The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Tom Allen Oral History Interview

Life history interview conducted by Chris Petersen and Karl McCreary.

September 1, 2015


Thomas Cort Allen, Jr. was born in 1931 in Madison, Wisconsin. He grew up in Madison in a neighborhood bordering a forested area where he spent much of his free time. This experience influenced his later academic interest in botany. Allen also began drawing as early as the first grade and became interested in watercolors in the third grade. He sold his first painting while a high school student, a time period during which he also won both a city poster contest and two statewide art competitions sponsored by the National Scholastic Society.

Allen began attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1949, while still living at home. Majoring in botany and minoring in chemistry and English, Allen decided during his undergraduate years to pursue a career in plant pathology with a particular focus on plant diseases. As he neared completion of his Wisconsin degree, he applied to the Botany program at the University of California-Berkeley, but was accepted into the University of California-Davis instead.

In 1953, Allen moved west to start graduate school. Much of his work, which was on barley yellow dwarf virus, required the use of an electron microscope, an instrument that was only available at Berkeley, so he traveled frequently. He also continued to pursue art, illustrating signs for the department, creating illustrations for seminars, and exploring watercolors on his own time. He completed his Davis Ph.D. in 1956.

After finishing his doctorate, Allen was called into military service in support of the Korean War. Stationed at the biological warfare labs at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland, Allen's assignment was to study how rice crops in China might be eliminated through the application of plant viruses. He ended up finding a virus inhibitor instead, which he patented.

Allen completed his two year Army obligation in 1958 and immediately went to San Francisco to work for Stauffer Chemical Company as head of its plant pathology and microbiology section. During this period, his research focused on the control of fungal diseases, work for which he received two more patents. Allen also exhibited his paintings in different museums and galleries across the Bay Area. In 1961, he met the chair of Oregon State University's Botany department at a conference, where he was subsequently offered a job. Intrigued by the prospect of a return to academia, Allen moved to Corvallis in the winter of 1962.

Not long after arriving at OSU, Allen received a National Science Foundation grant to purchase an electron microscope - soon thereafter, he became the director of the school's new Electron Microscope Lab, which any department could use for a fee. Much of Allen's own research concentrated on breeding virus-free lilies, work that involved collaboration with the Extension Service and Experiment Stations, as well as OSU's plant clinic. In 1974, the first virus-free colored lilies were developed, in part because of Allen's plant pathology research. Over the course of his twenty-nine years at OSU, Allen also taught a broad range of classes, including plant virology, electron microscopy, plant pathology, symbiosis, and an honors course on creativity in art and science. In addition, Allen taught drawing, watercolor, and acrylic classes at Linn-Benton Community College.

Indeed, Allen became involved in the Corvallis art scene soon after arriving in town. In 1963, he helped to found the Corvallis Art Center, and he was also a member, and later the president, of the Amateur Watercolor Society. In 1966, he led the transformation of that group into the Oregon Watercolor Society - now called the Watercolor Society of Oregon - and became vice-president of the new organization.

In 1983, Allen's artistic endeavors became a component of his university service. That year, he helped the Art department found "Art About Agriculture," an annual juried competition and travelling exhibit that focused on agricultural subjects. He continued to lead this program for more than twenty years. In 1986, as an outgrowth of his work with "Art About Agriculture," Allen was named the first artist-in-residence for the College of Agriculture.

Allen retired from OSU in 1991, but remained very active in a number of activities. In addition to volunteer work with the Rotary Club and the Watercolor Society of Oregon, Allen served as artist-in-residence at Yellowstone National Park for eight weeks in 1992. That same year, he traveled to Switzerland as an artist demonstrator. Two years later, he traveled to Uzhgorod, Ukraine as part of the Sister Cities Program.

In 1996, Allen and his wife established the Tom and Donna Allen Family Fund with the Benton County Foundation to encourage the pursuit of the arts within the community. In 2007, Allen was honored as a Diamond Pioneer by OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences. Now a professor emeritus in the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology, Allen continues to paint, mainly with watercolors.