Albert Joyce Riker

In his intellectual lifetime, Joyce’s work brilliantly tackled a plethora of scientific disciplines, from his widely-read publications on the causes and prevention of tree diseases to being an early innovator of the cultivation and harvesting of poplars for wood pulp. He authored the highly esteemed, “Introduction to Plant Diseases,” and was the recipient of numerous awards and honors bestowed upon him for his immeasurable contributions to science.

Astonishingly though, this world-renowned plant pathologist’s most widely used contribution also happens to be his most overlooked. And of all of his accomplishments, this is the only one that bears his name. In fact, chances are, you’ve used, viewed, or held Joyce’s’ creation in a classroom, an antique store, a research lab, or at home.    

A Titan of Science is Born

Joyce, the highly acclaimed plant pathologist, was born of humble beginnings in Wheeling, West Virginia, on April 3, 1894. The son of Mary Edith and Albert Birdsall, a Methodist minister, Joyce attended public school in Alliance and graduated high school in Moundsville, West Virginia―a small town nestled alongside the Ohio River whose namesake was derived from the nearby Grave Creek Mound.

Grave Creek Mound
Grave Creek Mound. Wikipedia Commons.

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It was during his high school years in Moundville that Joyce developed an insatiable love of biology, the natural science that studies life and living organisms. Although he loved science and wanted to passionately and faithfully pursue it, the young graduate had more pressing issues. Chief among them, he couldn’t afford the courtship of his first love. He had to get a job.  

After graduating high school, Joyce worked for the Royal Gun Company, turned wrenches as a mechanic, and sold used cars as a salesman. While his employment kept him busy and paid his bills, it didn’t satisfy the love-stricken man.

Intellectual Curiosity

Having neglected his true love for too long, and with some money saved, Joyce enrolled in Oberlin College in Ohio―as the crow flies, 166 miles from Wheeling, WV―where he received his A.B. degree in botany in 1917.

He immediately started his graduate work at the University of Cincinnati. But just as soon as his studies began, they came to screeching halt. World War 1 was raging in Europe and he was summoned to serve as a bacteriologist in an Army hospital in France; a role he gallantly fulfilled from 1918 to 1919. His service in France spawned two interests that he pursued with urgency and vigor: the study of microbial pathogens and the French language.

WW1 Army Hospital in France
A makeshift American Army field hospital damaged by air raids near Calais, France, 1918. Wikipedia Commons.

Joyce returned to the University of Cincinnati where he earned his M.A. degree in botany and bacteriology in 1920. His curiosities not yet fulfilled, Joyce immediately accepted an offer to pursue a Ph.D. in plant pathology at the University of Wisconsin. As a research assistant, Joyce’s studies focused on crown gall and other diseases that affected the orchard fruit industry in Wisconsin.  

Joyce’s Ph.D. work was so impressive, that he was appointed as an instructor of plant pathology at Wisconsin immediately following the completion of his Ph.D. in 1922.

Immeasurable Contributions to Science

In his new role and henceforth, Joyce invested as much, or more time in building relationships than he did in the research lab. During his tenure at Wisconsin, Joyce put his everlasting fingerprint on the field of forestry―encompassing forest pathology, genetics, entomology (study of insects), and forest management. Joyce knew he had innovative ideas, but he also knew they would go nowhere unless he garnered the support of key stakeholders in the U.S. Forest Service, the lumber industry, and even private woodland owners.

Elmer tree at University of Wisconsin
Ironically, in 2018, the iconic elm tree (named Elmer) that stood next to the Biochemistry building at the University of Wisconsin–Madison for more than 100 years, fell victim to one of the very diseases that Joyce tried to prevent and contain: Dutch elm disease. Photo c. 1950, UW-Madison Archives.

With the support and encouragement from these stakeholders, Joyce was able to promote and fund programs that addressed the mechanisms in which diseases were spread. And by understanding the manner in which pathogens carried diseases, Joyce was able to guide stakeholders in the prevention, restriction, and in some cases, eradication of destructive plant diseases.  

Futurist

Up until his retirement from the University of Wisconsin in 1964, Joyce leveraged the coalitions he developed over the years to build international cooperation in the fight against plant-based diseases. He often warned countries of the dire consequences associated with the introduction of diseases that could catastrophically affect vital plant and tree crops.

On such warning, came in the form of coffee rust. In 1960, he warned Latin America that coffee rust would soon become a significant, crop crippling problem for coffee growers. By and large, Latin American countries were slow in heeding Joyce’s warning, and by the early 1970’s, coffee rust had spread to every coffee-growing country in Latin America, causing widespread damage to this day.

Lasting Legacy

In 1982, at the ripe old age of 88, Joyce passed away. The majority of his estate went to the University of Wisconsin Foundation to fund merit scholarships for undergraduate students. He and his late wife Adelaide Evenson―a microbiologist―also provided graduate and undergraduate fellowships in plant pathology.  

But of all those noble accolades and achievements, for all his contributions to science and forestry, he’s better known for something else entirely―a flat pasteboard container with a glass cover, containing cotton wool, and used for mounting small objects, such as plant or insect specimens, coins, or artifacts.

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Despite being one of the most renowned and accomplished plant pathologists to have ever lived, Albert Joyce Riker is not most remembered for his contributions to science, but for a box. A little box appropriately called, the Riker. Otherwise known to teachers, researchers, scientists, and collectors as the Riker Mount Display.  

Riker Mount Display Cases
(Left) Albert Joyce Riker. (Right) Riker Mount Display Cases.

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