A calamity averted

I was going to say ‘disaster’, but that would be an exaggeration.

Let me take you back to mid-November 2008. It was my 60th birthday, and Steph and I had planned a small dinner—just a handful of close friends—to celebrate with. I didn’t want a big party.

So we invited one of my closest colleagues at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños in the Philippines, plant physiologist Dr John Sheehy (with whom I shared the OBE in 2012), my second-in-command in the Office for Program Planning & Communications, Corinta Guerta, and Duncan Macintosh (IRRI’s Director for Development in my office) and his fiancée Cel (now Mrs Macintosh).

A week earlier, during our regular monthly shop at Alabang (47 km north towards Manila) we selected a nice looking complete beef tenderloin, perhaps 3-4 kg, which we placed in the freezer in readiness for the dinner party. I also chose a simple starter of delicious local king prawns, and asparagus spears and broccoli with the beef. Fresh mangoes and vanilla ice-cream (my favorites) completed the dessert.

We invited our guests to arrive around 6:30 pm, to enjoy a glass of champagne (or three) before dinner. I’d placed two bottles of Veuve Cliquot Brut on ice beforehand.

Anyway, I decided to leave the office a little earlier the day of my birthday, at 4 pm, to check on preparations at home (we lived on the Staff Housing gated community, just 10 minutes from the IRRI research center).

Imagine my horror when I found that our helper Lilia had not even taken the beef from the freezer. Just two hours before our guests arrived and we were faced with a frozen slab of beef. I had asked Lilia not to prepare everything too early. Although a fabulous cook, unless checked, she had the habit (tradition even) of preparing and cooking our meals way ahead. I also discovered that she had diced the asparagus into small pieces! This was not an auspicious start to my 60th birthday bash.

What to do? We initially thawed the beef under the hot water tap, then placed it in the microwave on the highest setting for several minutes. That at least thawed the beef to a couple of centimeters or so. Then I asked Lilia to brown the beef in a pan on the stove, thawing it even more, before placing it in a hot oven, wrapped in foil to cook for the next hour or so.

We sat down to prawns a little after 7 pm, and as we finished that course, I slipped into the kitchen to check on the beef, heart in mouth. Removing the foil, the beef was delightfully cooked on the outside, but what about the center? I prodded it with a fork. It was thawed, and the fork felt warm when I removed it. Taking courage in both hands, I gingerly sliced the beef in two. And, lo and behold, it was cooked to perfection: tender, juicy, and slightly pink in the middle. What a relief doesn’t quite capture my feelings just then.

Washed down with several bottles of Cabernet Shiraz or similar, and some digestifs to follow, this was a delightful way to celebrate my birthday. All’s well that ends well.

Riding a big wave of nostalgia for Peru

I recently posted a link on a Facebook group to a photo album that shows many of the places Steph and I visited when we lived in Peru in the early 1970s. We worked at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima. One friend and former colleague expressed her surprise that we’d lived there only three years.

In 1976, after we moved to Costa Rice (but still working for CIP), I continued to visit Peru regularly, at least once a year for CIP’s annual science review meetings. Then, after I left the center in 1981 to return to the UK, I visited Peru several times during the 1980s in connection with my potato research at the University of Birmingham. I also had a consultancy in the late 1980s to help the UK chocolate industry scope a cocoa (Theobroma cacao) conservation project [2] in the northeast of Peru, similar to the one it had supported in eastern Ecuador [3] some years earlier.

Moving to the Philippines in 1991, my genetic resources and CGIAR system-wide management roles at IRRI took me back to Lima on at least a couple of occasions. And the last time I was there was July 2016; and how Lima had changed!


Every day I am reminded of the brief time we spent in Peru.

I find my nostalgia for Peru can be quite overwhelming sometimes. I’d had such a strong ambition to visit Peru from an early age that I sometimes wonder if, almost 46 years since I first landed there (on 4 January 1973) it was, after all, just a dream. But no, it was for real. Steph and I were even married in Lima, in October 1973.

Just take a look at all the stories I have written about Peru in this blog, which highlight its beauty and diversity: the landscapes, people, cultures and heritage, history, and archaeology. And not least, its fascinating agriculture and indigenous crops. Peru is the full monty! [1]

Why not listen to a haunting melody, Dolor indio, played on the Peruvian flute or quena by Jaime Arias Motta (with Ernesto Valdez Chacón on charango and guitar, and Elias Garcia Arias on bass) while reading the rest of this post.


Each morning I wake to see these three watercolors on the wall opposite. I’ve experienced scenes just like these so many times in my travels around the country.

Our home is graced with many other reminders. In the kitchen/diner we have a number of ornaments that we picked up at ferias and markets.

In our living room, there are several iconic pieces that you just can’t miss. On one wall we have two framed cushion covers from Silvania Prints. And, of course, finely-carved gourds from Huancayo, and a copper church

 

The centerpiece, however, is an oil painting hanging above the fireplace. For me, this painting evokes so many memories. I have seen that image in so many places, a family walking to market perhaps. Although I bought this painting in Miraflores (at the Sunday market there) it depicts a family, probably from Cajamarca in the north of the country. You can tell that by the style of hat.


After I’d posted the link to that photo album on a ex-CIP Facebook group, another member commented that I’d probably seen more of the country than many Peruvians. And 45 years ago that was probably the case.

Then, travel around Peru was rather difficult. Few roads were paved, although gravel roads were passable under most circumstances. Landslides commonly affected many roads (such as the main road to the Central Andes from Lima, the Carretera Central) during the rainy season, between December and May. And improving the roads can’t take away that particular risk.

Many of the people I knew in Lima had never traveled much around Peru, at least not by road. I guess this will have changed as communications improved in the intervening years. Air travel to distant cities, such as Cuzco was the preferred mode of transport for many.

However, that point got me thinking. So I searched for a map of Peru showing the major administrative districts or Departments as they are known; Peru has twenty-four.

