Milton Schroth, professor emeritus of the UC Berkeley Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, died Oct. 11 at age 90.
After graduating from Pomona College with a bachelor’s degree in Botany, Schroth earned his doctorate at UC Berkeley. He spent 33 years on the faculty, serving as chair of the Department of Plant Pathology, associate dean of the College of Natural Resources and assistant director of the Statewide Division of Agricultural and Natural Resources.
He published more than 300 papers in major scientific journals, including ground-breaking research with his colleague D.C. Hildebrand, finding a cure for plant cancer. He was awarded the Berkeley Citation in 1996, the highest honor given to faculty members for “distinguished achievement and notable service to the University.”
“What I loved about my dad is he liked to challenge the status quo and do things that others didn’t do, especially challenging conventional wisdom,” said his daughter, Holly Schroth. “He discovered a very serious bacteria that can be carried into hospitals on plants and he got a lot of pushback for that from both the medical and plant industries, but he turned out to be right, as Pseudomonas aeruginosa is very, very dangerous.”
Schroth also advocated for the democratization of scientific knowledge, wanting research to be freely available and accessible.
He created the website plantdiseases.org, designed to assist scientists, teachers, farm advisors and gardeners in the diagnosis and management of bacterial plant diseases.
“He started this (website) because he and my mom had taken a trip to Italy and he found that they were cutting down all of these trees that had a very common bacterial disease that could be cured, but they didn’t know it because it was behind the paywalls of journals,” Holly Schroth said. “So, he said, ‘Why are we doing science if it’s not accessible to the world, and we could save these trees?’ ”
According to his daughter, Schroth was not only a brilliant scientist, but also lived life to the fullest. He liked to travel, make wine, crossbreed fruits, play tennis and golf and host “wine Fridays,” where people from all walks of life would come to his house to chat.
He was also committed to nurturing the next generation of scientific leaders. John Bahme, a graduate student who worked in Schroth’s lab for six years, grew to know Schroth as not just a mentor, but a “good friend.”
“Milt was a rarity — a brilliant scientist with a well-rounded life,” Bahme said. “Lucky for me and his dozens of graduate students, Milt was a consummate mentor. His influence on me has lasted a lifetime … It was a real blessing for me to have been able to work in his laboratory and be trained by him.”