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Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha

Conservation Research Institute W59 N412 Hilgen Avenue Cedarburg, Wisconsin 53012


Named in 1912, Thismia americana Pfeiff. was reportedly collected in a wet prairie in Chicago, Illinois, by Norma Pfeiffer, a student at the University of Chicago. For decades, few botanists ques- tioned the authenticity of the find. With advances in biogeography over the last few decades and with rare but significant experience with fraudulent science, some scientists have raised questions about the veracity of Pfeiffer’s work. While some have speculated on biogeographic mechanisms that ac- count for a species to have spread from the Asian-Pacific region to a north-temperate one, such as the southwestern Great Lakes, some have toyed with the idea that Pfeiffer’s work represents an outright hoax. This article describes an example of botanical fraud, specifically the Rum affair. Pfeiffer’s work is recounted, compared with those in science who have masterminded hoaxes, and analyzed with re- gard to the question whether her work was fraudulent.

KEYWORDS: Biogeography, fraud, hoax, Pfeiffer, Thismia


According to her own account, Norma Pfeiffer, a 23-year-old student at the University of Chicago, set out to gather liverworts in a prairie on the south side of Chicago, specifically at 119th Street and Torrence Avenue (Pfeiffer 1914a). During this foray, she encountered a tiny, nearly subterranean, flowering plant, the identity of which was a mystery to her and her advisors. Upon concluding that it was a species of the burmanniaceous genus Thismia, the congeners of which are both cryptic and in widely dispersed populations (Merckx & Smets 2014), she gave up a teaching job she had secured out west and remained at the University of Chicago, where she pursued doctoral research on the anatomy, morphology, and taxonomy of the Chicago Thismia population. Two years later, she published her findings in the Botanical Gazette (Pfeiffer 1914a), having con- cluded that, while it was indeed a species of Thismia, it was undescribed. She gave it the name Thismia americana.

At the time, no one questioned either the identity of the plant or the circum- stances of its discovery. Thirteen years later, in his flora of the Chicago region, Herman S. Pepoon (1927) included the plant with the annotation: “Sedgy swamp associated with Selaginella apus, near Lake Calumet. (Miss Pfeiffer, Dr. Cowles).” He added a quotation from Henry C. Cowles: “A remarkable discov- ery, no related plants within hundreds of miles; the Genus never before found in North America.”


Fernald (1950) described the genus and species, noting its singular occur- rence and its relationship to the Tasmanian species, Thismia rodwayi F. Muell. Gleason & Cronquist (1963) sustained previous assertions, noting that the plant had not been seen since 1913, they being evidently unaware she had collected specimens in 1914 as well. No floras or treatises that have published on the mat- ter of Thismia americana have intimated fraud or cast any aspersions on Norma Pfeiffer or her advisors. Since Pfeiffer’s death in 1989, the authors have been asked by several thoughtful botanists, often during visits to herbaria, if we be- lieved Pfeiffer’s “story.”

Although no one has found forensic evidence that would challenge her work, some scientists have suggested that the north-temperate Chicago endemic This- mia americana Pfeiff., a plant in the largely south-temperate to tropical family Burmanniaceae, is a legend based upon a hoax. If one begins with the premise that the discovery of Thismia americana is a hoax, then there must be some evi- dence with which to start—other than that the story seems improbable because of rather serious disjunction issues. There is no evidence, but the rumors persist. For the rumors to have merit, one would also have to conclude that John M. Coulter, Pheiffer’s principal committee member, colluded in the hoax along with her other committee members, Drs. Charles J. Chamberlain and William J. G. Land, of the University of Chicago. One also would need to discover a motive for a hoax. Compounding the improbability of a largely tropical genus inhabiting northeastern Illinois is the fact that Chicago was glaciated during the most recent ice age, along with the circumstance of its already antipodal disjunction from the region inhabited by its sister species.


Pfeiffer completed her bachelor’s degree at the University of Chicago in 1912 and went on to graduate school there. After having secured a position teaching at a college in North Dakota, she went with a colleague to a favorite place for stu- dents at the University of Chicago to study local flora. They were to collect liv- erworts to have on hand for her prospective teaching position (Masters 1995), since commercially available study specimens were not easily obtainable in those days. It was on that occasion that she discovered Thismia americana. Her com- panion, gathering in the same area, had not noticed Thismia until Norma pointed it out. Neither she nor her colleague had any clue as to what it was, and her ad- visors could not identify it, so she took a deep dive into its morphology. This lead to her dissertation research, which she published in the Botanical Gazette (Pfeif- fer 1914a). Her description of Thismia americana is about as complete as one can imagine, with detailed descriptions of both anatomy and morphology. Hav- ing discovered the plant in 1912, she visited the population each week for the rest of the summer and for at least two additional years gathering specimens in all stages of development. She expressed chagrin, however, that she was unable to observe seed germination.