I’ve visited them all except seven: Tumbes, Piura, and Amazonas in the north; Ucayali and Madre de Dios in the east-southeast; and Moquegua and Tacna in the south. But I’m not really sure about Moquegua. I was checking the road from Arequipa to Puno, and if it still takes the same route across the altiplano as it did more than 40 years ago, it cuts across the northwest corner of Moqegua for a distance of about 3 km. So technically, I guess, I can say I’ve been to that department. But in all the others I have done some serious traveling. Well, most of them.


Steph and I took the opportunity whenever we had free time to jump in the car and explore the Santa Eulalia valley, east of Lima. Steph had (has) an interest in cacti and succulents, and this was a great place for some relaxed botanizing. Further up the valley, at higher altitudes wild potatoes were quite common by the side of the road.

And it was in relation to several extensive trips that I made to collect native potato varieties that I got to see parts of Peru that perhaps remain quite isolated even today. In May 1973, my colleague Zosimo Huaman and I spent almost a month traveling around the Departments of Ancash and La Libertad. A year later, I went by myself (with a driver) to explore the Department of Cajamarca. I was so impressed with what I saw in all three that I took Steph and a couple of friends back there. But my work-related travels took me off the beaten track: by road as far as the roads would take us, and then on foot or on horseback. Again, take a look at the Peru stories and photo album to marvel at beauty of the landscapes and sights we experienced, the archaeology we explored, the botanizing we attempted.

Steph and I drove around central Peru in Ayacucho, Junin, and down to the selva lowlands to the east. In the south we drove to Arequipa and Puno (where my potato collecting work also took me to Cuyo Cuyo), as well as to Cuzco (by air) and Machu Picchu of course.

My cocoa consultancy took me to Tarapoto in San Martin (proposed site of the cocoa field genebank), and to Iquitos where I crossed the two mile-wide Amazon in a small motorboat to reach a site of some very old cocoa trees (the ‘Pound Collection‘) on the far bank.

I’ve written also about Peru’s cuisine and its famous pisco sour. Lima now boasts some of the world’s most highly acclaimed restaurants.

And talking of food and drink, Steph and I loved to dine at La Granja Azul, a former monastery on the eastern outskirts of Lima along the Carretera Central. We had our wedding lunch there. The restaurant only served chicken grilled on the spit; and the most delicious chicken liver kebabs or anticuchos. These were served while waiting in the bar for dinner to be served. And, in the bar, there were (and still is) the most cocktails. We often enjoyed a particular one: Batchelor’s Desire. I don’t recall all its ingredients, but I think it had a base of gin, with kirsch among other ingredients. What a kick! Its signature however was a small ceramic statue of a naked female embellishing the cocktail. It must have made an impression, as we still have one of the figures displayed in a cabinet! From the image I just saw on the restaurant website, the naked lady is no longer part of the experience. Very 1970s perhaps.

Peru is a country that should be on the bucket list of anyone with a hankering for travel. Don’t take my word for it. Go and and experience it for yourself.


[1] A British slang phrase of uncertain origin. It is generally used to mean everything which is necessary, appropriate or possible; ‘the works’.

[2] The project never got off the ground. The political situation in Peru had deteriorated, the terrorist organization Sendero Luminoso or Shining Path was in the ascendant nationwide, and drug traffickers (narcotraficantes) were active in the region of Peru (near Tarapoto) where it was hoped to establish the field genebank.

[3] In that context, a story in The Guardian recently is quite interesting, putting back the domestication of cacao some 1500 years, and to Ecuador not Central America and the Mayas as has long been surmised.

Feeling a little moonstruck today . . .

Christmas Eve 1968. I can remember exactly where I was, and what I was doing.

I was trudging around the streets of my hometown of Leek, in North Staffordshire, ankle-deep in snow (quite a novelty for that time of year) delivering Christmas mail as a temporary postman, something that I had done each year since about 1964.

So why do I remember this Christmas Eve especially? The newspapers were full of it.

Apollo 8 had lifted off just three days earlier from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to make the first manned orbit of the Moon, paving the way for the historic Apollo 11 mission seven months later, the first of only six manned Moon landings, thereby fulfilling President Kennedy’s commitment to land a man on the Moon before the end of the 1960s, and bring him safely back to Earth. It’s hard to believe that, with Apollo 17, the manned landings were over by December 1972.

Earthrise on 24 December 1968, taken by crew member Bill Anders on board Apollo 8. This photo must be one of the most widely viewed images of all time. This image was catalogued by Johnson Space Center of the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) under Photo ID: AS08-14-2383.

On Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8, commanded by Frank Borman (who remembers him now?) with crew members Jim Lovell (who commanded the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission), and Bill Anders, entered Moon orbit, becoming the first humans to leave Earth orbit, completely isolated from the Earth as they sped behind the Moon, and experiencing the wonder of Earthrise.

So why has this Apollo mission come to my mind today of all days?

Well, I’d gone downstairs in the dark just around 6 am to make our usual early morning cup of tea, and heard the rain falling quite heavily, just as had been forecast. Imagine my surprise a couple of hours later when I looked out of the kitchen window to see a clear, bright sky, not a cloud in sight.

And there, setting towards the western horizon, was the waning Moon just a couple of days past its full Hunter’s Moon phase.

The setting Moon over Bromsgrove around 8:15 am today, 26 October 2018.

And as I gazed up into the sky, making out various details of the Moon’s surface, some 384,400 km away, I found myself marveling at the fact that humans had actually walked on the surface of this extraterrestrial body that has fascinated humans since time immemorial. I began to ‘feel’ its power, its influence, its attraction.

Margaret Hamilton in 1969, standing next to listings of the software she and her MIT team produced for the Apollo project.

Half a century on, and that period of intense lunar exploration hardly seems possible. Did it really happen? That’s an idea that some conspiracy theorists promote – but not me I hasten to add.

