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Cornell returns collection of rare fungi to China

University delegates returned a rare collection of fungi to China Nov. 7, 70 years after it was smuggled out of the country and brought to Cornell for safekeeping.

Cornell President David Skorton and Vice Provost for International Relations Alice Pell took part in a repatriation ceremony at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Beijing and returned the collection gathered by scholar Shu Chun Teng.

During the 1920s, Teng attended Cornell as a mycology graduate student but left for China before completing his Ph.D. to conduct pioneering biological surveys. He spent the next decade traveling by horseback and collecting molds, lichens, yeasts, rusts and morels across the Chinese landscape.

"The important and impressive Fungi of China Collection, gathered by Mr. Teng and fellow Cornell alumnus Fang Lan Tai, contains more than 2,000 specimens that document the biodiversity of Chinese fungi, and includes 57 irreplaceable type specimens," said Skorton at the repatriation event.

"In 1940, threatened by the Japanese occupation, the specimens were sent west by ox-cart to Indochina, then by ship to Washington, D.C., and finally inland to Cornell," Skorton added. The fungi left in China were destroyed, and Teng risked his life by smuggling them out.

Since then, the collection has been held in Cornell's Plant Pathology Herbarium for safekeeping. Richard P. Korf, professor emeritus of plant pathology and past director of the herbarium, and Kathie Hodge, professor of mycology and the current director of the herbarium, have been instrumental in maintaining the collection, Skorton said.

At Cornell's initiative, the university divided up and is sharing the fungi collection with the CAS Institute of Microbiology. The collection includes many specimens that were collected and identified for the first time.

The ceremony was attended by about 100 Chinese scientists and officials, including Jiayang Li, vice president of CAS; Ping Hao, vice minister of China's Ministry of Education; two of Teng's children; and Wenying Zhuang, who received her Ph.D. from Cornell in 1988 under Korf and was elected to the Chinese Academy of Sciences two days before the repatriation ceremony.

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Claudia Wheatley