‘Mont St Jean’, ‘La Belle Alliance’ or just plain ‘Waterloo’?

It’s late evening on 18 June 1815. The end of four days of fighting between three armies – British and Prussian on the one side, the French on the other – in three battles that has seen terrible carnage on all sides as battalion after battalion was decimated by musket fire, by round shot and canister, and howitzer shells thrown high over advancing troops. The wounds received and the deaths endured beggar belief.

The battle that we in Britain know as Waterloo defeated Napoleon, and forever left a legacy of controversies, not least of which what the battle should be named.

The French know it as the ‘Battle of Mont St Jean’. That was the ridge where the Duke of Wellington had deployed his forces. He had reconnoitred the area some days earlier and decided that was where he should make a stand against Napoleon moving north towards Brussels. The Prussians named the battle ‘La Belle Alliance’ and apparently it’s still known by that name in Germany. But Waterloo was the battle where, in the final stages the Unbeaten [the Napoleon’s Imperial Guard] were being killed by the Unbeatable [Wellington’s troops].

I’ve just finished an excellent account of Waterloo by Bernard Cornwell, author of the Sharpe novels about the Napoleonic Wars. Waterloo – The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles is Cornwell’s first work of non-fiction, published in 2014 by William Collins (ISBN 978-0-00-753938-3).

I’m not going to write a detailed review of the book, but I can thoroughly recommend it as a good read. Cornwell brings to his account – and the Battle of Waterloo was a complex affair indeed – the skill of an author who knows how to tell a story. He provides the detail, based on contemporary accounts and letters, but it’s all woven together in a way that you almost begin to feel part of the action. You get a clear sense of the deployment of troops on all sides, what it was like to confront a line of musketeers at 20 paces or so, or be charged down by lancers or sword wielding armored cavalry known as cuirassiers. He explains lucidly how and why the various armies marched from one engagement to the next, how the soldiers coped with the night long downpour before the main battle, and how the subsequent muddy ground conditions hampered movement of Napoleon’s troops towards the British. It was a close run thing, as Wellington admitted after the battle was over. He had come close to defeat, but the arrival of Blücher’s Prussians on the battlefield late in the day (because they had earlier retreated north following defeat in engagements with the French before Waterloo) did turn the tide of the battle, and Napoleon was defeated.

In September 2013, I posted a story about crop diversity, and it began with an account of the crops growing around Brussels at the time of Waterloo, in a book called  Dancing into Battle. Much was made by British officers of the height of the rye and wheat crops. Cornwell also comments that the rye crop, taller than a man, through which Napoleon’s troops had to march, was a major obstacle not only for troops but also cavalry. At the end of the battle he describes the scene of carnage, with the wounded, the dying and the dead covering a mat of trampled rye.

Throughout Cornwell’s account of Waterloo, there are frequent references to the exploits of his beloved 95th – the green-jacketed Rifles, the heroes of his Sharpe novels. I’ve not read any of these, but since my retirement I have enjoyed catching up on the programs made for TV in the mid-1990s that I didn’t see then as I was working overseas.

The series had some great actors: Sean Bean as Sharpe, Pete Postlethwaite as Obadiah Hakeswill, and Brian Cox as Major Hogan, to name just three. Here’s John Tams singing the 17th century folk song O’er the Hills and Far Away that became the theme of the series. Tams  played one of the ‘Chosen Men’, rifleman Daniel Hagman.

A castle slighted – if only walls could talk

Neither modest in size, nor lacking in importance, Kenilworth Castle was indeed slighted – in about 1650. It’s an archaic use of the word. The walls were deliberately destroyed, and razed to the ground. So after five hundred years of continuous occupation, the castle became a ruin, with only the Gatehouse (now fully restored) made a home by Sir John Hawksworth after the end of the Civil Wars. The Gatehouse was still occupied into the middle of the 20th century. But by then, the castle had been a ruin for 400 years or more. Kenilworth Castle is a fascinating testament to power and wealth from the Normans (from the time of Henry I) to the Stuarts.

Built by a Norman baron in the middle of the 12th century, and occupied for the next five centuries – as fortress, royal palace, or aristocratic residence – Kenilworth Castle, in the heart of Warwickshire (Shakespeare country) is a jewel in the English Heritage crown.

Plan of the castle

On a beautiful Tuesday, a couple of days ago, we made the 30 mile trip due east arriving at the castle just before 11:00 and spending almost four hours exploring the site, and what remains of the ruined Priory of St Mary just a short distance from the castle and built about the same time.

I hadn’t appreciated before our visit just how large the castle site is, and for how long it had been occupied. As a budding historian, I’ve encountered references to Kenilworth Castle in many of the books I’ve read. It was, during the late 14th and throughout the 15th centuries a residence of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and a Lancastrian stronghold. During the reign of Elizabeth I in Tudor times a century later, Kenilworth Castle was gifted to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, the queen’s favorite and erstwhile suitor. Many parts of the ruin and the (reconstructed) Elizabethan garden are the legacy of Robert Dudley. Elizabeth visited Kenilworth a number of times, and Dudley actually constructed the Leicester Building (#10 on the graphic above) in 1572 especially for one of Elizabeth’s visit while on royal progress. Likewise the garden.

20150421 011 Kenilworth CastleThe castle is entered through Mortimer’s Gate (#2) over a ‘dam’ that was originally constructed by King John in the 13th century. It blocked the flow of the Finham Brook on the south side of the castle’s curtain wall, and creating what was once one of the largest man-made lakes in England. It provided great defensive possibilities. The later buildings lie to the west and south of the Norman tower (#6). The 16th century half-timbered stable block (#3) is now a cafe and exhibition hall. The construction of the timber gables and eaves is impressive.

On the west side of the castle is the Great Hall constructed by John of Gaunt. Of course most of the floors have disappeared, but you can easily see where each floor was located, with its windows and fireplaces.

