Fascinating Viruses: Prof. T.H.Thung, the first professor in virology

About this exhibition

In August 2023, WUR Library Special Collections received the archive of Professor T.H. Thung (Thung Tjeng Hiang) from his family.

Professor Thung was an extraordinary professor for a variety of reasons. Not only was he the very first ever professor of virology, both in Wageningen and worldwide, but he was also in many ways a connector. His multicultural background (he was born into a Chinese family in Indonesia) made him open to other cultures and beliefs, in his personal life as well as in his scientific career.

During his career, he conducted extensive applied research, which gave him many new insights and often served as the basis for his scientific work. In this way, Thung developed several ground-breaking theories.

The online exhibition of Fascinating Viruses includes the history of virology, added to the story of Professor Thung’s scientific career.

Science meets heritage
History of virology
Mayer & the tobacco mosaic disease
History of virology
The Pasteur-Chamberland filter
History of virology
Beijerinck: contagion vivum fluidum
prof. T.H.Thung
Born in Sukabumi, West Java
History of virology
Quanjer: virus studies potato plants
prof. T.H.Thung
Study Rijks Hoogere Land, Tuin- en Boschbouwschool
History of virology
Laboratory of Mycology and Potato Research
prof. T.H.Thung
Marriage Thung and Fernanda Willekes Mac Donald
prof. T.H.Thung
Internship Laboratory Prof. Quanjer
History of virology
Research of potato diseases
prof. T.H.Thung
Diploma Agricultural Engineering
prof. T.H.Thung
First scientific publication about Peronospora Parasitica
prof. T.H.Thung
PhD on leafroll disease potato plants
prof. T.H.Thung
Research in Paris
prof. T.H.Thung
Phytopathologist at Proefstation Klaten
History of virology
Invention electron microscope
prof. T.H.Thung
Head Mycological Division, Institute For Plant Diseases and Pests, Buitenzorg
prof. T.H.Thung
Professor Faculty of Agriculture new University of Indonesia
History of virology/prof. T.H.Thung
Thungs standard reference work on virology
History of virology
Institute for Phytopathological Research, Wageningen
History of virology
A laboratory of Virology
History of virology
First doctorate virology J.P.H. van der Want
prof. T.H.Thung
A year abroad (Indonesia, India, USA)
prof. T.H.Thung
Professor of virology Agricultural College Wageningen
Late 1950s
History of virology
Start 'molecular-biological revolution' in virology
prof. T.H.Thung
Travelling times
prof. T.H.Thung
Thung dies suddenly at 18 November
prof. T.H.Thung
Remembering Thung
History of virology
prof. dr. J.P.H. van der Want
History of virology
prof. dr. R.W. Goldbach
History of virology
prof. dr. J.M. Vlak
History of virology
prof. dr. M.M. van Oers
prof. T.H.Thung
Zadoks study on Thung's lanas disease investigations
prof. T.H.Thung
Biography of prof. Thung
History of virology
Research of potato diseases still relevant

1879 | Mayer & the tobacco mosaic disease

The history of virology in Wageningen dates back to the late nineteenth century.

In 1879, Adolf Mayer, head of the newly established Landbouwproefstation (Agricultural Research Station) and Chemistry teacher at the Rijkslandbouwschool (National Agricultural School) in Wageningen, was asked by tobacco growers in the province of Utrecht to investigate a strange disease that led to mosaic-like patterns on tobacco leaves. The disease made the leaves unusable for processing in the cigar industry. In 1882, Mayer published a research paper on the ‘tobacco mosaic disease’, in the Groningen Journal of Agricultural Science, describing the symptoms in detail. He showed that the disease could be transmitted by using the sap of the affected plant to infect healthy plants.

Mayer examined the plant sap with the use of filter paper and concluded the sap was still infectious after filtration. However, he could not detect the pathogen microscopically and came to the conclusion that the pathogen was probably a small bacterium, while also noting that it “could be a soluble ‘enzyme’-like blemish.”

