Potatoes were not my first choice
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Although I spent more than 20 years studying potatoes – in a variety of guises – that had not been my first choice. I originally wanted to become the world’s lentil expert.
Well, not exactly. When I joined the 1970 intake on the MSc course Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources at the University of Birmingham, I quickly decided to work with Trevor Williams on the taxonomy and origin of lentils (Lens culinaris). I wanted to study variation in a crop species that had received little attention; and preferably it had to be a legume species.
Working our way through Flora Europaea, we came across the notation under lentil: Origin unknown. Now that seemed like an interesting challenge, and we began to plan a suitable dissertation project on that basis. I completed my dissertation in September 1971.
Interestingly, unknown to Trevor and me, renowned Israeli expert on crop evolution Professor Daniel Zohary (of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem) had been working on the same problem, and published his results in Economic Botany in 1972 , which essentially confirmed the conclusions I’d reached a year earlier.
As it turned out – and this is the hindsight bit – continuing work on lentils was not really an option; and funding for a lentil PhD would have been very difficult to find.
In any case, the MSc course leader Professor Jack Hawkes had, by March 1971, already raised the possibility of spending a year in Peru (see my posts about potatoes in Peru and about Peru in general), which I jumped at. So in January 1973, I landed in Lima, an employee of the recently-founded International Potato Center (CIP).
Then, CIP was housed in just a single building on a developing campus in La Molina, on the eastern outskirts of Lima, where the National Agrarian University is located (in fact, just across the road from CIP). In those days, the journey to La Molina from the Lima suburbs of San Isidro or Miraflores (we lived in Miraflores on Av. Larco, close to the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean) took about 20 minutes. Around La Molina it was essentially a rural setting. But even in those days, housing developments were already underway, and today what were once fields of maize are now ‘fields of concrete’. I’m told that the journey can now take forever, and CIP staff often plan to arrive early or depart late just to avoid the horrendous traffic.
But I digress. The CIP building was essentially an empty shell on both floors. This was gradually partitioned to form offices and laboratories, and over the years, new buildings were added. On my first day at CIP (Friday 5 January) I was shown to my ‘office’ on the upper (first) floor. The whole floor at that time was completely open plan from one end to the other, except for one room opposite the staircase that actually had two solid walls either side (the toilets were located on either side), and a wooden panel front. Inside was a desk, a chair, a filing cabinet, and a bookshelf. That was it!
While there were no laboratories as such at CIP until a few months later (the pathologists were using space in a national program laboratory building across the street), we did have access to a couple of screenhouses at La Molina for growing experimental materials, but that was quite a challenge in the heat of the Lima summer from January to April until facilities with some sort of cooling system were constructed.
I must admit I did wonder what I’d let myself in for. There were no established research facilities such as laboratories, I didn’t speak Spanish (although that was rectified in about six months), and went through all the stages of ‘culture shock’.
A planning meeting on germplasm
The following week CIP held the second planning workshop (but the first on germplasm and taxonomy) of a whole series that would be convened over the next decade to help plan its program. The participants were Jack Hawkes, taxonomist Carlos Ochoa (Peru), potato breeder Frank Haynes (North Carolina State University), geneticist Roger Rowe (then with the USDA regional potato germplasm project in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, and later to join CIP in July 1973 as head of the breeding and genetics department), ethnobotanist and taxonomist Don Ugent (Southern Illinois University-Carbondale), and potato breeder Richard Tarn (from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, New Brunswick, and a former PhD student of Jack Hawkes), and myself. We made a trip to Huancayo in the central Andes (more than 3000 m above sea level) where CIP proposed to establish its highland field station (more of that below), and also to Cuzco in southern Peru (where I seized the opportunity, with Richard Tarn, of making a day trip to Machu Picchu). In Huancayo, we visited the small, but growing, potato germplasm collection which in those days was being multiplied on rented land.
The field supervisor was a young agronomist, David Baumann, who can be seen in this photo explaining the collection to the workshop participants. Around this time, plant pathologist Dr Marco Soto – who had just returned from his PhD studies in the USA – was named as the head of the Huancayo station.
