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.

24 thoughts on “J Trevor Williams, genetic resources champion, passes away at 76

  1. Eliseu Bettencourt says:

    I’m deeply sorry. We talked on the phone last December and he was in good humour sounding quite well in spite of his ilness. My first consultancy to IBPGR, in 1985, was on his invitation and we always had a good relationship so that we kept in touch ever since. His contributions to the advancement of PGR remains milestones and an example to all of us who had the honour and the privilege to have known and learn from him. May he rest in peace!


  2. Brian says:

    I was indeed Trevor’s first PhD student, starting in 1970, but there were at least two others – Andrew Scott and Christine Bowie, both of whom worked on beet. As well as jointly naming two new taxa, Trevor and I collected wild and cultivated beet in Turkey in 1972, quite an experience! We subsequently jointly published a definitive work on the taxonomy and origins of cultivated beets, and this work was an influence on my subsequent research career.

    Like Mike, the last contact I had was a sudden telephone call from Trevor to congratulate me on getting my chair. He was in great spirits at that time and it was quite touching that he found the energy to get in touch with one of his past students.

    I’ll leave it to others to highlight what he did for the global development of plant genetic resources conservation, having been the first director of IBPGR (International Board for Plant Genetic Resources), which became IPGRI (International Plant Genetic Resources Institute) – currently Bioversity International – certainly quite an achievement!


  3. Adi Damania says:

    It was 18th of October 1974 when I first walked wide-eyed in to the Dept. of Botany at the University of Birmingham. I was told to report to Dr J.T. Williams, so as I walked along the corridor looking for the correct office, I came upon the door that said J.T. Williams and knocked on it. The door opened and there was JTW. He greeted me very enthusiastically and told me that was the first to arrive among the students for the 1974-75 M.Sc. Course on “Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources”. Almost immediately he ushered me in to the office of the head of the Dept. Prof. Jack Hawkes. I told them of my previous one month apprenticeship at the Genebank in Braunschweig, Germany and was told to write a report on the visit. Thus began my association with JTW.
    Subsequently, JTW was kind enough to draft me as one of the small army of “plant collectors” which the IBPGR employed during the early days of 1976 until the late 1980s. JTW helped me get my PhD degree in 1983 as an external student at the University of Birmingham. I left IBPGR in December 1985 and joined ICARDA. From that time until last X’mas I never failed to receive a greeting card from him. He was a great motivator, benefactor, and a friend and I will always be very grateful to him for helping me launch my career as a genetic resources scientist.
    Trevor made a very large contribution towards the conservation of crop genetic resources for the future use of mankind. He was also responsible for the first efforts at documentation of the holdings of the world’s genebanks. From less than a dozen, when he took over as Exec. Secretary of the IBPGR, to over 7,000 today; they stand testimony to his drive and dedication to promote the collection, evaluation, and use of crop plant genetic resources. Gone, but not forgotten. May his soul rest in peace. – Adi
    PS: My wife Parvin also remembers him fondly for it was Trevor who phoned her at her work place in Bombay in the summer of 1980 to inform me to report to the Istituto Germoplasma immediately as everything had been arranged for my PhD research and a job for her too! Parvin’s office friends were shocked that someone called “Williams” from Rome, Italy, had called her directly. Word spread around Johnson & Johnson like wild fire – Parvin was leaving for Italy!


  4. Deborah Strauss says:

    Please forward to anyone you think would want to know. I am inexplicably sad. He was a very kind and generous mentor to me when I was a fledgling in this amazing community of devoted scientists and remarkably good people. His contributions were many during a very special era. Truly one of a kind.
    May he RIP.


  5. George AYAD says:

    I am deeply sad and lost for words. Trevor was my mentor, boss and friend. I have been in contact with him all these past years since he left Rome until last Christmas. I am honored to have been one of his close students and assistants. Trevor has been an initiator of one of the best international training courses and PGR conservation program ever. His works will remain a testimony to these achievements. Dear Trevor RIP I will always remember you. George Ayad


  6. Thor says:

    Sad news. The passing of one who played such a significant role in guiding the collection and safe storage of primitive varieties and their wild relatives demands our respect. My three years with IBPGR in the early ’80s was intellectually invigorating, with many arguments over dinner at Pyramide. Trevor will be missed.


