Memorial: John Ingram Pitt (1937-2022)

Memorial: John Ingram Pitt (1937-2022)

We are sorry to report the death of John Ingram Pitt on 21 March 2022. An internationally acclaimed mycologist and food scientist, Pitt was elected an Honorary Member of the Mycological Society of America in 2001. He was born 13 March 1937 on a small family farm near Wamberal, NSW, Australia. He left the family farm to begin work at CSIRO as a Technical Assistant Grade 1 (Junior) two weeks before his 17th birthday. Pitt rose through many research positions rising to Chief Research Scientist (1992-2002); he worked beyond 2002 as an Honorary Research Fellow until 2019 after 65 years of service to CSIRO. His death while under treatment for lymphoma was confirmed by his son, Gordon Pitt, of Sydney, Australia.

Pitt is best known for research on the systematics of Penicillium and the application of basic mycology to food science, as exemplified by two of his 20 books, The Genus Penicillium and its Teleomorphic States Eupenicillium and Talaromyces and Fungi and Food Spoilage, the latter co-authored with his longtime colleague at CSIRO in Sydney, Australia, Dr. Ailsa Hocking. In the Genus Penicillium, Pitt moved taxonomy from a purely morphological science to one that incorporated the response of living cultures to varying temperatures, water activities, and substrates. His injection of ecology into taxonomy proved very popular as evidenced by the more than 2000 citations it has accrued. In Fungi and Food Spoilage, Pitt and Hocking provided industrial biologists with a solid foundation in mycology and then emphasized the important roles in food processing of zygomycetes and the genera Aspergillus and Penicillium, before exploring xerophiles, yeasts, fresh food, and preserved food. Currently in its third edition, the completion of a fourth edition is eagerly awaited, as evidenced by the nearly 5500 citations of editions one through three.

After eight years as a part-time student at the University of NSW, Pitt obtained an undergraduate degree and then completed a MSc. He received a PhD in 1968 from the University of California, Davis.  Yeast specialist M.W. Miller was the advisor for his dissertation, “The yeast genus Metschnikowia”. Pitt spent a postdoctoral year (1968-1969) at the USDA Northern Regional Research Center, Peoria, Illinois (NRRL), under Dr. Clifford Hesseltine, where he first focused on Penicillium. As noted above, his work at CSIRO in food mycology and mycotoxin research was always involved with taxonomy and evolution of the mycotoxin-producers themselves, especially Penicillium

Pitt provided strong support to the mycological community in Australia and abroad, taking major roles in arranging the IUMS Mycological Congress in Sydney in 1999 and the International Mycological Congress in Cairns in 2006. He served on many international committees including those for mycological groups in the IUMS and WHO, and joint FAO/WHO Expert Committees. He was honored for his research contributions not only by MSA but also the British Mycological Society, the American Society for Microbiology, as well as several Australian scientific groups. 

Much of the information presented here is from the CSIROpedia oral history collection posted on the internet (, which includes the following statement: “Dr Pitt has authored, coauthored, edited or co-edited 20 books, and is author or coauthor of 250 research papers and book chapters, 70 of them published since he officially retired in 2002.” Obviously, Pitt worked hard, long, and right to the end. He was a mycologist born in the era when each genus had an expert, and became a mycologist who rapidly embraced molecular systematics, as evidenced by the series of NATO meetings on modern taxonomy that he organized with Rob Samson in the 1980s and 1990s. He loved mycological gatherings, providing his insight and comments at fungal meetings and institutes from Sydney to Ottawa and Utrecht and all points in between. He also loved the social aspects of our science and was always vocal in the sessions and at the party afterward. He was a critical thinker and, while there was little diplomacy in the delivery of his opinions, he would follow up his pronouncements with an invitation to the bar where the first round was on him.  Despite his love of travel, he was Australian through and through, never backing down in discussions about the superiority of any product, whatsoever, made in the island continent. His personality will be missed by all who knew him, but his science will continue to support mycology and food science through his many significant publications.

John Pitt: An Oral History for Mycology, an interview recorded at the 11th International Mycology Congress in San Juan, Puerto Rico on July 18th, 2018, 33:48

Pitt, J.I., 1979. genus Penicillium and its teleomorphic states, Eupenicillium and Talaromyces. Academic Press, London.

Pitt, J.I. and Hocking, A.D., 2009. Fungi and food spoilage, 3rd edition, New York: Springer.

Samson, R.A. and Pitt, J.I., eds., 1986. Advances in Penicillium and Aspergillus systematics (Series A, Life Sciences, Vol. 102). Springer Science & Business Media.

Samson, R.A. and Pitt, J.I. eds., 1990. Modern concepts in Penicillium and Aspergillus classification (Series A, Life Sciences, Vol. 185). Springer Science & Business.

-Meredith Blackwell and John Taylor