Science publications that influenced my choice of career . . .

I’m sure, like me, many scientists have a few publications that they treasure. No, I’m not referring to any which they themselves authored; rather, publications that made them sit up and pay attention, so to speak. And, in doing so, particularly stimulated their interest and perhaps even guided their own scientific careers subsequently.

I’ve now been retired for ten years, but I still look back to how I got started in the world of plant genetic resources fifty years ago, and some of the scientific publications that pointed me in that direction. Let me backup a little and explain how this came about.

In 1967, I was accepted on to a BSc degree course at the University of Southampton (on England’s south coast) to study environmental botany and geography. I’ve written elsewhere about the three very happy years I spent in Southampton until graduation in July 1970.

The core of my degree course, particularly in my third or senior year, was a two semester ecology module taught in the Botany department, and different aspects of physical geography (such as geomorphology, biogeography, and climatology) in the Geography department. But I also took several shorter elective modules in Botany, including plant speciation, plant breeding, and population genetics. This latter course was taught by one of the pioneers in this field, Vice Chancellor Professor Sir Kenneth Mather who came to Southampton from the University of Birmingham (where he had been head of the Department of Genetics). He claimed (probably with some justification) that he was the only teaching Vice Chancellor at that time in the UK.

Joyce Lambert

We were a small group of only six or so ecology students, and this module was taught by quantitative ecologist Dr Joyce Lambert (who was also my personal tutor). All of us were required to submit an extended essay of 4-5000 words on an ‘ecological topic’ of our choice. It goes without saying that Joyce hinted she would prefer essays about her interest, namely the application of numerical methods to study vegetation landscapes.

I did not heed Joyce’s ‘advice’; I guess she was not best pleased. Instead, and with encouragement from genetics lecturer Dr Joe Smartt, I chose to explore the relationship between ecology, genetics, and taxonomy (the related fields of ecological genetics and experimental taxonomy) in an essay about the concept of ‘ecotypes’. Simply put, an ecotype is a distinct form or race of a plant occupying a particular habitat.

So that was my aim. What would be my entry point? And which literature would be most useful for my purpose?

From the 1920s onwards, several botanists (Göte Turesson in Sweden, JW Gregor in Scotland, and three staff at the Carnegie Institute of Washington in Stanford: geneticist Jens Clausen, physiologist William Hiesey, and taxonomist David Keck) had studied the variation of species (genetically, physiologically, and taxonomically) in relation to their environments, and the role of natural selection on plant adaptation. There was a wealth of literature to delve into. But where to begin?

Jack Heslop-Harrison

I was fortunate that, just a few years earlier, Professor Jack Heslop-Harrison (then Mason Professor of Botany at the University of Birmingham) published an important review paper about what became for me a fascinating branch of botanical science, the study of variation within species in relation to environment.

Forty years of genecology, published in Advances in Ecological Research in 1964 (Vol. 2: 159-247) was, for me, one of those formative publications. Not only was the review thoroughly comprehensive in its coverage, but had the added quality of being extremely well written. It has stood the test of time. Yet, it would be interesting to bring it up to date, introducing all the latest evidence based on molecular biology and genomics.

When I contacted Heslop-Harrison’s son ‘Pat’ (who is Professor of Plant Cell Biology and Molecular Cytogenetics at the University of Leicester) to request a copy of his father’s paper (I’d ‘lost’ the copy I once had) he told me that he began writing a review 100 years of genecology, but had never completed it.

He did make this interesting comment: When I started on a ‘100 years’ update, I was taken that some parts [of ‘Forty years of genecology’] sounded remarkably old-fashioned, while other parts could fit unchanged in a strong grant application made today. But how the combination of molecular/marker studies and modelling has really allowed genecology to take its rightful place in biology.

Immersing myself in the various concepts of ‘ecotype’, ‘clines’, and ‘infraspecific variation’ among many others, Heslop-Harrison’s review not only provided me with the impetus to fulfil a pressing course assignment, but subconsciously perhaps helped me make some decisions about a future career. I guess this was the first time I became really enthusiastic about any botanical sub-discipline. Later on, when I began working in the area of conservation and use of plant genetic resources, the study of variation patterns and adaptation in crop species and their wild relatives became an important focus of what I set out to achieve. In fact, understanding the nature of crop plant variation—and how to use it—is one of the fundamental concepts underpinning the value of plant genetic resources.

No study of variation in plant species would be complete, even today I believe, without reference to the pioneering work of Clausen, Keck, and Hiesey in California over several decades from the 1930s. Their work had been highlighted, of course, in Heslop-Harrison’s review. I went back to their original papers*.

L-R: Jens Clausen (cytology and genetics), William Hiesey (physiology), and David Keck (taxonomy/botany)

And what an eye-opener they were: a classic set of papers, published between 1934 and 1958, describing experimental studies on the nature of species that really caught my attention, and to which I still return from time to time.

