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Dr John Ingram Pitt 1937-2022

Posted by: 9988

john_ingram_pitt.jpgDr John Pitt has passed away after a battle with lymphoma for a number of months. John was probably the most eminent scientist in the Food Mycology area, an expert on Penicillium taxonomy and pioneered research on spoilage moulds in a range of foodstuffs, much of his work in collaboration with Dr Ailsa Hocking. He also mentored many PhD students who have benefited from his expertise over many decades. Indeed, he was still working until very recently on the 4th Edition of his book on “Fungi and Food Spoilage” which will be published this year.

Dr Pitt was born on a small farm at Wamberal, on the Central Coast of NSW. He grew up on a farm and thus had significant knowledge of fruit and vegetable crops although was not interested in continuing in the family tradition. He attended primary school at Erina Heights, NSW, and then Gosford High School. After matriculation, he moved to Sydney in search of work. He was fortunate to obtain a job with CSIRO Division of Food Preservation and Transport. He was not to know then that this would result in a lifelong career in applied science.

John joined CSIRO on the 1st March, 1954, just before his 17th birthday, as a Junior Technical Assistant. He slowly moved up through all the research grades, becoming a Chief Research Scientist in 1992, at the age of 55. He was probabaly one of the only CSIRO staff members to achieve this feat from being a technical assistant. He pioneered work on the ecology of spoilage moulds in extreme environments, especially dried fruits/foodstuffs. He published  numerous papers related to the ecology of spoilage moulds, especially Penicilium and Aspergillus species.

While working he was able to attend the fledgling University of New South Wales part-time, to complete his higher education, studying Food Technology. He wa sable to complete this degree in 8 years. His fascination with science resulted in him undertaking an MSc qualifying course at UNSW, and then a part-time MSc, entitled “Microbiological Problems in Prune Preservation”. The cemented his interest in the world of fungi. He subsequently carried out a full time PhD at the University of California, Davis, studying yeast taxonomy, and a postdoctoral year at the USDA Northern Regional Research Center, Peoria, Illinois (NRRL), under Dr Clifford Hesseltine. This is where he became really fascinated in Penicillium taxonomy and the occurrence of mycotoxins in food chains. After this period he returned to CSIRO.

He established the FRR fungal culture collection at CSIRO, now a major collection specialising in fungi of importance in food and industrial applications. This collection became the basis for his text book “The Genus Penicillium and its teleomorphic States Eupenicillium and Talaromyces” (Academic Press, 1980). Later the 1st edition of “Fungi and Food Spoilage” (Academic Press, 1985) co-authored with his long-time colleague, Dr Ailsa Hocking, who joined him in CSIRO in 1974. Now the 4th Edition of this major text book is about to be published. This is used world-wide to educate graduate and post-graduate students and scientists about the importance of spoilage moulds, mycotoxins and their control. This research area has become even more important in the context of climate change and the food security and safety agendas.

In the 1970s to 1990s, Drs Pitt and Hocking carried out pioneering work on methods for isolating and identifying food-borne fungi, and on their physiology and ecology, with emphasis on species able to grow under extreme water stress. i.e., those that caused spoilage of dried, partially dried, or inadequately dried foods. Extensive studies were also carried out for the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) on the fungi occurring on dried Indonesian fish, and the fungi and mycotoxins that occur in all major Southeast Asian food commodities. He was involved in the establishment of many International Commissions including (1) International Commission on Microbiological Specifications for Foods (ICMSF), (2) International Commission for Food Mycology (ICFM), International Commission for Penicillium and Aspergillus (ICPA), WHO Food-borne Disease Burden Epidemiology Reference Group (FERG) and Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives and Contaminants.

The work on food mycology was complimented with mycotoxin research and the possible methods for minimising aflatoxins in peanuts. He addressed the serious problem with aflatoxins in Australian peanuts, and was able to use the ecological approaches to develop biocontrol by competitive exclusion of toxigenic strains of the producer species, Aspergillus flavus and A. parasiticus, with non-toxigenic strains. This approach has become of world-wide interest with several commercial products now available. He believed that biocontrol when combined with other approaches would be beneficial in reducing the exposure to such mycotoxins in both food and feed durable chains.

He completed 65 years of service to CSIRO in March, 2019. He authored, co-authored, edited or co-edited 20 books, and published 250+ research papers and book chapters, 70 of them published since he officially retired in 2002. He was awarded many Honours during his life including:

1968-1969

NIH Fellowship, Northern Regional Research Center, US Department of Agriculture, Peoria, IL, USA.

1991

Distinguished Service Award, Australian Society for Microbiology.

1994

Janssen-Cilag ASM Mycology Award

1996

Award of Merit, Australian Institute of Food Science and Technology

2000

Honorary Life Membership, Australian Society for Microbiology

2001

Honorary Life Membership, Mycological Society of America

2002

Honorary Life Membership, British Mycological Society

2003

Centenary Medal, Commonwealth of Australia, for “Services to Food Science and Technology”

Personally, I was aware of Dr Pitts research work and booksn the early 1980s when I was completing my PhD at Rothamsted Research. I first met him at the IUMS Conference in Manchester in 1986 when I was presenting some of my PhD research work on the ecology of phyllosphere and spoilage moulds in wheat. I subsequently met Dr Pitt and Dr Hocking at many conferences where we discussed aspects of the ecophysiology of spoilage and mycotoxigenic moulds. He continued to attend and contribute to the International Commission for Food Mycology Workshops and to the Gordon Conferences on Mycotoxins and Phycotoxins for many decades. He will be sorely missed by colleagues, former PhD students and scientists globally. 

Prof. N. Magan