University of California: In Memoriam, 1992

O'Neil Ray Collins, Botany: Berkeley


O'Neil Ray Collins was born on March 9, 1931, the eighth of nine children of cotton farmers in Plaisance, Louisiana, and died in Orinda, California, on April 8, 1989. In his 58 years he became a husband, a father and grandfather, an outstanding teacher and mentor, a much sought-after administrator, and an internationally recognized expert on slime-mold genetics.

Ray's roots were unusual for a mycologist and unique among biology faculty at Berkeley, and he was proud of them. He would tell stories about dances from his childhood in Louisiana where the doorman would only admit party goers with light skin, or how distant relatives would attempt to “pass” (for white) to have a better life. He pointed out that the more successful they were, the more tragic it was because they were forever cut off from family and home. Ray was a pioneer, and he was not afraid to point out that his experiences, and therefore his perspectives, were different. For him to do anything less would have been like trying to “pass.”

Ray graduated from Plaisance, Louisiana, High School in 1948. Following service in the United States Army in Europe, he became the first in his family to graduate from college, earning the bachelor of science degree in botany from Southern University in January 1957. His first exposure to mycology was at the hands of Lafayette Frederick, then a professor at Southern. Ray's memories of fungi, however, predated his college years considerably, and he would regale students with stories of the huge white globes in Louisiana that he later recognized as puff balls, or the yeast culture his mother kept in the form of bread dough, and how she could tell from the sourness when it was time to buy some more yeast from the store.


It was Lafayette Frederick who encouraged Ray to seek graduate training, and Ray moved to the Botany Department of the University of Iowa. In the late 1950s, Iowa was a center for mycology owing to the presence of Constantine Alexopoulos and George Martin. Ray studied with Alexopoulos, earning a master's degree in 1959 and a doctorate in 1961. While at Iowa, Ray met Ann Walker, a graduate of Berea College in Kentucky and a student in speech and drama at Iowa. Ray and Ann formed a true partnership, and he maintained that it was her belief in him that gave him the courage, early in his career, to apply for academic positions outside the circle of African American colleges in the South. Ray's thesis, documenting his discovery of heterothallism and homothallism in the plasmodial slime molds, Physarum and Didymium, was a milestone in myxomycete genetics. Ray shared his excitement of the discovery of myxomycete mating types with his students, right down to the crucial experiment, started during a football game between Iowa and its arch rival; the plasmodia had formed by the end of the game. His teaching assistants heard the story more than once, and it was as good the last time as the first. He wasn't afraid to show emotion in public, and when he waved his hands and used his big voice to say, “I was really excited when I learned this,” his students remembered.

In January 1961, Ray accepted a position as instructor at Queens College in New York. Segregation was still widely practiced, and he asked G.W. Martin to make sure that the faculty at Queens knew his race. The chairman at Queens, T.S.K. Johnson, wrote back, “I do not see any reason to forward the information you have given me... because it ought not to be of any consequence in our consideration of his candidacy.” Later that year Ray and Ann became the parents of twin girls, Angela and Marianne. He devoted his summers to research in Ian Ross's Laboratory at Yale, where he made the discovery of multiple mating-type alleles in Didymium. After two years at Queens, Ray accepted a position on the faculty at Southern University, where he continued to work on heterothallism and homothallism in Didymium. In 1965, after two years as an associate professor at Southern, he moved to Wayne State University in Detroit where he began studies of plasmodial incompatibility, again earned tenure, and, in 1966, celebrated with Ann the birth of their third daughter, Lila. Ray's laboratory at Wayne State was very productive, and he and his colleagues thoroughly investigated the genetics of plasmodial fusion and the inheritance of plasmodial pigmentation.

In 1968, Melvin Fuller left the University of California at Berkeley for the University of Georgia, and the Botany faculty at Berkeley,

reminded of Ray Collins' impressive seminar during the search that had led to Fuller's 1964 appointment, prevailed upon Collins to accept the position with tenure. Ray did so, and in September 1969, the Collins family moved to California; O'Neil Ray Jr. was born in December 1969. Ray arrived at Berkeley just after the Black Student Union strike in the winter of 1968-69, and his first years saw the People's Park controversy and the de facto cessation of classes in the spring of 1970. When the University sought to evaluate its ethnic studies program, it tapped Ray to serve as Associate Dean of the Graduate Division. In this capacity, he chaired the “Collins Committee,” which examined the Ethnic Studies program. It was a task that seemed destined to please no one, but in the end his report put the program on a firm foundation.