While others, like Turesson and Gregor, had also studied plant variation experimentally, their work was not on the same scale that Clausen and his colleagues achieved across central California, from the coast to the high Sierra Nevada.

Working with a range of species, they collected samples from different populations of each across this Californian transect and, using a reciprocal transplant approach, grew samples at experimental gardens on the coast at Stanford and at different altitudes in the mountains, at Mather and Timberline. So, for example, samples collected from coastal sites were grown at the high altitude garden, and vice versa and all combinations in between. Even the same species looked different under different environments, in terms of plant stature or days to flowering, for example, being just two of the many traits they studied. They were interested if these traits would persist when grown in another environment. Here is an example from yarrow or Achillea.

Clausen, J, DD Keck and WM Hiesey, 1948. Experimental studies on the nature of species. III: Environmental responses of climatic races of Achillea. Publication 581. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington.

They studied how well plants from one environment thrived in another, identifying the adaptations that enabled them to survive, and understanding both the genetic and physiological basis for adaptation, while recognising some of the variants taxonomically, if warranted. Many were simply locally-adapted populations, or ecotypes. Just a beautiful and competent piece of science.

Anyway, come the summer of 1970 and having just graduated, I still wasn’t sure what I’d be doing or where. I’d been accepted on to the MSc course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources at the University of Birmingham to begin in September. But while I had a guaranteed place, there was no funding. And without a studentship there was no way I could support myself and pay tuition fees.

That all changed at the beginning of August or thereabouts. I had a phone call from Professor Jack Hawkes, who was Mason Professor of Botany (succeeding Heslop-Harrison) and the MSc course director, letting me know he’d found some funds to support my studies. It was wonderful news, and I immediately began to make plans to move to Birmingham in mid-September.

There was one important thing Jack asked me to do: purchase a copy of a book that had just been published, and try and work my way through it before I landed up in Birmingham.

This book, Genetic Resources in Plants – their Exploration and Conservation, was more than an eye opener as far as I was concerned. It was as if the scales fell from my eyes. What a revelation!

The book was dedicated to Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov. Until then I’d never heard of this eminent Russian geneticist, the ‘Father of Plant Genetic Resources’, who subsequently became something of a scientific hero of mine.

Edited by wheat breeder Sir Otto Frankel and FAO scientist Dr Erna Bennett, both pioneers of the 1960s genetic resources movement, this book was essential reading for anyone entering the new field of conservation and use of plant genetic resources.

Sir Otto Frankel and Erna Bennett

It emerged from a technical conference held at FAO headquarters in Rome on 18-26 September 1967, and comprised 44 chapters penned by many if not most of the leading lights then in genetic conservation and crop and forestry specialists from around the world. As Sir Otto wrote in the preface, the book attempts to define and develop the principles underlying the various stages of exploration, conservation and utilization. Its usefulness will depend on the degree to which it succeeds in illuminating practical problems, rather than offering prescriptions or instructions.

In the course of my own entry into the world of plant genetic resources, I came to meet and become friends with several of the contributors.

The six sections covered topics in: (1) Biological background (the nature of crop diversity, centers of origin, taxonomy); (2) Tactics of exploration and collection; (3) Examples of exploration (crops and forestry); (4) Evaluation and utilization; (5) Documentation, records and retrieval; and (6) Conservation.

It became something of a ‘bible’ for me, and even today, I dip into its many chapters to refresh some of my ideas. Yes, the world of conservation and use of plant genetic resources has moved on significantly since its publication 50 years ago. Just think of the remarkable advances in molecular biology and genomics that nowadays open up a whole new dimension to our understanding of variation among important crop species and their wild relatives. And the impressive progress in computing for both data analysis as well as data management for crop germplasm collections. Fifty years ago, many things that we consider routine today were then but a pipe dream, if they were even on someone’s intellectual horizon.

I really do believe that anyone contemplating a career in plant genetic conservation as I was, 50 years ago, would benefit from delving into Frankel and Bennett, not only to appreciate how the genetic resources movement started in the 1960s, but also just how we have come in the five decades since.

*These are the papers from the California group of Clausen, Keck and Hiesey:

  • Clausen J, DD Keck & WM Hiesey, 1934. Experimental taxonomy. Yearb. Carneg. Inst. 33, 173-177.
  • Clausen J, DD Keck & WM Hiesey, 1939. The concept of species based on experiment. Amer. J. Bot. 26, 103-106.
  • Clausen J, DD Keck & WM Hiesey, 1940. Experimental studies on the nature of species. I. Effect of varied environments on western North American plants. Publ. Carneg. Instn. No. 520.
  • Clausen J, DD Keck & WM Hiesey, 1945. Experimental studies on the nature of species. II. Plant evolution through amphiploidy and autoploidy, with examples from the Madiinae. Publ. Carneg. Instn. No. 564.
  • Clausen J, DD Keck, & WM Hiesey, 1948. Experimental studies on the nature of species. III. Environmental responses of climatic races of Achillea. Publ. Carneg. Instn. No. 581.
  • Clausen J & WM Hiesey, 1958. Experimental studies on the nature of species. IV. Genetic structure of ecological races. Publ. Carneg. Instn. No. 615.