  7. Mike Jackson says:

    I contacted Phillada Collins, the elder daughter of Jack Hawkes. This is what she replied:
    Dear Mike
    Many thanks for sending me the news about Trevor Williams and for your blog. I know my father thought very highly of Trevor who did indeed make such a great contribution to genetic resoures
    Kind regards


  8. WendyWilliams says:

    Mike, I am Trevor’s sister Wendy and have tried to email you but each time it has been returned. I know of no other way to thank you for your blog which Nazzmul Haq informed me of . He has T’s phone number: where I will be tues-thurs this coming week (!7th-!9th)and my email address. Thank you too bloggers for I know of many of you through your contacts with Trevor. Your memories of him are a comfort to me and a help towards the Eulogy I am preparing..
    I placed his obituary notice in the Telegraph this Sat: 14th He actually died on the 30th March but the funeral could not be arranged until Wed:22nd of April. I am trying to make contact with folk but am working somewhat in the dark since he carried his address book with him around the world and it is crammed full of names and organisations..


  9. Setijati D. Sastrapradfja says:

    April 14, 2015. I just don’t know what to say learning that Trevor has gone. Sad, is the only word. Today I browsed his name in the computer.and found the sad news. No doubt Trevor was one among the pioneers of those who cared for PGR. Thank you very much Trevor for all you did for Indonesial. Setijati D. sastrapradja


  10. Roger Smith says:

    I was saddened when I learned yesterday of Trevor’s death. I hope that he had sufficient time in his later years to appreciate what he, those he taught and the wider network of IBPGR’s collaborators had achieved for future generations in conserving crop genetic resources.
    When I first met Trevor Williams in the late 1970s he had already eschewed his academic career in plant taxonomy and taken on the challenge of growing IBPGR from a small group within FAO into what became a global network of genetic resources with significance for crop plant breeders. I was a naïve seed biologist from Eric Robert’s lab at Reading University who had recently joined RBG Kew’s exploration of whether the Botanic Garden tradition of sharing seeds could be transformed into an effective tool for conservation of “wild” species through banking their seed.
    As was his way, Trevor was enthusiastically supportive of Kew becoming more involved in seed conservation but also challenging about the value of the bank’s contents that at that time were principally Agrostemma and Silene species.
    Our paths continued to cross during his time at IBPGR at plant genetic resources meetings and when I was used as one of their consultants on the technical aspects of seed conservation such as for the SADCC regional gene bank in Lusaka or leading the delivery of high-level seed biology courses for IBPGR collaborators at Wakehurst Place. Another Wakehurst link was the IBPGR seed handling unit responsible for assessing the quality of collections made on collecting trips before dispatching them to the designated base collection.
    I learned much from Trevor about how enthusiasm, openness, charm, guile and occasionally coercion are all involved in the creation of a functioning network even when financial support is available for your partners.
    By the time the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership became possible the issue that caused Trevor such frustration- the ownership of genetic resources- had been resolved through the negotiation of the Convention on Biological Diversity.
    The rocky road to MSBP was more open than the earlier one travelled by Trevor and IBPGR.

    That Trevor’s family should ask for donations to be made to the MSBP in his memory has come as a welcome surprise and a great source of pride. We must have got something right even with starting those Agrostemma and Silene species.

    With affection, many thanks “Little General”, you were good to know!


    • Mike Jackson says:

      Dear Roger, Thank you for these memories of Trevor. I have just sent the daily Telegraph an obituary to be published shortly. By its nature it is rather limited in length. But I am also preparing another, longer one for Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution, and some of your memories can be included there.


      • Roger Croston says:

        Thanks “JT” for giving me the chance to go to North Yemen, three times to The Sudan (the South and Darfur), and to the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. Not only for genetic resources, but also for a lifelong interest in the cultures there and to experience the hospitality of Muslims to the stranger, and the depth of Buddhist compassion.

        Indeed; thanks Trevor!

