The importance of the genus Phytophthora, both to humanity and to the development of the science of plant pathology, has been obvious ever since P. infestans devastated the potato crop in Western Europe in 1845.
Its greatest impact was the potato blight epidemic in Ireland. In 1845 and again in 1848 a third of the potato crop was destroyed by blight, losses at the extremes of previous European experience. Even more disastrously, three-quarters of the crop failed in 1846. In all, one million people died of famine-related diseases and up to 1.5 million more emigrated.
After the initial outbreak of the disease there was a major search for the underlying cause which led to a controversy with one group attributing it to natural causes, such as the weather, and the other group saying it was caused by a fungus. Charles Montagne, a retired French army doctor, first described the fungus to a meeting of theSociety Philomatique in Paris on August 30th, 1945, naming it Botrytis infestans.
The German scientist Anton de Bary first coined the name Phytophthora (ôplant destroyerö) in 1876, when he described the potato late blight fungus, Phytophthora infestans, as the type species for the new genus. He unveiled the full life cycle of the fungus and was the first person to conduct extensive, controlled experiments with the fungus in potato. The science of plant pathology was born and the fungus got its final title of Phytophthora infestans de Bary.