rose 4). During this encounter, Murrill voiced his interest in Floridian mushrooms, and Dr. Weber and herbarium curator Erdman West began working with Murrill at the University of Florida. They gave him an office with collecting supplies and a microscope; due to limited space, the office was actually a desk moved into a staircase landing, where Murrill stayed for thirty years! He took a particular interest in ectomycorrhizal mushrooms and went on frequent collecting excursions around the campus. Murrill was often accompanied by students and faculty, who were fascinated by his eccentric mannerisms and stories about his travels in exotic locations (Kimbrough 5).

Mycologists started to find out where Murrill was “hiding” in the University, and one mycologist published a number of Murrill’s findings, which ended up selling very well (“William Alphonso Murrill” 4). In addition to his collector’s salary paid by Weber and West, Murrill also received money from the New York Botanical Garden due to the success of his 1916 book Edible and Poisonous Mushrooms. As his interest in the flora and fauna increased, “The Naturalist” also wrote books about Alachua County trees, roses, shrubs, ferns, and vines; the historical foundations of botany in Florida; a guide to Florida plants and animals; and books on pore fungi and edible and poisonous mushrooms. He was able to spend the rest of his life “happily occupied” with his studies (4).

During his retirement in Florida, Murrill described over 600 new agarics and over 50 polypores and hydnums, including discovering in 1945 what would become the famous Agaricus blazei mushroom (see link at bottom of page for more information). Murrill continued to collect mushrooms through his old age; Dr. George Weber recalled that when Murrill became sick for the very last time, “he did not want to die because there was too much interesting work yet to be done, yet he knew very well that the time had come” (549).

The Famous "Mr. Mushroom"

At the end of his career, William Alphonso Murrill had collected more than 75,000 specimens and described about 1,700 new species. The New York Botanical Garden Cryptogamic Herbarium holds about 14,000 Murrill specimens. Murrill had also published 20 books, 500 scientific articles, and 800 popular articles (Kimbrough 6). His most famous works were a series on Polyporaceae in the Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club (1902-1906) and monographs on the Boletaceae and Polyporaceae in 1914-1915 (“William Alphonso Murrill Records…”). The New York Botanical Garden William A. Murrill collection includes 34 files of correspondence, 16 files of research papers, 26 files of notebooks, 3 files of photographs, a series of biographical material from the University of Florida, and a series of watercolor illustrations of fungi to which Murrill added accompanying descriptions (“William Alphonso Murrill Records…”). Roy E. Halling, Curator of Mycology at the NYBG, also wrote Annotated Index to Species and Infraspecific Taxa of Agaricales and Boletales Described by William A. Murrill in 1986.

Despite the initial disapproval of Murrill’s classifications when he began working at the NYBG, many of Murrill’s new genera are still used by today’s mycologists (Rose 3). Further, his type specimens are still valued in the modern study of mushrooms (Kimbrough 1). One of Murrill’s coworkers, G.W. Martin, said that “…his views on the classification of the polypores were a generation or more ahead of those of most of his contemporaries and most of the current work in the United States has not yet caught up with him” (Martin in Weber 551). In fact, it has been stated that his books on fungi have been used as references by mycologists all over the world (Cox).

William Alphonso Murrill is remembered not only as “Mr. Mushroom,” but more importantly as an individual with a deep appreciation for nature, which he desired to share with his community. After Murrill passed away in 1957, Dr. George Weber placed a photograph and a plaque outside the University of Florida Herbarium, reading “In Memory of William Alphonso Murrill, 1869-1957, Mycologist, Naturalist-Humanitarian, Friend” (Kimbrough 1).

His story, legend, and gift to society live on.

Works Cited

Cox, Clara B. “Alumni of the Millenium.” Virginia Tech Magazine. Winter 2001. 11 June 2006.

Guterres, Zaira da Rosa, Mantovani, Mário Sérgio, Eira, Augusto Ferreira da et al. Genotoxic
     and antigenotoxic effects of organic extracts of mushroom Agaricus blazei Murrill on
     V79 cells. Genet. Mol. Biol. [online]. July/Sept. 2005, vol.28, no.3 [cited 10 July 2006],
     p.458-463. Available from World Wide Web:
     ISSN 1415-4757.

Ivors, Kelly. “The History of Mycology in the United States.” Mycena News via Mycolog, January 2004. 11 June 2006.

Kimbrough, James W. “The Twilight Years of William Alphonso Murrill.” Mushroom, the
     Journal of Wild Mushrooming
. Summer 2003. 11
     June 2006.

Murrill, William Alphonso. Autobiography. 1945.

Murrill, William Alphonso. Billy the Boy Naturalist. The New Era Printing Company:
     Bronxwood Park, NY, 1918.

Murrill, William Alphonso. The Naturalist in a Boarding School. Bronxwood Park, NY, 1919.

Rose, David W. “William Alphonso Murrill: The Legend of the Naturalist.” Mushroom, the
     Journal of Wild Mushrooming
. 3 December 2002. 11 June 2006.

“The American Chestnut Story.” The American Chestnut Foundation. 2004. 11 July 2006. Chestnut_history.htm.

“William Alphonso Murrill.”
     2 June 2006.

“William Alphonso Murrill Records: Mertz Library: Archives and Manuscript Collections.” 11 June 2006.

Weber, George F. “William Alphonso Murrill.” Mycologia. 53:6. November/ December 1961.

More Information

Want to read the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature? Here is an electronic version.

More scientific information on chestnut blight from

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