        Roger Croston
        Chester, England


  11. Diane Ragone says:

    I had the great pleasure of meeting Trevor when he visited Honolulu in 1986 and met with me to discuss my project to collect and document breadfruit germplasm in the Pacific Islands. He was encouraging and helpful and walked this naive graduate student through the steps of applying for a grant. IPGRI helped fund this project and today the breadfruit collection at the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawaii is one of his many enduring legacies in crop genetic resources.
    Diane Ragone, Kauai, Hawaii


  12. A very sad news for the entire plant genetic resources community worldwide. I met Trevor a couple of times in the late 1970s and across the 1980s, when passing though IBPGR headquarters after an exploration in Latin America or a visit to a lab in Europe. Energy irradiating from the man was always my first impression, and immediately after that iron willingness to leave writing contributions. Not that many professionals in plant genetic resources have left such an impressive list of technical papers. Crop genetic resources are to be saved by talented professionals, and Trevor understood that very early on, and acted accordingly, and strongly. Trevor’s way … ! Trevor: thank you for showing us the way. We miss you. Daniel G. Debouck


  13. Roy denton says:

    “… a whirlwind of energy who encouraged many students to follow a career in genetic conservation …” (from Obituary in The Telegraph, 30 April, 2015). I am proud to admit that I am one of them. I completed the pioneering MSc CUPGR course at Birmingham in 1976 and have followed a fascinating and rewarding career in pgr conservation and use ever since.

    Trevor’s passing has affected me greatly. He was a major mentor, inspiration and friend for many years. Although not meeting up personally for decades, he would immediately recognise my voice when phoning him during his illness and keenly follow news of my work and that of other pgr colleagues with whom I was still in touch; he continued to provide wise words of advice on current issues.

    I was fortunate to join Trevor’s band of fervent collectors (itinerant germplasm gypsies) working out of IBPGR, Rome in the early days, working in centres of diversity/variation in the Mediterranean, Africa and Asia and assisting in strengthening national pgr programmes. Trevor’s drive and enthusiasm was remarkable. A 3-year period as IRRI germplasm collector/advisor at the IRGC turned my focus towards the rice sector, in which I continue to be involved, currently on an ADB rice commercialization project in Cambodia.

    Thank you so much, Trevor.
    Roy in Phnom Penh.


  14. Jean Hanson says:

    Remembering Trevor:
    Trevor will be missed by his many friends and remembered for his inspirational leadership in plant genetic resources. He was one of the pioneers of crop genetic resources providing the energy and leadership to early efforts to establish crop genetic resources as a topic of global importance. He mentored many young scientists throughout his career, both inspiring them about the importance of genetic resources conservation and guiding them in their career development. He mentored me as a very young and naïve student, guided me in my career choices and supported me while working closely with him over many years.

    Professionally, Trevor was an outstanding scientist with a broad appreciation and knowledge about botany and genetics and how it could be applied to crop development and made significant contributions to genetic resources collection and genebank management.

    Personally, Trevor was a good friend, very loyal and supportive of his friends and close circle of trusted colleagues. I remember many good times with Trevor; collecting with him in Turkey in 1972, supervising my PhD work, taking a long road trip across Europe to attend the EUCARPIA meeting in 1974, pleasant evenings in Rome as one of his group of young staff and consultants having dinner with him at the Cestia or other trattoria near FAO. Those were special years in Rome as we developed the new programme and I am proud to say that I was one of the group of young professionals led by Trevor. I would not be where I am today without the support and guidance of Trevor. I know that he guided the lives and touched the hearts of many other young scientists over the years and will be greatly missed by his friends and the entire global genetic resources community.

    Thank you Trevor for your inspiration and friendship.


  15. Diane M. Wilson says:

    I was so sorry to hear that Trevor Williams had died.

    In 1971 I joined the Department of Botany at Birmingham University to work as private secretary to Prof. Hawkes. On my first morning Trevor burst into the office to have a look at the new recruit! He was an energetic, charismatic, unpretentious Junior Lecturer, totally unlike anyone I had met before. He was down to earth and full of plans, always with a cigarette and a fistful of work. I have such fond memories of him – a mid-morning phone call from a hospital bed to say that he hadn’t caught his plane, having crashed his Fiat at Northampton – even that didn’t bring him down! The lunchtime he insisted I have a go in his brand new pride and joy, a Fiat 850 – I only had a Fiat 500. Of the parties and cricket games in which he enthusiastically took part, sometimes I think to the dismay of his colleagues who thought he should uphold his status by behaving rather more soberly! My best memories are of his kindness. When I reluctantly left the Botany Department I up-graded to the University Careers Service. I arrived miserably in my new office on the first day to find a bouquet of flowers from Trevor which he knew would cheer me up! Trevor may have been of small build, but he had a huge personality and an even bigger heart. Others are more qualified to write of his skills as a teacher and mentor. I just thought he was a lovely chap and someone I never have, and never will, forget.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Mike Jackson says:

    Today (21 June) would have been Trevor’s 77th birthday. The obituary I have written for publication in Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution has been accepted for publication, I have returned the corrected proofs to the publisher, and it should be online and freely available to all in just over a week. The printed version (as a PDF) will also be freely available.


