Earthshaking Interview with Dr. Moselio Schaechter
July 7, 2010
Graham and Bonni Mackintosh are members of the San Diego Mycological Society. They interviewed club founding member Dr. Moselio Schaechter about his life and work.
Graham and Bonni (GB): We are very privileged and honored to be interviewing Elio Schaechter. We want to discuss your amazing life and your many accomplishments in the field of microbiology and mycology. First, we should say that just as we arrived here for this interview in San Diego we felt an earthquake. We heard it was a 5.6. That’s a good sign when the earth moves as we are talking to you. Your birth must have caused great shaking as well. So maybe you can tell us where you were born?
Elio: I was born in Italy, in Milan, of Polish Jewish parents. My father went to Italy after the First World War and settled there, and brought my mother from Vienna to live in Italy. During the Second World War we left Italy for Ecuador, which was one of the few places we could go to… [Interrupted by loud tone]
PUBLIC ADDRESS ANNOUNCEMENT—“May I have your attention please. At approximately five o’clock this evening we experienced an earthquake. The building has been checked and at this time the building is all clear. There are two elevators down in the North Tower and two elevators down in the South Tower. I understand service engineers have been called and they will respond appropriately. Thank you.”
Elio continuing: …and I spent my youth, essentially my adolescence, in Ecuador. And I am very grateful to that country because—well, they saved our lives. And I came to this country at the age of 21 and I studied microbiology. I did graduate work in microbiology at the University of Kansas, and a PhD at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
GB: Did you want to be a microbiologist when you were in Ecuador?
Elio: Did I ever! I had read a book that influenced many young people—Microbe Hunters, by Paul de Kruif. I must have been about 14 years old when I read it.
GB: Did you have any other influences in Ecuador directing you to that field?
Elio: Very much so. There was a pharmaceutical company set up by some Italian Jews. My father got me work there. So at the age of 16 or so I started to work doing some very menial jobs; at first, essentially washing lab dishes and chopping up and preparing things. My boss saw I was interested in it and eventually I became the research department for this organization. My boss would say go and do it without telling me how. So I had to figure it out. I thought it was a phenomenal education. I was about eighteen, nineteen, twenty. I was told by my boss to go and isolate some typhoid bacilli. So to isolate typhoid bacilli you go to the infectious disease hospital, such as it was there, find patients with typhoid and swab the appropriate part of the anatomy, then streak it out on a petri dish and isolate the typhoid bacilli. I was sort of toughened up by that.
GB: And you still wanted to be a microbiologist?
Elio: I did. I never ceased wanting to be a microbiologist. It was a calling and I’m lucky beyond words that I was able to follow my calling and make a living and enjoy it at the same time.
GB: Were your parents from a rural part of Poland?
Elio: They were from a small town, from a part of Poland called Galicia.
GB: Did they have any interest in gathering mushrooms?
Elio: No, they didn’t. It turns out that in that part of the world at least, the Jewish people were not much into going into the woods and not much into collecting mushrooms. Some must have been, but my parents were not…. It wasn’t really something that I was brought up with.
GB: When you were a kid in Italy, if you weren’t interested in looking for mushrooms, what were you doing while your family was waiting to leave? Were you in school?
Elio: Yes, I was getting a nice education, in school.
GB: Even in Mussolini’s Italy?
Elio: Yes. In Mussolini’s Italy Jews were not treated anywhere near as bad as in Germany. So it was possible to lead a life. But my father knew when it was time to leave.
GB: Was there an event that finally precipitated your fascination with fungi and mycology?
Elio: I did work with fungi—microscopic fungi, molds and yeast. I worked a little bit with them, and I thought one of these days I should look into mushrooms and know something about them. But there was an event. It must have been around 1969 or 1970. My late wife called me at work. We were living in Newton, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, in a house with a nice yard. As luck would have it, it rained a fair amount. She called me at work and said, “The yard is full of mushrooms, why don’t we find out if they’re edible? Our friends in Oregon always talk about picking mushrooms and having such a great time; buy a book on the way home and we will figure out if they’re edible.” Being an obedient sort, I did what I’m told. I brought the book to her—I think it was called Mushroom Hunter’s Field Guide by Alexander Smith—she opened it up, leafed through it and two minutes later gave it to me and said, “I can’t tell.” I decided I couldn’t tell either.
