The eighth child of a cotton farmer, O’Neil Ray Collins, born March 9, 1931 in Opelousas, Louisiana, rose to become one of the most distinguished African American botanists, a world renowned expert on slime-mold genetics. Upon completing his bachelor’s degree in botany at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1957, Collins acquired his master’s in 1959 and doctorate in 1961 at the University of Iowa where he was grounded in mycology under the tutelage of Constantine Alexopoulos. His Ph.D. thesis confirmed his exciting discovery of myxomycete mating types.
From 1961 to 1963 Collins was an instructor at Queens College in New York during which time he discovered multiple mating-type alleles in Didymium. In 1963, Collins taught at Southern University, then for the next six years he was a professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. In 1969 he joined the faculty at the University of California at Berkeley where he became Associate Dean of the Graduate Division and was chairman of the committee that evaluated the new Ethnic Studies program. Also as dean he oversaw the creation of the Graduate Minority Program which would be instrumental in attracting minority race students and helping them succeed at the university.
Collins was awarded the Miller Professorship in 1974 which furthered his scientific research, and from 1976 to 1981 he was chairman of the Department of Botany at UC Berkeley. He served on the editorial board of the journal Mycologia, and published more that 75 papers. In 1987 he designed a course titled “Biology, Evolution, and Race.” Away from the classroom, this tall deep-voiced man was also appreciated for his readings of dramatic works. At age 58, Collins died of Hodgkin’s Disease on April 8, 1989 in Berkeley, California and was posthumously awarded the university’s highest recognition, the Berkeley Citation.