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WSU’s highest honor for famed plant pathologist R. James Cook

Photo of WSU President Kirk Schulz, Dr. Cook, and Dean Wright, in ceremonial academic robes, in a hallway.
WSU President Kirk Schulz, emeritus professor R. James Cook, and CAHNRS Dean André-Denis Wright gather prior to a ceremony recognizing Cook with an honorary doctoral degree at 2018 Fall Commencement.

Plant pathologist, emeritus professor and former dean of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences R. James Cook received Washington State University’s highest honor of an honorary doctorate, in recognition of over 40 years of research on soil‑borne pathogens and his service to WSU and the agricultural community of the Pacific Northwest.

The degree was granted to Cook at the fall 2018 Commencement ceremony, Saturday, Dec. 8, in Beasley Coliseum.

Cook arrived at WSU in 1965 as a U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service (USDA‑ARS) scientist concentrating on soil‑borne microbes and their effects on crops, with a dual appointment as a WSU faculty member in the Department of Plant Pathology. His seminal work on soil microbial communities established WSU as a leader in the area of soil health and biological control of root diseases of wheat and other grains.

In 1984, Cook established the Root Disease and Biological Control Unit at WSU, which was recognized nationally and internationally as a research group within USDA‑ARS.

Cook, center, holds up his honorary certificate during the commencement ceremony, flanked by Schulz, Blankenship.
Cook is recognized by President Schulz and WSU Regent Brett Blankenship with a certificate and medal as part of his honorary doctorate. Cook is a world-famous plant pathologist and pioneering researcher.

His research’s direct impacts on crop productivity and disease management was recognized by the Washington wheat growers with a $1.5 million endowment in 1998 that established the R. James Cook Endowed Chair in Wheat Research. Cook became a full time WSU faculty member that year and served in his namesake endowed chair until 2003.

Cook became interim dean of CAHNRS at the request of WSU President V. Lane Rawlins during his final two years at WSU, retiring in 2005 as an emeritus professor.

Aside from a half‑time appointment from 1993‑1996 as chief scientist for the USDA’s National Research Initiative Competitive Grants Program, Cook spent his entire career at WSU.

Cook has garnered many prestigious awards and recognitions, including the 2011 Wolf Prize for outstanding scientific contributions to agriculture, election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1993, president of both the American Phytopathological Society and the International Society for Plant Pathology, and a founding member and past president of the Washington State Academy of Sciences, among others.

Group photo of Cook in classroom surrounded by students.
R. James Cook meets with current students in the Department of Plant Pathology. Cook had the chance to share his career beginnings, sign books, and talk with students Dec. 7.

Although he held many honors and conducted significant research, Cook never forgot his service to the farmers, always keeping one foot in the lab and another in the field.

“I avoided telling farmers what to do, but rather, set about providing them with enough understanding so they would know what to do,” wrote Cook in his 2017 memoir, “Untold Stories: Forty Years of Research on Root Diseases of Wheat.”

His dedication to soil health and agro‑ecosystems led to development of the Cook Agronomy Farm outside of Pullman, where Cook’s vision came to fruition for long‑term research into conservation-oriented management and issues like soil loss and direct seeding.

Even in his retirement, Cook continues to present at conferences, assist with National Academy of Sciences outreach, and, along with his wife Beverly, helps lead the “Cougars of the Desert” group in Palm Desert, California, which raises money for WSU scholarships.

Cook holds bachelors (1958) and masters (1961) degrees and an honorary doctorate (1999) from North Dakota State University, a doctorate (1964) from the University of California, Berkeley, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Torino (1999).