And then just to the east is Leicester’s Building, over four or five floors. Now it’s a hollow shell, but English Heritage have constructed a walkway inside right to the top. I’ve not got a very good head for heights, and my knees were just a little wobbly by the time we reached the top, and peered over the side.

Elsewhere, access has been made to reach some of the battlements and great views are afforded all over the site, especially the Elizabethan garden, with its aviary and singing canaries. The garden was researched before reconstruction and is believed to look much like it would have done during Elizabeth’s visit.

20150421 023 Kenilworth Castle

20150421 065 Kenilworth Castle

If walls could talk what secrets would they reveal? Did King John plot here against his barons, or the Lancastrians plan their anti-Yorkist strategy during the Wars of the Roses? Did Dudley eventually make it into Elizabeth’s bedchamber? We’ll never know.

As we arrived to Kenilworth Castle a large group of German school children was leaving. Their visit had lasted just 45 minutes, I was told. Very short! We were there for nearly four hours, and although I think we saw almost all there was to see, another visit would merit a perimeter walk along the exterior curtain wall. Again, we were lucky with the weather, and there were not too many visitors. Kenilworth Castle welcomes thousands of visitors during the school vacations. A late spring day was just right for us.

Just twenty miles but more than a thousand years . . .

Just twenty miles or so as the crow flies, maybe less, but separated by more than a thousand years. That pretty sums up two English Heritage properties that we visited yesterday.

Nestling under the Shropshire Hills, Stokesay Castle is a fortified medieval manor house, a few miles north of Ludlow, built in the late 13th century, and added to over the centuries.

20150414 088 Stokesay Castle

On the other hand, Wroxeter Roman city, a few miles southeast of Shrewsbury was established as a fortified outpost not long after the successful Claudian invasion of Britain by the Romans in AD40.

20150414 128 Wroxeter Roman city

As in all my blog posts, the links I included above will take you to web sites with a lot more information than I have space for here.

With the weather set fair – just as the forecasters had predicted – Steph and I set off just after 09:30 to our first stop, Stokesay Castle, arriving there just before 11:00.

Unlike many if not most of the properties owned by the National Trust, which are furnished, English Heritage manages many castles and other ruined buildings. However, Stokesay castle is remarkably intact. Once a moated property, the courtyard is entered through a 16th century half-timbered gatehouse, that has the most beautiful carvings on the wood surrounds. And, unlike many other Tudor buildings of this style, such as Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire, the Stokesay gatehouse has a yellowish daub instead of the ‘typical’ white.

Stokesay Castle comprises a large vaulted hall, with a number of lower and upper rooms at each end, and an adjoining three storey round tower. At the north end of the hall on the upper floor are half-timbered bay windows overlooking the parish church of St John the Baptist. This is as old as the manor, but was also rebuilt during the Civil Wars in the 17th century. Sadly, the main part of the church roof is covered in ‘modern’ tiles, rather than what were probably once stone tiles, just like the main hall of the castle.

No doubt if walls could talk, those at Stokesay would have a lot to relate. Located as it is on the English-Welsh border – the Marches – the castle no doubt saw its fair share of turmoil and violence. Some of the key conflicts of the Wars of the Roses occurred in this general area, and it’s unlikely that Stokesay would have been spared.

A number of features are worth describing, besides the gatehouse.

The roof of the hall is a wonderful timber construction, and the underside of the tiles is still exposed; you can still see how they were fastened to the eaves.

To the south of the hall, and one floor up, is the solar, a room with 17th century wood paneling. It has two small windows from which to monitor goings-on in the hall below.

Then there is the tower. Initially we couldn’t find any way to climb to the roof. And although we had reached the second floor, we didn’t notice a small doorway, in the wall to the side of a window, leading to another stone stairway.

The rooms in the tower are inhabited by several species of bat, some rare, and infected apparently with bat rabies. Caution!

The moat is now a walk right round the castle, and on the east side planted with flower beds, as are parts of the courtyard.

After almost two hours, and a visit to the church as well, we’d seen everything there was to see, and headed northeast, and two millennia back in time, to Roman Britain.

Now I have been to Rome many, many times, a city almost littered with ruins. In the Baths of Caracalla, for example (close the headquarters of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization where I attended many meetings), all the beauty of Roman brickwork is exposed for all to see. At Wroxeter Roman city – or, more correctly, Viroconium Cornoviorum – there are the remains of typical Roman buildings, displaying the same construction techniques as in the Baths of Caracalla, with alternate layers of red tiles and brickwork, hard as concrete. Click on the artist’s interpretation below for a large image of the city in its heyday.

20150414 134 Wroxeter Roman city

Viroconium was reportedly the fourth largest settlement in Roman Britain, and as large as Pompeii. Established as a Roman garrison in about AD55, the soldiers had moved on within a few decades, but the city continued to grow. It remained an important town until the Romans left Britain in the fifth century, and went into slow decline for another couple of centuries until sacked by the Anglo-Saxons.

Not much remains today, just a site about 150m square or so. Over the centuries stone was taken from the site and used for building materials in the local village of Wroxeter, and farms in the surrounding district. Located as it was close to the River Severn, and commanding a site on the border with Wales, Viroconium was an important base for the Roman campaign against the Welsh tribes.

20150414 095 Wroxeter Roman city

Close to Wroxeter lies Coalbrookdale – site of the birth of the Industrial Revolution and iron smelting. This part of Shropshire is rich in coal and iron ore.

The exposed ruins today cover the central city block or insula near the forum, markets and bath house.

If what remains exposed today is just one city block, then the city itself would have been an impressive piece of Rome in its distant province of Britannia – the very edge of the empire.

Three, five or seven? On the Tresham Trail.