You’ve got mail . . . maybe

Email. Something we take for granted. In these Covid-19 lockdown days, where would be without email to keep in touch with family and friends? In fact, for many, working from home without access to emails would not be an option.

And what about Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Zoom, and all the other messaging apps?

Bob Zeigler

Yet it’s not so long ago that none of us had access to any of these. How things have changed over the past 40 years, even just the last decade.

My former colleague and IRRI Director General Bob Zeigler often said that we were living through three revolutions: in telecommunications, computing, and molecular biology. It was the combination of these three that allowed scientists to collaborate world-wide in real time, using the ‘new’ computing power to handle the vast amounts of data that molecular biology was generating.

That wasn’t so . . . not so long ago.

When, in 1976, the Director General of the International Potato Center (CIP), Dr Richard Sawyer, asked me to set up a satellite research program in Costa Rica (at a regional center, CATIE, in Turrialba) the only ways we had to communicate with HQ in Lima were ‘snail mail’, telephone, or Telex. Even making a phone call was difficult. I had to book an international call to Peru at least a day ahead.

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

There were no personal computers. Even hand-held calculators were a novelty. I remember one scientist at CATIE, soil scientist Warren Forsythe, proudly showing off a newfangled—and basic—electronic calculator (addition, subtraction, division, multiplication functions only) that he’d recently spent more than USD400 on (that’s about USD1800 today!). They almost give them away nowadays. There’s more processing power in your basic smartphone than took the first astronauts to the Moon.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Southampton in the late 1960s we used either logarithmic tables (log tables) or a hand-cranked calculating machine like the one shown below. I’m not sure if I remember nowadays how to use log tables. I never did master the slide rule.

The first computer I ever saw was at a major steelworks (Ravenscraig I think it was, at Motherwell, just south of Glasgow) where my eldest brother Martin was a computer engineer. He took me along one afternoon when he had access to the computer (an ICL mainframe if memory serves me right) for routine maintenance.

He showed me how paper tapes were used to run routines. Paper tape? I can’t remember the last time I saw that.

Completing an honours ecology project for my undergraduate dissertation in 1970, I used the university’s mainframe computer to complete a type of vegetation analysis known as Association Analysis.  Ecologist Joyce Lambert was my supervisor, and she and former head of the Department of Botany, Professor Bill Williams, were pioneers in the use of computers and quantitative methods in ecology [1]. I encoded my data on punched cards, with the help of one of the graduate students, John Barr (studying for a PhD in numerical taxonomy).

When I moved to Birmingham in 1970 (to study for the one year MSc course on plant genetic resources) there was a short module on data management, taught by Brian Kershaw, a programmer in the university’s Computer Centre. He developed the computer programs to sort and collate data, and print maps, for A Computer-Mapped Flora: A Study of The County of Warwickshire [2] published in 1971, and the first of its kind. His MSc module was more about basic programming than data management per se and not, in my opinion, very helpful, or enlightening. Things changed once we had access to personal computers over a decade later.

IBM launched its first personal computer (PC) in August 1981, just a few months after I had returned to the UK and joined the faculty of the University of Birmingham. My memory is fuzzy. We must have had one of these in our lab in the Department of Plant Biology (School of Biological Sciences). I can remember that we used 5¼ inch floppy disks, but also installed an 8 inch disk reader. MS-DOS was the operating system.

It wasn’t until one of my colleagues, plant physiologist Dr Digby Idle secured a grant to purchase half a dozen Apple Macintosh computers that we had access to personal computers, mainly for teaching. They certainly revolutionized the teaching of data management to MSc students by my colleague Dr Brian Ford-Lloyd.

Staff were sometimes allowed to take a machine home for weekend. My young daughters Hannah and Philippa had great fun exploring a couple of the games (rudimentary by today’s standards) that came with each computer.

Personal computing really took off, however, once Alan Sugar released the first IBM clones under the Amstrad brand in the 1980s. I bought several machines for my lab. We were still using the university’s mainframe computer for analysis of large data sets. It wasn’t until the end of the 1980s that PCs began to have the power to carry out some of these same analyses.

I even purchased an Amstrad for home use. It had twin 5¼ inch floppy disk drives, each with a capacity of about 500 Kb if I’m not mistaken. But then I installed a 32 MB hard drive, and then we were really cooking! There was no internet of course, and no WiFi. But connected to a dot matrix printer (are they around any more?), and using a word processing package called PFS First Choice. By today’s standards it wasn’t sophisticated at all, but it was convenient for home use [3].

We even took that Amstrad to the Philippines in 1991 and used it for a couple of years. I found it at the back of a cupboard 19 years later when we were packing to return to the UK.