What also amazes me is that there is probably more computing power in your average smartphone than that which took humans to the Moon in Apollo 8 and on the other lunar missions. Thank you, Margaret Hamilton!

 

 

Whither the grasspea?

Would you knowingly eat something that could harm you? That’s the dilemma facing millions of poor, subsistence farmers and their families from time to time, especially in India, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia, when the alternative is not eating anything at all. Famine.

From the beginnings of agriculture and earlier, 10,000 or more years ago, farmers have cultivated and consumed in times of adversity, the seeds of a plant known scientifically as Lathyrus sativus L.¹ Or, more commonly, the grasspea. It’s also an important fodder crop for livestock.

On the plus side, grasspea has a good protein profile and, as a legume, it supplies nitrogen to the soil through its root nodules. Its particular agricultural value is that it can be grown in times of drought, as well as when the land is flooded. It’s the ultimate insurance crop for poor, subsistence farmers.

Yet, it holds a deadly secret. β-ODAP. Or more precisely, β-L-oxalyl-2,3-diaminopropionic acid to give its full name, an amino acid that is also a neurotoxin responsible for the condition known as lathyrism, a non-reversible paralysis. No wonder, then, that its cultivation is banned in some Indian states. In the past, its consumption has also had severe consequences in Europe.

‘Gracias a la Almorta’ or ‘Thanks to the Grasspea’ by Francisco de Goya (painted between 1811 and 1813), painted during the Spanish War of Independence, when poor people turned to eating grasspea, and suffered paralysis from lathyrism. However, on the British Museum website it suggests grain (millet) rather than ‘grasspea’, and no mention of lathyrism. ‘Almorta’ is a Spanish word for grasspea.

Yet, when needs must, poor farmers turn to the grasspea when there is nothing else to eat because drought or floods have wiped out other crops.

So what’s being done to overcome the grasspea’s downside? Fortunately, an international collaborative research effort (funded by the UK Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund), Unlocking the Potential of Grass pea for Resilient Agriculture in Drought Prone Environments (UPGRADE), aims to breed ‘sweet’ varieties of grasspea with a low content of the neurotoxin.

I learned about this project yesterday evening when I happened to tune into BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science (you can listen from about 11′ 20″ into the program). The John Innes Centre in the UK is one of the project members, and in Prof. Cathie Martin‘s lab, Dr Anne Edwards is screening about 500 different grasspea lines, testing them for β-ODAP content, and also introgressing the lower content trait into different genetic backgrounds, for future testing in the field.

I was fascinated to hear how this international collaboration was making progress towards defeating the scourge of lathyrism, as I’d also worked on grasspea almost 40 years ago. But from a crop evolution and genetic resources point of view.

When I returned to The University of Birmingham in 1981, I decided to start a small research project on grasspea, looking at the diversity and broader genetic resources of this important but somewhat neglected crop, in addition to continuing my research on potatoes.

In 1981, one of the students attending the one-year MSc Course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources was Abdul bin Ghani Yunus from Malaysia. He worked on his dissertation project under my supervision, to study the diversity of grasspea. I already had assembled a collection of grasspea varieties from different sources around the world including the Vavilov Institute in St Petersburg, so Ghani had quite a stock of varieties to work with.

His dissertation led to one scientific paper, Variation in the grasspea, Lathyrus sativus L. and wild species, published in the journal Euphytica in 1984. There were two principal conclusions:

  • L. sativus is a highly variable species, and there is a clear distinction between the blue-flowered forms from south-west Asia, Ethiopia and the Indian subcontinent, and the white and white and blue flowered forms with white seeds which have a more westerly distribution. Differences in vegetative parts may be due to selection for forage types.
  • L. sativus appears to be closely related to L. cicera and L. gorgoni, and this relationship needs further investigation.

Ghani returned to Malaysia in 1982 to continue his research and teaching at the University of Agriculture, Selangor and I heard little from him, until about 1986. Then, he contacted me again, asking about the possibilities of returning to Birmingham to complete a PhD under my supervision. He wanted to work on a tropical species from Malaysia. But since he did not envision spending time back in Malaysia during his PhD program, I explained that working on this species (I don’t now remember what it was) was not feasible, since we wouldn’t be able to grow it successfully in the glasshouse at Birmingham. After all, it wasn’t the species per se that was the most important aspect for his PhD; it would be the focus, the scientific methods and approaches he would learn and employ that were more important.

I convinced him to continue his work on Lathyrus, but broadening its scope to study the biosystematics or biological relationships of the grasspea with the species considered to be its closest relatives. In that way we anticipated better defining the genetic resources or gene pools of the grasspea (an essential prerequisite if, at some time in the future, a breeding program was set up that needed to exploit more diversity), as well as trying to shed some light on the origin of this neglected food crop.

In 1990, Ghani successfully presented his PhD thesis, Biosystematics of Lathyrus Section Lathyrus with special reference to the grass pea, L. sativus L., leading to two more useful scientific papers that have been widely cited:

  • The genepools of the grasspea, Lathyrus sativus L., in Plant Breeding (1991). This research concerned the cross-breeding relationships of the grasspea and its closest relatives, based on experimental pollinations, pollen tube growth microscopy, and chromosome pairing, confirming one of our earlier hypotheses about L. cicera.
  • Phenotypic polymorphism of six isozymes in the grasspea (Lathyrus sativus L.), in Euphytica (1991). Ghani concluded that there was more genetic variation than perhaps expected in this self-pollinating species, and we discussed the implications of exploiting this diversity in plant breeding.

Today, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) receives financial support from the Crop Trust to conserve almost 4200 samples of grasspea in its genebank, with 2000 safely stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault above the Arctic Circle.

Of course, grasspea is not the only edible plant species that comes with a health risk. In South America, for example, there are so-called ‘bitter’ varieties of cassava, an important source of carbohydrate, producing cyanogenic compounds that must be removed before the roots are safe to eat. Indigenous communities throughout Brazil evolved techniques to express the poisonous juice and make the food safe. In other parts of South America ‘sweet’ varieties were selected over thousands of years, and became the genetic base of commercial cassava varieties grown world-wide. The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), based in Cali, Colombia has the world’s largest cassava germplasm that I was privileged to see in 2016 when I was conducting an evaluation of the CGIAR’s genebanks program.