1884 | The Pasteur-Chamberland filter

A Pasteur-Chamberland filter is a porcelain water filter invented in 1884 by French microbiologist Charles Edouard Chamberland, an assistant to Louis Pasteur. The filter is not permeable to bacteria, and was initially used to sterilise liquids.

It consists of a permeable unglazed porcelain tube (called a biscuit) containing a ring of enamelled porcelain through which the inflow pipe fits. The core of the porcelain consists of a metal pipe with pores through which water flows out and is collected. Filtration occurs under compressive force.

The filter was used in the late nineteenth century by Russian botanist and biologist Dmitri Ivanovsky to conduct research on an invisible pathogen.

When reproducing Ivanovsky’s experiment a few years later, Martinus Beijerinck discovered the existence of viruses: tiny particles that could multiply, were much smaller than bacteria, and were not stopped by the filter’s microscopic pores.

1886-1898 | Beijerinck: contagion vivum fluidum

In 1886, Beijerinck, a former colleague of Mayer in Wageningen, by then based in Delft, was asked by Mayer to look into the tobacco mosaic disease.

Beijerinck filtered mosaic virus-infected liquid pulp of the leaves using a porcelain filter, called the Pasteur-Chamberland filter. This device filtered out any bacteria that might be present.

He then used the filtrate to infect healthy leaves. He repeated this procedure several times. If the disease had been caused by a chemical, the effect would have become weaker with each repetition, but instead it got stronger. Beijerinck also discovered that when the filtrate was heated to 90°C, it no longer had any effect.

Beijerinck’s  conclusion was that tobacco mosaic disease was caused by a living organism, because it multiplied, and died at higher temperatures. However, the mysterious pathogen was too small to be detected even under the strongest microscopes that existed at those times, nor could it be grown like bacteria in a laboratory. Beijerinck concluded that this was an unknown life form, which he called ‘contagion vivum fluidum’, or virus. For this reason, Beijerinck is known as the founder of virology.

The current definition of a virus

Nowadays, a virus is described as very small particles composed of genetic material (RNA or DNA). This genetic material is covered in a protective protein shell and sometimes a lipid membrane. Virus particles can only replicate in the cells of a suitable host, making viruses a kind of parasite.

1897 | Born in Sukabumi, West Java

Theng Hiang Thung was born in 1897 in Sukabumi, West Java. He was of Chinese descent, his family having lived in Java for a long time. He learnt Dutch in primary school.

1906 | Quanjer: virus studies potato plants

Professor Quanjer studied pharmacology in Amsterdam. After working as an assistant at the Phytopathological Laboratory, ‘Willie Commelin Scholten’, under Professor Ritzema Bos, Quanjer joined Ritzema Bos at the Rijks Hoogere Land-, Tuin- en Boschbouwschool (National Higher College of Agriculture, Horticulture and Forestry) in Wageningen in 1906.

Quanjer’s accurate anatomical observations of diseased potato plants led him to discover phloem necrosis (elm yellows). This discovery formed the start of his many virus studies, which were highly influential for Dutch potato cultivation.

In 1918, Quanjer was appointed professor of the newly founded Agricultural College.

1916-1921 | Study Rijks Hoogere Land, Tuin- en Boschbouwschool

In 1916, Thung came to Wageningen with his cousin to study at the Rijks Hoogere Land-, Tuin- en Boschbouwschool. Thung graduated with a diploma in Agronomy.

In September 1921 he obtained a degree in Tropical Agriculture, thus earning the right to call himself ‘Dutch-Indonesian Agronomist’.

1923 | Laboratory of Mycology and Potato Research

In 1920, Quanjer was appointed Director of the Institute of Phytopathology. For this Institute, a new laboratory was built in 1923 at the Binnenhaven in Wageningen, including specially built greenhouses for virus research. The new laboratory was named Laboratory of Mycology and Potato Research.