But I digress. Back to emails.

I don’t really remember when we started to use email in a rather simple way at the university during the 1980s. Even after I had moved to IRRI in July 1991 I had to ‘fight’ to have a PC on my desk. Again I’m not certain when email was routinely used at the institute.

But by the time I had moved from the Genetic Resources Center to become Director for Program Planning and Communications (DPPC) in May 2001, email was well established as the most convenient and regularly used method of communication among staff at IRRI, and with external collaborators and donors. In fact, as I set up the DPPC Office much of what we achieved was based on a systematic use and filing of emails in lieu of communication through hard copies.

I’m the sort of person who attends to all incoming correspondence—memos, letters, emails—more or less straight away, deciding whether to respond immediately or taking a decision to put that to one side for a response later on. At the very least, I tried to send an acknowledgment that someone’s communication has been received. Being in a senior management position, I felt it was really important to keep on top of emails and the like, because without a response, the sender might not be able to move ahead without a decision from me. Even if that meant working through 10s if not 100s of emails a day. I never liked the grass to grow beneath my feet, so to speak.

But communication by email was both a blessing and a curse as far as project management was concerned. Because emails could be sent instantaneously, more or less, it was possible to send off project reports, or even funding requests, right up to any deadline, not having to prepare several weeks ahead for ‘snail mail’ delivery.

However, the use of emails also made some donors (like USAID, for example) somewhat dysfunctional. Knowing that we would be able to send replies in by email, they would often make demands of us for information, reports, or whatever, just before their deadline, without understanding that we also needed appropriate lead time to compile and prepare the information requested. The transmission by email was just a bonus.

But there’s no doubt that how we used email in DPPC, straight to our donor contacts, greatly enhanced fund-raising capability at IRRI.

I still look forward to receiving emails from family and friends. For many years I have used Fastmail as my platform of choice, although I do keep a Gmail address as a backup. And, for most of my continuing business and utility contacts, emails are the preferred method of communication. It’s always a pleasure when an unexpected email drops into my mailbox especially from someone I haven’t heard from for some time.

Yes, I’ve got mail . . .

[1] Williams, WT and JM Lambert, 1960. Multivariate methods in plant ecology: the use of an electronic digital computer for Association-Analysis. Journal of Ecology, 48: 689-710.

[2] Cadbury, DA, JG Hawkes and RC Readett, 1971. A Computer-Mapped Flora: A Study of The County of Warwickshire. Academic Press, London and New York.

[3] After I’d published this story yesterday (4 May 2020) a friend reminded me of the word processing software we used in the 1980s: WordStar, written for the CP/M operating system. It was generally replaced by WordPerfect, a package I never got to grips with. I became really quite proficient in the use of WordStar. Who can forget all those formatting tools for bold, underlining, and italics, etc?


Veni, vidi . . . conquest came later

Julius Caesar’s first British forays in 55 and 54 BC were not altogether successful. It took almost 100 years (and several Roman emperors later) before the Roman occupation of Britain took hold.

It wasn’t until AD 43 that the Roman conquest of Britain under the Emperor Claudius began in earnest and was, to all intents and purposes, completed over the next 50 years. However, Roman rule lasted only 400 years or so. Then the Romans just upped and left.

But what a profound impact Roman occupation had on the British landscape during those four centuries.

Take the road system, for instance. The Romans built 8000 miles of roads that enabled them to move armies and commerce across the country more easily. Roman roads are still exposed in many places, like the Wheeldale Roman road on the North York Moors that we visited in the summer of 1988 when Hannah and Philippa were ten and six, respectively.

However, take a look at today’s road system in the UK, and many of the most important trunk roads still follow the routes of Roman roads built 2000 years ago, such as the Fosse Way, Watling Street, and Ermine Street.

And at the same time that the conquest of Britain was underway on the far-flung northwest frontier of the Roman empire, just over 1000 miles southeast in Rome itself, the Colosseum was being built (by the Emperor Vespasian).

Aerial view of the Colosseum, with the Forum on the top right, and the Palatine Hill beyond on the top left.

The Romans founded cities all over England. There are so many fine examples of Roman settlements and architecture to be explored. Just take four examples that we have visited: the city of Wroxeter (Viroconium) near Shrewsbury, the villa at Chedworth in Gloucestershire, the lighthouse in Dover, standing high above the chalk cliffs on the south coast, or the landing stage at The Weir along the River Wye in Herefordshire.

It’s also remarkable just how far north the Romans expanded their control. In order to protect their domain, a 73 mile long wall was constructed across the north of England, just south of what is today the border with Scotland, from the west coast on the Solway Firth to Newcastle (Wallsend) on the east. This is, of course, Hadrian’s Wall, whose construction began around 122 AD under the Emperor Hadrian.

Hadrian’s Wall facing east towards Crag Lough. The rocky outcrop is the Whin Sill, of volcanic origin.

