HP017: AH Reginald Buller

HP017: AH Reginald Buller

A request from Valerie from Berkley, CA. The famous fungus man from Birmingham. An accomplished mycologist who lead the life of a bachelor professor.

A request from Valerie from Berkley, CA. The famous fungus man from Birmingham. An accomplished mycologist who lead the life of a bachelor professor.

Welcome and thanks for listening to another historypodcast. Today we will be learning more about A.H. Reginald Buller a famous mycologist, which is an expert on fungus. Todays show is a request from Valire in Berkley, California. Thanks Valire!

My primary source for information regarding Buller is the article entitled “Reginald Buller: The Poet-Scientist of Mushroom City”, by L. Gordon Goldsborough. Goldsborough is from the Department of Botany at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada. The article was published in Manitoba History, Spring/Summer 2004 Issue 47.

This article was written for the Manitoba University Faculty of Science centennial in 2004. Reginald Buller is not well known but those who have heard of him know him as a mycologist who lived in a cheap hotel his entire life and wrote a famous limerick.

There is infact so much information in the article I had little time to prepare this podcast. Many times I will quote directly from the article in order to get this podcast out on time.

The Bullers were tenant farmers, having resided in Oxfordshire, England since at least the 1600s. Alban Gardner Buller was the first member of the family to have an advanced education in the legal profession. He ultimately settled down in Mosely, a suburb of Birmingham to work as a barrister, magistrate, and county councilor. He married Mary Jane Huggins in the late 1860s and had a family of seven children. His blue-eyed, brown haired fifth child, Reginald was born in August 1874.

Buller occasionally suffered from dizzy spells – treated by his mother with liberal doses of brandy – and asthma made worse by pollen and spores during frequent outdoor forays.

Buller began his education in a boarding school. He also attended Queen’s College, Taunton and at age 18 to Mason College at Birmingham for further studies in Botany. Mason College is an affiliate of the confederations of colleges known collectively as the University of London. Buller received his Bachelors from there in November 1896. After his graduation he won the Heslop Gold Medal and the “1851 Exhibition Scholarship.” These awards enabled him to attend Leipzig in Germany where he arrived in October 1897. He received his PhD there in 1899 under the supervision of Wilhem Pfeffer. In 1900, he moved to Munich to study for a year at the Forstbotanishes Institute under Professor Robert Hartig. (end page 1) Buller would later acknowledge how Hartig and Germany had impacted him greatly. Hartig always insisted that plants were best studied in their natural setting, as opposed to dried or preserved specimens as was generally done at the time.

In March and April of 1900 and 1901 Buller spent his time at the International Marine Biological Station at Naples, studying the fertilization of sea urchin eggs. In 1901 Buller accepted an assistant lectureship in Botany from his alma mater Mason College, now called University of Birmingham. While there he published an article on frog anatomy. Buller was offered a position in special lectureship in plant pathology, but turned it down to take a professorship in Manitoba.

He was offered an annual salary of $2,500, which was several times more than what he was receiving at the University of Birmingham. This was also high even by standards of the time in Winnipeg. The city of Winnipeg was at the time being described as a mushroom city, referring to the transformation of the city from a trading post to bustling metropolis. However, a fungus professor would find himself comfortable in a mushroom city. Also, the job offered a long summer holiday, five months. This meant he could return to England every summer. He is said to have crossed the Atlantic 65 times. Lastly, Winnipeg had clean winter air, which could help him with his asthma.

Besides his interest in fungus Buller also sketched, played the piano, sang, committed Shakespeare to memory, and wrote poetry and plays.

Buller arrived in Winnipeg in September 1904. He stayed at the Vendome Hotel for seven years. In 1910, the McLaren brothers completed a grand new, 165-room hotel at the corner of Main Street and Rupert Avenue. Buller moved there in 1913. He would remain loyal to the McLaren for the remainder of this life, staying there 28 years. Even after the neighborhood had decayed and the McLaren had lost it’s luster. The reason for this may have been the apparent comfortability that Buller had relaxed into during his last years.

