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James W. Deacon

Posted by: BMS_Administrator

1947 - 2021

Jim Deacon.jpg

We are sad to inform you of the passing on January 11th of Dr Jim W. Deacon, formerly of Edinburgh University, a long-serving member of the BMS, and author of numerous works on fungal biology.  Jim's career was cut short by the early onset of Alzheimer's disease. Jim is survived by his wife Joy, daughters Kate and Lucy, granddaughter Kaya, grandsons Coll and Finn and great-granddaughter Sofía. His fascination with the wonders of the natural world inspired the same passion in generations of students. He had a boundless enthusiasm for science and particJim Deacon wideshot.jpgularly for plant and fungal ecosystems. . He loved going for walks in the countryside and collecting and photographing plants and fungi for his lectures and books. His students remember his fascinating lectures and the friendly atmosphere he created in lectures and in his lab, but also his deep knowledge of plant fungal interactions and his innovative experimentalism. He was a workaholic with an uncompromisingly strict work ethic that he transmitted to his research teams.

Jim graduated from Hull University in 1968 with a first class honours degree.  He then did a PhD on ‘Survival of the eyespot fungus (Cercosporella herpotrichoides) and other cereal foot-rot fungi on infected wheat stubble’ at the University of Cambridge School of Botany supervised by Professor Denis Garrett in 1968-1971.  He followed this up with a further two years post doc research from 1971- 1973 on Ophiobolus Patch Disease of turf (caused by Gaeumannomyces graminis) and its control by Phialophora graminicola in the same lab at Cambridge. 

He joined Edinburgh University as a lecturer in the Microbiology dept in September 1973 and progressed to Senior Lecturer. Jim had a sabbatical from 1983-1985 in South Africa studying Banana Wilt. On his return he remained at Edinburgh where he carried out research on plant-microbe-fungal interactions.

In the late 1990s he became involved in the Biology Teaching Organisation, at first as Deputy Director of teaching, then overall Director.  He retired in 2008. 

The majority of his research work concerned plant microbe-fungal interactions particularly working on soil fungi and root pathogens. Having absorbed the ecological approach to experimental mycology of Denis Garrett, he applied that to developing the work of Dr John Holden on the effects of natural root cortex death on the cereal root pathogen causing take all disease (Gaeumannomyces graminis vs. tritici), and its control by Phialophora sp. He was a leader in investigating the role of root cortex death in pathology and in ectomycorrhizal fungal successions. Jim’s concept of inoculum potential contributed significantly to pioneering work on ectomycorrhizal succession, in collaboration with colleagues from the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology Bush (now the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH). The concept has never been more evident than is seen in the sudden onslaught of invasive fungal tree diseases in the UK and Ireland.

He also carried out research into host-specificity and recognition by root-infecting pathogens, host-specific triggering of propagule germination, the pre-infection sequence of zoosporic pathogens (Pythium, Phytophthora, Aphanomyces spp.), recognition systems for chemotaxis to root diffusates and encystment, and cyst germination.

He had a long-term interest in the mechanisms involved in mycoparasitism and its potential use in biocontrol, especially in Pythium oligandrum, P. acanthophoron and P. mycoparasiticum. He was particularly famous for his early use of video for tracking the interactions of mycoparasites with their targets.

 Fungal Mycoparasitism Video by Jim Deacon   https://youtu.be/nT1M5UbhNyE 

He developed a body of work covering many aspects of the interactions between plant roots, beneficial fungi and root pathogens. His research papers and books remain relevant today and have provided the basis for the development of control methods for root pathogens. He was also one of the first academics to develop online resources for mycology undergraduate teaching, which was typical of Jim’s innovative approaches to teaching and research.  

He was an inspiring and gifted communicator and writer.  He published over 100 scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals, was keynote speaker at international symposia and congresses around the world, and acted as a consultant to biotechnology companies. He published several books, including his ‘Introduction to Modern Mycology’ first published in 1980, which ran into 4 editions, and was well used and loved by students as an easy-to-digest introduction to the world of fungi. In 2010 Jim was awarded the BMS Benefactor’s Medal for his research and contributions to education, including his very successful textbooks on Fungal Biology (https://britmycolsoc.us18.list-manage.com/track/click?u=675af996af397d13f2145c3cb&id=076ef80359&e=f901095c1b) and his website( INDEX (ed.ac.uk)) still freely available for use.

Compiled by Christine Henry, retired Fera Science Ltd.