1923 | Marriage Thung and Fernanda Willekes Mac Donald

After suffering what we would now call burnout due to personal circumstances, Thung was taken in by the Ter Haar Romeny family, consisting of Pastor Barend and his wife, Fernanda Willekes Mac Donald. This event had a major impact on his life, as Fernanda would eventually become his wife (in 1923). The couple had two children, Paul and Mady.

1924 | Internship Laboratory Prof. Quanjer

Thung resumed his studies in Wageningen in 1924. In 1919, the Rijks Hoogere Land-, Tuin- en Boschbouwschool had been transformed into the Agricultural College, with modified and extended examination requirements. Thung enrolled in the study programme in Agricultural Engineering. This period defined Thung’s scientific career, not least because of the lectures he followed with Professor Quanjer. In 1924, Thung completed an internship in the test fields and greenhouses of the Laboratory of Mycology and Potato Research, where he took his first steps as a phytopathologist. Quanjer continued to play an important role throughout Thung’s scientific career, and the two remained friends throughout their lives.

1925 | Research of potato diseases

Research on diseases in potatoes was of great social importance in the first half of the twentieth century. For large parts of the population in the Western Hemisphere, and especially for the less affluent classes, the potato was the main source of food. Potato diseases could lead to famines, the most notorious of which occurred in Ireland, where an estimated one million people died between 1845 and 1850.

In leafroll disease, the upper leaves of the potato plant ‘roll up’ on themselves, preventing the plant from developing properly, and severely hampering the growth of the potato tuber. If a potato field was affected, it usually meant over half the crop would be lost.

1925 | Diploma Agricultural Engineering

Six months after his internship with Professor Quanjer, on 30 January 1925, Thung passed the candidate examination, and on 26 March 1925, he completed his study programme with a diploma in Agricultural Engineering.

1926 | First scientific publication about Peronospora Parasitica

On 2 June 1925, Thung was appointed ‘deputy phytopathologist’ at the Quanjer’s laboratory. He became ‘assistant’ for a year, an appointment which would be extended several times.

Thung’s very first scientific publication appeared in 1926 in the Tijdschrift over Plantenziekten (Journal of Phytopathology) (Issue 32, pp. 161-179), under the title ‘Opmerkingen over Peronospora parasitica op kool’ (‘Observations on Peronospora Parasitica on Cabbage’). Peronospora is a fungal disease.

1928 | PhD on leafroll disease potato plants

On 20 January 1928, Thung was awarded a PhD with honours for his thesis entitled Physiologisch onderzoek met betrekking tot het virus der bladrolziekte van de aardappelplant, Solanum tuberosum L. (Physiological investigations in relation to the virus of leafroll disease in potato plants, Solanum tuberosum L.)

Thung’s research question was whether, in leafroll disease, the virus disturbs metabolism, resulting in a build-up of starch in the stem, or whether the virus causes a disruption in the starch drainage channels, eventually leading to starch build-up.

He ultimately concluded that:

“The discs of the young leaf assimilate completely normally and the starch is discharged in the form of decomposition products, but it encounters an obstruction in the petiole.” And so, “(…) we can therefore conclude that the starch build-up is due to a malfunction in the elimination process itself.”

With this research, Thung established his name in the world of plant pathology. His findings would prove to be a first step towards a comprehensive understanding of how viruses work.

His promotion was celebrated with a promotion dinner in Hotel de Wereld in Wageningen

1928 | Research in Paris

Shortly after obtaining his PhD, Thung and his family left for Paris where he had the opportunity to conduct research at various laboratories and work with international scientists, for example at the prestigious Institut Pasteur.

1929-1939 | Phytopathologist at Proefstation Klaten

Not long after returning to the Netherlands from Paris, Thung was appointed as a phytopathologist at the Proefstation Vorsten landsche Tabak (Research Station for Vorstenlanden Tobacco) in Klaten, Central Java. He started work there in 1929. His research on plant diseases on tobacco plantations focused on disease control and prevention.

