Saccardo: The Internationalization of Mycology

Submitted by: Don Pfister

An article by Brad Bolman, historian of science, takes up the topic of Pier Andrea Saccardo’s mycological contribution, particularly the impact of his Sylloge Fungorum. Because this is not a journal mycologists might easily find, I introduce the paper to readers of Inoculum. Bolman argues that Saccardo’s compilation of described fungi with descriptions in Latin, moved the study of fungi from regional contributions to those that were more broadly based. By taming the scattered literature of descriptive mycology, Saccardo aided in stabilizing names and internationalization mycology.

We rely on electronic databases today. Indeed, those databases we use have their origins in Saccardo’s Sylloge. For those who came of mycological age before these databases were available, the search through the 28,000 pages in 26 volumes of the Sylloge Fungorum was obligatory for finding those species of interest that had been previously described. The search of the Sylloge was followed by manual search of Petrak’s Lists, Index of Fungi (indexed only every 10 years) and Biological Abstracts. Bolman correctly views the Sylloge Fungorum as a proto-database involving big data mining that allowed systematic mycologists to advance the field.

Bolman’s work is a bio-bibliography that outlines Saccardo’s early years, his later publications, and sets him in the context of the mycological world of the mid-to-late 19th century. This is the world of E. M. Fries, Anton DeBary, the Tulasne brothers, Karl Fuckel, Giuseppe De Notaris, and others. Fluent not only in Italian Latin, and French, he also spoke passible German and English. Saccardo corresponded widely and exchanged specimens with mycologist and naturalists from around the world.

The Saccardoan system of classification, easily characterized today as highly artificial because of its reliance on spore characters, is seen both for its advantages and disadvantages. Specimens can be placed in an artificial system and thus named, but one does not necessarily understand anything about relationships that are revealed in evolutionary systems. Bolman gives a quotation from Plowright to Saccardo that sums up some of the feelings of the day, “no mistaking the fact it is possible now to make out a Sphaeria [from] your Carpological arrangement: whereas it was not possible to do so before.” One can still today use the Sylloge with this purpose in mind.

For mycology students and teachers motivated to set their own studies in an historical context Bolman’s article is central. Not only does one learn about Saccardo but also about his contemporaries and their impact on present day work.

Bolman, B. 2023. What mysteries lay in spore: taxonomy, data, and the internationalization of mycology in Saccardo’s Sylloge Fungorum. The British Journal for the History of Science. 2023: 1-22.