Sections of Hadrian’s Wall still remain, particularly in its hilly central sector. Little remains in lowland regions, where the Wall was previously plundered as a source of free stone for new buildings.

This fortification remained the Romans’ principal fortification against hostile tribes to the north. Here’s a short video from the Smithsonian Channel.

What I believe is less well known is that the Romans built another wall, the Antonine Wall some 100 miles further north, spanning a length of about 40 miles between the Firth of Clyde on the west coast and the Firth of Forth on the east, twenty years after construction began on Hadrian’s Wall. Unlike its counterpart to the south, the Antonine Wall was abandoned just a few years after it completion, and the Romans retreated south behind Hadrian’s Wall.

In 1998, when Steph and I spent a week touring Northumberland, we took the opportunity of exploring different sections of the Wall, near Cawfield Quarry, and at Housesteads Fort (Vercovicium; map) one of the largest settlements along the Wall. We’ve been back a couple of times since, but if I did take many more photos, I can’t lay my hands on them. That will be a project in progress once we move north.

Hadrian’s Wall and Housesteads appear to be managed jointly by the National Trust and English Heritage.

Just two miles southwest from Housesteads Fort is one of the most important Roman sites in the north of England, perhaps in the whole country: Vindolanda. It is owned and managed by The Vindolanda Trust.

Vindolanda is known for the huge quantity of Roman artefacts that have been recovered during archaeological excavations, many of which are on display in the excellent museum there. Of particular renown are the Vindolanda tablets, handwritten documents on wood detailing life on this lonely frontier of the Empire, and beautifully preserved for almost 2000 years.

Tablet 343: Letter from Octavius to Candidus concerning supplies of wheat, hides and sinews.

The tablet that is perhaps most cited, No. 291 from around 100 AD, was an invitation to a birthday party from the wife of the commander of a nearby fort.

North of Hadrian’s Wall, we also explored the site of a Roman encampment at Chew Green, overlooking the border with Scotland.

There’s not to much to see, just some raised mounds marking various buildings and the like. It’s a bleak spot, to say the least.

But there is (or at least should be) another legacy of the Roman occupation here and elsewhere. It’s not a legacy that you can observe as such. It needs the techniques of molecular genetics to reveal it. DNA!

We know, from writings left behind, that Roman soldiers from all corners of the Empire served on this northwest frontier. From as far east as Iran and Afghanistan, North Africa, and other regions of Europe. Unquestionably many will have had relationships (consenting or otherwise) with local women, and had children.

Britain is a nation built on immigration over millennia. The Roman conquest was the first major invasion of many that followed—the Germanic invasions, the Vikings, and the Normans. All left their DNA behind in the genetic melting pot. It’s just that the ‘Romans’ were the first, so to speak.

And we’re so hung up over immigration today. Ironic.





Remembering an old friend: Bent Skovmand (1945-2007)

In preparation for a house move this year (that is increasingly likely to be delayed indefinitely until the Covid-19 crisis has passed), I’ve been working through dozens of envelopes of old photos, getting rid of those out of focus or we can’t determine when or where they were taken. I have come across quite a number from the years I spent working abroad, but before I went digital in the mid-noughties.

During the decade (1991-2001) that I had responsibility for the International Rice Genebank at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, as Head of the institute’s Genetic Resources Center, I met and collaborated with some remarkable colleagues among the genetic resources community of the international agricultural research centers supported through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

These specialists met annually as the Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources (ICWG-GR). But unlike other CGIAR inter-center working groups, all of the CGIAR centers were represented on the ICWG-GR, covering crops and their wild relatives, animals, forestry and agroforestry, aquatic resources, irrigation management, and food policy.

I attended my first meeting in January 1973, held at ILCA, the International Livestock Centre for Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (that merged with the International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases, ILRAD, in Nairobi in January 1995 to form the International Livestock Research Institute, ILRI).

The ICWG-GR at its meeting in Addis Ababa in January 1993. L-R: Brigitte L. Maass (CIAT), Geoff Hawtin (IPGRI), Ed Rege (ILCA/ILRI), Ali Golmirzaie (CIP), Jan Valkoun (ICARDA), ??, ??, Masa Iwanaga (IPGRI), Roger Rowe (CIMMYT), ?? (World Agroforestry), Melak Mengesha (ICRISAT), Mike Jackson (IRRI), Murthy Anishetty (FAO), Quat Ng (IITA), Jean Hanson (ILCA/ILRI), and Jan Engels (IPGRI).

I was elected Chair of the ICWG-GR at that Addis meeting, and remained in that role for the next three years, overseeing a major review of genetic resources roles of the centers that led to the launch of the System-wide Genetic Resources Program (SGRP) in 1994. The SGRP was active for around a couple of decades, but has now been replaced by the CGIAR Genebank Platform that . . . led by the Crop Trust, enables CGIAR genebanks to fulfill their legal obligation to conserve and make available accessions of crops and trees on behalf of the global community under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

Enjoying a break in discussions in Kenya when World Agroforestry hosted the ICWG-GR in 1998. Bent Skovmand is on the far left.