This grasspea story is a good example of how progress can be made when there’s a clear research project objective, funding is available, and researchers around the world agree to pool their expertise towards solving an important problem. With recent reports that the head of DFID (the UK’s government department managing overseas development assistance or ODA) is seriously considering making changes to the 0.7% of national income commitment to the ODA budget, grasspea improvement for marginalized communities goes to show just how important such funding is, and the potential impact it can have on the lives of some of the poorest people around the world. This is the raison d’être of international agricultural research for development, an endeavor in which I participated over four decades.


¹ Grasspea is a relative of the garden sweetpea, Lathyrus odoratus, a plant that is grown for its showy, fragrant blooms.

Bull is the name . . . history is the game

John Bull is, according to the article in Wikipedia, the national personification of the United Kingdom in general, and England in particular.

One of my family names is Bull.

My grandmother, Alice Maud Bull, born on 16 April 1880, married my grandfather Thomas (Tom) Jackson on 23 August 1904. They had four children together, and she was also stepmother to Tom’s daughter and son by his first wife Maria Bishop, who died in childbirth in 1900.

Alice hailed from the village of Hollington in Derbyshire, about halfway between Ashbourne and Derby. Tom and Alice set up married life together in Burton-on-Trent, but returned to Hollington after Tom retired. Grandma was 68 when I was born; grandad was almost 76. So I only ever knew them as elderly folks.

My parents and my elder brother Edgar and myself with Grandma and Grandad Jackson at Ebenezer Cottage in Hollington, around 1958.

My father Frederick was the second child born to Alice and Tom, in September 1908. My dad married Lilian Healy in 1936; I was born 12 years later in November 1948, the youngest of four children. My middle name is Thomas, after my grandad. My wife Stephanie and I named our younger daughter Philippa Alice after my grandmother.

After my father passed away in 1980, my eldest brother Martin began a long search into our family ancestry, that has lasted more than 37 years. He has uncovered many of our family ties, stretching back (on the Bull line at least) to the late 15th century, some fifteen generations, and almost as far on several other lines.

I’m the 13th great-grandson of a man named Bull who was born around 1480 on the Staffordshire/Derbyshire border (where many of my ancestors hailed from), probably in or near Ellastone (as that was where his son and grandson were born and buried). Several generations of Bulls over 200 years lived in the village of Cubley in Derbyshire, less than five miles from Ellastone.

I’m also the 6th great-grandson of John Jackson (b. 1711, m. Hannah Clark 1732), the 9th great-grandson of Thomas Holloway (b. 1600, m. Isabella ?? around 1620), and 10th great-grandson of Hugh Tipper (b. 1574, m. Ellen Crichelowe in 1604 or 1605).

My father’s side of the family comprised, at the beginning of the 16th century, some 16,000+ direct ancestors, about 0.5% of the population of England. Do the maths. We can’t all have completely independent family lines, so they must come together in a vast web of inter-relatedness, sharing many ancestors in common, if we could just make the connections.

Knowing the names of my ancestors in this way also helps me connect vicariously with the major historical events through which they lived. But, because they were living in rural Staffordshire and Derbyshire, it’s hard to fathom how their lives might have been affected. The Bulls were, in general, farming and laboring stock.

King Richard III

Mr Bull was born, in 1480, at the end of the reign of King Edward IV, and five years before King Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field that, as the last major battle of the Wars of the Roses as they became known, heralded the founding of the Tudor dynasty by Lancastrian claimant to the throne, Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII. Henry Tudor passed through this area, or perhaps a little to the south on his way to Bosworth Field. Were men from the villages around forced to join his army?

Thomas (b. 1505) lived through the end of the reign of Henry VII, and the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, (Jane) and Mary Tudor. It’s highly probable that the Dissolution of the Monasteries (beginning in 1536) was keenly felt, as there were several nearby monastic houses in Staffordshire and Derbyshire. Did they hear about the sinking of Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose, I wonder?

By the time his son and grandson, also both Thomas, had passed away, Elizabeth 1’s long reign had come to an end; the Tudors were history, and James I (and VI of Scotland) was on the throne, the beginning of the ill-fated Stuart dynasty. Thomas (b. 1581) and his son Robert (b. 1613) lived through the English Civil Wars between 1642 and 1651, the defeat of the Royalists, and the execution of Charles I in 1649, an event that must have rocked England to its very soul whether you favored the Royalist or Parliamentary side. Who did Thomas and Robert favor? The closest major conflict to where they lived in Cubley was the 1643 Royalist Siege of Lichfield, just 20 miles due south. Certainly both Royalist and Parliamentary armies criss-crossed this area of Mercia.

Here is a timeline of England during the 17th century.

Working class dress of the late 17th century

Robert (b. 1613), his son Robert (b. 1653), and grandson Joseph (b. 1679) knew the restoration of Charles II in 1680, then lived through the tumultuous years of James II and William III and Mary II, the Glorious Revolution, the consequences of which passed through to the late 20th century in Northern Ireland. During the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714), the kingdoms of England and Scotland were united into a single nation, Great Britain, under the Acts of Union. John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough (an ancestor of Sir Winston Churchill) achieved significant military success in Europe during the War of the Spanish Succession.

Late 18th century dress, as depicted by Henry Singleton, ‘The Ale-House Door’ c. 1790

Joseph, son William (b. 1712), grandson Samuel (b. 1761), and great-grandson John (b. 1793) were Hanoverians through and through. This is an English timeline of the 18th century of industrial innovation.

Joseph lived through the two Jacobite uprisings of 1715 and 1745, the latter experienced very close to home as the Scots under Bonny Prince Charlie reached as far south as Derby. Fear and alarm must have spread throughout all communities in their path.

