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Lapage SP, Sneath PHA, Lessel EF, et al., editors. International Code of Nomenclature of Bacteria: Bacteriological Code, 1990 Revision. Washington (DC): ASM Press; 1992.

Cover of International Code of Nomenclature of Bacteria

International Code of Nomenclature of Bacteria: Bacteriological Code, 1990 Revision.

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Memorial to Professor R. E. Buchanan


Queen Camel, Yeovil, England



Robert Earle Buchanan, 1883–1973 (by kind permission of the Bergey's Manual Trust)

Robert E. Buchanan, 1883–1973

In his love for Latin and Greek, and of the etymology of names, Buchanan was a microbiologist extraordinary; that he had been an able administrator and an advisor to national and international bodies, a conservationist, and a benefactor of Iowa State University are aspects of his life that we, in this country, are apt to overlook.

Several members of the Buchanan family migrated from a village near Glasgow in the early 1800s; from New York they worked their way up the rivers to Chicago and were granted land in the state of Iowa. Buchanan's grandmother was a Chase whose family (best known for banking) went to America soon after the Mayflower. Robert Earle Buchanan was born in Cedar Rapids in 1883 and his interest in nature study was aroused at the age of nine, while attending a one-room country school near Rochester. Like most American boys, he worked during school holidays and saved to go to Iowa State College (ISC), which he entered in 1900. As a freshman, "Buchanan studied Latin under football coach Edgar Clinton" (Anon., 1965) and became a student laboratory assistant at 15 cents an hour to a botanist, L. H. Pammel, at ISC. He graduated in botany in 1904 and completed his master's degree in 1906. He spent some time in the medical school of the Northwestern University at Chicago and obtained his Ph.D. (majoring in bacteriology, with a minor in botany) in 1908.

At Iowa State College (ISC)

In 1910 Buchanan was appointed first head of bacteriology at ISC, and the same year married a botanist, Estelle Fogel, with whom he collaborated in writing the well-known Buchanan & Buchanan's Bacteriology. From 1914 to 1919 Buchanan was the first Dean of the Division of Industrial Sciences; from 1919 to 1948 he was the first Dean of the Graduate College, and from 1933 to 1948 Director of the Agricultural Experiment Station. When he retired officially in 1948 Buchanan was made `Emeritus' and continued to have an office in the bacteriology department until his death; from this, and another office he had in Curtiss Hall, he kept a watchful eye on what went on in ISC, and he never hesitated to express his views forcibly when things displeased him. Throughout his life he took a great interest in Iowa State College (later University) and the Agricultural Experiment Station, and even after retirement his opinions were sought, respected, and sometimes feared.

In the summer vacations he would retire to the shores of Birch Lake in Minnesota, where he owned some land. There were two cabins (one belonged to his brother) built by their own hands, and over his boathouse Earle had a large office from which he sent a steady flow of dictaphone sleeves to his staff in Ames. His only relaxations were fishing and telling long tales of his travels, particularly of those in Arab countries.

In the cabin he was able to cook his fish by electricity (he was a good cook) for the cabin had all "mod. cons." except internal doors, for which curtains substituted.

Nearly twenty years after he retired, Iowa State University built and named after him a hall of residence for 400 graduate students.

The Scientific Side of the Dean

To his students Buchanan was always known as the Dean, and undoubtedly administration had been his forte in the prime of his life. It is hard to think of him working at a bench, but in 1918 he published a paper on the various phases of growing cultures. Most of his work was concerned with nomenclature and he was happiest delving into old books and holding forth about names. Between 1916 and 1918 he published a series of ten papers with the general title (subject to some variation) of "Studies in [on] the nomenclature and classification of [the] bacteria." In 1918 he was President of the SAB (Society of American Bacteriologists) and was a member of the Winslow Committee whose two reports (Winslow et al, 1917, 1920) completely changed ideas on the classification and nomenclature of bacteria.

