October 22, 2009

Our profession does a great job of honoring those who have made exceptional contributions during their careers. Frequently the prestige of a particular award is amplified by naming the award after a person who best exemplifies what that award signifies. I’m thinking of the Old Tom Morris Award, the Col. John Morley Distinguished Service Award, the Leo Feser Award and the Watson Fellowship, all from the GCSAA.

The USGA annually presents the Joe Dey Award and the Herbert Warren Wind Book Award. Here in Wisconsin we successfully established four turfgrass research fellowships and named each after a person respected in the academic or business arena of our turf industry.

It seems to me we have a gap in our various national recognition programs and I propose we develop some criteria to recognize a research scientist who has made an exceptional contribution to our bank of knowledge. I haven’t had the time to develop details – eligibility, selection process, presentation, timing, the criteria used for judging, protocol or even a sponsoring organization for this annual honor. But it took no time at all to determine the namesake of this proposed prestigious award – The William J. Beal Award.

Beal was an outstanding applied plant scientist at the Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University) for almost 40 years – from 1871 to 1910 – and conducted the first turfgrass research in the U.S. That he has remained relatively obscure in our profession has baffled me for years. He deserves our respect and admiration, and an award in his name would greatly expand recognition of his contributions to us and other agricultural sciences.

I read about Beal many years ago while studying experiments by the early plant scientists. Further reading in the 1961 Yearbook of Agriculture also described his experiment and gave evidence to its importance. Beal designed an experiment to get at the question of seed viability. Golf course superintendents often wonder, for example, how long do Poa annua seeds in the root zone of a turf area remain viable (forever, it seems!).

Dr. Beal, in the fall of 1879, prepared 20 seed plots. Seeds were dug up at short intervals (every five years) at first from their somewhat secretive site somewhere near Beaumont Tower, across from the main library that houses the Turfgrass Information Center on the MSU campus. As time went on the intervals were extended as the experiment yielded viable seeds. In 2000, 120 years after Beal began the experiment, seeds from two plants still germinated. Dr. Beal’s experiment marches on.

Dr. Beal also conducted the first turf research, starting in 1880. He tried to blend various grass seeds together to extend the grass season earlier and later. His blending of bluegrass and bermudagrass didn’t work, but some of the bermuda survived even until today. It has been the source of material for ongoing studies in cold tolerance.

This amazing man, once a student of botanist Dr. Asa Gray at Harvard, produced more than 1,200 scientific articles and wrote a significant number of books. He taught undergrads, trained graduate students (including the famous Liberty Hyde Bailey) and was in demand as a speaker.

The turf world can legitimately lay claim to him, but his research included the study of many horticultural crops, forestry and agricultural crops like corn and wheat. Beal was extremely versatile and directed his research efforts to those areas most requiring attention at a particular moment in time.

The large main library at MSU is also the site of the W.J. Beal Botanical Garden. Started in 1877, the Beal Garden is the oldest continuously operated botanical garden in the U.S. The garden is a great place to study or read or just relax and contemplate life.

Dr. Beal believed in scientific organizations and was involved in the founding of a number of them.

Do me a favor: Read the paper about Beal written by our own Dr. James B. Beard and Peter Cookingham. A reading of this masterful presentation, written as part of the centennial of the American Society of Agronomy, will convince you we need to honor this great man of science and turf, as we also need to annually honor a modern day turf scientist whose research has been extremely valuable and useful to our profession. GCI