Women’s History Month: FPL Remembers Catherine Duncan

Lab Notes remembers another pioneering woman scientist: Catherine Gross Duncan. Duncan received her A.B. Degree in botany from the Depauw University in 1931. She went on to earn her M.S. and her P.h.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 1933 and 1935, respectively.

In December 1942, she joined the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) in cooperation with the University of Wisconsin. Originally, she was recruited by the Lab to aid in the war effort. Duncan stayed after the war for the remainder of her career. She eventually rose to the rank of principal pathologist at the FPL in the Wood Fungi and Insects Research, where she served until her death in 1968.

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Ralph Lindgren and Catherine Duncan inspecting the growth of a fungus that is part of the fungi collection.

During her career, Duncan published over 40 papers examining various aspects of wood decay fungi. A majority of her work surrounded the quality and improvement of wood preservatives. Duncan was also involved with the dissertations of 30 students while she worked at FPL. Students noted that “It was always a challenge to meet her standards for rigor and proof in research”.

Early in her career, one of the first projects she completed for FPL was to examine the natural resistance of decay from different species of trees. In studying these differences, she helped develop the soil-block technique, which allows for wood decay to be studied at an accelerated rate. This technique became especially important when evaluating wood preservatives and their longevity, and is still in use today.

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Soil-block tests showing the effects of fungi on a specimen: (A) fungus growing on
untreated wood specimen; (B) fungus fruiting on untreated wood specimen; (C) preservative-treated wood specimen.