April 14, 2009

Rare Fungi Sent Back to China

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President David Skorton announced yesterday that the University will be giving China back a collection of rare fungi that was originally smuggled to Cornell nearly 70 years ago.
In the 1920s, Shu Chun Teng was China’s premier expert on fungi after studying mycology at Cornell. To preserve Teng’s specimens from destruction following the 1937 Japanese invasion of China, 2,278 of the specimen packets were smuggled by ox cart to Indochina and then by sea to the United States, eventually arriving at Cornell in 1940, according to the Associated Press.
Over the past 70 years, Cornell’s “Fungi of China” collection has been housed at the Plant Pathology Herbarium and “it’s a collection that Chinese scientists often want to use,” according to Vice President of University Communications Tommy Bruce.
In a repatriation ceremony in Weill Hall yesterday, Skorton presented a high-ranking delegation of Chinese government officials with a mushroom called Lentinus tigrinus and a letter expressing Cornell’s intent to return the fungi, the University said.
Skorton met with Chinese State Councilor Liu Yandong as well as other government officials, including the minister of education and the minister of science and technology.
Bruce said that the University’s decision to give back the fungi collection was announced publicly only yesterday so it would coincide with Liu’s visit to campus.
“Given her extremely high stature, today seemed like a very appropriate time to signal the University’s intent to this collection,” he said.
“It is a collection that is of great interest to scientists in China. So rather than have it here, it really does belong over there,” Bruce said. “We’ve been the custodian of it for a number of years, but I think it was always the intent and desire [to return it].” “The specimens are impressive in themselves, but more so due to their poignant history and the personal sacrifices made by Mr. Teng and his family to save them from destruction,” Skorton said at the ceremony yesterday, according to the University. “The fungi will be carefully prepared and documented in [the] coming months, so we can accomplish the safe repatriation of this important collection on my next visit to Beijing at a mutually agreed upon time.”
Cornell will deliver about 1,700 specimens to China — including 57 deemed irreplaceable — while retaining fungi that cannot be divided, the Associated Press reported yesterday.
Bruce said that the University arranged to transfer the collection of fungi through its own contacts with scientists and scholars in China.
No date has been finalized for Skorton’s next trip to China, according to Bruce.
During her visit to Cornell, Liu also met with various representatives from the faculty and administration to discuss “topics of mutual interest,” Bruce said.
“We were honored to have her on campus,” he said.