Spring had really sprung a couple of days ago. With hardly a cloud in the sky, and a warm day promising, Steph and I headed east some 80 odd miles from our home in north Worcestershire, to visit two properties in Northamptonshire constructed in the late 16th century by Catholic Sir Thomas Tresham, a celebrated recusant who was imprisoned on several occasions for his faith.

First stop, in Rushton, was one of the most peculiar buildings I’ve ever visited but I’d wanted to see for quite some time – I’d seen it on TV in the past year.

eh-logoThe Triangular Lodge – a folly – was completed by 1597, is owned and managed today by English Heritage. This was our first visit to an English Heritage property since we became members at the beginning of the year.

20150409 002 Rushton Triangular Lodge

Full of religious symbolism, the Lodge is a perfect triangular building, and there are threes everywhere you look. The sides of the building are exactly 33 feet long, the windows are triangular. There are three floors from basement to upper floor. Each floor has a hexagonal room, with a small room in two of the corners and the stairwell in the third. The roof is a triangular maze.

Constructed of alternate bands of light and dark limestone, the Triangular Lodge is odd – and yet ethereally beautiful – in so many ways. A testament to Tresham’s devotion to the Holy Trinity, it continues to stand in a corner of rural Northamptonshire.

Just 12 miles from Rushton is another Tresham treasure – Lyveden New Bield. At first glance, it appears a desolate ruin, and one imagines what calamity has befallen this impressive building. But it’s not a ruin. Tresham died before it was completed, and there has never been a roof. It is now owned and managed by the National Trust.

20150409 092 Lyveden

Designed as a garden lodge or secret retreat to which he could retire, or even worship as a Catholic in privacy, Lyveden New Bield has all the religious symbolism – and more – that we encountered at the Rushton Triangular Lodge. It is shaped like a perfectly symmetrical Greek cross, each of the four wings of the building mirroring the others. Each of the bow windows has five sections, each five feet wide.

There are no floors but they must have been in place at some time or another since there are wood remnants in the walls where joists would have spanned the building. You enter the building through a very low servants’ entrance (on the south side), into what would have been the basement; there’s a large fireplace and behind, a series of ovens in what must have been the kitchen.

The main entrance, on the north side, is almost six feet or so above ground level. The arches above the entrance and to other internal doors are fully finished and sculpted.

CCI11042015_00001The lodge stands on an open lawn, surrounded by a ditch on all sides, not far from the moat that once surrounded (but on three sides only) a 14th century manor house, now totally demolished and erased from the landscape. But nearby, there are the outlines of what would have been a parterre, and more intriguingly, a Tudor labyrinth. Its existence only came to light in recent years after someone discovered a wartime aerial photograph from the Luftwaffe – presumably on their way to raid Coventry or Birmingham. An old orchard has been replanted with varieties of apple, pear, plum, damson, quince and medlar among others from the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale in Kent. Nearby is the old hall, Lyveden Old Bield, which was Tresham’s home after he moved from the original family home of Rushton Hall.

As a young boy, Tresham went to live with the Throckmorton family of Coughton Court near Alcester in Warwickshire (and only 12 miles from our home) and eventually married one of the daughters. One of their sons was implicated in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, as were the Throckmorton family.

What’s in a name? I’m on a germplasm ID crusade!

What’s in a name? Well, not a lot it seems when it comes to crop germplasm. It’s a particular ‘bee in the bonnet’ I’ve had for many years.

We use names for everything. In the right context, a name is a ‘shorthand’ as it were for anything we can describe. In the natural world, we use a strict system of nomenclature (in Latin of all languages) – seemingly, to the non-specialist, continually and bewilderingly revised. Most plants and animals also have common names, in the vernacular, for everyday use. But while scientific nomenclature follows strict rules, the same can’t be said for common names.

Stretching an analogy
However, let me start by presenting you with an analogy. Take these two illustrious individuals for example.

We share the same name, though I doubt anyone would confuse us. Certainly not based on our phenotypes – what we look like. In any case, I’m WYSIWYG. Our ‘in common’ name implies no relationship whatsoever.

Marian_and_Vivian_BrownWhat about identical monozygotic twins, such as Marian and Val Brown? Dressing alike, they became celebrities in their adopted city of San Francisco from the 1970s until their deaths. Same genetics, but different names.

Maybe I’m stretching the analogy too much. I just want to hammer home the idea that sharing the same name should not imply common genetics. And different names might mask common genetics.

Naming crop varieties
So let’s turn to the situation in crop germplasm resources.

I had found in my doctoral research that apparently identical Andean potato varieties – based on morphology and tuber protein profiles – might have the same name or, if sourced from different parts of the country, completely different names given by local communities. And it also was not uncommon to find potatoes that looked very different having the same name – often based on some particular morphological characteristic. When we collected rice varieties in Laos during the 1990s, we described how Laotian farmers name their varieties [1].

During the 1980s my University of Birmingham colleague Brian Ford-Lloyd and I, with Susan Juned, studied somaclonal variation in the potato cv. Record. We received a sample of 50 or so tubers of Record, and fortunately decided to give each individual tuber its own ID number. The number of somaclones generated from each tuber was very different, and we attributed this to the fact that seed potatoes in the UK are ultimately produced from different tissue culture stocks. This suggested that there had been selection during culture for types that responded better to tissue culture per se [2]. The implication of course is that potato cv. Record (and many others) is actually an amalgam of many minor variants. I recently read a paper about farmer selection of somaclonal variants of taro (Colocasia esculenta) and cassava (Manihot esculenta) in Vanuatu.

Dropping the ID
But there is a trend – and a growing trend at that – to rely too much on names when it comes to crop germplasm. What I’ve found is that users of rice germplasm (and especially if they are rice breeders) rely too heavily on the variety name alone. And I’d be very interested to know if curators of other germplasm collections experience the same issue.

Why does this matter, and how to resolve this dilemma?

