Over the period from 1957 to 1966, Varro E. Tyler and colleagues at the UW identified and characterized a wide array of fungal toxins, particularly the toxic constituents of the Agaricales, an order of fungi characterized by umbrella-like, gilled mushrooms and toadstools.
Tyler is perhaps most widely known for the chapter on "Mushroom Poisons" that he first wrote in 1962 for Margaret McKenny's field guide The Savory Wild Mushroom. A revision of that chapter, appearing in the third edition of the book was recently judged "the most informative essay on mushroom poisoning in any field guide"--a signal recognition in view of the very large number of mushroom field guides published in recent years.
Now the Lilly Distinguished Professor of Pharmacognosy at Purdue University in Indiana, Tyler was named the "Economic Botanist of the Year" by the Society for Economic Botany in 1995.
Back in the mid-fifties, after teaching at the University of Nebraska for four years, Tyler had the opportunity to become an associate professor at the UW, "then considered the best academic pharmacognosy post in the country," he recalls. "With its excellent Drug Plant Laboratory and Medicinal Plant Gardens and adjacent greenhouses, it was clearly the opportunity of a lifetime." And, he adds, "the State of Washington had at that time a magnificent mushroom flora, and the University had in the botany department Professor Daniel E. Stuntz, a magnificent agaricologist," a specialist in the study of mushrooms.
Tyler's accomplishments during his tenure at the UW include a long list of "firsts." He first reported the occurrence of the important biochemical and neurotransmitter serotonin in a fungus in 1958. With Brady in 1959, he disproved the long-held belief that the toxicity of Amanita pantherina was caused by atropine-like alkaloids. He proved in 1960 that the alcohol-disulfiram syndrome [adverse reaction to ingesting alcohol] produced by Coprinus atramentarius was not due to the sulfur-containing compound disulfiram. Tyler first detected psilocybin and psilocin in selected species of Psilocybe and Conocybe in 1962. The first reported sedoheptulosea type of sugar moleculein mushroom tissues was reported in 1961.
Issacs and Tyler were the first to identify a deadly Amanita species in the Pacific Northwest. Amanita refers to a genus of mushrooms, having white spores and occcuring in deciduous and coniferous forests, including poisonous types that go by such delightful names as "death cup" and "destroying angel." In addition, Tyler and colleagues conducted a large number of screening studies of Northwest mushrooms, and evaluated the physiological activity of many mushroom species.
Tyler left the UW in 1967 to become Dean of the School of Pharmacy and Pharmacal Sciences at Purdue, a post he held for twenty years.
Reflecting on his early days as a researcher, Tyler shares a lesson he learned about the conduct of research. "Flexibility in thought and application is extremely important. Rather than wasting time and effort in approaches that have proved nonproductive, it is often better to try something entirely different. It increases the chances of success enormously."