  17. Carmen Kilner (nee Sanchez) says:

    I was saddened to hear that Trevor had died. I have fond memories of him during the M.Sc course 1971/72.
    He was always in overdrive with an intelligent, incisive mind linked to a down-to-earth no-nonsense attitude and a good sense of humour; he was also kind and understanding and was always helpful to me in the early days with my stumbling efforts in botany (coming from a zoology/genetic background).
    Reading the many comments brings him and my time in Birmingham very much back to life: although I ended up on another path my time at Birmingham was one of the most interesting not least due to the unbounded enthusiasm of people like Trevor and Prof Hawkes.
    My condolences to his family – I remember he was so very proud of his sister who had been or was about to be ordained.
    John joins me in expressing our sympathy – a loss to many.


  18. Mike Strauss says:

    I learned of this only recently and am sorry at Trevor’s passing. Like many others, my early interest in genetic resources was due, in large part, to his concrete support and encouragement. As a young Assistant Professor I had been singularly unsuccessful in securing funds to support research on Taro in the South Pacific. It was suggested that I send an overview of my interests to IBPGR…an organization of which I was unaware. To my delight and great surprise I received a cable less than a week later from Trevor not only expressing interest but in offering significant financial support. Over those early years we met and spoke frequently and I soon counted him as a colleague, advisor, and good friend.


  19. Laya Niakan says:

    Dr. J. T. Williams was our M. Sc. Course Tutor in ” Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources in year 1973-1974 at Birmingham University, UK. A good teacher and intelligent scientist. My Condolences to his family, friends & students. I just found out about this sad news. Rest In Peace.
    Laya Niakan


  20. Lay Niakan says:

    Dr. Williams was our Course Tutor at Department of Plant Biology, Birmingham University, UK, when I was a Ms. C. student in “Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources”. I just learned about this sad news and I am very deeply sorry. My Condolences to Dr. Williams’ family, friends and students. May his soul Rest In Peace.


  21. Laya Niakan says:

    I recently received this sad news. My Condolences to Dr. J. T. Williams’ family, friends, coworkers & students.
    Dr. Williams was our Course tutor during 1973-74 when I was in M. Sc. Class in ” Conservation & Utilization of Plant Genetic Resourses” in Department of Plant Biology, Birmingham University, UK. Dr. Williams, Dr. R. N. Lester (my Ms. C. Project Supervidor) together with dear Prof. Jack Hawkes (Head of Dept. Of Plant Biology, Birmingham University, UK) and several knowledgeable Professors ran our M. Sc. Course. I and other students learned so much from all our Professors. I will never forget my years of student life at Birmingham University. Those years were the best part of my life.
    Rest In Peace all my dear Professors, Prof. Jack Hawkes, Dr. R. N. Lester, Dr. J. T. Williams & all other professors we have lost since 1973.


  22. Susan Spibey says:

    It is pleasing to see so many posts on the life and work of Trevor. We met at FAO, both working in the Department for Plant Production and Protection to which IBPGR was attached. Both coming from Lancashire we became friends and we had many family meetings both in Rome and at home in England. We were both involved in the development of Meeting Point, the English Language Churches response to supporting domestic workers in Rome and also the establishment of a social meeting point for those who wished to communicate in English from all corners of the globe. My work at FAO involved organising a range of training programmes, meetings, workshops, study visits and conferences and my “swan song” in 1985 was to organise the first meeting of the Commission on Plant Genetic Resources! http://www.fao.org/nr/cgrfa/cgrfa-meetings/cgrfa-comm/en. I went on to run my own Meetings and Event Management company and am now leading on the development of professional recognition in event management with the establishment of the Institute of Event Management. Trevor was very interested in this development and was very encouraging. I was pleased to see his IBPGR team photograph here as I knew a number of them. I am in touch with Trevor’s Sister who lives close by and we meet regularly. If anyone is in the Wigan area please do get in touch.


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