During the 1990s when we were updating the inventory of samples (i.e. accessions) in the International Rice Genebank Collection at IRRI, we discovered there were multiple accessions of several IRRI varieties, like IR36, IR64 or IR72. I’m not sure why they had been put into the collection, but they had been sourced from a number of countries around Asia.


We decided to carefully check whether the accessions with the same name (but different accession numbers) were indeed the same. So we planted a field trial to carefully measure a whole range of traits, not just morphological, but also some growth ones such as days to flowering. I should hasten to add that included among the accessions of each ‘variety’ was one accession added to the genebank collection at the time the variety had been released – the original sample of each.

We were surprised to discover that there were significant differences between accessions of a variety. I raised this issue with then head of IRRI’s plant breeding department, the eminent Indian rice breeder Dr Gurdev Khush. Rather patronizingly, I thought, he dismissed my concerns as irrelevant. As a rice breeder with several decades of experience and the breeder responsible for their release, he assured me that he ‘knew’ what the varieties should look like and how they ought to perform. I think he regarded me as a ‘rice parvenu’.

It seemed to me that farmers had made selections from within these varieties that had been grown in different environments, but then had kept the same name. So it was not a question of ‘IR36 is IR36 is IR36‘. Maybe there was still some measure of segregation at the time of original release in an otherwise genetically uniform variety.

I have a hunch that some of the equivocal results from different labs during the early rice genome research using the variety Nipponbare can be put down to the use of different seed sources of Nipponbare.

Germplasm requests for seeds from the International Rice Genebank Collection often came by variety name, like Nipponbare or Azucena for example. But which Nipponbare or Azucena, since the there are multiple samples of these and many others in the collection?

What I also discovered is that when it comes to publication of their research, many rice scientists frequently omit to include the germplasm accession numbers – the unique IDs. Would ‘discard’ be too strong an indictment?

I was reviewing a manuscript just a few days ago, of a study that included rice germplasm from IRRI and another genebank. There was a list of the germplasm, by accession/variety name but not the accession number. Now how irresponsible is that? If someone else wanted to repeat or extend that study (and there are so many other instances of the same practice) how would they know which actual samples to choose? There is just this belief – and it beggars belief – that germplasm samples with the same name are genetically the same. However, we know that is not the case. It takes no effort to provide the comprehensive list of germplasm accession numbers alongside variety names.

Accession numbers should be required
I’m on the editorial board of Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution. I have proposed to the Editor-in-Chief that any manuscript that does not include the germplasm accession numbers (or provenance of the germplasm used) should be automatically sent back to the authors for revision, and even rejected if this information cannot be provided, whatever the quality of the science! Listing the germplasm accession numbers should become a requirement for publication.

Draconian response? Pedantic even? I don’t think so, since it’s a fundamental germplasm management and use issue.

[1] Appa Rao, S., C. Bounphanousay, J.M. Schiller & M.T. Jackson, 2002. Naming of traditional rice varieties by farmers in the Lao PDR. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 49, 83-88.
[2] Juned, S.A., M.T. Jackson & B.V. Ford-Lloyd, 1991. Genetic variation in potato cv. Record: evidence from in vitro “regeneration ability”. Annals of Botany 67, 199-203.


J Trevor Williams, genetic resources champion, passes away at 76

Yesterday evening I heard the sad news that an old friend and someone who was very influential at important stages of my career, had passed away peacefully at his home on 30 March, at the age of 76.

21 June 1938 – 30 March 2015

Professor J T Williams (JT to his friends, or simply Trevor) played an important role during the late 70s and throughout the 80s in establishing an international network of genebanks that today underpin world food security.

The Birmingham years
I first met Trevor in September 1970 when I joined the 1-year MSc course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources at the University of Birmingham. There’s no need to write about the course here as I have done so elsewhere on my blog. Short and stocky, a whirlwind of energy – and an inveterate chain smoker – Trevor joined the Department of Botany in 1968 or 1969, having been recruited by head of department Jack Hawkes to become the Course Tutor for that genetic resources course (which opened its doors in September 1969 and continued to train students over more than three decades).

20 Ed & Mike

L to R: Prof. Jack Hawkes, Dr Mike Jackson, and Dr Trevor Williams. Graduation Day, 12 December 1975, University of Birmingham

One of Trevor’s main teaching responsibilities was a course on taxonomic methods that inspired me so much that very quickly I decided that I wanted to write my dissertation under his supervision. Fortunately, Trevor was quite happy to take on this role, and by November 1970 we had agreed on a topic: on the origin and diversity of lentils (Lens culinaris). I’d indicated an interest in working on grain legumes, a hangover, I guess, from my Southampton undergraduate days where Joe Smartt, a leading grain legume specialist, had encouraged me to apply to the Birmingham course. But why how did we settle on lentils? Trevor and I worked our way through the various genera of the Fabaceae in Flora Europaea until we came to Lens and read this concise statement under the cultivated lentil, L. culinaris: Origin not known. Well, that piqued our curiosity and we set about acquiring seed samples of as many different varieties from a wide geographical range as possible.

In 1971-72 my wife Steph also worked with Trevor for her dissertation on growth and reproductive strategies in a range of grain legumes – lentil and chickpea among them. While Trevor supervised several MSc students during his years at Birmingham, I believe he had only one PhD student – another close friend, Emeritus Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd, and together they carried out a pioneering study of the genus Beta (beets!) When I moved to the University of Birmingham in 1981, I was assigned Trevor’s old office in the Department of Plant Biology (formerly Botany).

Cambridge and Bangor
Trevor took his first degree in Natural Sciences from Cambridge University (Selwyn College, I believe), followed by a PhD at the University College of North Wales (now Bangor University) under the eminent ecologist and plant population biologist, Professor John Harper. Trevor then moved to Switzerland (I don’t remember where), and took a higher doctoral degree on the study of plant communities, or phytosociology. I’m also not sure if this was supervised by Josias Braun-Blanquet, the most influential phytosociologist of the time.

