A man of mycology

When he graduated from Union in 1966, Rodham E. Tulloss was profiled in this magazine as "something of a Renaissance man [who has] shown a dazzling versatility."
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A man of mycology

When he graduated from Union in 1966, Rodham E. Tulloss was profiled in this magazine as “something of a Renaissance man [who has] shown a dazzling versatility.”

His trajectory has continued. Fifty years later, the trained mathematician is in his fourth career, this time as a world-renowned mycologist.

He was profiled last year in a Scientific American article which cited his success in identifying rare mushrooms and his astounding collection of amanitas, the fungi group that includes the edible Caesar’s mushroom (Amanita caesarea) and the aptly-named, poisonous death cap (Amanita phalloides).

He has documented mushrooms so rarely reported that they appear to have been seen only once or twice in the past 50 years. His collection, which he keeps in a climate-controlled converted garage at his New Jersey home, is said to be one of the most diverse in the world. At last count, he says, he had over 7,000 collections of the Amanita family (Amanitaceae) alone.

Between Union and today, Tulloss earned a doctorate from the Group in Logic and the Methodology of Science from Berkeley. He spent 25 years as an engineer at AT&T, where he was a distinguished member of the technical staff and a fellow of Bell Laboratories. He continued to write poetry. He served as founder and president of a non-profit to preserve open space, farm land, and historic sites in the New Deal utopian community of Roosevelt, N.J., where he lives.

Mycology started as a hobby almost 40 years ago when he tried to identify a mushroom in his backyard. “I thought identifying mushrooms would be like birdwatching,” he recalls. “So I went to the library and borrowed their books. But it was very frustrating because many mushrooms are not in field guides and have not been named.”

Not satisfied with his situation, he set out to identify and classify as many species as he could. Today, he is highly-regarded in the field of mycology, and a frequent collaborator with scientists around the world. His work with evolutionary biologists at Harvard showed that amanitas evolved from getting the carbon needed for life by digesting dead plant matter on their own to a symbiotic relationship with trees that now supply them carbon in the form of sugar. He is an honorary research associate at the New York Botanical Garden. He has worked with mycologists at universities on every continent except Antarctica.

Identifying fungi is difficult for two reasons: there are an estimated 1.5 million species (with less than 100,000 named), and mushrooms, very much like fruits, are ephemeral products of the fungus that produces them. And with more genera than researchers, a lot of work remains.

As a student at Union, Tulloss pursued an eclectic range of interests. “I was going to college one time,” he said, “so I wanted to get as much as I could out of it.”

He started in chemistry, but switched majors after he was taken with the logic of mathematics and the reasoning of philosophy. An avid writer and poet, he served three years as editor of the Idol. He acted in Mountebanks. He organized a poetry reading against the Vietnam War. He graduated as class salutatorian with a collection of awards including the Bailey Cup and almost every prize available for writing and poetry.

Years out of college, his appreciation for the connections between disciplines is stronger than ever: “It all seems to be one big subject in some way,” he said—a kind of aesthetic that bridges the physical and art worlds.

He plans to continue his quest to find the small distinguishing characteristics that separate the many species of amanitas.

“I’ve been annoyed that people say the devil is in the details,” he said. “When you look at the details of living things, they're beautiful; and there’s nothing satanic about it.”