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,
polypore mushrooms (Rose 1).
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Cox, Clara B. “Alumni of the Millenium.” Virginia Tech Magazine.
http://www.vtmagazine.vt.edu/winter01/feature1.html. 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:
Ivors, Kelly. “The History of Mycology in the United States.” Mycena News via Mycolog,
http://www.psms.org/sporeprints/sp416.pdf. January 2004. 11 June 2006.
Kimbrough, James W. “The Twilight Years of William Alphonso Murrill.” Mushroom, the
Journal of Wild Mushrooming. http://www.mushroomthejournal.com. Summer 2003. 11
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. http://www.mushroomthejournal.com. 3 December 2002. 11 June 2006.
“The American Chestnut Story.” The American Chestnut Foundation. 2004. 11 July 2006.
“William Alphonso Murrill.” http://www.ilmyco.gen.chicago.il.us/Authors/Murrill19.html.
2 June 2006.
“William Alphonso Murrill Records: Mertz Library: Archives and Manuscript Collections.”
http://sciweb.nybg.org/science2/libr/finding_guide/murr3.asp. 11 June 2006.
Weber, George F. “William Alphonso Murrill.” Mycologia. 53:6. November/ December 1961.
Want to read the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature? Here is an electronic version.
More scientific information on chestnut blight from forestpathology.org