A Fungus That Changed Human History



The oldest, most powerful, most important and most populated organisms of the earth are the fungi. Within the human body there are more fungi than earth’s population. If for some reason they would cease to exist, life would end without even noticing.

Maybe it sounds strange but fungi define human history. Sometimes in a more obvious way (such as the Cyanobacterium which is in the petroleum), while other times in more hidden ways.

This is the story of a fungus that exterminated one million people in a few years, turned another two million into immigrants, started a revolution and led to the birth of a president.


In 1844 Ireland was under the British Empire. The land of ‘Eire’ belonged to landlords, lords, Sith and other evil lads. The whole stock of wheat production was given to the Crown. Native Irish, as they were devout Catholics, were against abortions and condoms, therefore each family had more children than they could afford to feed. The only way to satisfy their hunger was to plant potatoes.

The potato, as we watched in the movie “Martian”, is a vegetable that can grow easily and produce in large quantities. Therefore the potato became the staple diet of the Irish so that the landlords and the Crown could be rich.

When landlords were paying a visit to their ‘property’, they would face ragged people struggling to keep warm by burning turf and keeping their hunger at bay by eating potatoes. And of course each single crop, reserves dangers, as Africans already knew, who had to cultivate cocoa and they starved.


Something that concerned the enslaved Irish was an illness appearing every now and then. There was something that made the potatoes wither. However, since 1844 these incidents were of small range and minor importance.

In 1843 the Irish had the most productive year in potato crops. They consumed as much potatoes as they could eat. They stored the rest in their warm storage rooms and when time was right they re-planted them. If they had consumed them all or abandoned them in the cold they would’ve been luckier.

In 1844 the disease returned, not only harsher, but tremendous and more terrifying. Nearly every potato crop on the island was destroyed.

Some said it was a curse from god, others said that it was due to the weak ground. One clerical blamed novel trains, running through the Irish countryside with 30 km/hr “…releasing large amounts of electricity in the fields…”. Most people believed that the leprechauns were to blame, as they were mischievous pixies.

Only one amateur English naturalist, reverent Miles Berkeley, observed with his microscope an infected plant and found the cause of the damage, the micro fungus Phytophtora infestans. However when he announced it nobody believed him.

 Phytophtora infestans is not usually destructive, but the blame falls on the previous crops. The reason was the infected tubers that remained in the warm storage rooms. It was if you like ‘…intriguing chaos’.

 The Irish were left starving, dying from hunger. The following year the situation became worse. Ossified people were suffering from typhoid fever as well as dysentery. The British government tried to deal with this tragedy through charity, the infamous poorhouses, while at the same time wheat and animal stocks were exported to England for profit.

Out of eight million Irish, one million died from the famine, and diseases related to severe malnutrition.

A further two million were forced to immigrate, to the New World and to Australia.


The story of P. Infestans and the hunger in Ireland proves three things:

Firstly, that man is not as strong as he/she wants to believe.

Secondly: Capitalism is ecologically and humanistically unprofitable.

Thirdly: You can never predict the future within a chaotic hyper system, such as the human being within human society, which is within the Earth.


Additional information: in 1848 the revolution started by the new Irish people. They could no longer stand starving in order to feed the queen. The British military forces drenched the revolution in blood. However because of the aforementioned fungus, the Irish initiated their long journey that lead to their independence, in the 20th century.

Additional information No. 2: One of the families that immigrated to the United States in 1845 was the Fitzgerald’s from Kerry. Another one was the Kennedy’s from Wexford. One of the descendants of the Fitzgerald’s and the Kennedy’s was born in 1917 and they called him John.

He was JFK, president of the United States, an immigrant descendant.



Υou can read the book of Bernard Dixon, “Invisible Allies: Microbes and Man’s Future”


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Translated by Dimitra Kitridou

Since we’re not native speakers, feel free to suggest improvements and make corrections


Famine Memorial in Dublin