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Charles Thom (1872-1956)

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5.5 linear feet (15 boxes)


Charles Thom (1872-1956) was a mycologist whose work in the microbiology of dairy products and soil fungi was an important influence in setting rigorous standards in food handling and processing in the United States. Long associated with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), he conducted research in food toxicity and enforced standards of the Pure Food and Drug Act. Dr. Thom was an internationally recognized authority on molds used in cheese ripening and first described Penicillium roqueforti and P. camemberti, active ingredients of two popular cheeses. His studies of microfungi culminated in the publication of The Aspergilli (with Margaret B. Church, 1926) and The Penicillia (1930).

Charles Thom was born in Minonk, Illinois on November 11, 1872. He received his A.B. (1895) and A.M. (1897) at Lake Forest College and his Ph.D. (1899) at the University of Missouri, the first doctoral degree to be awarded by that institution. His early career as a botany teacher led to research at Woods Hole Biological Laboratory and a position as an assistant to George F. Atkinson at Cornell University. Upon Atkinson's recommendation he took a position with the USDA in 1904, where he remained until his retirement in 1942. His USDA career began with a 10-year stint at the Agricultural Experiment Station at Storrs, Connecticut to work on a project on mold-ripened cheese. His successes here contributed to the development of industrial processes for the manufacture of Camembert and Roquefort cheeses in the United States.

In 1913 he moved to Washington, D.C. to begin work as Mycologist in Charge of the Microbiological Laboratory, Bureau of Chemistry. He was then Head of the Division of Soil Microbiology, Bureau of Chemistry and Soils (1927-1934) and Bureau of Plant Industry (1934-1942). His research into the taxonomy of Aspergillus and Penicillium, his building a systematic collection of living mold cultures, and his correct identification of Alexander Fleming's penicillin-producing mold as Penicillium notatum formed a nucleus of wide-ranging studies that ultimately led to large-scale antibiotics production.

With the Division of Soil Microbiology Dr. Thom developed a practical method to control the devastating 'Texas Root Rot' of cotton. During World War II he became an important collaborator with the USDA Northern Regional Research Laboratory 'Penicillin Team,' charged with the crucial project of developing methods to increase penicillin yield from various strains of Penicillium. Here he worked with his protégé, Dr. Kenneth Raper; together they published Manual of the Penicillia in 1949.

Dr. Thom was the American Delegate to the International Dairy Congress held in Paris, France in 1905. He worked with an organizing committee to create a graduate education program at the USDA. He attended the International Soil Congress in Oxford, England (1935) and was Vice President of the International Microbiological Congress in New York (1939). He was a National Academy of Sciences member (from 1937), a charter member of the Mycological Society of America (president, 1953), and president of the Society of American Bacteriologists (SAB) (1940). Lake Forest College awarded an Honorary Doctor of Science degree to him in 1936. Dr. Thom died at his home in Port Jefferson, New York on May 24, 1956 at age 83.


The Charles Thom collection consists of correspondence, original manuscripts and research notes, an index card file of mycological literature, photographs, and personal papers. It covers his USDA career with the Bureau of Chemistry from 1913 to his retirement in 1942 and post-retirement years to 1953. The bulk of his correspondence falls during the period he was Head of the Division of Soil Microbiology, from 1928, and correspondents cover a wide range of mycologists and microbiologists in academia, government, and industry.


Series 1: Correspondence
Series 2: Research Papers
Series 3: Manuscripts and Typescripts
Series 4: Consulting Activities
Series 5: Course Curriculum
Series 6: Photographs
Series 7: Personal Papers

Series 1     Correspondence, 1924-1953
                   1.7 lin. ft. Arranged alphabetically.

There are 2 boxes of correspondence files, titled by individual or organization name, covering Dr. Thom's career with the USDA, from his work with the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment at Storrs to his role in penicillin research at the Northern Regional Research Laboratory at Peoria, Illinois. There is also significant correspondence during the period of his retirement (post-1942). Prominent correspondents include Albert F. Blakeslee, Bernard Ogilvie Dodge, Robert A. Harper, Harold Raistick, Kenneth Raper, Paul Simonart, and Selman A. Waksman.

Series 2     Research Papers, 1913-1948
                   2.1 lin. ft. Arranged alphabetically.

The bulk of the research papers consists of an index card file (3 x 5), of which there are 12 boxes. There are 6 distinct index sequences: botany, dairy, fungi, general, literature, and soil. The material consists of literature citations on index cards and paper slips, written and typewritten notes, abstracts, and clippings from scientific journals and experiment station records and bulletins. In addition, there are 9 files on Penicillia and other molds consisting of research notes, drawings, and dichotomous keys.

Series 3     Manuscripts and Typescripts, 1915-1950
                   1.3 lin. ft. Arranged alphabetically.

This series consists of 26 files of material written by Dr. Thom, with a few by his associates. They include manuscripts, typescripts, and related notes and correspondence for published articles, government reports, lectures, and conference presentations. Subjects include food and soil analysis, the activity of molds, and issues in the history of mycology and microbiology. There are 8 files of a complete typescript of A Manual of the Penicillia, co-authored with Kenneth Raper.

Series 4     Consulting Activities, 1941-1951
                   0.3 lin. ft. Arranged alphabetically.

There are 9 files relating to business consulting on problems in industrial microbiology (e.g., large-scale fermentation, soil analysis, fungal pathogens). Clients include General Foods Corporation, General Mills Inc., and Lilly Research Laboratory. The material consists of correspondence, recommendations, reports, and notes. One file consists of a report for the USDA Northern Regional Research Laboratory in 1950.

Series 5     Course Curriculum, 1931
                   One folder

The single file contains the curriculum of a course in general mycology given at the USDA in the autumn of 1931.

Series 6     Photographs, no date
                   Three folders. Arranged by subject.

There are 3 files of photos of Penicillia, soil fungi, and Psilocybe cultures and 1 file of negatives of tables and texts.

Series 7     Personal Papers, 1914-1955
                   0.1 lin. ft. Arranged alphabetically.

There are 6 files containing an autobiographical typescript with assorted notes and clippings, a bibliography, personal correspondence, a personal pocket notebook (ca. 1955), and documents relating to Dr. Thom's retirement from the USDA.


Materials of the Charles Thom collection were transferred to the New York Botanical Garden archives from Professor L. S. McClung, SAB Archivist, in 1967, and consisted of manuscripts, correspondence, research papers, and an index card file. Materials were also received from Judy Peterson, Administrator of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, upon the transfer of the Kenneth B. Raper collection to the Garden in 1990. Dr. Raper had collected a number of Dr. Thom's papers, primarily autobiographical materials, the USDA course curriculum, and assorted research papers and manuscripts.


The New York Botanical Garden

PP    Samuel Chester Damon Papers

PP    Kenneth B. Raper Papers

RG5     Igor N. Asheshov Records

RG5     Bernard Ogilvie Dodge Records

RG5     William J. Robbins Records

Processed January 2000 by David Rose under a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) PA-23141-98 and a grant from the Harriet Ford Dickenson Foundation.

For more information and a complete description contact:
Susan Fraser, NYBG Archivist
The LuEsther T. Mertz Library
The New York Botanical Garden
Bronx, NY 10458-5126
(718) 817-8879

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