Well, providence intervened! That weekend in the Sunday paper, there was an announcement that the Boston Mushroom Club was having a foray nearby. It turned out that was the first and only time that the Boston Mushroom Club, an august organization, deigned to announce a walk to all the great unwashed. So anyway, I went there and they were all elderly people, very Yankee, very proper New Englanders, all dressed up. The men had jackets and ties and so on; the ladies had skirts. I don’t think they had gloves on, but they could have. I didn’t know what to do, but one gentleman came up to me and said, “Are you new?” I said, “Yes.” “Would you like to go for a walk in the woods and look for mushrooms?” I said, “Sure.” As we were walking, he said, “And what are you interested in?” I didn’t know what to say, but I turned it around and said, “Let’s talk about what are your interests.” He said, “Well, I’m interested in Thoreau and mushrooms.” It turns out Thoreau knew something about mushrooms and wrote about them. So we went in the woods and he showed me a little bit about mushrooms and I was permitted to join the club! I went to all the meetings assiduously. The club was made up of interesting people. After three years of going to all the meetings, one of these elderly people came over to me and said, “Nice of you to come. Come again.”
GB: Did your wife go too?
Elio: No, she did not. But she precipitated it and was okay with my going. I never had a hobby. I was so busy working, clawing my way up, that I didn’t have time to do something enjoyable. I must have been absolutely ripe for a hobby. So in a way it fell in my lap.
GB: Was this something that took you out of the laboratory and got you some exercise and fresh air?
Elio: Absolutely. Absolutely. All of a sudden I had a motivation to go for a walk in the woods, which I really love. Plus there was the element of the hunt. You really never know what you’re going to find. So I was not so much motivated by eating and collecting mushrooms for the pot, which I enjoy doing, but my main motivation was the hunt, and eventually the challenge of identification, finding out what they are called. And as you know that’s not an easy thing to do when you start out. I was helped by the members of the club who taught me.
GB: What were you working on at the time professionally?
Elio: I was working on DNA and E coli…. Nothing to do with anything environmental, but I discovered much later in life that I had been almost straightjacketed into that sort of reductionist work, working on mechanisms of how things work in the cell. In reality there was a big naturalist bone in me that had not been developed. In later years, in fact, it has been developing not only with regard to mushrooms. I really have a passion for the natural world. It is very different being a bench scientist working on biochemical reactions and so forth.
GB: Your interest in microbiology didn’t lead to a phobia about ticks, insect bites and such?
Elio: No. Not very much. I felt it was really a challenge. I felt happy beyond words. Looking for mushrooms, of course, means you look down as much as you look up, and look up only to find some polypores growing on a trunk, but otherwise you look down. And looking down made me see things that you normally don’t see when you walk through the woods. I felt so familiar and so at home in those forests. If I was a religious person it would be my church, my synagogue, my place of prayer.
GB: When I started out in our club you were generous in giving out your Boston Papers, a pamphlet. It seems like you really were promoting amateur mycology, and getting over to people what one went through trying to identify mushrooms, trying to simplify it. Was that material from the newsletter of the organization?
Elio: Being a teacher all my life, that’s another thing I’ve done with great gusto, I thought how could one help beginners to make it accessible?
GB: Was that your first mycological publication?
Elio: Not quite. Soon after I joined the club I became the editor of the bulletin, the newsletter, and I did that for twenty years. I’d written a number of articles. I don’t remember exactly when the Boston Papers came out.
GB: You must feel mushroom clubs are very valuable for getting into the hobby?
Elio: I’ll say. To try to identify mushrooms on your own is dangerous; it’s also masochistic. It’s a hard thing to do. If someone can show you and say, “look, this is a chanterelle” or “this is a morel” then you are so much ahead of the game. And the hints that people can give you are very valuable.
GB: What advice would you give to anyone just starting out, to help them make sense of the enormous diversity of names and species?
Elio: I like to go from the top and say there are about five or six categories of things we call mushrooms. Learn those first. Do the mushrooms look like they have a cap? Do they have gills or pores? Do they look like corals, puffballs, or shelves? So get to know that first. Categorize it on a large scale, and know if it belongs to this or that group.