Under Collins' leadership the Graduate Division also developed the Graduate Minority Program, which has helped minority students enter and succeed in all departments over the last 20 years. When the U.S. Department of Education invited five research universities to share funds that it had established for promoting minority participation in graduate programs, Berkeley was the only one ready to provide the needed matching funds, and so moved to a leadership role in this arena, which has become increasingly important as a national goal.

Despite this heavy administrative load, Ray's research program flourished as the genetic control and cytotoxicity of plasmodial incompatibility were unraveled in Physarumand Didymium. During this period, Jim Clark (now at the University of Kentucky) earned the Ph.D. with Ray by studying the genetics of plasmodial incompatibility. In 1974, Ray was awarded a prestigious Miller Professorship for research and his investigations returned to mating-type diversity in a number of species of Myomycetes.

From 1976 to 1981, Ray served as Chairman of the Department of Botany. His reign as chairman coincided with the advent of the reorganization of biological sciences at Berkeley. In spite of the turmoil associated with the reorganization, he directed the hiring of four new faculty. One of these hirings is memorable to one of the committee members because Ray went to extraordinary effort (including resigning his chairmanship, which the dean later persuaded him to resume) to convince the administration, which had “gone molecular,” to appoint a young mycologist and electron microscopist to replace the late Professor Ralph Emerson. In these years, the Collins laboratory continued its scrutiny of myxomycete reproductive biology and speciation, and began cytospectrophotometric and allozyme studies

of strains with nonheterothallic and apomictic life-cycles. Ray graduated two doctoral students in this period, Wm. Perry Mulleavy (now with Company M, growing morels in Mason, Michigan), who used cytospectrophotometric methods to analyze myxomycete life-cycles, and Donald Betterley (now at Monterey Mushrooms in Watsonville, California, who used isozyme analysis to deduce slime-mold reproductive behavior.

Ray served mycology first as Chairman of the Botanical Society of American section on Microbiology in 1968. He served the Mycological Society of America as Councilor in Genetics and Cytology from 1980-1983, and as a member of the editorial board of Mycologia from 1981-1984. Throughout the 1980s, he exploited his administrative talents and served as a director of the Berkeley Faculty Club, principal officer of the Biosystematists (the Northern California society of evolutionary biologists), vice president in 1985-86 of the Berkeley chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, and host and presiding officer for the International Physarum Conference in 1987. In these years, his research focused on interconvertibility between heterothallism and apomixis in Didymium and Stemonitis, and he began investigations into mitochondrial DNA inheritance in Didymium. In 1987, Ray graduated his two final doctoral students, Margaret Silliker (now at DePaul), who worked on mitochondrial inheritance in Didymium, and Paul Bayman (now at Tulane), who studied homothallism in the basidiomycete genus Coprinus.

Ray was an exceptional biologist in many ways. He remains the only African-American biologist to have held a tenured position at Berkeley, and one of the few highly visible black biologists in this country. His contributions to increasing the ethnic diversity of the University's student body, and broadening the awareness of all students included his obtaining one of the first HEW grants to attract minority graduate students to Berkeley, and the creation in 1987 of an introductory biology course: Biology, Evolution and Race. Berkeley was fortunate to keep Collins because he had many requests to apply for chairmanships and higher administrative positions at other institutions. He kept Federal grant support throughout his career, and his laboratory was a great place to study fungi. In addition to his students, he attracted talented technicians, Hsi-Chi (Tom) Tang and Tom Gong, and visiting scientists, among them, Dale Therrien from Pennsylvania State University, Tom Gaither from Slippery Rock College, and Samuel Alasoadura from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. Ray had the ability to keep the big picture in view and not get lost in details; the same talent that made him such an effective

teacher for introductory classes also made him a very good editor of manuscripts and grant proposals.

At a non-academic level, Ray contributed his talents as an actor to a University enterprise: He and Ann were members of the Drama Section in the Faculty Wives Section Club, which has held monthly play-readings for many years. With his tall figure and deep voice abetting a natural theatrical talent, Ray elicited admiration for his readings of many leading roles.

In 1988, he began to suffer the effects of a prolonged illness, eventually diagnosed as Hodgkin's Disease, which led to his death the following year. His dignity in the face of the unimaginable frustration of cancer provided an unforgettable lesson. He was given Berkeley's highest award, the Berkeley Citation, and other honors would surely have come his way. He is honored best, of course, by his family and his scientific legacy.

Herbert G. Baker David Blackwell Lincoln Constance Leon A. Henkin Margaret D. Silliker Isabelle Tavares John W. Taylor

About this text
Courtesy of University Archives, The Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720-6000;
Title: 1992, University of California: In Memoriam
By:  University of California (System) Academic Senate, Author
Date: 1992
Contributing Institution:  University Archives, The Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720-6000;
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