The move to Rome
In about 1977 Trevor was recruited to become the Executive Secretary of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources that was founded under the auspices of the FAO in 1974. He remained with IBPGR until 1990. Following his retirement from IBPGR, it became the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), then Bioversity International in 2006.Under his tenure, IBPGR sponsored a large number of collecting missions around the world – this was the germplasm collecting decade – as well sponsoring training opportunities for genetic resources specialists, not least to the MSc course at Birmingham. Although IBPGR/IPGRI remained under the auspices of FAO until the early 1990s, it had become part of the network of international agricultural research centers under the CGIAR. And Trevor served as Chair of the Center Directors for at least one year at the end of the 1980s. In 1989 the Birmingham course celebrated its 20th anniversary; IBPGR sponsored a special reunion and refresher course at Birmingham and in Rome for a number of past students. We also recognized the unique contribution of IBPGR and Trevor joined us for those celebrations – which I have written about elsewhere in my blog.

Adi Damania (now at UC-Davis) sent me the photo below, of IBPGR staff on 2 December 1985, and taken at FAO Headquarters in Rome.


Sitting from L to R: Dorothy Quaye, Murthy Anishetty, unknown, J. Trevor Willams, Jean Hanson, unknown, Jane Toll. Standing L to R: Unknown, Adi Damania, unknown, unknown, Jeremy Watts, Merril, unknown, George Sayour, Pepe Esquinas-Alcazar, unknown, Chris Chapman, John Peeters, Jan Konopka, unknown temp, unknown, John Holden, Dick van Sloten.

In the 1990s Trevor spent some years helping to organize the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) as a legal entity with its headquarters in Beijing, China. And it was there in about 1995 or 1996 or so that our paths crossed once again. I was visiting the Institute of Botany in Beijing with one of my staff from IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center, Dr Bao-Rong Lu. One evening, after a particularly long day, we were relaxing in the hotel bar that overlooked the foyer and main entrance. As we were chatting, I noticed someone crossed the foyer and into the dining room who I thought I recognized. It was Trevor, and I joined him to enjoy more than a few beers until late into the night. I didn’t have any further contact with Trevor until one evening in January or February 2012. It was about 7.30 pm or so when the phone rang. It was Trevor ringing to congratulate me on my appointment as an OBE in the New Year’s Honours List. We must have chatted for over 30 minutes, and it was great to catch up. That was the last time I spoke with him, and even then he told me his health was not so good.

But let’s not be too sad at Trevor’s passing. Instead let’s celebrate the man and his enormous contribution to the conservation of plant genetic resources worldwide. His important role will be remembered and recognized for decades to come. I feel privileged that I knew and worked with him. His incisive intellect and commitment to the conservation of genetic resources and community made him one of my role models. Thank you, Trevor, for your friendship, words of wisdom, and above all, your encouragement – not only to me, but to your many students who have since contributed to the cause of genetic conservation.

Remembering Trevor – updates
Trevor’s funeral was held on Wednesday 22 April at 13:30, at St Chad’s Church, Handforth, Cheshire. His sister Wendy asked that in lieu of sending flowers, donations could be made to the Millennium Seed Bank at Kew. Jill Taylor, Development Officer at the Kew Foundation has set up an ‘account fund’ in Trevor’s name – that way she can collate the donations and be able to provide the family with a total amount raised. She will of course make sure that the whole amount is used for the work of the Millennium Seed Bank. All donations can be sent for Jill’s attention:

Jill Taylor Kew Foundation 47 Kew Green Richmond TW9 3AB
Tel: 020 8332 3248
Cheques should be made payable to ‘Millennium Seed Bank’
Donations can also be made online using this live link – https://thankqportal.kew.org/portal/public/donate/donate.aspx
 If you donate online, please also email Jill at commemorative@kew.org so that she can assign it to Trevor’s ‘fund’. That email inbox is monitored by a small group so will be attended even if Jill is away.

Brian Ford-Lloyd and I attended Trevor’s funeral, along with Roger Croston, also a Birmingham MSc course alumnus and a collector for IBPGR for about two years from 1980 or so.

Trevor’s sister, the Reverend Wendy Williams (celebrating 55 years since she was ordained) gave a beautiful eulogy, highlighting Trevor’s strong Christian faith – something neither Brian, Roger or I were aware of – and the charitable work he was involved with in Washington, DC after he left IBPGR, but also in Rome during his IBPGR years. Click on the image below to read the Service of Thanksgiving.


Here’s the link to the obituary that was published on 1 May in the UK’s Daily Telegraph broadsheet newspaper.

An obituary was published online on 1 July in the international journal Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution. Click here to read. And another in the Indian Journal of Plant Genetic Resources.

Getting to know IRRI . . .

IRRI-logoand the CGIAR
The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), based in Los Baños, Philippines (about 65 km south of Manila), was founded in 1960, the first of what would become a consortium of 15 international agricultural research institutes funded through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

IRRI from the air

Listen to CGIAR pioneers Dr Norman Borlaug and former World Bank President (and US Defense Secretary) Robert McNamara talk about how the CGIAR came into being in 1971.

I spent almost 19 years at IRRI, more than eight years at a sister center in Peru, the International Potato Center (CIP), and worked closely with another, Bioversity International (formerly known as the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources – IBPGR – from its foundation in 1974 to October 1991, when it became the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute – IPGRI – until 2006).

Who funds IRRI and the other centers of the CGIAR?
IRRI and the other centers receive much of their financial support as donations from governments through their overseas development assistance budgets. In the case of the United Kingdom, the Department for International Development (DFID)is the agency responsible for supporting the CGIAR, it’s USAID in the USA, and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) in Switzerland, for example. In the last decade, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has become a major donor to the CGIAR.