I don’t remember the details of all the ICWG-GR meetings and their dates, but after 1993 we met at ICARDA in Aleppo, Syria; CIP in Lima, Peru; IITA in Ibadan, Nigeria; IFPRI in Washington, DC; CIFOR in Bogor, Indonesia; World Agroforestry in Nairobi, Kenya; and at IPGRI in Rome on at least a couple of occasions. But not necessarily in that order.

These meetings were a great opportunity to catch up with old friends, besides discussing and setting in train some important policy decisions for the centers regarding the management of and access to the important germplasm collections conserved in their genebanks.

Among the many members of the ICWG-GR, there was one with whom I struck up a particular friendship. This was Dr Bent Skovmand (above), a Danish plant pathologist in charge of the wheat genebank at CIMMYT (the International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement) in Mexico.

Bent and me during the 1998 meeting of the ICWG-GR meeting held in Kenya.

I’m not sure why Bent and I hit it off so well. I think it was because we didn’t take ourselves too seriously. Perhaps it was our mutual love of beer!

Besides the ICWG-GR meetings, Bent and I would often meet at the annual conferences (usually in November) of the Crop Science Society of America (CSSA) held in different cities in the USA. Bent was a very active member in what was then the C8 Section of the Society, and what I think is now the Plant Preservation section or group.

Bent studied at the University of Minnesota in St Paul on the Minnesota Agricultural Student Trainee international exchange program, gaining a masters degree in 1973 and his PhD in 1976 (in plant pathology). He then joined CIMMYT and remained there for much of his career until 2003. Before heading the wheat genebank, he had also spent time with CIMMYT in Turkey.

In 2003 he was honored twice. First he received the Frank N Meyer Medal for Plant Genetic Resources from the CSSA. Then, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark awarded him the Knight’s Cross of the Order of the Dannebrog.

But, in some ways, these awards were bittersweet. CIMMYT restructured in 2003, and Bent was made redundant. Having spent so many years at a center that he loved, and based in Mexico (the home of his second wife Eugenia) it was a huge blow to have to leave. Not yet 60, he looked for other employment opportunities, and was soon appointed Director of the Nordic Gene Bank (NGB, now NordGen) in Alnarp, Sweden. In that position, he took a lead role in the establishment of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which opened its doors in February 2008.

Entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. (Courtesy of the Crop Trust).

Bent never got to see this event. Having been diagnosed with a brain tumor some months earlier and his health deteriorating rapidly, he passed away in February 2007.

There’s one particular memory I have of Bent. When in Rome together, he and I would try and eat, at least once, in the Taverna Cestia at the southern end of the Viale Aventino, near the Pyramid of Caius Cestius. Just inside the entrance, on a side-table, was a large meat slicer for carving prosciutto ham. It looked like it had been there for decades.

Every time we ate there, Bent would tell me: ‘I’m going to make them an offer for that slicer, one day.‘ He never did.

Sadly missed by his friends and colleagues in the genetic resources community, not just among the CGIAR centers, but more widely around the world, Bent left a strong and deservable legacy.

I found this obituary for Bent that was published on the website of The American Phytopathological Society (APS). But I have also downloaded it as a PDF file, accessible here.

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 26: A sojourn in Sri Lanka

I visited Sri Lanka just the once. However, I don’t even remember which year or month. Only that it was the early 1990s, probably around 1993 or 1994. That was when I was planning a major rice conservation project at IRRI, and I wanted to determine if or how any Sri Lankan organizations would participate. As it turned out, for reasons that I’ll explain in due course, Sri Lanka did not join the project.

The Sri Lankan genebank, The Plant Genetic Resources Centre (PGRC) is based in Kandy in the island nation’s Central Province, of which it is the capital. It lies amongst the hills of the central plateau. The hills surrounding Kandy are covered in tea plantations. And, in many ways, Kandy is a magical place to visit. The scenery is outstanding.

Although I don’t remember in which hotel I stayed, I do remember it was perched on the summit of one of the hills, with views in every direction, as you can see in the gallery above. In the stillness of the dawn, I woke each morning to the sounds of birds calling to each other across the valleys. What a wonderful start to the day.

Kandy is home to a magnificent botanical garden (the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya just west of the city) and one of Buddhism’s most sacred places of worship, the Temple of the Tooth or Sri Dalada Maligawa, is located in the city center.

The Plant Genetic Resources Centre was opened in 1990. Its construction was a donation from the Government of Japan in 1989. So when I visited it had been open for just a few years—and looked like it. But, unlike one or two other genebanks whose construction Japan had supported in other Asian countries, the staff at PGRC were certainly making the most of their expanded facilities to store seeds and tissue culture or in vitro conservation.