Samuel and John lived through the French Revolution in 1789, and the wars with Napoleon Bonaparte until his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Were they or their relatives called upon to serve under the Duke of Wellington?

John Bull, my 2nd great-grandfather was born in 1825, half way through the reign of George IV, and died in 1900 just as Queen Victoria’s reign was coming to an end. All my subsequent Bull ancestors were Victorians – a period of industrial expansion, the building of the railways (and demise of the canals), and Empire! My great-grandfather, John, was born in Hollington in 1855, and worked as smallholder farmer and coal merchant. The family remained in the same area of Derbyshire throughout the 19th century.

During five centuries many of my Bull family (and probably those who married into the Jackson line as well) came from and continued to live in quite a small area of Staffordshire and Derbyshire. People mostly married from the same communities, or from others not more than a handful of miles away. After all, a man had to do his courting on foot, until the late 19th century¹ at least. I’ve heard that Tom Jackson walked miles to court Alice.

It has been fascinating to see my family history unfold, and what Martin has achieved is truly incredible and inspiring. People, names, and dates bring history to life.


¹ John Jinks, who was Professor of Genetics at the University of Birmingham, hailed the safety bicycle as one 19th century invention that probably did more for human population genetics than had ever before occurred, since couples could now more easily court over greater distances.

 

 

Losing my religion . . .

I’m a contented atheist. And have been since I was nineteen. However, I was baptized a Catholic, but never practiced until my family moved to Leek in 1956.

A little background. My mother’s family were Irish Catholics. My father’s parents were Methodist. My parents were married at St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, Epsom, Surrey in November 1936. But as I grew up in Congleton (where I was born in 1948), I have only one recollection of ever having stepped inside the Church of St Mary on West Road. I remember my mother once telling me about an incident at the church, maybe when my sister took her First Communion. Apparently, the parish priest told my mother that my father, a Protestant, was not welcome in the church. No ecumenism in those post-war days. So until we moved to Leek in 1956, I can never remember going to Mass.

St Mary’s Church on Compton in the 1950s/60s, from the bottom of St Edward Street where we lived.

Things changed after the move to Leek, and we started to attend Mass at St Mary’s Catholic church. I even trained as an altar boy, alongside Michael Oliver (brother of Kevin, whose father kept a sweet shop on Broad Street). Not infrequently I’d accompany one of the priests to say Mass in Ipstones (at a pub there) or St Edward’s Hospital in Cheddleton. I joined the cub scouts, 5th Leek St Mary’s, run by Mr Kelsall, who we called ‘Sir’ instead of ‘Akela’.

The parish priest was Fr Clavin – liked by many who came in contact with him. Fr Thornton was the curate when we moved to Leek, but he was soon replaced by another younger priest, on the left of the photo below. This photo was taken on the occasion of Fr Clavin’s Jubilee (with a young Gerald Grant on the right).

My elder brother Edgar and I were also enrolled in the local Catholic primary school, St Mary’s, on the corner of Broad Street (the A53) and Cruso Street. Being two years older (and three academic years ahead), Edgar attended St Mary’s for just one year. I, on the other hand, continued my education there until July 1960 when I secured a place to attend the Catholic grammar school, St Joseph’s College, in Trent Vale, Stoke-on-Trent, which entailed a round trip of 28 miles. That became my daily term-time routine for the next seven years.


April 1956. I was 7½.

New town, new friends, new school . . . and NUNS!

I think I must have shed a few tears that first day at school. I was so bewildered. I’d never seen a nun before, and they looked so intimidating in their long black habits, white wimples leaving just their faces exposed, and long black veils typical of the Sisters of Loreto, who came to Leek in 1860 to teach children of the parish. The last nuns left in 1980, and their convent behind the church was sold for development.

Photo courtesy of Liz Sharkey, from Facebook group: The History & Heritage of Leek and the Staffordshire Moorlands

St Mary’s Infants School, Selbourne Road in the 1960s

The headmistress, Mother Michael seemed quite pleasant and welcoming, but she left after about a year. In the four years I spent at St Mary’s my teachers were Mother Bernadine, Mother Elizabeth (who became headmistress) and, in my last year, Mr Smith (the first male teacher at the school). Sister (later Mother) Martin and Mother Vincent de Paul were other teachers who I remember.

My wife still uses a woven needle/pin case that I made during my time at St Mary’s (helped by one of the teachers).


So what’s all this about losing my religion? Well, a few days ago, I posted a query on the closed group Facebook page about Leek to which I belong. I was researching some information (and photographs) for a blog post I intend publishing a little later this year. While my query yielded few photos, I was surprised at the number of people who joined the conversation. And for many, their years at St Mary’s were not the happiest.

I always saw the nuns as quite strict. One of them often used the edge of a steel-edged ruler to rap any miscreant on the knuckles. It didn’t take much to be viewed as a miscreant, as the Facebook commentaries from former pupils indicate.

Some were clearly profoundly unhappy at St Mary’s, others not. Some have recounted being caned in front of the whole school, even for attending a wedding at a non-Catholic church! All in all, I was quite horrified at these memories of what seem like gratuitous violence perpetrated on 5-11 year-olds. The situation for several was so dire, apparently, that they were moved by their parents to another non-Catholic school in the town.

I never saw any canings, or at least I don’t remember the cane being administered. Until some of the Facebook group members mentioned this, it didn’t form part of my memory narrative. The ruler I certainly do remember and was the recipient on at least one occasion.

On the whole, my memories of just over four years at St Mary’s are neither positive nor negative. As one group member stated overnight, we survived. But was that sufficient?

Things have changed. Take a look at the St Mary’s today; it appears to be a thriving and nurturing community.


Corporal punishment was a daily occurrence at St Joseph’s, especially for pupils younger than sixteen. Punishments were meted out almost every lesson, even for slight misdemeanors.