During my second career at IRRI, from May 2001 until my retirement at the end of April 2010 I was responsible, as Director for Program Planning and Communications (DPPC), for managing the institute’s research portfolio, liaising with the donor community, and making sure, among other things, that the donors were kept abreast of research developments at IRRI. I had the opportunity to visit many of the donors in their offices in the capitals of several European countries and elsewhere. However, very few of the people responsible for the CGIAR funding in the donor agencies had actually visited IRRI (or, if they had, it wasn’t in recent years). One thing that did concern me in working with some donors was their blinkered perspectives on what constituted research for development, and the day-to-day challenges that an international institute like IRRI and its staff face. I guess that’s not surprising really since some had never worked outside their home countries let alone undertake field research.

International Centers Week 2002
In those days, the CGIAR used to hold its annual meeting – International Centers Week – in October, and for many years this was always held at the World Bank in Washington, DC. But from about 2000 or 2001, it was decided to move this annual ‘shindig’ outside the Bank to one of the countries where a center was located. In October 2002, Centers Week came to Manila in the Philippines, hosted by the Department of Agriculture.

What an opportunity, one that IRRI was not going to ignore, to have many of the institute’s donors visit IRRI and see for themselves what this great institution was all about. Having seen the initial program that would bring several hundred delegates to Los Baños over two days – on the 28th (visiting Philippine institutions) and 29th October (at IRRI) but returning to Manila overnight in between – we decided to invite as many donors as wished to be our guests overnight. Rumour had it that the Chair of the CGIAR then, Ian Johnson (a Vice President of the World Bank) and CGIAR Director Dr Franscisco Reifschneider, were not best pleased about this IRRI ‘initiative’.

Most donors did accept our invitation, and we hosted a dinner reception on the Monday evening, returning some of the hospitality we’d been offered during our visits to donor agencies. This also gave our scientists a great chance to meet with the donors and talk about their science. Most (but not all scientists) are the best ambassadors for their research and the institute; however, some just can’t avoid using technical jargon or see past the minutiae of their scientific endeavors.

As the dinner drew to a close, I spread word that the party would continue at my house, just a short distance from IRRI’s Guesthouse. As far as I remember about a dozen or so donor friends followed me down the hill, and we continued our ‘discussions’ into the small hours. Just after dawn I staggered out of bed and, with a rather ‘thick head’, went to see the ‘damage’ in our living room, where I found a large number of empty glasses, and several empty whisky, gin and wine bottles. A good time was had by all! Unfortunately it was also pouring with rain, which did nothing to lift my spirits. Our program for the day had been developed around a series of field visits – we didn’t have an indoor Plan B in case of inclement weather.

However, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me tell you how did we went about organizing the IRRI Day on the 29th October.

Getting organized
12213957474_757eaf1d74_oRon Cantrell, IRRI’s Director General in 2002 asked me to organize IRRI Day. But what to organize and who to involve? We decided very early on that, as much as possible, to show our visitors rice growing in the field, but with some laboratory stops where appropriate or indeed feasible, taking into account the logistics of moving a large number of people through relatively confined spaces.

How to move everyone around the fields without having the inconvenience getting on and off buses? In 1998 I had attended a symposium to mark the inauguration of the Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center in Stuttgart, Arkansas (self-proclaimed Rice and Duck Capital of the World). To visit the various field plots we were taken around on flat-bed trailers, towed by a tractor. We sat on straw bails, and each trailer also had an audio system. It was easy to hop on and off at each of the stops along the tour. However, we had nothing of that kind at IRRI and, in any case, we reckoned that any trailers would need some protection against the sun – or worse, a sudden downpour.

And that’s how I began a serious collaboration with our Experimental Farm manager, Joe Rickman to solve the transport issue.


Joe Rickman

We designed and had constructed at least 10 trailers, or bleachers as they became known. As far as I know these are still used to take visitors around the experimental plots when appropriate.


So, transport solved. But what program of field and laboratory visits would best illustrate the work of the institute? In front of the main entrance to IRRI are many demonstration plots with roads running between them where we could show research on water management, long-term soil management, rice breeding, and pest management. We also opened the genetic transformation and molecular biology labs and, I think, the grain quality lab. I just can’t remember if the genebank was included. The genebank is usually on the itinerary for almost all visitors to IRRI but, given the numbers expected on IRRI Day, and that the labs are environment controlled – coll and low humidity – I expect we decided to by-pass that.

The IRRI All Stars
From the outset I decided that we would need staff to act as guides and hosts, riding the trailers, providing a running commentary between ‘research stations’. I put word out among the local staff that I was looking to recruit about 20-30 staff to act as tour guides; I also approached several staff who I knew quite well and who I thought would enjoy the opportunity of taking part. What amazed me is that several non-research staff approached me asking if they could participate, and once we’d made the final selection, we had both human resources and finance staff among the IRRI All Stars.

L-R: Carlos Casal, Jr., Josefina Narciso, Ato Reano, (???), Arnold Manza, Crisel Ramos, Varoy Pamplona, Lina Torrizo, (???), Jessica Rey, Caloy Huelma, Beng Enriquez, Joe Roxas, (???), Sylvia Avance, (???), Mark Nas, Ofie Namuco, Estella Pasuquin, (???), Ninay Herradura, Lily Molina, Tom Clemeno, Joel Janiya.

The IRRI All Stars L-R: Carlos Casal, Jr., Josefina Narciso, Ato Reano, Reycel Maghirang-Rodriguez, Arnold Manza, Crisel Ramos, Varoy Pamplona, Lina Torrizo, Tina Cassanova, Jessica Rey, Caloy Huelma, Beng Enriquez, Joe Roxas, Remy Labuguen, Sylvia Avance, Ailene Garcia-Sotelo, Mark Nas, Ofie Namuco, Estella Pasuquin, Ria Tenorio, Ninay Herradura, Lily Molina, Tom Clemeno, Joel Janiya.