Memories of Jim Deacon:

Maurice Gallagher, Professor of Microbial Science and Education, University of Edinburgh

Jim was a remarkable, inspirational and highly charismatic teacher. Part of his talent lay in his great story-telling ability but also in his understanding of how to engage people. He had a very attentive and calming manner when people were talking to him and this carried over into his lectures. In the teaching lab, the technicians used to say that when he spoke, it was ‘as if you had just uncovered a major new biological finding for the very first time’. Jim was also a passionate and prolific science writer and even today, his skills legacy to our students is still available and used in the School of Biological Sciences. These included online guides such as: ‘How to write proper!’ and ‘Statistics made easy.’ Jim had a cheeky sense of humour but also a better understanding of students and University educational systems than anyone I have ever met. He truly loved teaching and prided himself on excelling as a communicator. As a scientist he also harnessed his talents imaginatively. He was a workaholic and prolific writer but perhaps some of his most memorable material was the captivating videos that he made of fungal mycoparasitism. A truly gifted and personable individual and definitely ahead of his time.

Dr Stephen Donaldson, Retired Senior R&D Director Procter & Gamble

British Mycology Society Conference: Portsmouth 1991

Jim was giving a talk at this conference and so Jim took 5 of his PhD students in his Ford estate to the conference. En route we stopped at Tewkesbury Abbey and bought 10 litres of red wine.

Jim gave a tremendous talk of biocontrol with Pythium oligandrum and that evening he was a magnet for other delegates and students alike. We met Professor Mel Fuller and his team (Athens, Georgia, USA) and we collectively finished all of the red wine with much merriment. The drive home (which Jim did in record speed) was horrendous as most of us (not Jim) were still the worse for wear. However, it was a wonderful conference and Jim (complete with video footage; largely unheard of at the time for a conference presentation) was the star of the show.

Jim as the scientist, coach, mentor and friend

Jim Deacon obit group pic.jpg

I recall telling Jim, when I came back to Edinburgh for my PhD viva in November 1992, that I felt the same way about him, that he felt about Denis Garrett. I think Jim was touched by this as he thought Denis was a god.

To this day I have never met anyone who had a train of thought like Jim. I recall in the second year of my PhD undertaking some work quickly generated lots of data. I knew the data was important but I was not clear on what it meant. Excitedly, I told Jim about it.

Two weeks later I was sitting at home by the fire having some supper and started to read a draft of a paper that Jim had given me that day on fungal zoospores (“let me know what you think”). I quickly grasped that the paper was based on my results. Jim had figured out what my data meant in a way that I could not have done. The implications of what the data was telling us was far from obvious but like a scientific detective, Jim had elegantly pieced it all together. I still remember how my jaw dropped and I was in awe of his intellect to have come up with such a train of thought and hypothesis. I think this was our best paper together (from a total of six) and this work has been referenced hundreds of times over the years.

Even after I left P&G, Jim was kind enough to send me hand written notes (to the “underarm department”; I did do work on deodorants) and I still have and cherish these letters.

However, the biggest lesson I learned from Jim, was how to write logically and concisely. I remember when I did my honours project with Jim, I had submitted a hand written 20-page thesis-introduction on the Friday morning and he told me he would leave me his comments in his room on the Saturday. I drove into Edinburgh from Bathgate and saw that of the 20 pages, he had crossed out 19 of them and edited the 20th page. To be honest I was furious to say the least! However, Jim had attached a handwritten note where he explained that he had been “vigorous with the pencil”. He went on to explain that it was a painful process being able to write concisely and that he went through the same process with Denis Garrett. I did learn from this and continued to improve and, as a result, my final PhD thesis only required 6 spelling corrections (whereas most students required a considerable amount of re-work).

I further used this learning to write scientific reports in P&G and continue to use the learning today e.g. whenever I’m writing a letter of complaint to any authority.

I still have this original letter that Jim wrote and I also made a copy that I pinned to my office no matter where my home location was in the P&G world (London, Cincinnati, Newcastle) as a reminder of, not only how to write, but also to remember how it would feel to others when I similarly edited their reports, papers etc.

My happiest times in the whole of my academic career was undoubtedly when I was with Jim, either in his office talking about research or even down the pub (no matter the subject; Jim would often discuss how proud he was of his wife Joy’s scientific research with Sir Harry Godwin and his admiration for the independence of his girls Kate & Lucy). Just to be in Jim’s company was wonderful and a memory that I will never forget.

I am so lucky and privileged that I was able to work with and learn from Jim.