Pfeiffer compared her specimens with the descriptions of all other species of

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FIGURE 1. Reproduction of Plate VII in Pfeiffer (1914a) with captions provided by Pfeiffer. 1. Side view of plant of Thismia americana. 2. View of flower from above; petals cut apart at apex and folded back. View from above of group of flowers undisturbed in natural situation; the oldest flower appears at the right. 4. View from above of plants from which the soil has been removed; the white root portions are evident with their buds. In the public domain.


Thismia known at the time and concluded that its closest relatives occurred in the region of southeastern Asia rather than Africa and South America, which would have been perhaps more logical phytogeographically. Plate VII, in Pfeiffer (1914a) (reproduced here as Figure 1), shows photographs of the undisturbed pe- rianths, in situ, buried to the lobes in a black sandy Mollisol, a soil that is char- acteristic of the moist prairie habitat in which the plant once occurred. She felt rather decidedly that no other known species matched the Chicago plants, so she described them as a new species and gave them the name Thismia americana. Her dissertation was careful to describe the morphology and anatomy in detail, but there was little discussion of its remarkable disjunction other than to note that it was indeed remarkable.

If she and her mentors had received specimens from elsewhere as part of a botanical caper, she would have had to receive specimens in an array of devel- opmental conditions in several seasonally staggered shipments, all of which sur- vived the voyage from the western Pacific Ocean to Chicago. Even more un- likely, the transshipped specimens would have to have been themselves a new species, because Thismia americana remains morphologically and genetically distinct from all other known species (Merckx & Smets 2014). There was a no- table botanist, Elmer Drew Merrill, who was collecting actively in the Asia-Pa- cific region at the time, but it is likely that any correspondence with the Univer- sity of Chicago would have been through J. M. Coulter or one of his colleagues—rather than through a callow, unknown, brand new graduate student. Merrill did send specimens of algae, lichens, bryophytes, and vascular plants to the Field Museum during this period, but the few Thismia specimens at the Field Museum are all from the New World. In addition, the preserved specimens may contain pollen that might link the collection to a region, which we do not think has been done but which would be an interesting exercise (A. A. Reznicek pers. comm.).

We presume that Pfeiffer spent the remainder of the growing season of 1912 trying to figure out the mystery plant’s identity. The holotype, which was not col- lected until 1913, consists of three plants in a packet on a herbarium sheet and a vial with other specimens preserved in formalin–acetic acid–alcohol, which are housed at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. She made another collection in 1914. The specimens are not found in the regular herbarium collec- tion at the Field Museum but are locked in a cabinet to which access is available through the collections manager.

Norma graduated in 1914, the youngest Ph.D. ever from the University of Chicago at that time—and a woman at that—but continued her studies suffi- ciently to produce another treatise on Thismia americana, also published in the Botanical Gazette, entitled “The Sporangia of Thismia americana” (Pfeiffer 1918). That would have been a time-consuming amount of brilliant energy to put into a hoax considering everyone who must have been involved. Co-conspirators would have included the editors of the well-reviewed Botanical Gazette and the southeast-Asian botanist who, rather than do an expository study of the material himself, preferred to supply a student, with whom he had made a more than ca- sual connection and who did not know the genus Thismia. With regard to a mo- tive for such hoax, other than the one line in her dissertation (Pfeiffer 1914a) and

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a general discussion about “undiscovered plants” (Pfeiffer 1914b), she spent no energy on the biogeographical aspects of Thismia americana.

Unfortunately, the area at 119th Street and Torrence Avenue, where Pheiffer gathered her material, has several feet of fill over it and is in an area that is largely industrial. Indeed, the prairie habitat in which Thismia americana once occurred has been essentially destroyed, especially prairie within and on the mar- gins of a major metropolitan area, the city of Chicago. Nevertheless, several noted attempts have been made to discover additional populations.