The arrangements for that meeting say a lot about the early CIP days. We traveled to Huancayo by road, in two Iranian-built Hillman station wagons, one of them driven by the CIP Director General, Richard Sawyer. Another point worth mentioning is the research planning strategy that CIP implemented. Since potato research was strong in many countries around the world, Sawyer decided it would be effective to engage potato scientists from elsewhere in CIP’s research. Not only were they invited to participate in planning workshops, they also received research grants to carry out specific research projects (such as the potato breeding and nematology resistance research at Cornell University, for example), and provide graduate opportunities for students sponsored by CIP. This approach, as well as developing a regional program for research and dissemination, were heavily criticised in the early days of the CGIAR. This was not the approach taken by other centers such as IRRI, CIMMYT, and CIAT for example. It now seems a rather silly opposition, and is more the norm than the exception in how the centers of the CGIAR do business.
So who worked at CIP in the early days?
In Lima, there were only a handful of staff in January 1973 (click on the photo to see the list), me included as a Fellow in Taxonomy, even though I only had a masters degree, and would continue with my PhD research while working for CIP.
Head of plant pathology, and long-time North Carolina team member, Ed French (a US citizen of Anglo-Argentinian ancestry) had already begun to recruit staff. Post-doctoral fellow John Vessey from the UK worked on resistance to bacterial wilt, and he and his wife Marian became close friends (we are still in touch with them), although John departed for CIMMYT in Mexico in 1974, followed by United Fruit in Honduras – more bacterial wilt – before returning to the UK (John was my principal contact for the somaclone project I reported in another post).
At first, there were few internationally-recruited staff, but throughout 1973, the staff increased quite rapidly. Rainer Zachmann, a German plant pathologist working on Rhizoctonia solani, joined in February, followed by Julia Guzman, a late blight specialist from Colombia; Parviz Jatala, a nematologist from Iran; Ray Meyer, an agronomist from the USA; and Dick Wurster as head of the Outreach Dept. , among others. Dick had been working in Uganda prior to joining CIP.
A qualified pilot, Dick brought his plane with him (it had two engines – one at the front, and one behind!), which was also used by CIP to ferry staff to Huancayo on occasion, although we usually made the six hour journey by road. Jim Bryan returned from his leave in the USA to join CIP as a seed specialist.
Among the Peruvian staff were virologist Luis Salazar (who gained his PhD some years later from the University of Dundee in Scotland), nematologist Javier Franco (who studied at Rothamsted for a University of London PhD), and plant pathologist Oscar Hidalgo (who went to North Carolina State University). Just returned from Cornell was Dr Marco Soto (a plant pathologist) who became superintendent of the Huancayo experiment station. About to return from graduate studies overseas were plant physiologists Willy Roca (and his wife Charo) and Fernando Ezeta, and virologist Anna-Maria Hinostroza. Nematologist Maria Scurrah (who was born in Huancayo of German parents, and who spoke Spanish, German and English will equal rapidity) returned from her PhD studies at Cornell in 1972. Entomologist Luis Valencia was mentored by Maurie Semel who was on sabbatical from Cornell. Zosimo Huaman returned from Birmingham in April 1973.
The first support staff included secretaries Rosa Benavides (who sadly succumbed to cancer just a few years later) and Haydee de Zelaya, caretaker José Machuca, messenger Victor Madrid (who eventually became a very talented member of the communications support team), carpenter Maestro Caycho, and screenhouse technicians, the Gomez brothers – Lauro, Felix, and Walter.
My fiancée Stephanie joined me in Lima in July 1973 and began work as a germplasm expert with the CIP potato collection. We married in October 1973 in the Municipalidad de Miraflores, near to where we were renting a 12th floor apartment on Av. Larco.
 Zohary, D. 1972. The wild progenitor and the place of origin of the cultivated lentil: Lens culinaris. Economic Botany 26: 326-332.
Wonderful post. Do you have contact information for Trevor Williams. I’d like to get in touch…Ed
Hi Ed – thanks. Funnily enough, Trevor phoned me up in January after he’d heard about my OBE. I’ll have to get his contact details however from a colleague.
Where ar you? Contact?
I think that must be Rainer? Great to hear from you. As you probably saw from my blog, I retired in 2010 and returned to the UK. Not sure how to get my contact details to you since I don’t want to post my email and postal address here.
Do you have Maria Scurrah’s email? She has mine.