And then I tell people about spore colors and prints. And that’s always fun; beginners like that, and feel like they’re doing something and getting somewhere. And then I go from the bottom up. There are a bunch of “weeds” out there, mushrooms you are going to see almost every time you go into the woods. Some are edible; some are poisonous. Know what a Russula looks like. Try to break the stem and see if it feels like you are breaking a piece of chalk. And almost every time in New England you are going to find a Lactarius, and they’re easy. Cut it and see if it gives any fluid. So get to know those. And the Amanitas are relatively easy because they have so many structural features… they have a bulb at the bottom, often warts on the top, an annulus or a ring around the stem. You are not going to be right all the time; you can find a Lepiota that may look like an Amanita, but you’ll know it’s in that group. So this is from the bottom up.
And learn the four or five great edibles of the region. In New England that will be chanterelles, boletes—morels are kind of rare—puffballs, and puffballs are easy to recognize if you cut through them and be sure it’s a genuine puffball and not a baby Amanita you are going to be safe. When it comes to eating I really insist that you never eat something that you are not absolutely sure what it is. And you can not really do that on your own. Some people do and they survive, but by and large you have to do it with some help. You can find a friend, but joining a mushroom club is a sounder proposition. In this country, which is not a country where a lot of people go mushroom hunting, a lot of experience comes from people who have learned it abroad. That’s valuable experience, but often with look-alikes what’s edible over there turns out to be poisonous here.
GB: Do you have a particular species or type of mushroom that you have really found the most fascinating and concentrated on? I know in the past you’ve given us the advice to find one genus and really make a good study of it and get to know it real well.
Elio: Yes, I worked on the Amanitas.
GB: You’re the author of a book on mushrooms—In the Company of Mushrooms: A Biologist’s Tale—how did that come about? I know you’ve written and co-authored books on microbiology.
Elio: I had written enough short articles for the Boston club so someone asked me, “Why don’t you write a book?” Well I felt, who am I to write a book for the public? I’ve written technical books, but nothing for the public, but I thought I might as well try. I went about it in a fairly intensive way. I had a good part of the book written before I went about the issue of how to publish it. I started out by asking people who have published books how you publish a book. And they said it’s essential you get an agent. So I got names of agents and the responses I got were pretty devastating. All these nasty answers were not something I was used to because when you write text books people come to you instead.
What happened was, I had reviewed a book for the New England Journal of Medicine and the science editor of Harvard University Press liked it so much he wrote to me and said we would like to publish something from you on any subject. I thought that’s very nice and I filed this letter away. Then, tired of these agents, I called him up and said, “Remember who I am?” He said, “Yes.” And I said, “You remember what you wrote.” He said, “Yes, I remember saying we’d like to publish a book of yours on any subject.” I told him I had a book. He said, “What is it about?” I said, “It is about mushrooms.” I could see the man’s face elongating over the telephone. He said, “Mushrooms! We don’t really do that.” But he said, “Wait a minute. I like to keep my word. Send me a couple of chapters.” And two weeks later he sent me a contract. They assigned a wonderful editor and she helped me a great deal. Everybody told me, make sure you don’t write it like a text book. But I had things so out of order and confusing that she said, “OK, make it a little bit like a textbook; put some order in it.” And she helped me. And the book did alright if I say so myself.
GB: When you were in Boston you got involved in the Poison Center?
Elio: Yes. There were a few of us who were available who had some background in medicine. We would be called by the Poison Center because poison centers notoriously don’t know anything about mushrooms. Why should they? It was not a frequent event. So I would get these calls and some of the calls were very lively and interesting. I remember one call—the Poison Center said, “Why don’t you talk to the person so you can find out what happened?” So I call and a lady answers. And before I can even start she gets very giggly. I got out of her that she had eaten Gymnopilus spectabilis, “Laughing Gym.”
Elio: No, No. She had a high and she was very giggly. This is one of the few mushrooms that you can identify over the telephone because it turns green when you cook it. Anyway, I’m talking to her and trying to get information and she keeps giggling. Finally she says, “Am I going to die?” I said, “No.” And she said, “Thank you. Goodbye,” and hangs up.