This period was incredibly important for Thung. He had the opportunity to engage in a combination of applied and in-depth research, conducting many experiments himself, while also closely following international research in the field. This led him to develop several theories, which are now considered established scientific facts, but were completely novel at the time.

1931 | Invention electron microscope

The electron microscope had been invented in 1931 by German researcher Max Knoll, and improved by Delft engineering student Jan Bart Le Poole. During the post-war years, this made the Technische Hogeschool (Technical College) in Delft the first and only place in the Netherlands to have such a microscope.

For virology, the advent of the electron microscope was an extremely important development. With the help of the electron the three shapes of virus particles that were discovered: rod-shaped, spherical, and filamentous.

Clearly, this was only the start of the many discoveries made possible by research with the increasingly stronger electron microscope.

In 1948, during his leave in the Netherlands, Thung and his Wageningen colleague Jan van der Want (1921-2007) conducted research on various plant viruses using an electron microscope in Delft.

1939-1948 | Head Mycological Division, Institute For Plant Diseases and Pests, Buitenzorg

In October 1939, Thung was appointed head of the Mycological Division of the Institute for Plant Diseases and Pests at Buitenzorg.

A position in which, according to his teacher and friend Quanjer, he could more effectively use his knowledge to benefit agriculture in the Dutch East Indies and the interests of science in general.

Not long after his appointment, however, international science ground to a halt with the outbreak of the Second World War.

1948 | Professor Faculty of Agriculture new University of Indonesia

In February 1948, Thung briefly returned to Indonesia, where he was appointed professor at the Faculty of Agriculture of the newly established University of Indonesia. He only held this position for a short period.

1948-1949 | Thungs standard reference work on virology

In 1948 Thung gave a number of guest lectures on Tropical Plant Diseases at the Agricultural College in Wageningen, at the request of Professor Quanjer. These lectures formed the basis for his book, Grondbeginselen in de plantenvirologie (Fundamentals in Plant Virology), which would eventually be published in 1949.

For years, Thung’s book was considered the (Dutch) standard reference work in phytopathology.

Striped tulips at the time of tulip mania

In Grondbeginselen in de plantenvirologie Thung also highlighted the early history of plant virology. The title page shows an image (in colour) of the 1619 ‘A Still Life of Flowers in a Wan-Li Vase’ painting by Ambrosius Bosschaert. This painting was made in the time of the tulip mania, when striped tulips like the ones painted by Bosschaert fetched record sums. The caption read: ‘Still life with virus-infected tulips’.

Thung argued that in seventeenth century Holland, healthy tulip plants were infected with diseased plants to create specific colour effects. Without knowing it, Thung argued, tulip growers had thus been actively infecting the plants with a viral disease.

1949 | Institute for Phytopathological Research, Wageningen

In 1949, Thung was approached by the Ministry of Agriculture in The Hague, asking him whether he was interested in the position of Head of the Virology Department of the newly established Instituut voor Plantenziektenkundig Onderzoek (Institute for Phytopathological Research, IPO) in Wageningen. In addition to head of the IPO Virology Department, Thung was also offered a chair by special appointment at the Agricultural College, making him the world’s first professor of Virology.

His position as head of the IPO Virology Department and as professor of Virology marked the start of an entirely new phase in Thung’s scientific career. The focus shifted from doing research to a role as leader and initiator.

1953 | A laboratory of Virology

In 1953, a new laboratory was built for the IPO’s Virology Department to further professionalise research. During this period of virology research in Wageningen, supported by international developments, Thung and his collaborators made discovery after discovery.

1954 | First doctorate virology J.P.H. van der Want

Jan P.H. van der Want was the first to receive his doctorate from Professor Thung in 1954, with a thesis entitled “Investigations on viral diseases of the bean.” Thung was very impressed with his research and submitted a request for the conferral of the cum laude distinction.