Once again I am unable to name most of the people I met at PGRC, with one exception: Mr CN Sandanayake, who was one of my MSc students at the University of Birmingham in 1986.

CN Sandanayake talks with one of his colleagues at PGRC.

And as you can see from one of the photos in the gallery above, everything stops for tea!

When I discussed participation in the IRRI-led rice biodiversity project, it was clear that Sri Lanka had already made significant progress to collect and conserve indigenous rice varieties and wild species. My former colleague at IRRI, Dr Duncan Vaughan had visited Sri Lanka in the 1980s to help with the collection of wild rices.

Furthermore, PGRC had a cadre of excellent technical staff, and as you can see from the photos, excellent facilities for germplasm conservation. And, given the ongoing civil war there were many no-go areas in the country, especially in the north and east. However, in Kandy, there was no tangible signs of the conflict.

I made a side trip, with Sandanayake, to the Rice Research & Development Institute at Batalagoda, some 50km north of Kandy. Here are a couple of photos I took on that journey.

There I met with MS Dhanapala, a rice breeder who had also come to Birmingham in the 1980s to attend short courses on plant genetic resources, and also spend some time in the Department of Genetics.

Sitting, L-R: Dhanapala, me, Sandanayake. I don’t remember the names of those standing.

Sri Lanka has had a very successful rice breeding program, and many of its varieties have been adopted throughout Asia, after being shared and trialled through INGER, the IRRI-led International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice, that I wrote about in 2015.

Now to return to Kandy tourism.

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Peradeniya cover almost 150 acres. There are wide open spaces to wander around, but also exquisite orchid houses to enjoy, with a multiplicity of species and varieties to take in.

As I mentioned, the Temple of the Tooth is a sacred shrine to Buddhists, and although not overrun with pilgrims during my visit was, nevertheless, quite busy.

One of the most impressive exhibits, in a side room, is a huge, stuffed elephant that died in 1988. This was Raja, a tusker who led ceremonial processions from the Temple for over 50 years.

All too soon my stay in Kandy was over, and I headed down to Colombo on the west coast to take my flight back to Singapore, and from there to the Philippines. It’s certainly a country I would like to return to.


Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 25: Walking the Great Wall of China

During the nineteen years I spent in the Far East, I visited China just twice. The first time was in March 1995, and this post is all about that visit. It must have been in 2009 that I was in China again, for the annual meeting of the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) held in Beijing, just across the street from the famous Beijing National Stadium (aka Bird’s Nest) built for the 2008 Olympic Games.

However, back to 1995.

Dr Bao-Rong Lu

A year earlier I had recruited Dr Bao-Rong Lu (a Chinese national from the southwest Sichuan Province) to work in IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center (GRC) on the diversity of wild rice species. Bao-Rong had just completed his PhD in Sweden at the Swedish University of Agriculture under the supervision Professor Roland von Bothmer, studying the cytogenetics of wheat species, if memory serves me correctly. He had also spent some months working at the Institute of Botany, The Chinese Academy of Sciences (IB-CAS), in Beijing prior to joining IRRI.

With a major rice biodiversity project getting underway at IRRI in 1995, I decided that a visit to China with Bao-Rong was the appropriate moment to initiate some further contacts and possible collaboration. Our visit took in three cities: Beijing, Hangzhou (in Zhejiang Province west of Shanghai), and Guangzhou (Canton) in the south.

First stop was the IB-CAS where I met with the Director (whose name I cannot recall, unfortunately) and many of the staff.

With the Director of the Institute of Botany and staff. Bao-Rong is standing on my left, and the Director on my right.

I was invited to present a seminar about the International Rice Genebank at IRRI and its role in the global conservation of rice genetic resources.

There was also some time for sightseeing around Beijing, and this was my opportunity to tick off another item on my bucket list: walking on the Great Wall of China (at Mutianyu, about 45 miles north of Beijing).

As you can see from these photos, there were few visitors, unlike scenes I have seen in the media in recent years.

We also took a tour of the Forbidden City in Beijing, and a walk around Tiananmen Square. Again not crowded! In one of the photos you can see the Great Hall of the People behind Bao-Rong. During the CGIAR meeting in Beijing that I mentioned earlier, the official dinner (and entertainment) was hosted by the Chinese in the Great Hall. It’s massive!

The photos appear hazy, because it was. It was quite cold in Beijing in March, with a stiff northwesterly breeze blowing over the city, laden with dust from the far west of China. It felt like being sand-blasted.

We also visited some Ming era tombs near Beijing, but I’m unable to find any photos of that particular visit.

On one night the Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences hosted a small dinner in my honor. On another, Bao-Rong introduced me to the delights of spicy Sichuan cuisine. There was a Sichuan restaurant in our hotel where all the staff were from the province.