The first attempt was in 1948, when Floyd Swink (College of Pharmacy, Uni- versity of Illinois, Chicago) obtained from Pfeiffer a map through the mail de- tailing the location of the original study population. At that time, Pfeiffer was employed at the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research in Yonkers, New York, now part of Cornell University. Swink, along with Julian Steyermark and José Cuatrecasas, both of the Chicago Natural History Museum, and John Thieret, later of the University of Chicago, failed to locate the plant. In 1985, four years before her passing—at the age of 96—Pfeiffer wrote in a letter to Robert H. Mohlenbrock (Southern Illinois University, Carbondale), that she “looked for the plant beyond the first location, and once found a very few, about a third of a mile away, in the midst of Typha . . . between beach ridges” (Mohlen- brock 1985).

In a telephone conversation with bryologist Bill N. McKnight (Illinois Nat- ural History Survey) that same year, she elaborated on some of the cryptogamic associates of Thismia americana—which made sense for an interdunal lake plain habitat in Cook County, Illinois, narrated 70 years after the fact (McKnight, pers. comm.; see also the treatment of Thismia americana in Wilhelm & Rericha 2017). McKnight asked her if she had collected all the specimens she saw, and she said no, since her interest was not in sending out sets for exchange but in dis- cerning the identity, morphology, and life history of the plants. Having spent the remainder of her career in the study of lily hybrids, she confessed to McKnight that she regretted not having done more field work.

Several “Thismia hunts” have occurred since the one by Swink et al. in the Calumet region south of Chicago, but to no avail (Bowles et al. 1994; Rodkin 1994; Chew 2004). It is worth mentioning that in 2017, Thismia neptunis Becc. was rediscovered in western Sarawak, Malaysia, not having been seen since the type collection was made in 1866 by an Italian botanist who, it is said, just “stumbled upon it” more or less the way Norma Pfeiffer did with respect to This- mia americana in 1912 (Sochor et al. 2018). Like Thismia americana, T. neptu- nis is also buried to near the perianth lobes and cryptic in hue, so it is difficult to spot. The new discoverers noted that “its inconspicuous appearance may poten- tially contribute to our limited knowledge on its distribution as it may be easily overlooked in the field . . . .” The same easily can be said for Thismia americana.

In fact, Pfeiffer (1914b) described the cryptic, immersed nature of Thismia habit. In the early 1990’s, during one “Thismia hunt,” the organizers cast 100 small white beads into the vegetation of each of three remnant prairie sites known to have black sandy Mollisols. All were curious to see how many beads would be retrieved by the hordes of searchers combing the area on hands and knees. None were found, even though the beads lay upon the soil.


Had Thismia americana been simply a species from Tasmania, then one would imagine that Merckx and Smets (2014), who reviewed the history of the discovery of T. americana and examined its relationships within the genus,would have given us more insight into the matter. Although their study, based upon nu- clear 18S rDNA and mitochondrial atp1 and nad1 b-c data, was inconclusive with regard to phylogeny, they have no hesitation in considering T. americana as a distinct taxonomic entity. They agree with Pfeiffer that T. americana has its closest relatives within the subgenus Thismia. Jonker (1938), who monographed the Burmanniaceae, had suggested that T. americana might be conspecific with

T. rodwayi, but Merckx and Smets (2014), while they posit that both species be- long in the same clade, emphasize that T. americana and T. rodwayi are specifi- cally distinct morphologically and, in particular, that “T. americana shows con- siderable morphological differences with all of the currently known Thismia species.” They also point out that the fungal taxon found in the roots of T. rod- wayi has thus far been detected in Argentina, Finland, and on a prairie in Kansas, which shows a potential for long-distance dispersal of mycoheterotrophic plants. As an alternative, they suggest the Beringia land bridge theory as the most likely explanation for the presence of Thismia in North America. It is a matter of some interest, from a timing standpoint at least, that the prairie at 119th and Torrence was probably under Lake Algoma, the last glacial lake stage of Lake Michigan, about 3000 years ago (Willman 1971). This amphi-Pacific origin was discussed at length by Merckx et al. (2017). They write:

“. . . the deepest diversification events within the Thismia clade are estimated to precede these glaciations, while the more recent evolutionary splits [including T. americana] may have been influenced by global cooling events. The dispersal and subsequent spread of Thismia into Tasmania and New Zealand occurred in the Pleistocene or Holocene. During the Pleistocene, Tasmania was repeatedly glaciated and linked to mainland Australia . . . [O]ur analysis of the most comprehensive and detailed plant and fungal dataset for any mycoheterotrophic system so far, shows that Thismia, despite highly specific and phylogenetically conserved AM [arbuscular mycorrhizal] interactions which persist over evolutionary time, was able to diversify and radiate recently due to the wide geographical distribution of the host fungi . . ..[A]though the mycorrhizal interactions of these mycoheterotrophs are strictly bound to a fungal lineage, host switches remain possible. This process may lead to new ecological opportunities for the plants, and demonstrate that taxa that are dependent on highly specific biotic interactions have ample opportunities to radiate and diversify over the geographical range of their hosts.”

