John Nathaniel Couch was born in Prince Edward County, Virginia on October 12, 1896 to John Henry Couch, a Baptist minister, and Sally Love Terry Couch, a schoolteacher. In 1914 he entered Trinity College (now Duke University) in Durham, North Carolina. After three years at Trinity, he transferred to UNC to study medicine, but almost immediately changed to botany, under the influence of William Chambers Coker, then Chairman of the Botany Department. While still an undergraduate, he had a brief tour of duty in France and received his bachelor's degree in absentia through the University of Nancy. Upon returning to the United States, he completed both an M.S. and a Ph.D. under Dr. Coker and joined the faculty at UNC as an assistant professor in 1922. During this time he also taught science classes at Chapel Hill High School. He also taught botany at the University while working on his Ph.D. and retained a very active interest in teaching throughout his career, guiding the studies of 27 master's and 15 Ph.D. students.
In 1927 he married Else Dorothy Ruprecht of Brooklyn. His wife was very strong in languages and aided both Couch and his students in translations of French and German literature. They had two children: John Phillip Couch and Sally Louise Couch Gooder.
Upon the retirement of Dr. Coker in 1944, Couch became the Chairman of the Botany Department, a position he held until 1960. In 1945 he was awarded a Kenan chair. He retired in 1968, but remained active in the department. He was deeply opposed to the 1982 merger of the botany and zoology departments and was involved in unsuccessful attempts to prevent that action. Dr. Couch died in Chapel Hill on December 16, 1986. The Biology Library at UNC bears his name.
Dr. Couch followed the interests of his mentor, Dr. Coker, in his research on fungi. He co-authored a work on the gastromycetes of the eastern United States with Coker, a work which remains unsuperseded. During a brief period of study in Jamaica, Couch became interested in the genus Septobasidium, a fungus which exists symbiotically on the trunks of tropical trees with scale insects and which became the focus of his life's work. His 1938 monograph on the genus earned him the Walker Prize of the Boston Society of Natural History. Other fungal genera on which he worked were Actinoplanes, which he discovered and believed to be a possible link between fungi and bacteria; Coelomomyces, a fungus which parasitizes mosquito larvae; and (briefly) the green alga Vaucheria, in which he studied gametogenesis.
1937: Jefferson Medal from the North Carolina Academy of Sciences.
1937-1939: Associate editor of Mycologia.
1943: President of the Mycological Society of America
1946-1947: President of the North Carolina Academy of Sciences.
1946-1961: Editor of the Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society.
1955: Meritorious Teaching Award from the Association of Southeastern Biologists.
1964: Vice-President of Botanical Society of America.
1964: First recipient of the Gold Medal Science Award of the State of North Carolina.
One of the best sources for biographical information about Couch is a piece written by Leland Shanor in the Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society, vol. 84, pp. 1-7, from which much of the material here presented is drawn. This article also lists Couch's publications. Another important source is an article by UNC Biology Librarian William R. Burk and former Couch student Charles E. Bland which appeared in Mycologia vol. 81, pp. 181-189. In addition to an extensive bibliography, this article includes a list of Couch's graduate students with the titles of their theses and some personal remembrances of Couch by Dr. Bland. Mr. Burk has also assembled a complete listing of Couch's publications. A few especially important works are listed below. Couch's papers are held both at the Southern Historical Collection, Manuscript Department, Wilson Library, and in the archives of the UNC Herbarium. Relevant materials can also be located in among the papers of the Botany Department in the University Archives.
Coker, William Chambers & John Nathaniel Couch. 1928. The Gasteromycetes of the Eastern United States and Canada. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Couch, John Nathaniel. 1937. "A new fungus intermediate between the rusts and Septobasidium." Mycologia 29(6): 665-673.
Couch, John Nathaniel. 1938. The genus Septobasidium. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Below is a specimen of Geaster rufescens collected by Couch. This image may be clicked on to view a larger image.
This page was constructed by Ron Gilmour with the assistance of Mr. Bill Burk, Mrs. Mary Felton, Dr. Jim Massey, and Mr. Jim Murphy. Additional information and corrections are welcome. Please email Ron Gilmour at firstname.lastname@example.org.