Of his other early publications, Buchanan's General Systematic Bacteriology (1925) is best known; it is a book of about 600 pages and gives a reasoned account of the names of bacterial genera and higher ranks. This book has become a classic and, because it is accurate and informative, it is still consulted.

International Committees and Congresses

In addition to being one of America's best-known bacteriologists at the age of 35, Buchanan became an international figure; he was sent by U.S. government departments and by FAO to several countries in the Middle East and to India to advise on agricultural matters. In a series of articles on past Presidents of the SAB, it was said of Buchanan that he was as well known a figure in Piccadilly as on the Ames campus.

In 1930 Buchanan presided over the bacteriology section of the Botanical Congress in Cambridge, and attended the first International Congress of Microbiology in Paris, where he became one of the founders of the Nomenclature Committee. During the second Congress an American-Canadian Committee was set up to draft a code of bacteriological nomenclature and, of course, Buchanan became its chairman. He prepared a mimeographed document of 119 pages showing, in parallel columns, the International Rules of Botanical Nomenclature and the suggested wording for a bacteriological code based on the Botanical Code. A revised version was considered at the third Congress, when Buchanan was made the first chairman of the newly formed Judicial Commission. Further revision of the draft code followed and a Proposed Bacteriological Code (Buchanan and St. John-Brooks, 1947) was printed at Ames by ISC Press and circulated to members of the Nomenclature Committee for discussion at the fourth Congress. After amendment this Code was approved and published (Buchanan, St. John-Brooks and Breed, 1948).

The object for which Buchanan had worked for so long had been achieved (or so it seemed) when an annotated version of the Code was published (Buchanan, Wikén, Cowan and Clark, 1958); the useful annotations were entirely Buchanan's work, though he insisted that the names of the other members of the Editorial Board should be included. Tinkering with the Code continued at each congress, for, like most editors, Buchanan could not forgo the pleasure of making alterations and amendments. At the end of the ninth Congress Buchanan resigned the chairmanship of the Judicial Commission, and he was made a Life Member of the Nomenclature Committee. The Society for General Microbiology made him an Honorary Member in 1957.

Buchanan established a unique position as the only person who attended all the International Congresses on Microbiology (of Microbiologists, of Microbiological Societies): 1930, Paris; 1936, London; 1939, New York; 1947, Copenhagen; 1950, Rio de Janeiro; 1953, Rome; 1958, Stockholm; 1962, Montreal; 1966, Moscow; 1970, Mexico City.

A minor but troublesome commitment Buchanan undertook was the setting up of an official publication for the Nomenclature Committee and the Judicial Commission. It had no financial backing but Buchanan secured help (a few hundred dollars) from UNESCO, encouragement from Iowa State College Press, and some printing from a small press about a hundred miles from Ames. But the world's most cumbersomely titled journal (The International Bulletin of Bacteriological Nomenclature and Taxonomy) was born and later, with a glossy cover, achieved respectability as the International Journal of Systematic Bacteriology, which Buchanan edited until 1970.

Index Bergeyana and Bergey's Manual

After Bergey's death his Manual was carried on by R. S. Breed, E. D. G. Murray, and others, who made tentative plans for Index Bergeyana, an annotated list of names of bacterial taxa. Before this could be started Breed died, and Buchanan was invited to become Chairman of the Sergey's Manual Trust, an office he held until his death. All his life Buchanan had collected names of bacteria of all ranks and the record cards occupied a whole room in the office suite at Curtiss Hall; this collection became the major part of Index Bergeyana (Buchanan et al, 1966) which could more appropriately have been named Index Buchananensis. There were many errors in the Index, some of fact, some of opinion on legitimacy, but it was a remarkable achievement. It was the work of a lifetime, but unfortunately it was published when the responsibilities of such a huge task pressed too heavily on an ageing man.