The school, for boys only, had been founded by Irish Christian Brothers in the 1930s. I guess that when I first attended the Brothers were about a fifth of the teaching staff. Or maybe I exaggerate. Certainly walking around in their long black cassocks and dog collars they were a highly identifiable presence who brooked no dissension.

Today the Christian Brothers are no longer associated with St Joseph’s. It’s also co-educational, and has a thriving Sixth Form that attracts students from the wider community, Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

In 1960, the headmaster was Bro. Henry Wilkinson (for a couple of years) and thereafter until I left in 1967, Bro. O’Keefe. Bro. Wilkinson regularly used a tannoy to broadcast to every classroom throughout the school, which was quickly dismantled after O’Keefe took the reins.

Every teacher was permitted to physically punish any pupil, and used a leather strap (apparently manufactured in Ireland), maybe almost 18 inches long, of at least two layers of leather sewed together.

The Brothers had a special pocket in the side of their cassocks to hold the strap. Usually, a boy would hold out one of both hands, palm upwards, and receive maybe a couple of strokes. It hurt! It also depended on which teacher was administering the strap. Some were more ‘effective’ than others. During my first four years at St Joseph’s I received my fare share of strappings, and there was a memorable one during Year 4.

My home class teacher was Mr Joyce (first name unknown or not remembered) who taught French. During Year 3 I had represented the school in an inter-school quiz broadcast to the local hospitals. We lost in the Final to a local girls’ grammar school!

Anyway, one afternoon, Mr Joyce explained that he would hold a quiz to identify promising candidates for the next season’s team. Since I’d already participated, I didn’t take this seriously, and started chatting with the person next to me. We had double desk. Joyce warned me twice to stop talking, but I persisted. On the third warning, he took out his strap, told me to hold out my hand, reached across the desk, and hit me twice across the palm on that fleshy part just below the thumb.

Yes, it hurt but not unduly. However, as I reached for my pen, I suddenly felt dizzy, and the next thing I found myself trying to drag myself off the floor. I’d passed out, and as I fell off my seat, hit my head on the wall to the side. My classmates were shocked. Needless to say, Mr Joyce never touched me again.

We took corporal punishment for granted. Did it have any lasting effect? Probably not for the majority of pupils. But you can never deny that for some of us, it was unduly cruel.


However, it was this flagrant recourse to corporal punishment that lead to me rejecting Catholicism, indeed any formal religion.

When I was in the Upper Sixth (the year immediately prior to heading off to university), Brother Baylor joined the staff (maybe a year earlier). But I’d had no contact with him until then. Anyway, he took us for a formal religion study period once or twice a week. On this particular day, in he came to the classroom and, struggling to peer over his desk (he was a tiny man), told us that we would be doing some Bible studies that day. And, removing his leather strap from its ‘holster’, and lightly tapping it across his hand, told us in a threatening tone, that we would believe else he would strap us.

It was like a light bulb going off in my head. I realized that if a ‘man of God’ had to make threats such as this, there couldn’t be much to sustain the foundation of his beliefs. And from that day I refused to attend Sunday Mass; I went through the motions at school as there were services we had to attend. I’ve not been to Mass since, and never will. The Catholic Church lost one of its flock. I guess I started out as agnostic, but this has become hardened over the years into contented atheism.


As I mentioned earlier, I was quite horrified to read those sad commentaries about St Mary’s. It’s not a situation I recognize since I did not experience it. It’s as though the nuns had Jekyll and Hyde personalities. That does not however diminish the impact of those unhappy years on some members of the St Mary’s community in the 1950s and 60s.

This feedback comes at a time when the Catholic Church is under ever closer scrutiny not only about child sex abuse, but also wider abuse of children for which some of the incidents related on that Facebook page might legitimately be considered. If not abuse as such, it was certainly bordering on abuse in my opinion. ‘Official’ violence against small children would not be tolerated in schools today. Yes, it was another era but that should not, and cannot, excuse such behavior.

I moved on. I’ve had a fruitful career and happy life. But a simple Facebook request has brought so many memories flooding back, not only for me but all those who read it, that I could not pass another day without committing my thoughts in this post.


 

There’s more to genebanking than meets the eye (or should be)

The weather was awful last Sunday, very cold, with snow showers blowing in on a strong easterly wind throughout the day. From time to time, I found myself staring out of the window at the blizzards and letting my mind wander. A couple of seemingly unconnected ideas were triggered by a tweet about genebanks I’d read earlier in the day, and something I’d seen about a former IRRI colleague on Facebook the day before.

That got me thinking. It’s almost eight years now since I retired from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines where I worked for almost 19 years from July 1991 until the end of April 2010. As the snowflakes fell in increasing abundance, obscuring the bottom of our garden some 15 m away, I began to reminisce on the years I’d spent at IRRI, and how they’d been (mostly) good years to me and my family. My work had been very satisfying, and as I retired I felt that I’d made a useful contribution to the well-being and future of the institute. But one thought struck me particularly: how privileged I felt to have worked at one of the world’s premier agricultural research institutes. It was though I was recalling a dream; not reality at all.

In rice fields at IRRI, with magnificent Mt. Makiling in the background.

Behind the plough – now that IS reality. I still have that sombrero, which I purchased shortly after I arrived in Peru in January 1973.

That journey began, as I said, in July 1991 when I became the first head of IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center (GRC) taking responsibility for one of the world’s largest and most important genebanks, the International Rice Genebank (IRG), as well as providing administrative oversight to the International Network for Genetic Evaluation of Rice (INGER). I gave up genebanking in 2001 and joined the institute’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning and Coordination (DPPC, later Communications). As I had made many important changes to the genebank operations and how rice germplasm was managed, my successor, Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton (who joined IRRI in 2002) probably did not face so many operational and staff challenges. However, he has gone on to make several important improvements, such as bar-coding, commissioning new facilities, and overseeing the first germplasm deposits (in 2008) in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

Any success I achieved at IRRI during those 19 years is also due to the fine people who worked closely with me. Not so long ago, I wrote about those who brought success to IRRI’s project management and resource mobilization. I haven’t, to date, written so much about my Filipino colleagues who worked in GRC, although you will find several posts in this blog about conserving rice genetic resources and how the genebank operates (or operated until 2010). The 15 minute video I made about the genebank shortly before leaving IRRI shows what IRRI’s genebank is and does, and featuring several staff.