Once we had a trailer available, then we began planning and practising in earnest. I wanted my colleagues to feel confident in their roles, knowledgeable about what everyone would see in the field, as well as feeling comfortable fielding any questions thrown at them by the visitors.

I think some of the All Stars felt it was a bit of a baptism by fire. I was quite tough on them, and encouraged everyone to critique each other’s ‘performance’. And things got tougher once we had the research scientists in the field strutting their stuff during the practice runs. My guides were merciless in their comments to colleagues about their research explanations. Not only did we reduce the jargon to a manageable level, but soon everyone appreciated that they had to be able to explain not only what they were researching, but why it was important to rice farmers. And in doing so, to actually talk to their audience, making eye contact and engaging with them.

It was worth all the time and effort we spent before IRRI Day. Because on the day itself, everyone shone. I don’t think I’ve been prouder of my colleagues. After the early morning rain, the clouds parted and by 9 am when we started the tours, it was a glorious Los Baños day at IRRI. The feedback from the delegates, especially the donor representatives, was overwhelming. Many had, as I mentioned earlier, a blinkered view of research for development, and rice research in particular. More than a few had a ‘Damascene experience’. Many had never even seen a rice paddy before. I believe that IRRI’s stock rose among the donor community during the 2002 International Centers Week – due in no small part to their very positive interactions with IRRI’s research staff and the All Stars.

On reflection, we had a lot of fun at the same time. It was extremely rewarding to see how positive all the staff were about contributing to the success of IRRI Day. But that’s the IRRI staff for you. Many a visitor has mentioned as they leave what a great asset are the staff to IRRI’s success. I know from my own 19 years there. In fact we had so much fun that just over a week later we held another IRRI Day for all staff, following the same route around the field and listening to the same researchers.

Using camera-mounted drones, it’s now possible to give IRRI’s visitors a whole new perspective.




Safeguarding rice biodiversity . . .

lao294I can’t claim it was the most successful project that IRRI – the International Rice Research Institute – ever managed. That would be too arrogant by half.

But by mid-2000 we successfully finished a project, Safeguarding and Preservation of the Biodiversity of the Rice Genepool, funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), that significantly enhanced the long-term conservation of rice genetic resources.

The SDC was extremely generous, and funded much of the proposed budget, donating USD3.286 million. Approved for funding in November 1993, we didn’t actually begin any of the project activities in earnest until 1995. That was because we spent 1994 ‘selling’ the project to our colleagues in national genetic resources programs and their superiors in the target countries, holding a series of planning meetings, and forming a Steering Committee, as well as recruiting several staff.


So the effective period of the project were the five years between 1995 and 1999, with a no-cost extension taking the project past its original end date of November 1998. But, as far as the SDC was concerned, this was never a problem. We kept everyone regularly updated on progress and achievements, and in any case, the donor had insisted that time was spent at the project’s initiation bringing everyone on board. It was certainly time well spent. This was particularly so in 1993-94. Why? Well in December 1993 the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) came into force (having been opened for signature at the Rio Earth Summit in June 1992) – just a few weeks after our rice biodiversity project was given the green light. And since the collection of rice varieties and wild species was a major component of the project, we weren’t sure just how committed several countries would be to participate in the project, let alone share their germplasm with others or send a duplicate sample of all collected germplasm for long-term preservation in the International Rice Genebank at IRRI. The negotiations leading to the CBD had certainly opened many cans of worms in terms of access to and use of germplasm, and to what extent germplasm had a strictly commercial value. While so-called ‘agricultural biodiversity’ (the landrace crop varieties, among others) was not the main focus of the CBD, this international treaty did provide the legal framework for access to germplasm, during the period leading up to the CBD, there had been a drop-off in the number of germplasm collecting expeditions, particularly those that were internationally-led. And of course, this was years before the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture had been negotiated to provide the legal framework for germplasm exchange and use.

I think it says a lot for the international standing and reputation of IRRI that we encountered remarkably little opposition (especially among Asian nations) to the idea of participating in a collaborative concerted effort to collect and preserve as much rice biodiversity as possible. Essentially to try and fill the gaps in earlier germplasm collecting efforts. It seemed to us that this was the moment to seize. Civil conflicts were a thing of the past in several countries, infrastructure had improved providing access to areas and regions that had previously been inaccessible. In any case, with the rapid development that some countries were undergoing, we feared that unless something was done, then and there, there might not be an opportunity again in the foreseeable future, and valuable germplasm might be lost. The project had three components on germplasm collecting, on farm conservation, and training.

For germplasm collecting, we recruited two staff: Dr Seepana Appa Rao from India (who had spent much of his career at one of IRRI’s sister centers, ICRISAT in Hyderabad) and Dr Sigrid Liede from Germany. Existing IRRI staff Dr Bao-Rong Lu, a taxonomist from China and Ms Eves Loresto also took on important collecting and training responsibilities.

For the on farm conservation work, geneticist Dr Jean-Louis Pham from France was seconded to IRRI from his home institute IRD for five years. Two social anthropologists, Dr Mauricio Bellon from Mexico and Dr Stephen Morin from the USA worked in the project.

Within six months of the end of the project, we had submitted our final report and an interactive CD containing all the germplasm collecting and training reports, publications, and up to 1000 images (with a descriptive spreadsheet with live links to each image). Just click on the CD image below to automatically download a zip file (approximately 460 MB). Extract or copy the folders and files in the zip file to a new folder Rice Biodiversity on your computer, and click on the Start file. (There is a Read me! file in case you need more instructions.) Unfortunately it’s not possible to open the files interactively directly from the zip file here – you have to download. But that’s where you will find all the detail.


So below, I’ve included just a few highlights of what the project achieved, and its impact.

