Hungate graduated from Cheney Normal in 1924, and served as principal of the Spokane Indian Reservation"s elementary school for a year, followed by another two years teaching in Sprague, Washington. He entered Stanford University with the goal of teaching biology at the high school level, but abandoned his plan after his first quarter at Stanford due to his dislike of pedagogy courses and his fellow education students, and instead completed an Bachelor of Arts in biology magna cum laude in 1929.
Hungate had not yet selected a research topic for his Doctor of Philosophy before taking C. B. van Niel"s first course at Hopkins Marine Station in 1931. Hungate was the only student, and Van Niel"s intimate instruction—Van Niel sat beside him at a table and sketched illustrations on a yellow notepad, which Hungate kept at the end of the lecture—was a turning point in Hungate"s scientific career. At Van Niel"s suggestion, Hungate selected the symbiotic bacteria of termites as his thesis topic, investigating their role in cellulose digestion.
However, he was unsuccessful in his attempts to isolate cellulolytic bacteria from the termite gut because culturing techniques for anaerobic bacteria had not yet been developed, a result that spurred his continued efforts to find methods to do so after he received his Doctor of Philosophy in 1935.
Termite biology Hungate continued his work on the biology of termites after his appointment as lecturer in the Zoology department of the University of Texas, Austin. Hungate first identified the production of H 2 as a fermentation product in worker termites, and undertook a study of nitrogen fixation in experimental termite colonies.
Rumen microbiology = The "Hungate" method While investigating the role of cellulolytic protozoa in the rumen of cattle, Hungate isolated a colony of Clostridium cellobioparum, but the difficulty in observing the cellulose clearings they produced in shake tubes spurred him to develop a culturing method using thin agar layers in roll tubes.