GB: Do you remember the first time you were consulted? What was the very first issue at the Poison Center you had to deal with?
Elio: I remember that too. The story was that somebody wanted to get a high on mushrooms and ate what turned out to be an Amanita muscaria. Amanita muscaria is a psychedelic mushroom but it’s also quite poisonous, so the trip is also to the emergency room. But it turned out that he had saved the Amanita muscaria and not eaten it, but had been on everything else conceivable, a whole lot of other white substances. So he came to the emergency room holding the mushroom because he had it in his head that if he said he’d taken a bunch of pills they wouldn’t do anything for him, but if he claimed he ate the mushroom they would take care of him.
Elio: I have to tell you we’re holding this interview in our place and I would have liked to provide you with something more mushroomy than just turnovers. The other day we had some friends over and they had never eaten truffles so we had two little jars each with one truffle the size of a marble. We’d held on to these for years and years so I opened them up and they smelled of anything except truffles. I cut through them and they were rhizopogons! They were false truffles! You can tell a rhizopogon because inside it is totally uniform; looks like cutting through a potato. So it tasted of nothing. So I’m sorry I can’t provide you with something more interesting. We threw them out actually.
GB: No problem. These mushroom turnovers are very tasty. Do you recall who was with you in forming the San Diego Mycological Society?
Elio: Well… I came here and I found that there wasn’t one, there had been something resembling a club way back, so I said that is an intolerable situation and we must do something about it. I don’t remember exactly how this started but there was a lady at the San Diego Natural History Museum and she was a volunteer in charge of plants. She told me to talk to someone at San Diego State who had taught courses in mushrooms—Tom Zink. So I talked to him, and he said there wasn’t much activity. But in talking to the lady at the Natural History Museum, she said she had some names of people who cared about mushrooms.
And I went to the Los Angeles Club, joined it and got the directory, then looked for people who had San Diego area zip codes and I got about ten names. I wrote to all of them and we had a meeting at the Natural History Museum and we were going to run it without any structure or club officers, we were just going to do it.
It turned out we needed some order, and a person volunteered who was a ball of fire and she just started it and carried on with it. Frank Kastama was a leading light because he had done some mushrooming. Nancy Mirr became president and she was the ultimate ball of fire and so the club took off rather rapidly. It is a small club, but in terms of the proportion of people who participate, it is much greater than any club. In Boston we had 400 members, and on a good day our meetings would have 30 or 40 people. In San Diego we had 60 or 70 members and we have 30 or 40 people. In terms of people who care and who like to come to our club, it’s outstanding.
GB: Did you have any reservations about starting a mushroom club in dry Southern California?
Elio: Sure, sure. When I left Boston people said, “That’s the end of you as a mushroomer. Too bad. Sayonara.” When I came here I found that it wasn’t so. The person who most helped me was Steve Pencall of the LA club. I went on one of their famous walks to Carrizo and he showed me that there really were quite a lot of mushrooms, but they were very different.
So I realized that I had to start over again. Here I was doing mycology to genus. I didn’t know the species. It was a challenge and, of course, the variety is not nearly as great as in wetter areas. But on a good day after a good rain we can go out and find 20 or 30 different species of mushrooms. And at our fair we have 100 or 120 species—a significant number. Boston would have two or three times as many, but that’s not going to happen here. Still, there are other advantages. I once found a beautiful collection of morels in January while the rest of the country is under the snow. There’s something to be said for that.
GB: What year did you actually come to San Diego? And when you founded the San Diego club were you retired?
Elio: 1995. I was technically retired. I left my place of work which had been Tufts University. I came here because I had a very strong personal reason for doing so. It was the home of my current wife. And of course it was delightful to come to San Diego, not a hard place to take.
GB: And you had already gotten married?
Elio: Yes. I had visited repeatedly. I had commuted for several years. But I had decided that I wanted to stay involved in science. And I do this by teaching. I still teach microbiology and I also write a blog on microbiology called “Small Things Considered.” I’ve written some text books and I’m forever revising them so I’m quite busy with that. And also my involvement in mycology, at least amateur mycology will be up at the top of the list. My wife says she’s not sure if I’m retired or retarded. I like to be active and I’m blessed with a reasonable energy level. And if you like what you’re doing. What else is there?