Buller grew to love Winnipeg and Canada in general. He stated, “the climate of Central Canada during the winter must be one of the best in any civilized country in the world.”

While at Manitoba, Buller was known to get into heated arguments with the Clergymen about science and religion. The condition of the university was horrible. Buller and many of the other professors had no assistants. They had to prepare for classes as well as grade papers themselves. Despite these obstacles Buller did very well. His lectures were said to be spellbinding and attendance to his classes grew to exceed the room’s capacity. On of his students described him thus, “a bland simple-appearing man …sometimes effervescent.”

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1929. The students held him in such honor that they all signed a congratulation letter.

In 1905 Buller along with other professors founded the Scientific Club of Winnipeg, where he gave several talks on fungi. He also lectured in large audiences at Winnipeg’s People’s Forum. Buller was unafraid of taking public stances that were unpopular or bound to draw controversy. In October 1912, Buller concluded his address to the University with the view that:

“In my opinion, telepathy by means of overwhelming evidence has been established as a fact … I regard the establishment of the fact of telepathy as enormously important, for here we have a phenomenon in the connection with human beings which, it seems to me, cannot be explained by either the chemist of the physicist, Telepathy teaches us how little we yet know of our own minds and how much there is yet to be discovered of human personality…”

Buller had a life long interest in the paranormal.

In 1908 he met Ruth Cohen a local writer and poet and according to some she was telepathic. In February 1912, Buller escorted her to a formal dinner commemorating Charles Dickens. Ruth had a nickname of PD, Phd dropping the h, for him. In November 1912, they carried out an experiment in which Buller arranged with a friend in Birmingham to wear, on a mutually agreed date, a certain color dress that Cohen would attempt to identify telepathically. The results of which were open to question. It seemed that Buller had taken an interest in Cohen unfortunately she was married to a lawyer.

Cohen wrote a poem to Buller under her pen name Miss Sheila Rand in 1913, which outlined her affections for him. Needless to say she was interested. Read the article to see the whole poem. Even though they both had feelings for each other the relationship never went any further.

By far the most controversial of Buller’s views were those on eugenics, the practice of intentionally directed breeding among humans for “race betterment.” In 1913 Buller claimed that eugenics provided a means by which mankind could “direct his destiny upon this earth.” He goes on to say, “no animal or plant breeder would breed from his worst stock. Why should humanity be so foolish as to allow feebleminded and other congenitally defective people to be set free from an institution un-sterilized and free to burden the next generation with defectives like themselves?”

Buller admitted privately to having carried out experiments on the sub-lethal effects of poisonous mushrooms on humans. Although, they killed when consumed in small amounts, smaller dosages had various temporary effects. He also seemed to have been in the habit of dispensing stimulants to friends. In a litter to a “Miss Williams” who lived with his sister Buller wrote:

“I am sending you three pills from my celebrated pill-box and trust that they will do you good. They are pleasant to take and are warranted to leave no ill effects behind. I quite enjoy the business of dispensing them and am only disturbed when, as occasionally happens, the stock gets low…”

Although Buller loved the German people and Germany as a whole, he did not agree with the army. Shortly after the sinking of the Lusituanaia in May 1915 Buller stated, “Our civilization is largely made of veneer, and if you scratch a German apparently beneath his skin you will find an ancient barbarian.” Which may seems strange given his stance on eugenics.

Buller supported the war effort. He joined the officer’s training program with the rank of Lieutant, attended training sessions whenever possible and was a member of the local Citizens Recruiting League, and actively supported conscription. He did not however enlist himself in the army. Although some of his colleagues did.

By the 1920s Buller had become focused on only the fungus.

It is ironic that, despite his long and distinguished career marked by accolades from organizations around the world, he is remembered in the 21st Century mostly for a limerick that he wrote on a whim, on a subject having nothing at all to do with biology.

In the Fall of 1923 when during a meeting of the Scientific Club of Winnipeg, a heated discussion arose because someone questioned the theory of relativity and its assumption that nothing could exceed the speed of light. To smooth things over, Buller said this limerick:

There was a young lady named Bright,

Whose speed was faster than light.