1956 | A year abroad (Indonesia, India, USA)

In 1956, Thung himself spent most of his time in Indonesia, as a visiting professor at the Faculty of Agriculture of the Universitas Indonesia in Bogor (the new name of Buitenzorg). Prior to this guest professorship, Thung and his wife Fernanda travelled through India, where they visited several higher and secondary agricultural schools at the request of the Indonesian university, to find out whether certain educational principles could be adopted. Following this temporary return to Indonesia, the couple also travelled to the United States, where Thung made contacts for exchanges of US and Indonesian students on behalf of the Indonesian university.

1956-1957 | Professor of virology Agricultural College Wageningen

It was clear that virology research was becoming increasingly important within IPO, among other things due to the growing understanding in international science of how viruses worked and their impact on plant, animal, and human health. In 1956, it was therefore decided to establish a separate virology laboratory and convert Thung’s chair by special appointment into a ‘regular’ chair.

Thung was officially appointed Professor of Virology at the Agricultural College and had to leave IPO. His IPO-colleagues did not let this farewell go by unnoticed; they presented him a beautiful illustrated album amicorum.

Late 1950s | Start ‘molecular-biological revolution’ in virology

Thung did attract several young researchers who went on to make groundbreaking discoveries. These included his successor Jan van der Want, but also Jeanne Dijkstra, who carried out research on the Rotterdam-B virus, a tobacco virus, among other things.

Another young researcher attracted by Thung was Ab van Kammen, who studied the molecular workings of viruses. His research led to the discovery that infection of plants with purified tobacco mosaic virus RNA resulted in infection of the plant, in which new complete virus particles emerged. This revealed that RNA could produce proteins on its own.

1957-1960 | Travelling times

Thung personally conducted little to no scientific research in the late 1950s. He was mainly busy organising meetings, attracting funding, and maintaining his international networks. He travelled a lot, the Soviet Union, the United States, Venezuela, Suriname, Togo and China. His last trip was a visit to Braunschweig in West Germany in September 1960, to attend the fourth edition of the Conference on Potato Virus Diseases, an initiative he had launched in 1951.

1960 | Thung dies suddenly at 18 November

Thungs last trip in 1960 was a visit to Braunschweig in West Germany in September 1960, to attend the fourth edition of the Conference on Potato Virus Diseases, an initiative he had launched in 1951. He was only able to witness the early days of the ‘molecular-biological revolution’ of the late 1950s. He died rather suddenly on 18 November 1960 as a result of heart problems. The last scientific publication to which he had contributed was published in May 1961. Together with his colleagues Van Kammen and Noordam, he had authored an article entitled ‘The mechanism of inhibition of infection with tobacco mosaic virus by an inhibitor from carnation sap’, which appeared in the US journal Virology.

1960 | Remembering Thung

Thungs death was mourned by many. His colleague and friend, Professor Loes Kerling, aptly expressed this feeling in her ‘In Memoriam’ in Tijdschrift over Plantenziekten: “He devoted his life to his family, his research, and bringing together people of different nationalities and perspectives. (…) We are grateful to have known this man, so full of life and caring – but we have lost a friend.”

The Virology Chair decided to put up an remembrance board in honour of Thung. This board still hangs in the Radix Building.

1960-1986 | prof. dr. J.P.H. van der Want

Following Thung’s death, Dr J.P.H. van der Want was appointed Professor of Virology, a position he held until 1986. Until his appointment, Van der Want had been head of the Virology Department at IPO (a position in which he also succeeded Thung). Van der Want gave his staff full freedom to choose and develop their own research areas and was able to significantly expand the chair group in terms of fields of interest. He was active on several boards. He was a member of the executive committee of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, and organised the International Conference of Virology in The Hague in 1978. Under his leadership, Wageningen virology research increasingly focused on viruses affecting plants and invertebrates, which remains WUR’s main research field to this day.

1987-2009 | prof. dr. R.W. Goldbach

With the 1987 appointment Dr R.W. Goldbach (1950-2009) as Professor of Virology, virology research took on a more molecular slant, in particular research on the cowpea mosaic virus and the tomato spotted wilt virus. Under Goldbach’s leadership, the quality and international visibility of Wageningen virology research were greatly enhanced. Professor Goldbach died in 2009 following a fatal accident in the mountains of India.