In 1912, Norma Pfeiffer was a very young woman who found herself in an in- timidating arena of some of botany’s more renowned luminaries, all of whom were men. It would have been quite bold of her, almost unbelievable, to have somehow plotted to secure Thismia specimens from the far and distant lands of Tasmania or New Zealand and conceived a deceit that would require a lifetime of intense secrecy and dissembling—even from her older sister, Wanda May, who would marry in 1916 the phytogeographer Dr. Arthur G. Vestal, student of H. C. Cowles. Generally, neither then nor now were graduate students in desperate need of topics for their thesis studies. Certainly, Pfeiffer had no novel theories to promulgate or defend—she had wanted a teaching job. Professors are usually

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happy to engage their students in subjects about which they themselves already have scholarly interests. The University of Chicago, esteemed institution that it was, had no faculty of which we are aware that could provide mentorship in the Burmanniaceae.

Also, the site along the railroad at 119th Street and Torrence Avenue was a fa- vored spot for students of the local flora, so it likely was much visited by stu- dents of Dr. Cowles and Dr. Coulter as well as themselves and probably Norma’s sister and her husband-to-be. She had pointed out the plants to her colleague dur- ing her liverwort foray in 1912, but at that time neither nascent botanist knew what she was looking at. We doubt that Pfeiffer was even aware of the Burman- niaceae, much less Thismia, which had no known North American representa- tives.

Some scientists who believe the legend a hoax have stressed that she never went back to look for it after she left the region or that she never reported having looked for it elsewhere: an obvious reason for suspicion in their minds. We are not daunted by that, since it really was not until the post-World War II era that botanists began to develop a strong interest in biosystematics and species threat- ened with extinction. Not appreciating the factors that one day would redound to her discovery, she would feel no need to record a chain of custody for her har- vests and observations and likely did not feel the need to keep a journal of all who looked for it and did or did not see it. Although we cannot imagine that her committee, by 1914, had demurred on taking the train to see the plants in the field.

Comparisons between Pfeiffer’s discovery and the dissembling assertions about plant disjunctions at Rum Island in the Hebrides of Scotland—a history that is recounted by Sabbagh (1999)—are inevitable. A noted and admired pro- fessor, John William Heslop Harrison of Newcastle University in England, pro- posed the theory that vegetation on the islands of the west coast of Scotland had survived through the Pleistocene. His reports of the presence of disjunct species, which he planted on the island to support his thesis, were determined to be fraud- ulent by English classics scholar and amateur botanist, John J. Raven. While it is hard for many of us to get into the mind of someone who would do such a thing, Heslop Harrison was a full professor with a doctrine to defend and who went to byzantine lengths to support his theory. Sabbagh’s account of the fraud draws the character of a man and his mission so completely unlike Norma Pfeiffer’s that it scarcely warrants ink to compare them. Sabbagh details the collegiate environ- ment within which Heslop Harrison operated and the investigation into the au- thenticity of his assertions. Because the deceit was obvious to those who looked into it, Heslop Harrison’s rather shoddy fraud was readily exposed.


If the Thismia americana legend is based upon a hoax, then it is a very elab- orate, well thought through one, and one that is also dependent on the fortuitous fact that the putative Asian co-conspirator provided specimens that represented a


new species. The Rum affair was largely the effort of a single doctrinally driven individual without co-conspirators. There were, at the time Norma Pfeiffer dis- covered T. americana, no doctrinal theories concerning evolution or biogeogra- phy that the Thismia find in Chicago would enhance or disprove, certainly none of her own. Also, in 1912 such wide disjunctions of plants from around the world were not altogether to be unexpected, particularly in a genus such as Thismia in which many of the species are rather rare and specialized in their habitats. More- over, one should ignore the fact that the type locality and much of the surround- ing area has been destroyed and that the photographs of the plants in situ in a Mollisol such as that characteristic of remnants nearby would be very difficult to stage. As improbable as the discovery of Thismia americana in Chicago might be, we would suggest that a hoax that has survived critical thinking and exami- nation this long is even more improbable—even if one could quantify improba- bility.


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