Fungi, Lichen, and Algae, Oh My!: Exploring the William Webster Diehl Rare Book Collection 


As Research Services Coordinator, I’ve found it’s not uncommon to repeatedly receive multiple requests for the same collections. These collections can be likened to the slide at the park, in high use and demand. On the flip side, many collections in our stacks are not utilized to the same extent, despite the unique perspective they may provide (think: see-saw). For this blog post, I wanted to showcase a lesser-used rare book collection that caught my interest as a lover of nature and the world of fungi. 

The William Webster Diehl rare book collection reflects the interests and life work of W.W. Diehl (1891 – 1978), a Virginian botanist and plant pathologist. Diehl spent nearly 40 years as a scientist, specifically: a fungus taxonomist, for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Beltsville, Maryland. During his time there, he worked alongside colleagues, Flora Wambaugh Patterson and Edith Katherine Cash, to create the exsiccata-like series Mycological Exchange of 1921, with specimens distributed by the USDA, and identified specimens for a WW2-related plant disease survey. Diehl was also the president of the Botanical Society of Washington in 1935 and President of the Mycological Society of America from 1950 – 1958. 

The rare book collection comprises 161 volumes dating from 1753 to 1959, encompassing a wide array of botanical subjects, such as fungi, lichen, slime molds, and grasses. These volumes have been published in various countries, including the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan.

In examining a portion of Diehl’s collection, it becomes clear that the literature of the late 19th century to early 20th century aimed to consolidate information through comprehensive indexes, catalogs, and histories. This was necessary because a lot of the literature at the time was scattered. At the same time, there was a distinct subset of literature that focused on fungi outside of academic circles, covering topics such as foraging, edible mushrooms, and mushroom cultivation. Although these topics intersect with academic knowledge, the language used in these books is free from academic jargon and instead provides clear and concise details and illustrations for identification.

The collection also holds several books by Mordecai Cubitt Cooke, aka M.C. Cooke, an English botanist and mycologist. Cooke’s writings aim to illuminate the study of fungi. In his 1898 book “British Fungi,” he observed that the scientific literature dedicated to fungi at the time was notably limited or in his words “remarkably scanty”. It is worth mentioning that Great Britain has a longstanding history of mycophobia stemming from historical folklore and the fear of accidental poisoning, concerns that persist to this day. His work endeavors to educate both aspiring professionals in the field and the general public through his detailed text and illustrative writing.     

Nihon kinrui mokuroku = A List of Japanese Fungi Hitherto Known” vol 3, written by Mitsutaro Shirai and Kanesuke Hara in 1927 is another notable international book from the collection. Mitsutaro Shirai was a Japanese plant pathologist, mycologist, and herbalist. He is known for his collaboration with the German mycologist P. Hennings in identifying fungi, and for authoring publications on 50 different fungi species, independently or in collaboration with other mycologists. As a tribute to his work, two genera of fungi were named after his family and more than a dozen species were named after him. Kanesuke Hara is noted as being a Japanese botanist and mycologist. As for the book itself, the text is mainly in Kanji and Katakana, but the names of each species are in alphabetical order by the Latin name, as is common in scientific research. At the front of the book, there is an inscription that reads “to my dear friend W.W.Diehl from T.Naito March 21, 1929”, as well as a note Diehl wrote to himself regarding the fourth edition of the book “f(?) also edition 4 by K. Hara 1954. – WWD”

American botanists and mycologists were similarly advancing the knowledge of fungi within the US during this time by creating comprehensive guides and spreading general information to the public. Books by Lucien Marcus Underwood, an American botanist, and mycologist of the 19th and early 20th century, as well as Julius A. Palmer, a mycologist who is best remembered for his association with Hawaiin queen Liliuokalani, are two that appear in Diehl’s collection. 

 “Moulds, Mildews, and Mushrooms: A Guide to the Systematic Study of the Fungi and Mycetozoa and Their Literature” was written by Underwood as an attempt to create a comprehensive guide for modern classification of the group and condense the scattered literature of the time. His guide was meant for the “average” student to be able to distinguish generically the ordinary fungi that they might encounter. At the same time, he notes that he included the leading systematic literature so that people with an interest in the field might be encouraged to take up more systematic study and explore it exhaustively.

Palmer on the other hand advocated strongly for the consumption of fungi as a healthy food source. His 1885 publication, “Mushrooms of America, edible and Poisonous”, largely consists of illustrative drawings and descriptions of the mushrooms that people could use to identify them in the wild, similar to field guides of today.

At the back of the book, I found a surprise – specifically, an undated article from Nature’s magazine series of educational inserts (#35) titled “Some Common Mushrooms,” written by E. Laurence Palmer. In the article, there are descriptions and drawings of edible mushrooms and their characteristics, as well as common but inedible mushrooms and poisonous ones that should be avoided. When I further researched, I found that E. Laurence Palmer was an American science educator and conservationist who contributed to the magazine from 1920 to 1950. Nevertheless, I’m uncertain about why Diehl might have tucked this article into the back of the book. It could be due to the related topic, or the association between the last names, even though they are not related. Despite the mystery, the item inside served as a nice reminder of the book’s previous use before becoming part of our collection.

The books mentioned and photographed in this blog post are just a small portion of the books accessible in this collection. You can search for more books in the collection by visiting Mason’s Main Library Catalog. If you wish to view any of these items in person, you can do so in the SCRC Reading Room. To begin the process, please complete our appointment request form.



Follow SCRC on Social Media and look out for future posts on our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts. To search the collections held at the Special Collections Research Center, go to our website and browse the finding aids by subject or title. You may also e-mail us at or call 703-993-2220 if you would like to schedule an appointment, request materials, or if you have questions.



Palmer, Julius A. (Julius Auboineau). Mushrooms of America, Edible and Poisonous. QK617.P25, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries

Cooke, M. C. (Mordecai Cubitt). A Plain and Easy Account of British Fungi : With Especial Reference to the Esculent and Economic Species. Sixth edition, revised. QK607 .C6 1898, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries

Leidy, Joseph. A Flora and Fauna within Living Animals. Folio ; Q11 .S68 v.5, art.2, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries

Cooke, M. C. (Mordecai Cubitt). British Edible Fungi : How to Distinguish and How to Cook Them : With Coloured Figures of Upwards to Forty Species. QK617 .C63 1891. Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries

Shirai, Mitsutarō, and Kanesuke Hara. Nihon kinrui mokuroku = A list of Japanese fungi hitherto known. 3rd ed., rev.enl. / by Kanesuke Hara. QK609.J3 S54 1927, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries

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