April 9, 2003

Magical Mushrooms, Mysterious Molds

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“Welcome to the mushroom show. Have a seat. Ready, set, go!”

“Purple grain is not quite right. Leave your body; what a sight!”

These titles seem far more appropriate for The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test than they do for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ plant pathology class.

But that is exactly what they are: lecture titles for the Ag School’s “Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds” (PA PL 201), taught by Prof. George Huddler.

The class, in its 14th year, is a unique introduction to plant pathology designed for non-majors. No prior science experience is required.

“I try to keep it as non-technical as possible,” Huddler says.

Students have responded well to Huddler’s elimination of jargon.

“His original perspectives and cutting edge theories embody the quintessential Ivy-league education,” said Claudio Gualtieri ’03.

Gualtieri credits Huddler’s “witty jokes and genuine interest in the subject”, as the reason for the class’ continuing popularity.

The class has consistently enrolled about 250 to 300 students every year, and there have never been any mass exoduses from the class after students learn that the class is not dedicated to controlled substance, but rather merely glances upon them.

Many falsely whisper about the class, believing that it is a “gateway” to a supposed underground hallucinogenic drug culture at Cornell. Of this Huddler admits that there was “a little salesmanship” in naming the class, and the name “has served that purpose.”

Huddler is also the first to admit that the day he gives his lecture on hallucinogenic mushrooms, commonly known as ‘shrooms, the class size is disproportionately larger, and often filled with students who are not enrolled in the class.

“We get a lot of visitors for that class,” he said.

That lecture is the most popular of the class, and little of it is dedicated to the dry science of that “magical” mushroom. Most of the lecture deals with the history of it, how it was used by prior civilizations, and even the legal implications of using ‘shrooms.

Huddler has never personally tried them but he has a fairly liberal attitude towards ‘shrooms and their recreational use.

“I don’t preach against the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms [but] beware of the hazards if things don’t go right,” he said.

One of his former students was arrested for trying to grow his own mushrooms from a mail-order, do-it-your-self kit.

Huddler’s class retains its numbers year-by-year, largely because it is able to make an uninteresting subject such as fungi, incredibly interesting.

Lectures for Huddler are not just a reiteration of textbook facts. He relies on the textbook, which he wrote, to cover “the nuts and bolts” of the subject matter, which allows him to use “lectures to embellish personal anecdotes and [use] lots of videos.”

“I think you can learn science and still have fun,” he said.

He does this by incorporating demonstrations into his lectures. He has cheese and wine tastings, readings of literary classics such as Leon Uris’ Trinity — the Irish potato famine was caused by a fungus — and shows the artwork of those who were impaired/enhanced by fungi or fungi by-products such as lysergic acid diethylamide or LSD.

The class is not just fun lectures. Three times a semester Huddler and his TAs hold all-day demonstrations. During these demonstrations, he will introduce his students to some of the things about which they have learned, such as a the yeast in a five-gallon jar of brewing beer, or a fungus that shoots its spores 12 feet into the air.

The class’s median grade is a B+ and Huddler credits his term paper assistance program with that. Students are required to write a large final paper on a topic of their choosing. He believes that he and his TAs do an excellent job of guiding students in this endeavor, assisting students with organizing and structuring their papers.

Some popular topics include beer and wine brewing, LSD as a by-product of fungus, and the CIA’s circa-1960 strange and sometimes downright bizarre LSD experiments. The experimenters hoped to find uses for LSD as a weapon or as a mind control device.

The class began 14 years ago, and was such a late addition to the roster, that it was not listed on either the course roster or catalogue. The only announcements concerning the class were flyers posted in Roberts. That year Huddler had hoped for 25 to 30 students; he was rewarded with 160 students in a small seminar classroom. The class quickly sprung into its present incarnation as a full-size lecture.

Archived article by Michael Margolis