Collection and ex situ conservation of wild and cultivated rices
Germplasm collectors made one hundred and sixty-five collecting trips, lasting from just a few days to several weeks, in 22 countries between 1995 and 1999. A total of 24,718 samples of cultivated rice (Oryza sativa) was collected, and 2,416 samples of 16 wild Oryza species, weedy types and putative hybrids, and some unclassified samples; there were also samples of at least four species from three related genera.

The collecting effort in the Lao PDR was particularly impressive, with more than 13,000 samples of cultivated and wild rice now safely conserved in the local genebank and in the IRG. The collecting activities in sub-Saharan Africa focused almost entirely on wild species, and in general the number of samples collected was not high. The resource investment to collect this material was quite high but realistic given the somewhat sparse geographical distribution of the species populations, and the difficulties in collecting.

By the end of the project, more than 80% of the cultivated rice samples and 68% of the wild had been sent to the International Rice Genebank at IRRI for long-term conservation. All the details can be seen here.

On farm management of traditional rice varieties
In 1994, IRRI organized a workshop about on farm conservation of genetic resources. The participants agreed on the need to develop its scientific basis,because on farm  conservation of genetic resources was strongly advocated in international forums, but there was limited understanding of what this approach really meant. We therefore felt that more research should be conducted to understand farmers’ management of crop diversity and its genetic consequences. This was especially true in the case of rice for which very limited knowledge was available. So we set out to:

  • increase knowledge on farmers’ management of rice diversity, the factors that influence it, and its genetic implications; and
  • identify strategies to involve farmers’ managed systems in the overall conservation of rice genetic resources.

We developed research sites and teams in northern Luzon, Philippines, in central Vietnam, and in Orissa, India. And always we had that mix of geneticists and social scientists to provide a broad perspective on the dynamics of rice agriculture in terms of on farm management/conservation.

The contribution of this IRRI-coordinated project for on-farm conservation was to:

  • bring hard data and facts to the debate on the use and relevancy of on-farm conservation of rice genetic resources, and on the impact of deployment of modern varieties on biodiversity;
  • identify avenues for the implementation of on-farm conservation strategies;
  • explore the role that research institutions could play in the future;
  • develop methodologies and competencies in the assessment of rice diversity and its management by farmers through partnership with national programs;
  • increase the awareness and understanding of issues related to on-farm conservation and the value of local diversity both in NARS and local development agencies;
  • share its experience, with other researchers through the participation to various conferences and meetings, publication of papers, organization of a workshop, and collaboration with other projects.

An important ‘spin-off’ from the research concerned the restoration of germplasm in areas where varieties had been lost. During the course of the research, a major typhoon hit northern Luzon in the Philippines where we were working with farmers. During that season almost all of rice agriculture was wiped out, and many farmers no longer had access to the varieties they had previously grown, and none were available through official Department of Agriculture channels. Fate was on our side. In a previous season, project staff had samples a wide range of varieties from the farmers at the project sites, taken them to Los Baños, grown them out for morphological and genetic characterization and, in the process, multiplying the seed stocks. We were able to provide each farmer with up to 1 kg of seeds of each variety on request, and in total we sent back about 20 tonnes of seeds. Not all farmers wanted their indigenous varieties and changed over completely to modern, high-yielding varieties.

Strengthening of germplasm conservation by national agricultural research systems (NARS) and non-government organizations/ farmers’ organizations (NGOs/FOs)
Between 1995 and 1999, we ran 48 courses or on-the-job training opportunities in 14 countries and at IRRI headquarters in the Philippines. The training encompassed field collection and conservation, characterization, wild rice species, data management and documentation, genebank management, seed health, analysis of socioeconomic data, and molecular analysis of germplasm. And we trained more than 670 national program personnel. IRRI staff were involved in the management, coordination, and presentation of almost all the training activities.

However, the story doesn’t end there.


Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton

While some gaps remain for germplasm collection and duplication of germplasm at IRRI, these issues have been taken up by my successor as head of the TT Chang Genetic Resources Center, Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton. Even so, the size of the International Rice Genebank Collection (IRGC) had increased by about 25% by 2000, not bad for a period when discussions in international fora (the CBD and the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture) had put the brakes on germplasm sharing. Most of the national collections in Asia are now duplicated at IRRI, although some important Indian germplasm has never been duplicated, and I believe this remains the case still. The Africa Rice Center and IRRI have also cross-duplicated African germplasm, but I don’t have the latest information on this nor on the status with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia.

Since the biodiversity project ended, the International Treaty mentioned earlier has also come into force and rice is one of the important crops specifically covered by that treaty.

To ensure the long-term conservation of rice germplasm at IRRI, there was a significant investment during the early 1990s to refurbish and upgrade the genebank as well as enhancing the actual conservation procedures followed. In recent years another sub-zero storage vault for long-term conservation was added to the genebank.

When I joined IRRI as head of the Genetic Resources Center in 1991 there was already in place an agreement with the USDA-ARS National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation for the ‘black box’ safety duplication of the entire IRRI collection – and that continues today.

In February 2008 a significant dimension was added to global crop germplasm conservation efforts with the opening of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault under the auspices of the Global Crop Diversity Trust (and the Government of Norway) – photos courtesy of the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

The whole IRRI collection – including those samples collected during the SDC-funded project – are now safely sitting under the permafrost in Spitsbergen, inside the Arctic Circle.

In this video, you can see genebank staff at IRRI preparing all the seed samples to send to Svalbard.

And in the next video, the late Professor Wangari Maathai (Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in 2004 and at that time a Board Member of the Global Crop Diversity Trust) and the Prime Minister of Norway, H.E. Mr Jens Stoltenberg carry the first box of germplasm – from IRRI no less – into the seed vault.

The work to safeguard rice biodiversity is never-ending. But a great deal has been achieved. Being part of a global network of genebanks – some in several Asian countries focusing specifically on rice  – IRRI’s contribution is extremely important.


The broad genetic diversity of rice and its wild relatives is safe for the future, and I’m very proud to have played my part in that effort.