Under the Microscope - An Accidental Microbiologist

NDSU Microbiology
by NDSU Microbiology

The career of Dr. Berdell Funke spans many phases, from mail, shoes, and movies, to soil microbiology and textbook authorship. And like so many of the best things in life, Dr. Funke’s story was born out of chance and circumstance and grew into something special with quite a lot of hard work.

By Jessica Ebert

As a young child in Blue Hill, Nebraska, population 694 (at that time), becoming a respected microbiology textbook author was the furthest thing from Berdell Funke’s mind. In fact, attending college and earning an advanced degree in anything wasn’t even a real possibility.

When Dr. Funke was 16, he went to work. His family, which operated a local general store, went broke, and he had no one else to support him. He took a job as a mail carrier in Topeka, Kansas, but was eventually recruited to sell shoes. “I was a good talker,” Dr. Funke jokes.

He was also a good ticket taker and worked for Fox Midwest Theaters before becoming an assistant manager at the Jayhawk Theatre in Topeka. His paycheck of $30 per week allowed him to quit the shoe business and focus on the movies. Dr. Funke quickly rose in the theater ranks to become manager of a series of movie houses, including the Electric Theater in Joplin, Missouri and the Liberty Theater in Marysville, Kansas.

“But then television overtook me when I was 29 years old,” Dr. Funke explains. He was married then, and his wife had a good job as a telephone operator for Southwestern Bell, but Dr. Funke knew he needed a career change.

The only college town that his wife could transfer her seniority to was Manhattan, Kansas, so Dr. Funke enrolled at Kansas State University. His original plan was to become a high-school teacher, but he scored so high on his entrance exams that he was invited to participate in an honors group.

He chose the honors biology group not because he had any interest in biology (“I had ducked things such as biology in high school—you had to cut up a frog—and chemistry—the area seemed to smell bad and they wore rubber aprons”) but because he thought that biology would give him an opportunity to “make a living without encountering much arithmetic.”

The honors biology group happened to be advised by John Harris, a bacterial physiologist. “I remember John saying that he couldn’t make a high-school teacher out of me, so I said, ‘OK, I’ll be a bacteriologist,’” Dr. Funke recalls.

And a career was born, accidentally, coincidentally, unintentionally, yet there it was.

Dr. Funke stayed at Kansas State to finish his Ph.D. in bacteriology. Although he has studied everything from radioactive material deposited in tree rings to basic bacteriology research at a USDA lab in Illinois, the crux of his research has always been nitrogen-fixing soil microbes.

He joined the NDSU faculty in the early 1960s as a professor in the Department of Bacteriology (which subsequently joined with the Department of Veterinary Sciences in 1989 to become the Department of Microbiological Sciences). Dr. Funke retired from NDSU in 1997, but has remained active in microbiology discourse as an author of one of the most successful undergraduate microbiology textbooks.

“Writing textbooks was a total accident too,” he says.

He started as a reviewer of textbooks and was so thorough in his critiques that he caught the attention of the president of Benjamin Cummings, a science publishing house. Dr. Funke was asked to contribute a few chapters on pathogenic microbiology for a new textbook that the company was developing.

“I had no intention of doing it,” Dr. Funke explains. “I actually turned them down at first.”

But he eventually came around and in January, 2012, the 11th edition of Microbiology: An Introduction by Tortora, Funke, and Case was released.

“No one ever dreamed of it becoming the world’s leading non-majors microbiology textbook,” Dr. Funke says. “This textbook has been my greatest contribution to microbiology, and I’ll probably continue to work on it until I drop.”