Vin Fleming (Joint Nature Conservation Committee) & Fran Giaquinto

We were both fortunate and privileged to do our PhD and postdoc with Jim in the early 1980s. Of all the people we have since worked for and with, we can both say with confidence that his influence over our thinking and approach to work has lasted all our lives. He was a great guide to mycology, to designing and thinking about approaches to experiments, helping us to consider how to ask the right questions, and how to write well and succinctly. And he also brought a discipline, work ethic and ‘can do’ approach to our studies. He expected us to write up our theses within the three-year time period – and we did – neither of us carrying the burden of writing up into future roles. Jim also extended to us, and all his students, the courtesy of not putting his name on papers arising from our doctoral studies – a tradition he inherited from his own mentor Denis Garrett but, what he said of Garrett was true of himself, ‘the best ideas were often his and he often played no small part in the writing’.

Jim taught us about plant-fungal interactions, from pathogens to symbionts, and his enthusiasm and insight turned it into an endlessly fascinating subject which has continued until today.   He encouraged us to apply our findings and recently a photograph of Jim turned up sitting on an upside-down crate, working as hard as the rest of us, dipping countless thousands of Sitka spruce seedlings into mycorrhizal-inoculated alginate gel.

But Jim was more than a great academic mentor – he was such great fun to be with. He had a mischievous and irreverent sense of humour. We recall fondly now incidents and anecdotes that still make us smile nearly four decades later, such as the experiments planned on the backs of beer mats or cigarette packets in pubs or the union bar (why didn’t we keep some of them?) and the time he submitted a photo of the back of his head for the departmental staff chart, arguing that people had as good a chance of seeing him from behind, disappearing down a corridor, as from the front. Or the occasion he and another student, Stuart Donaldson (we think) mistakenly entered a room at the FC Northern Research Station which had a meeting in progress. Apologising, they marched purposefully to the door on the opposite side – and found themselves in a broom cupboard with no exit. How long did they stay inside before they exited through the same room, all eyes on them? We don’t know…. There are far more stories to share than space here allows but thinking of Jim and our time with him in Edinburgh always brings back the fondest of memories.

We also remember fondly and gratefully our visits to Jim’s home where Joy and their two then young daughters Kate and Lucy, always made us welcome.


Dr Lisa Ward, Principal Scientist Biosecurity and Plant Pathology, Royal Horticultural Society: RHS Garden Harlow Carr

I was saddened to hear about the loss of Jim Deacon. I was very honoured and grateful to have Jim as my PhD supervisor. He was a world-class mycologist and a caring and dedicated supervisor. Jim’s experimental ideas were innovative and ahead of their time which made doing a PhD with him exciting, rewarding and a huge learning experience.

Jim’s sense of fun always ensured that his PhD research students were a close-knit family, and there was always much camaraderie and laughter along with the hard work.  I still look back on my PhD years in Jim’s lab as one of the happiest times of my life.

Jim was also an excellent lecturer for the undergraduate students; his lectures were delivered with a sense of fun and drama and his passion for mycology always shone through. He always left students in awe as he showcased some of his lab’s exciting videos of mycoparasites in action. 

It was hard to imagine that such a talented mind could succumb to Alzheimer’s disease. I hope that he is now in a better place and that his amazing mind is once again free.

Peter Jeffries, Emeritus Professor of Microbiology, School of Biosciences, University of Kent

I remember him as a kind and welcoming colleague - very enthusiastic about teaching and promoting mycology. He had original research ideas and was a leader in investigating the role of root cortex death in pathology and in ectomycorrhizal fungal successions.  He was always very down-to-earth despite his illustrious Cambridge pedigree.

Dr Colin Jeffries, SASA

During my time at The East of Scotland College of Agriculture, studying for a PhD 1974-1978, with Dr Andrew Boyd, Jim was always very helpful to me. He was a willing listener and provided solutions when necessary.  His lectures were inspirational.  I can still remember sitting in his office, discussing the various challenges of my PhD and using the large centrifuges in microbiology!  The world has lost a microbiological legend.

Professor Simon van Heyningen, retired Vice Principal, University of Edinburgh

Jim was an excellent teacher and an inspiring lecturer, not only in his own immediate field, but in modern biology in general.   At one time he was Edinburgh University’s Director of Biology Teaching, a major task as the University is strong in almost all areas of biology from molecular biology and biochemistry through genetics to field zoology and botany.  He also had the demanding task of presenting the University’s teaching in the area in the early days of outside judgement, when the Teaching Quality Assessment became important.  Edinburgh’s teaching of biology was highly rated.   