The tweet I referred to earlier was posted by someone who I follow, Mary Mangan (aka mem_somerville | Wossamotta U, @mem_somerville), commenting on a genebank video produced by the Crop Trust on behalf of the CGIAR’s Genebank Platform.

She tweeted: Finally someone did a genebank video. People don’t understand that scientists are doing this; they are told by PBS [the broadcaster] that some grizzled farmer is the only one doing it.

What particularly caught my attention (apart from viewing the entertaining and informative video) was her comment about the role of scientists and, by implication I suppose, that genebanking is (or should be) supported by scientific research. From my own experience, however, a research role for genebanks has not been as common as you might think, or wasn’t back in the day. Unlike IRRI, where we did have a strong genebanking research program¹.

When I interviewed for the head of GRC in January 1991, I made it quite plain that I hoped for—expected even, almost a condition of accepting an appointment—a research role around germplasm conservation and use, something that had not been explicitly stated in the job description. Once I was appointed, however, at the same senior level as any other Division (i.e. department) Head or Program Leader, I was able to bring my genebanking perspectives directly to discussions about the institute’s research and management policies and program. In that respect, I was successful and, having secured an appropriate budget and more staff, I set about transforming the genebank operations.

The IRG organizational structure then was extremely hierarchical, with access to the head by the national staff often channeled through one senior member, Eves Loresto. That was how my predecessor, Dr TT Chang ran the genebank. That was not my style, nor did I think it an effective way to operate. I also discovered that most of the Filipino scientific staff, as Research Assistants, had been in those positions for several years, with little expectation of promotion. Something had to be done.

In 1991, the genebank collection comprised more than 70,000 seed samples or accessions² of cultivated rices (Oryza sativa or Asian rice, and O. glaberrima or African rice) and the 20 or so wild species of Oryza. I needed to understand how the genebank operated: in seed conservation; data management; the various field operations for regeneration, characterization and evaluation of germplasm; and germplasm exchange, among others. I’d never worked on rice nor managed a genebank, even though my professional formation was in the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. That was a steep learning curve.

So I took my time, asked lots of questions, and listened patiently (mostly) to the detailed explanations of how and why rice germplasm was handled in this way and not that. It was also the period during which I got to know my Filipino staff. I say ‘got to know’ with some reservation. I’m ashamed to admit that I never did learn to speak Tagalog, although I could, at times, understand what was being said. And while almost all the staff spoke good English, there was always a language barrier. Obviously they always spoke Tagalog among themselves, even when I was around, so I came to rely on one or two staff to act as go-betweens with staff whose English was not so fluent.

After six months I’d developed a plan how to upgrade the genebank operations, and felt confident to implement staff changes. I was also able eventually to find a different (and more significant) role for Eves Loresto that took her out of the ‘chain of command’ between me and other staff members. We took on new ‘temporary’ staff to assist with the burdensome seed handing operations to prepare samples for long-term conservation (many of whom are still with the institute a quarter of century later), and I was able, now that everyone had better-defined responsibilities, to achieve the promotion of more than 70% of the staff.

The genebank needed, I believed, a flatter organizational structure, with each area of the genebank’s critical operations assigned to a single member of staff, yet making sure that everyone had a back-up person to take over whenever necessary. In the structure I’d inherited it was not uncommon for several members of staff to have overlapping responsibilities, with no-one explicitly taking a lead. And no-one seemed to be accountable. As I told them, if they wanted to take on more responsibility (which was a common aspiration) they had to be accountable for their own actions. No more finger-pointing if something went wrong.

How they all grew in their posts! Today, several of the national staff have senior research support positions within the institute; some have already retired.

Flora de Guzman, known to one and all as Pola, is the genebank manager. It soon became obvious to me that Pola was someone itching to take on more responsibility, who was dedicated to germplasm conservation, and had a relevant MS degree. She didn’t let me down, and has become one of the leading lights in genebank management across the eleven CGIAR genebanks that are supported through the Genebank Platform that I mentioned earlier.

Pola manages all the operations inside the genebank: germplasm acquisition; seed cleaning and storage; and exchange (and all the paperwork that goes with that!). Take a peek inside the genebank with Pola, from 1:00 in the video. She worked closely with Renato ‘Ato’ Reaño for the multiplication/regeneration of seeds when seed stocks run low, or seed viability declines. She has done a fantastic job, leading a large team and has eliminated many of the seed conservation backlogs that were like a millstone around our collective necks in the early 1990s. She will be a hard act to follow when the time comes for her to retire.

Ato is a self-effacing individual, leading the genebank field operations. Just take a look at the video I mentioned (at around 2:03 onwards) to see Ato in his domain of several hectares of rice multiplication plots.

Taking the lead from my suggestions, Ato brought all the genebank field operations back on to the institute’s experimental station from farmers’ fields some distance away where they were when I joined IRRI. He enthusiastically adopted the idea of separating multiplication/regeneration of germplasm accessions from those related to characterization, effectively moving them into different growing seasons. For the first years, his colleague Tom Clemeno took on the germplasm characterization role until Tom moved away from GRC and eventually out of the institute. After a battle with cancer, Tom passed away in 2015. ‘Little Big Man’ is sadly missed.

Soccie Almazan became the curator of the wild rices that had to be grown in a quarantine screenhouse some distance from the main research facilities, on the far side of the experiment station. But the one big change that we made was to incorporate all the germplasm types, cultivated or wild, into a single genebank collection, rather than the three collections. Soccie brought about some major changes in how the wild species were handled, and with an expansion of the screenhouses in the early 1990s (as part of the overall refurbishment of institute infrastructure) the genebank at last had the space to adequately grow (in pots) all this valuable germplasm that required special attention. See the video from 4:30. Soccie retired from IRRI in the last couple of years.