GB: And you are also involved with the Registry of Mushrooms in Works of Art. Can you tell us something about that?
Elio: Well, it started this way. I developed an interest in the history of mushrooms and people, and I thought the written record is relatively sparse. There are vast eons of history where you can’t find anything to speak of written about mushrooms—the Middle Ages. After the Renaissance interest picked up and there’s quite a bit written. After that I thought in addition to the written record what about looking for mushrooms in paintings.
And I started out by looking at this Bible-like book, the encyclopedic book by the Wassons—Mushrooms, Russia and History, and they have a section on mushrooms in art and they talk about 20 paintings, with a big Wassonian interpretation. As you know Wasson saw mushrooms in every culture and every aspect of it and so made a lot out of it.
Twenty was not a big number and somehow I thought that I should look into it a little bit more. I got hold of a book on Italian still lifes. Natura Morta is what it’s called—Dead Nature. Nature Morte in French. I looked in this book and in one fell swoop, perhaps in half an hour, I found that about 20% of the pictures had mushrooms in. And I increased the holding of mushrooms pictures that I had from 20 to 60.
And somehow I found out that there was a person in Germany, Hanns Kreisel by name, who was concerned with this. And by that time I had a collection of about 200 paintings. So I wrote to him and said shall we collaborate on this? He agreed that we could. And what we found interestingly enough was his 200 and my 200 were quite different. We hadn’t sampled the same thing. He’d gone to museums; I’d looked at books and did my work through the internet. And I found that in many auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s you can find a lot of pictures with mushrooms in them. So we had a lot going and other people joined us—Tjakko Stijve, Nancy Mladenoff, who is a mushroom artist, and Daniel Thoen in Belgium.
Anyway, what could we do with this? We could write a book but how many books could we sell? About 20! And it would be expensive to do because it would need color pictures. So we thought how about doing a website, and we could call it the Registry of Mushrooms in Works of Art. And we have well over a 1000. And I have printed out most of them, so I have a collection of these prints. It takes forever and we’re working on it with the help of Marjorie Young from the Santa Cruz club, and she has been very busy and very active redacting it into a consistent format.
GB: And what have you learned from this art?
Elio: Well, I can’t say that I’ve learned overwhelmingly new things. A lot of what I see in these paintings confirms what we know already—people have been eating mushrooms for a long time, especially in Italy. From antiquity about the only works that we can find that are genuine mushrooms—there are a lot of things that look like mushrooms which we don’t include—several things from Roman antiquity, mosaics and the famous fresco of what is quite obviously Lactarius deliciosus, from Herculaneum, near Pompeii.
There’s a long vacuum through the middle ages till you get to sometime in the 14th -15th Century, then you begin to see mushrooms, and they show pictures of truffles, later on they show pictures of Amanita caesaria, a favorite mushroom by Italians, and Boletus edulis, porcini, which is another one. So we saw that people by and large painted what they ate in the south. In the countries where mushrooms were appreciated they painted edible mushrooms.
In the countries where mushrooms were not appreciated, Holland is an example, though it changed in time, but at that time Holland was not known to be a mycophilic country, what they painted were mushrooms they found in the woods. So they are more interesting, and it was what you’d expect: Russulas and Lactarius and a few Amanitas. Whereas in Belgium, adjacent to it, the Flemish painted edible mushrooms pretty much like the Italians.
Perhaps the oddest thing was that the Amanita muscaria, which clearly had a role in history, has not been depicted very much. Until the 18th Century there are very few paintings with Amanita muscaria.
GB: It seems the Registry pretty much is focused on western civilization. Aztec art is full of mushrooms, so is there any chance that you’re going to go for Oriental or Meso-American art?
Elio: Meso-American, perhaps...but Oriental is a problem. The interesting literature goes back 2000 years and is written in Chinese or Japanese that current scholars have a very hard time reading. So I would need to be versed in ancient Asian languages. I can’t do that. I’m not going to live that long. So I’m going to focus on Western art.
GB: How often do you find new things to curate into your collection?
Elio: Oh, all the time. When I go with my wife to the museum, she’s the one who finds it. She says, “Look at this? Here’s a mushroom in this painting.” She is very good at that. It’s a little bit like finding a new stamp. I like to find things. Occasionally I go to the new auction sale results from the big auction houses and always find something new.