Dr E Jones, Associate Professor, Dept of Pest-management and Conservation, Lincoln University, New Zealand

It is with great sadness to hear of the loss of Jim Deacon. I was extremely privileged to have had Jim as my PhD supervisor and mentor. He was a world-class mycologist and being part of Jim’s research laboratory provided a huge learning opportunity. Jim was a very supportive, dedicated and caring supervisor. For me this was evident from the initial interactions I had with Jim during the interview process for the PhD position in his laboratory. Jim personally met me at the train station, took me on a mini tour of Edinburgh (well he knew that would make a good impression!) before the formal interview back at King’s Buildings. But, I now know that this was part of the interview process, to determine how I would fit into his laboratory group, as he understood that this was an important factor in maintaining the positive laboratory group dynamics. Jim nurtured a supportive, cohesive research group, along with the expected hard work there was a lot of laughter. I look back fondly at my time in his research group as some of my happiest years. This camaraderie is something that I try to emulate in my research group.

Jim was also a passionate, enthusiastic and talented lecturer; he enjoyed lecturing and imparting his vast knowledge to students. He was able to clearly explain complex concepts to undergraduate students. From his lecture material, he developed and wrote a text book, ‘Fungal biology’, a book I still find invaluable for my University undergraduate teaching. He was also one of the first academics to develop online resources for mycology undergraduate teaching, which was typical of Jim’s innovative approaches to teaching and research.

Professor Neil A.R. Gow, Deputy Vice Chancellor Research and Impact, University of Exeter

I wouldn’t have become a mycologist without the influence of Jim Deacon.  I arrived at Edinburgh University as an undergraduate with the intention of becoming a marine scientist, but then found the allure of microbiology more compelling.  I still remember the details of Jim’s lectures in my third year – so clearly articulated, and delivered with insight and humour.  Those foundations in mycology helped me throughout my entire career.  My final year honour’s research project was with Jim and again that helped ignite my own passion for experimental mycology.  Generously, while I was in my final year, he arranged an interview for me with Graham Gooday when he came to Edinburgh to give a seminar on chitin synthesis. That led to me going to Aberdeen for my PhD and a career long focus on fungal cell walls and medical mycology.  I felt honoured and was delighted to be invited back to Edinburgh from time to time to talk to the current cohort of undergraduates as Jim’s guest.  Those were also occasions to enjoy an evening of good cheer, and beers.  News of Jim’s death came as a blow on top of other blows.  He held a special place for me in the community of mycologists – so cruelly fated in the last two years with the loss of Geoff Robson, Nick, Read, Frank Odds, Tony Trinci, Russell Poulter and others.  I’ll remember Jim as one of the brightest minds in mycology and someone who generously gave his time to support others.  In addition, I don’t think there has been a mycologist with a better grasp of the biology of fungal kingdom.

Christine Henry retired Principal Scientist, Fera Science Ltd.

I first encountered Jim in about 1974 when I was in my third year at Edinburgh University. I can remember him giving lectures dressed in a pink shirt, purple trousers, sandals and with his hair tied back in a pink ribbon. That definitely got my attention and his sheer enthusiasm for his subject came across in his teaching. His lectures made such an impression on me that I applied for and got into the Microbiology Honours year.  During my Honours year I did two of my projects with Jim, the last one being on the mycoparasite, Pythium oligandrum, and at the end of my degree he took me on as his research assistant. During the three years that I worked for Jim I learned more about science generally, scientific principles and research approaches than I had in the previous four years of my degree. He was always generous with his time and inclusive, taking me on a grand tour of the research groups involved in take-all disease soon after I started – he introduced me to Denis Garett (just after he had retired) and Harry Hudson at Cambridge and the research group at Rothamsted Experimental Station (now Rothamsted Research), including David Hornby, D. Slope, M. Brown, R. Gutteridge etc. I fondly remember lots of cold wet days spent digging up wheat plants in fields at Rosemaund(now ADAS Rosemaund) as part of the work we did on root cortex death followed by numerous visits to pubs to consume cider in the evenings and the all day and night experiment setting up sessions in the lab when he started one of his very comprehensive experiment plans! Jim was writing his first version of the textbook, Introduction to Modern Mycology, when I was there and while proof-reading it I also painlessly absorbed a comprehensive background in mycology. The amazing amount that I learned while working for Jim set me on the road to making plant pathology my lifelong career and I am immensely grateful for that.