Archive for March, 2012

The Shoemaker Taxonomist

Inside the eight-foot tall olive-green metal cabinet are stacks of black, sturdy shoeboxes. Inside these are small cardboard boxes decorated with Victorian-style script announcing that they contain the finest buttons and sewing needles. These little boxes hold hundreds of dried mushrooms with brittle, yellowed tags looped around them, labeled in the faded, elegant hand of Charles Christopher Frost. Everything in the shoeboxes is over 150 years old.

Charles Frost described and named dozens of new species of fungi, collected specimens that are treasured by researchers, and wrote numerous scientific papers. For a living, he made shoes. Taxonomists today may make their living doing other kinds of biological research, but not one of them, as far as I can imagine, makes shoes.

Every day at lunchtime, Frost closed his cobbler shop in Brattleboro, Vermont, for one hour. He spent that hour studying fungi. He did so well at shoemaking that he cobbled together (pardon the pun) a sizable fortune.

Before he became a shoemaker, Frost attended school, but dropped out when he was 15 because a teacher beat him with a ruler. He left the schoolhouse carrying the broken ruler and never returned. In spite of this, Frost was far from uneducated. He consumed books on mathematics, languages, physics, chemistry—anything he wanted to learn, he did so from a book.

When Frost got dyspepsia (known nowadays as indigestion), his doctor prescribed two hour-long nature walks per day. These walks quickly transformed into fungus-collecting trips. He woke up early and stayed up late identifying new species, describing them in words and drawings, and writing scientific papers. His fungus collection was given to the University of Vermont’s Pringle Herbarium after his death in 1885.

Species description is at the core of taxonomy. The Pringle Herbarium archives hold five fat hanging folders full of hundreds of Frost’s meticulous notes and graceful, detailed drawings. A taxonomist today must be as detail-oriented as Frost. Frost couldn’t just say, “I’ve found a new species and it’s called Boletus pretendus.” Whenever a taxonomist claims a new species, he or she must describe in great detail each part of it, every organ, and how it is different from other species. This allows other scientists to judge whether the claim is legitimate.

Today, however, species description is just as likely to include diagnoses of differences in genetic codes as morphological details. Since the 1960s, taxonomy and systematics have undergone a molecular revolution; now both sciences are heavily reliant on analyses of DNA and RNA, though they do still depend on morphological distinctions.

If Frost was alive today, he wouldn’t be able to do taxonomy without access to a laboratory. His delicate drawings and thoughtful descriptions would be rejected from modern scientific journals without a second glance. Shoes, not fungi, would be his purview.