She set out one day,

In a relative way,

And returned home the previous night,

In 1943 the theory of relativity was expanded to describe the relations ship between energy, mass, and velocity, Buller would add a second stanza:

To her fiends said the Bright one in chatter,

“I have learned something new about the matter:

As my speed was so great,

Much increased was my weight,

Yet I failed to become any fatter.”

Buller’s prodigious research output, in his Researches on Fungi and miscellaneous other papers began to gain him and international reputation, which the University acknowledged in April 1924 by presenting him with and honorary degree.

In May 1928 to he would receive an honorary degree from the University of Saskatchewan.

Buller enjoyed reading on a wide range of subjects, including art history, poetry, history, biography, architecture, political science, drama, English and German grammar, religion, and literature.

As an unmarried university professor and public figure Buller would have been considered a prime catch by the society debutantes of Winnipeg. So his life-long bachelor hood has led to speculation about the basis for his apparent lack of interest in the opposite sex. His views on the subject are impossible to ascertain from his correspondence. Modern speculations of his hatred toward women and homosexuality persist.

Prior to his departure for Canada in 1904, he was married to a young lady named Katie Matthison, a relationship that seems to have been ended unilaterally by Buller.

In 1909 Buller met Elise M. Wakefield. He invited her out to social outings, which left Wakefield with the mistaken impression that Buller was interested in more than a casual relationship. Wakefield realized that he was not interested in more and while crushed the two still remained friends throughout their lives.

While visiting Washington, DC, he marveled at seeing Dr. Mary E. Walker in the lobbyof his hotel. Walker, a surgeon, had shocked polite society during and after the American Civil War by wearing men’s clothing in public. Buller railed in the Winnipeg newspapers against what he considered the “criminal or anti-social acts of militant suffragettes”.

Much has been made of a photograph of participants to the first meeting of the Mycological Society of America, in December 1932, where Buller is seen wearing two differently colored socks.

The University came into some financial trouble when it was discovered that their long time treasury officer was skimming from the top. So much so that in the spring of 1933 they asked the senior professors to take a voluntarily one-year leave-of-absence under which they would receive a payment of $1,000 and their pensions would remained intact. When he returned a new site for an addition to the University was decided that would cause Buller to travel between the two sites. This frequent travel frustrated Buller and led to his retirement in September 1936.

In 1939 Buller was attending a scientific conference in the US when WWII broke out. Fearing to travel across the Atlantic during the war he returned to the McLearn hotel.

In 1940 he suffered a heavy blow, the unsold copies of his major research accomplishment, the six volumes of his Researches on Fungi, were destroyed in the London Blitz, symbolically wiping clean the record of his long career.

He began to suffer severe headaches in 1943, which he ascribed to too much reading. The headaches grew worse and in January 1944 they culminated in a series of attacks that left him with a giddy feeling, dizziness, and a general weakness on the left side. Test a a local hospital confirmed his worse fears he had a brain tumor.

His health continued to deteriorate, as the progressively became blind, confused to the point where he no longer recognized visitors, and finally lapsed into a comma and died on July 3, 1944, at the age of 69.

In May 1958 the Buller Memorial Library was established. As requested Buller was cremated and with no other place to be stored, adorned a mantel in Bill Hanna’s office at the Rust Laboratory for several years. Finally, when the Buller Memorial Library was opened, he was placed in a cavity in one of its walls, concealed behind a brass commemorative plaque.

That will do it for this edition of historypodcast. Please stay tuned for a word from a good friend of mine about Griddlecakes Radio one of my favorite podcast. Also, I hope that you all noticed an increase in the show quality. I am recording on a new podcasting rig. Which includes an MXL 990 microphone and Eurorack UB802 mixer. Mad props to Ron for helping me set up my new rig!

If you are considering starting a podcast don’t think about it anymore just do it. I have been having a blast with it and I hope all you listeners are enjoying the show. I would like to announce that I will be attending the Portable Media Expo at Ontario, CA in November. I hope to see you all there! Once again please email your feedback, show suggestions, and guest podcast to historypodcast@gmail.com. You can find the show notes at historypodcast.blogspot.com. Thanks for listening and stay tuned!