Dr. Curt Leben (1917-2008) joined plant pathology in Wooster as Professor and Associate Chair in 1959, and returned to full-time research after the formation of a separate Department of Plant Pathology in 1967. He retired in 1988 and passed away on Nov. 21, 2008 in Wooster.
Leben was elected APS Fellow in 1981 and made noted contributions to plant pathology in research, administration and graduate student training. He was a former associate editor of Phytopathology, served on the Chemical Control and Bacteriology committees, and helped raise funds from industry for the APS headquarters building in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Leben's areas of research included epiphytic bacteria, antibiotics for disease control, survival of plant pathogenic bacteria, and wood decay of forest trees. He is best known for pioneering research on the epiphytic microflora of the phyllosphere. Among other things, he showed that plant buds carried rich populations of nonpathogenic bacteria, and the subsequent isolation of pathogenic bacteria from buds and other apparently healthy plant parts led to the hypothesis that some pathogens had a resident phase in the disease cycle. The resident phase was demonstrated to be significant in inoculum increase and incidence of some plant diseases.
Of particular interest was the antagonism of some bacterial residents to fungal pathogens. He demonstrated biological control of fungal diseases by particular bacterial isolates. His groundbreaking research in the 1960s and 1970s not only established the importance of a plant-surface resident phase for many saprophytic and pathogenic bacterial species, but laid the foundation for numerous studies in microbial ecology, biocontrol, and molecular biology that continue to this day.
Leben also conducted research on the bacterial blight disease of soybean, including studies on the resident phase of the pathogen, survival on seed, dissemination by storms, and potential control by seed treatment. Similar work was done with Pseudomonas lachrymans, causal agent of cucumber angular leaf spot. He also published work on the survival of plant pathogenic bacteria and on the adherence of various types of bacteria to leaf surfaces.
Leben graduated from Ohio University in Athens and received his Ph.D. in plant pathology in 1946 from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. As a graduate student, he was involved in the Venturia program led by his major professor, G. W. Keitt, and pursued research in antibiotics for plant disease control.
In 1949, Leben joined the agricultural division of Eli Lilly and Company and later became head of the Lilly Agricultural Research Center in Greenfield, Indiana. He began a program on bactericides and fungicides for plant disease control which later expanded to include herbicides and insecticides.
Leben was an ardent supporter of nature conservancy, forests and national parks, and enjoyed sailing, camping and painting. Some of his paintings hang on the walls of plant pathology facilities in Columbus and Wooster today. He is survived by his widow, Margaret Leben of Wooster, two children, two grandchildren and a sister.