For the remaining years of his life preparations and plans for the eighth edition of Bergey's Manual occupied Buchanan's attention. He built up a team of strong-minded individualists who battled for several years with the problems leading to a new edition, and authors were chosen and invited to become contributors. Though he was interested primarily in the nomenclature, Buchanan never yielded a point and sometimes had authors and trustees tearing their hair at his insistence on a strict adherence to his beloved Code. With his attention focused on the names to be used in the Manual, his energies were dissipated on trivia; priority was always paramount, he was not concerned with usage or with the confusion that could arise when names were changed to conform with a strict application of the rules of nomenclature. As he aged and his judgments became less reliable, he became inconsistent and dogmatic; he found it difficult to understand numerical and computer approaches to bacterial classification, but this did not unduly concern him except when it might involve nomenclature, and then it might puzzle or even anger him.

Buchanan the Man

R. E. Buchanan was friendly, kind, and generous. As an American he was untypical, for even at his cabin in Minnesota he was formal and he never used Christian names when talking to or about colleagues. He was a man of strong character and liked to dominate a situation—and generally succeeded. His views were rigid and he was inflexible. In this he resembled Robert Breed, and when these two tough characters clashed the sparks would fly, often to the delight of the onlookers who took a less serious view of nomenclatural irregularities.

Buchanan could never understand why anyone should make light of his work, or be flippant about bacteriology, and worse, about its nomenclature. On one occasion he complained bitterly about the jocular attitude of Fred Bawden to virus names; he found Christopher Andrewes incomprehensible, for he, too, treated virus nomenclature in a cavalier manner. And, of course, he never saw the reasoning behind heretical taxonomy, which made its debut at a seminar in Ames.

In his intense interest in names and the meaning of words, and, during the later years of his life, an almost complete indifference to the biological aspects of bacteria, Buchanan was an unusual scientist. But without his uninhibited support for the importance of names, bacterial nomenclature will never be quite the same again.

June 1973


  1. Anonymous (1965). He looks to the future [a biographical note about Robert Earle Buchanan]. News of Iowa State 17, no. 3 (pages not numbered).
  2. Buchanan R. E. Life phases in a bacterial culture. Journal of Infectious Diseases. (1918);23:109–125.
  3. Buchanan, R. E. (1925). General Systematic Bacteriology. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins.
  4. Buchanan, R. E., Holt, J. G. & Lessel, E. F.,Jun. (1966). Index Bergeyana. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins.
  5. Buchanan, R. E. & St. John-Brooks, R. (1947). Proposed Bacteriological Code of Nomenclature. Ames: Iowa State College Press. (Privately printed and of limited circulation.)
  6. Buchanan R. E., St. John-Brooks R., Breed R. S. (1948)International bacteriological code of nomenclature Journal of Bacteriology 55287–306.. Reprinted 1949, Journal of General Microbiology 3, 444–462. [PubMed: 18902251]
  7. Buchanan, R. E., Wikén, T., Cowan, S. T. & Clark, W. A. (1958). International Code of Nomenclature of Bacteria and Viruses: Bacteriological Code. Ames: Iowa State College Press.
  8. Winslow C.-E. A., Broadhurst J., Buchanan R. E., Krumwiede C., Jun, Rogers L. A., Smith, G. H. The families and genera of the bacteria: preliminary report of the Committee of the Society of American Bacteriologists on characterization and classification of bacterial types. Journal of Bacteriology. (1917);2:505–566. [PMC free article: PMC378727] [PubMed: 16558764]
  9. Winslow C.-E. A., Broadhurst J, Buchanan R. E., Krumwiede C., Jun, Rogers L. A., Smith G. H. The families and genera of bacteria. Final report of the Committee of the Society of American Bacteriologists on characterization and classification of bacterial types. Journal of Bacteriology. (1920);5:191–229. [PMC free article: PMC378870] [PubMed: 16558872]
Copyright © 1992, International Union of Microbiological Societies.
Bookshelf ID: NBK8814


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