Butler was born in Kilkee, Co. Clare where his father was the local Magistrate. He studied medicine at Queen’s College Cork (now University College Cork) and graduated in 1898.
In Cork, he came under the influence of Prof. Marcus Hartog who was Professor of Natural History and later Professor of Zoology at the college. Hartog was interested in the mechanics of Saprolegnia, a genus of water-moulds which he collected from ponds including that in the lower grounds of the college (where the Glucksman Gallery now stands). Butler began to use similar techniques to study the neighbouring genus Pythium.
Butler went on to study in Paris and London before being appointed as Imperial Mycologist to India in 1906. His work on aquatic Phycomycetes in India as well as his classical studies on the diseases of palms and sugarcane, on wilt of pigeon peas, on wheat rusts, on downy mildews and much more mean that he is regarded as the “Father of Indian Plant Pathology”. He was responsible for categorising nearly 150 species of plant pathogenic fungi.
In 1918, he published ‘Fungi and Disease in Plants’ on Indian plant diseases. He later adapted this book for a European audience and ‘Plant Pathology’ was published a number of years after his death in collaboration with S.G. Jones. It was the classic plant pathology textbook of its time.
Butler left India in 1921 and took up Directorship of the newly established Imperial Bureau of Mycology at Kew, London where he continued his work and became a distinguished figure in the world of plant pathology; travelling widely and founding a number of new journals.
|The plaque awaiting installation at Kilkee Library|
Butler was Knighted in 1939. In Butler's obituary, EW Mason notes that
"his most striking characteristic was perhaps his immense interest in fungi both as fungi and as the causal organisms of disease in plants, and coupled with this his power of transferring that interest to botanical and lay minds alike. His lifelong habit of wide and deep reading, linked with his accumulated personal experience, enabled him to present problems in their correct perspective and to recommend the line of attack that should best deserve success." (Mason, 1943)
Sir Edwin John Butler died of influenza on April 4th, 1943 in Surrey. He is commemorated by a plaque at Kilkee Library, Co. Clare (which is awaiting installation) as well as the Butler Medal which is awarded by the Society of Irish Plant Pathologists to individuals who have made a significant contribution to the field. The Butler Building at University College Cork was built in 2000 and is also named in his honour.