It’s very hard to know how many mushroom paintings there are. Your Aunt Tilley may have painted a mushroom and has it hanging in her attic. How do you know how many have been painted? In Europe it must be well in the tens of thousands. So our 1000 is really just scratching the surface. In Italy especially, I’m getting tired of Italian still lifes with porcini. I’ve seen enough of them right now… Also, I get a few nice paintings, sometimes self promoting. Sometimes an artist sends it to me and says I painted mushrooms. I really have a very hard time deciding what to include and what not to include from contemporary paintings because it’s overwhelming. Nowadays there are lots of mushroom paintings. It could overwhelm the whole Registry so we go slow.
GB: Did the British have any interest in mushrooms at any time?
Elio: There is one painting which got Wasson’s gall. It’s a painting by Thomas Gainsborough, no less, the great British painter, called the Mushroom Girl, and it shows a sleeping girl leaning against a bank out in the country with a basket full of mushrooms. And peering over a fence is a boy looking longingly at her. It’s clearly mushrooms in the basket. So Wasson was hell bent on saying that the English were mycophobes, and that’s it. So how can you have a painting by a major painter showing somebody collecting mushrooms? So he decided there must have been an interlude in British history when for a short time the British were mycophilic! I think that’s a stretch.
It’s true that in general Britain was not a great mycophilic country. Until a genre appeared—the Victorian Fairy Paintings. This started with the Pre-Raphaelites, Gabriel Rossetti, and so forth, and then a bunch of people like Rackham and Dadd. They depicted fairy rings so there are mushrooms there. There’s a painting of Puck sitting on a mushroom. They loved it. So all of a sudden in the Victorian imagination mushrooms became a very big deal… But not to eat.
GB: Tell us about your blog, Small Things Considered and how that relates to this easy retirement that you have set yourself.
Elio: Well, I like to write. I like to write short pieces. I would hardly dignify them as essays. I have a short attention span so that fits. But I have the urge to do it. I have the disease that the Romans call cacoethes scribendi, the itch of writing... something you know very well... so I did not have an outlet for such small essays. I decided then that in my dotage I would adopt something very new—namely a blog. But I hardly knew what a blog was. I got some help from my professional society, the American Society for Microbiology, and so I realized that I could do this. And I was joined by a very gifted lady by the name of Merry Youle who is doing most of the work now or as much as I am. And it’s a very satisfying thing because we pick on odd, exciting, unusual and often neglected areas of microbiology, and it won’t surprise you that I favor the mushrooms and the fungi in general. So once a year we have a fungus week where we have an extra number of posts dealing with the fungi.
GB: And you’re still teaching at San Diego State?
Elio: And UCSD. I have an appointment at both. But I put San Diego State first, even though I teach mostly at UCSD, because I like San Diego State better. They’re not as snooty. Actually I organize more than I teach…a graduate course in microbiology.
GB: Have any recent discoveries in mycology surprised you, like really out-of-the-blue new information?
Elio: Well taxonomy has been taken over by DNA and that has consequences. I haven’t followed it very closely, but I know that we have a much better view not just of taxonomy but also of phylogeny, the origin of mushrooms. I think that’s one of the important things that is going on. Some groups of fungi that were classified by morphology have held up very well and others haven’t. There are surprises.
GB: Thank you so much for your time. We can honestly say it’s been a fascinating and earthshaking interview!
Distinguished Professor of Molecular Biology and Microbiology, Emeritus, Tufts University School of Medicine.
Adjunct Professor Emeritus, Department of Biology, San Diego State University.
Visiting Scholar, UCSD.
Past President of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM).
Chairman, Editorial Board, ASM News, 1999-present.
Author and co-author of several books on microbiology including:
Mechanisms of Microbial Disease.
Physiology of the Bacterial Cell.
Author, In the Company of Mushrooms: A Biologist’s Tale. (Harvard University Press)
Founder and co-curator, Registry of Mushrooms in Works of Art, supported by MykoWeb.com
Founder and co-contributor, “Small Things Considered: The Microbe Blog.” (schaechter.asmblog.org) sponsored by ASM.