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Around the Quad

Mushroom Course Casts a Spell on Students

By Joyce Wu ’13

George Hudler
University Photography

Professor George Hudler

No. 69 on the unofficial list of “161 Things Every Cornellian Should Do” is to take the Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds class, something that more than 5,500 students have accomplished. Now in its 19th year, the course has itself mushroomed into a university-wide phenomenon.

The first time it was offered, plant pathologist George Hudler expected perhaps two dozen students. “That first day I walked in, there were 225 people in the classroom. [Since] then, it’s just taken off. It’s crazy, but it’s been a lot of fun,” says Hudler, professor and chair of the Department of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology.

The course boasts an enrollment of 520 students this spring. One of them is Connie Hsia ’11. “Class is almost like storytelling time,” she says. “What would seem like a boring, even disgusting, topic is made extremely enthralling.”

Natasha Shylo ’11 adds, “I’m not even enrolled in this class, but I still attend every lecture because I’ve always wanted to take a fungi class and find them really amazing.”

Hudler spins stories about the edible, the hallucinogenic, and the pathogenic varieties of fungi. He posits the possibility that the “bewitched” in Salem, Mass., may have had fungus-induced hallucinations. He tells of the discovery of penicillin and how British scientists smeared its spores on their clothes in case Germany invaded.

Other fun facts Hudler likes to share: Aflatoxin could be the perfect murder weapon; fungi can serve as natural pesticides or ingredients in perfume; the oldest and biggest living thing on Earth is believed to be a 1,500-year-old mushroom in Michigan that spans some 37 acres; and the cause of the 1960 mass death of 100,000 turkeys in England was due to a common storage mold.

The class hosts a three-day open lab demonstration, where walk-ins can observe giant puffballs, grow oyster mushrooms, and even take home their own slime mold. Other special class events include a fungus hunt and an annual mushroom feast.