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Professor AE Muskett (1900 - 1984):
Academic; plant pathologist

Arthur Edmund Muskett

Arthur Edmund Muskett was a highly distinguished expert on phytopathology (or plant pathology) and mycology (the study of fungi), whose research and teaching work through a long career was carried on at Queen’s University, Belfast and for the Ministry of Agriculture for Northern Ireland. He was also a keen environmental conservationist, and known as a broadcaster, who contributed to the popular Ulster Garden radio programme. He was a pioneer in his areas of expertise in a province where, when he arrived there, had virtually no facilities or personnel concerned with plant pathology. He was to be at the centre of the building up of a department and service with an international reputation.


Muskett was born in Norwich (he was precise that he was born at four o’clock in the morning of Easter Sunday), and grew up on his father’s farm at nearby Ashwellthorpe; he attended the City of Norwich School, and in 1918 joined the new Royal Air Force and became a pilot, though only for a year, before entering Imperial College, London. He originally enrolled to study Chemistry (and had originally intended to study at Cambridge), but after two years was to his surprise invited by the Professor of Botany, John Farmer FRS (later Sir John Farmer), formerly of Magdalen College, Oxford, to switch to Botany. Muskett, a farmer’s son, described himself as a farmer by instinct, who had seen at first hand many of he problems of plant production confronting his father, and Professor Farmer was able to persuade Muskett of the value of studying the important biological issues concerned with plant production, and how much benefit could be brought to farmers and others, throughout the world and especially developing countries.


He graduated BSc in 1922, having in 1921 been created an Associate of the Royal College of Science. (Lord Ashby, later Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University and himself a distinguished botanist, would soon afterwards make the same change at Imperial College, from chemistry to botany, similarly inspired by Farmer.) Muskett moved to Northern Ireland in 1923, to take up an appointment at the Ministry of Agriculture, in its Testing and Plant Disease Division, and a parallel position as an Assistant in Plant Pathology at Queen’s University’s new Department of Agricultural Botany. He described, much later in his life, how he came to choose Ulster over many other opportunities:


“It was at the end of 1922 and Northern Ireland was in the process of setting up its own local government and was embarking upon an ambitious programme of agricultural research. The post was that of assistant in the Seed Testing and Plant Disease Division and it would be my job to be responsible for the plant pathology section. I remember being asked by James Scott Gordon, the first Permanent Secretary, if I would be prepared to come to Northern Ireland and help farmers with their crop disease problems. This seemed a big undertaking for a young and inexperienced man but it was the word "help" which did it. Here was an interview at which I was not just a boring applicant seeking a job but I was being asked if I would like to come and help in work in which all the people around the table, including the Minister himself, were obviously vitally interested. I accepted and Northern Ireland has claimed me and my work for almost half a century.”


He was appointed junior lecturer in 1926, lecturer in 1928, lecturer in charge of the new Department of Mycology and Plant Pathology in 1941, and was appointed to the new Chair in Agricultural Plant Pathology. Meanwhile, at the Ministry of Agriculture he was appointed deputy head of the plant pathology division in 1931 and head of the division in 1938, on the completion of his DSc (University of London).


Muskett’s work on plant pathology in Ulster was very practically-oriented, concentrated on the needs of producers throughout the province, as opposed to laboratory-based research programmes. A first interest was in tackling the widespread diseases of fruit crops, especially apples, which suffered from the disease apple scab. Muskett’s work convinced him to recommend regular spraying of Bramley apple crops, by which the disease was successfully controlled; spraying to restrict the disease is still recommended practice for apple producers. He also carried out work (with two colleagues) on potato diseases, which brought him to attention of important companies throughout Europe researching and producing agrochemicals.


Already in the 1930s, he had commenced work on seed borne diseases of oats, flax and ryegrass was significant, and during the Second World War, he was prominent in work on the treatment of flax seed, helping develop a special fungicide for the treatment of seed, which became known as the “Ulster Method” and which was adopted throughout the United Kingdom. The War meant that fibre flax-growing acreage in Northern Ireland had to be increased from 10,000 to 124,000, and the flax itself was in good condition largely due to Muskett’s work. He estimated that use of the method of seed spraying saved some £2,000,000 worth of fibre, a considerable contribution to the war effort.


Muskett was a firm proponent of the study of mycology as essential to plant pathology, and included mycology courses in many Agriculture Department syllabi, later himself becoming an expert on Irish fungi: he published many articles in this area, many of them in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, of which he was a member, and after he retired he began work on a Catalogue of Irish Fungi. He was President of the British Mycological Society in 1948.


During his career Muskett was constantly seeking to improve necessary laboratory and other facilities. This ongoing work included the establishment of the Plant Pathology Field Station. Muskett described in an article how this was set up after the War for half the cost of a Flying Fortress bomber, yet it was able, for example, to ship thousands of tons of virus-tested potato tubers to southern Europe and Africa, and from as far away as the United States came interest in the plans and operation of the Station.


Muskett’s interest in horticulture was reflected in his involvement in the setting up of the Northern Ireland Horticultural Development Association and the Central Gardens Association. His concern for and interest in especially rural Northern Ireland were also behind “Best Kept” competitions to encourage the improvement of the environment: categories included Best Kept Street, Housing Estate, Village, Small Town and Large Town.


Muskett was a popular as well as a respected personality, and known as an excellent speaker in all ways, from presenting academic lectures and papers, to radio broadcasting, to parlour conversation. His natural kindness included welcoming new colleagues to Ulster: when Sir Alwyn Williams, the palaeontologist who would enjoy a highly distinguished career over twenty years at Queen’s as a senior academic and administrator, arrived in Belfast in 1954, he and his wife were most impressed by Ulster hospitality in the form of Professor Muskett himself carrying a fully-laden tea tray along the road to the Williams’ home.


Alongside the some 70 articles he published over his career, he produced three highly-regarded books: Diseases of the Flax Plant (1947, with John Colhoun); Seed Borne Fungi (1964, with JP Malone); and in 1976 his own Mycology and Plant Pathology in Ireland. Muskett was appointed OBE in 1957, and on his retirement in 1965 was appointed Emeritus Professor. His other offices and honours included being Vice-President of the Association of Applied Biologists in 1954; Vice-President of the Society of Irish Plant Pathologists in 1973; first Chairman of the Northern Ireland branch of the Institute of Biology, which he helped found; and he was made a Fellow of the Institute of Biology in 1963.


Towards the end of his career, Muskett published an article, “Plant Pathology and the Plant Pathologist”, in which he summarised the history and development of phytopathology, its current positions, and possible future trends and issues. At the end of the article, after paying tribute to all those who had assisted him throughout his career, he added in a brief sentence: “But perhaps the greatest help has come unknowingly from a source so frequently unrecognised - a good wife and a loyal family.”

Born: 15 April 1900
Died: 22 October 1984
Richard Froggatt

Wesley McCann


Obituary: Association of Applied Biologists 107, pp 353-354 (1985); B Walker &A McCreary, Degrees of Excellence; TW Moody & JC Beckett: Queen’s Belfast 1845-1949; Muskett: “Plant Pathology And The Plant Pathologist”,  Annual Review of Phytopathology 1967 5:1-17;  private information