I’ve written elsewhere about the challenges we faced in terms of data management, and the significant changes we had to make in fusing what were essentially three separate databases using different coding systems for the same characters across the two cultivated species of rice and the wild species. There were three data management staff in 1991: Adel Alcantara, Vangie Gonzales, and Myrna Oliva.

L to R: Myrna, Adel’s daughter, Adel, and Vangie, during a GRC reunion in Tagaytay, just before my retirement in 2010.

One of the first changes we made during the refurbishment of GRC was to provide each of them with a proper workstation, and new computers. Each time our computers were upgraded, the data management staff were the first to benefit from new technology. Once we had made the necessary data structure changes, we could concentrate on developing a genebank management system that would incorporate all aspects from germplasm acquisition through to exchange and all steps in between. After a year or so we had a working system, the International Rice Genebank Collection Information System (IRGCIS). Myrna left IRRI by the mid-90s, and Adel and Vangie have retired or moved on. But their contributions to data management were significant, as access to and manipulation of data were fundamental to everything we did.

In terms of research per se, there were two young members of staff in 1991, Amy Juliano and Ma. Elizabeth ‘Yvette’ Naredo, who were tinkering with several projects of little consequence. They were supervised by a British scientist, Duncan Vaughan (who spent about six months a year collecting wild rices and writing his trip reports). As I said, I was keen to establish a sound research base to rice conservation in GRC, and felt that Amy and Yvette’s talents were not being put to good use. In my opinion we needed a better taxonomic understanding of the genus Oryza based on sound experimental taxonomic principles and methods. After all, the genebank contained several thousand samples of wild rice seeds, a resource that no other laboratory could count on so readily. Despite my best efforts to encourage Duncan to embrace more research he was reluctant to do so. I wasn’t willing to tolerate ‘passengers’ in my group and so encouraged him to seek ‘pastures greener’ more suitable to his personal objectives. By mid-1993 he had left IRRI for a new position in Japan, and we could recruit his replacement to lead the taxonomic research effort.

L to R: Duncan Vaughan inside the genebank’s cold store; Bao-Rong collecting wild rices in Irian Jaya.

Bao-Rong Lu joined us in 1994, having completed his PhD in Sweden, and took Amy and Yvette under his taxonomic wing, so to speak. Amy and Yvette flourished, achieving thousands of crosses between the different wild and cultivated rices, developing tissue culture techniques to rescue seedlings through embryo culture and, once we had a collaborative research project with the University of Birmingham and the John Innes Centre (funded by UK government department for international aid, DFID), establishing a laboratory to study molecular markers in rice germplasm.

Amy Juliano in the molecular marker laboratory in GRC that she developed (with Sheila Quilloy).

Amy spent a couple of months at Birmingham around 1996 learning new molecular techniques. She was destined for so much more. Sadly, she contracted cancer and passed away in 2004, a great loss to her family and GRC.

I knew from my early days at IRRI that Yvette had considerable promise as a researcher. She was curating the wild species collection, among other duties, and her talents were under-utilized. She took the lead for the biosystematics and cytogenetic research, and under my partial supervision, completed her MS degree at the University of the Philippines – Los Baños (UPLB).

Bao-Rong moved back to China around 2000, giving us the opportunity of moving the research in another direction, and recruiting molecular biologist/biochemist Ken McNally. Ken was already at IRRI, completing an assignment on a perennial rice project. Ken took GRC’s molecular research to another level, with Yvette working alongside, and expanding the research into genomics, culminating in the 3000 rice genomes project. Yvette completed her PhD at UPLB in 2013 as part of that international collaboration, but has now recently retired from IRRI. It was the Facebook post about her being recognized last weekend as a UPLB Outstanding Alumnus that partly triggered this post.

In the early 90s Dr Kameswara Rao and I, supported by Ato, looked at the effects of seed-growing environment and its effect on long-term viability of rice seeds. More recently, Ato worked with Fiona Hay, a British seed physiologist who was recruited to GRC around 2007 or 2008 to extend this research, and they made some interesting changes to seed multiplication protocols and how to dry them post harvest.

The collection grew significantly between 1995 and 2000, with funding from the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC), especially with regard to germplasm from the Lao PDR where GRC staff member Dr Seepana Appa Rao was based. We also had an important research component about on-farm conservation of rice varieties recruiting staff with expertise in population genetics and social anthropology. You can read more about that particular Swiss-funded project, and the staff involved, in this story from 2015.

The GRC secretaries who worked with me (L ro R): Zeny (1997-2001); Sylvia (1991-1997), and Tessie (1991 until her retirement a couple of years ago).

There were many support staff who all played their roles, and formed a great team. But I cannot end this post without mentioning the secretaries, of course. When I joined GRC, my secretary was Sylvia Arellano. She helped me through those first months as I was finding my feet. Syl was supported by Tessie Santos. When Sylvia was ‘poached’ by the Director General George Rothschild to become his secretary in 1997 (a position she would occupy until her retirement a couple of years back), Zeny Federico became my secretary. When I crossed over to senior management in 2001, Zeny came with me.

Working with such dedicated staff in GRC made my job easier, and very enjoyable. It was always a pleasure to show others just what the staff had achieved, and invariably visitors to the genebank came away impressed by what they had seen. And they understood that conserving rice varieties and wild species was not just a case of putting seeds in a cold store, but that there were many important and inter-linked components, underpinned by sound research, that enabled to the genebank to operate efficiently and safely preserve rice germplasm long into the future.

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¹ The research led to many publications. Click here to see a list (and many more that I have published on crop species other than rice).

² The collection has now grown to almost 128,000 samples. During my tenure the collection grew by more than 25%.