2009-2013 | prof. dr. J.M. Vlak

Prof. Goldbach was succeeded by interim chair holder Professor Dr J.M. Vlak, who specialised in research on the use of viruses in biological pest control in agriculture and horticulture, and prevention of viral diseases in invertebrates such as shrimps, bees, and flies. He also focused on the use of insect viruses in the development and creation of vaccines for humans and animals.

2013-nowadays | prof. dr. M.M. van Oers

In 2013, Professor Vlak was succeeded by the current chair holder, Professor M. Van Oers. Under Van Oers’ leadership, the department has focused, among other things, on how viruses manipulate their host or vector (disseminator, e.g. an insect), thereby increasing their chances of surviving and spreading. The department’s research focuses on plant and insect viruses, as well as insect-borne human and animal viruses. In this way, researchers hope to unravel the molecular mechanisms underlying this kind of behavioural manipulation. Professor van Oers is assisted in her research by, among others, Professor by Special Appointment René van der Vlugt, who is engaged in research and teaching in the field of ecological knowledge of plant viruses in horticulture and agriculture.

2014 | Zadoks study on Thung’s lanas disease investigations

The importance of Thung’s research was once again emphasised in a 2014 study conducted by Professor J.C. Zadoks on Thung’s investigations into the lanas disease, in the 1930s in Klaten. Zadoks worked as a phytopathologist at the predecessors of Wageningen University & Research from 1961 to 1994.

In his publication, Black shank of tobacco in the former Dutch East Indies, caused by Phytophthora nicotianae, Zadoks argued that Thung produced an entirely novel insight when he characterised the lanas disease, known as black shank in America, which caused a lot of damage to tobacco crops, as an epidemic disease. Moreover, according to Zadoks, Thung authored innovative studies in the field of plant disease epidemiology that recommended three different control methods: ecological, chemical, and genetic, which was completely new at the time.

2023 | Biography of prof. Thung

In October 2023 the biography of Prof. Thung, entitled “Tussen de vier zeeen” (Between the four seas), by author Frans Glissenaar was published.

2024 | Research of potato diseases still relevant

In seed potato cultivation, the leafroll virus, along with the Potato Virus Y (PVY), remains a major problem to this day. PVY in particular, which is transmitted by aphids, causes significant crop losses. That is why reducing these infections is the primary focus of one of the research studies conducted at WUR, which brings together growers and other industry stakeholders. To do so, researchers develop aphid flight warning systems and tools to enable them to more accurately estimate the risk of PVY infections at various cultivation stages. Based on this, they can formulate recommendations, for example for removing potato leaves or harvesting.


This exhibition offers a glimpse into the history of virology and into the life of Prof. T.H. Thung, the first professor in virology in Wageningen and the world.


The exhibition could not have been made without the input of the following persons:

  • Prof. dr. Just Vlak, who shared his knowledge about the history of virology and a Pasteur Chamberlain filter.
  • Frans Glissenaar, author of the biography of Prof. T.H. Thung, entitled “Tussen de vier zeeen” (Between the four seas), who supplied us with a great amount of information and insights in the life of Professor T.H. Thung.
  • Prof. dr. Monique van Oers and Prof. dr. René van der Vlugt, and their colleagues from the Laboratory of Virology of WUR, for the information about virology in general and good advices.
  • The family of professor Thung, who donated the complete archive of professor T.H. Thung and his wife F. Willekes Macdonald to the Special Collections of WUR Library in July 2023.


  • Historical photos by courtesy of WUR Archives – Photo collection.
  • Photos of viruses by WUR – Laboratory of Virology
  • Most of the reproductions of documents, books and photos were made by Guy Ackermans, who is a photographer for Wageningen University & Research and several other organisations. For more information, please visit his website.

We thank everybody for their permission to use the images.


Drs. Anneke Groen (text) and team Special Collections, WUR Library

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