Trevor Williams

Later that same evening, as Bao-Rong and I were enjoying a beer in the bar overlooking the hotel reception, I saw someone who I recognised enter the dining room. I had to investigate. And, lo and behold, it was Trevor Williams who had supervised my MSc dissertation at the University of Birmingham in 1971. Around 1977, Trevor left Birmingham to become the first Director of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR – now Bioversity International) in Rome. In 1995 I hadn’t seen Trevor for about six years, and so we spent the rest of the evening catching up over rather too many beers. Having left IBPGR by then, he was in Beijing setting up an organization that would become INBAR, the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan with its headquarters in Beijing.

After a few days in Beijing, we headed south to the city of Hangzhou (inland from Shanghai on the Qiantang River) in Zhejiang province. We were there to visit the China National Rice Research Institute (CNRRI) and meet with its director Professor Ying Cunshan. Professor Ying participated in the rice biodiversity project as a member of the project Steering Committee. CNRRI is the home of China’s largest rice genebank, which was modelled (inadvisedly in my opinion) on the genebank at IRRI.

With Bao-Rong and Professor Ying outside the entrance to CNRRI.

Inside the genebank with Professor Ying.

After a couple of days in Hangzhou, we headed southwest to the city of Guangzhou (Canton) and I experienced one of the most nerve-wracking flights ever.

Much as I am fascinated by aviation in general, I’m somewhat of a nervous flyer. And in the mid-1990s Chinese airlines were only just beginning to modernise their fleets with Boeing and Airbus aircraft. Many were still flying Soviet-era Russian aircraft, like the Tupolev (probably a ‘154’) that was assigned to our flight. On that morning, flights out of Hangzhou were delayed due to fog, and at the same time Guangzhou was also fogged in. Over a period of a couple hours, other flights (of mainly new aircraft) did depart, leaving just the Tupolev on the apron for our flight. Eventually the flight was called and we made our way out to the aircraft. Looking around the cabin as I made my way to my seat, it crossed my mind that this aircraft had seen better days.

Anyway, we took off and headed for Guangzhou. Approaching that city after a flight of about 90 minutes, the captain informed us that fog was still hanging over the airport but he would continue the landing. Only to abort that just before touching down, and returning to Hangzhou! My nerves were on edge. After refuelling, and a further delay, we departed again. This time we did find a gap in the fog and landed. As we were on our final approach and seconds from touch-down, a female passenger immediately in front of me decided to get out of her seat to retrieve her hand luggage from the overhead bin. That was the final straw for me, and I shouted at her, in no uncertain terms, to sit the f*** down. Not my best moment, I admit.

In Guangzhou, our destination was the Guangzhou wild rice nursery and meet with the staff (again I don’t remember who precisely). I believe the nursery was managed through the Guangzhou Academy of Agricultural Sciences. As in Beijing, I gave another seminar here.

In a 2005 paper, Bao-Rong and others has written about wild rice conservation in China.

Completing our visit to Guangzhou, I took a flight into Hong Kong (maybe under 40 minutes) to connect with another back to Manila.

Although China did not participate directly in the rice biodiversity project since the country had already invested heavily in rice collection and conservation, Professor Ying Cunshan served on the Steering Committee for the 5-year life of the project. We felt that his experience, and recognition among other rice scientists, would be an invaluable addition to the team.

I have two particular reflections on this first trip to China. First, in crowded areas the Chinese had little ‘respect’ for personal space, and I often found myself checking my pace of walking as others crossed in front of me, seemingly oblivious of the fact that I was there. And it wasn’t just me, being a foreigner. It just seemed the normal thing to do.

Secondly, I realised that I am not a very adventurous eater. Some of the dishes I was presented with did not encourage my appetite. There was certainly a lack of synchronization between my stomach, eyes and brain. I did find Sichuanese cooking delicious, however. In Guangzhou, where many ‘exotic’ dishes were prepared, I got round any difficulties by explaining to my hosts, through Bao-Rong, that I was vegetarian. And those dishes were equally delicious.

Bao-Rong remained at IRRI for two contracts, a total of six years. After he left IRRI in 2000, he returned to China and it wasn’t long before he joined Fudan University in Shanghai. He is now Professor and Chairman of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Deputy Director of the Institute of Biodiversity Science. He currently serves as a Member of the Chinese National Biosafety Committee.


Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 24: A Laotian experience

Laos or the Lao PDR (the Lao People’s Democratic Republic – actually a Unitary Marxist–Leninist one-party socialist republic) is one of the few landlocked countries in Asia. But it does have a connection to the sea, down the Mekong River where, through its mighty delta in Vietnam, it disgorges into the South China Sea. For a considerable length, the Mekong is the international border between Myanmar and Laos, and Thailand and Laos.

During the 19 years I spent in Asia (with the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines) I visited Laos more than any other country, probably a couple of times a year over a five to six year period. Why? Because it was a focal country for the major rice conservation project that I managed between 1995 and 2000, funded by the Swiss government.

The Swiss, through the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), also funded an in-country Lao-IRRI Program. So, as we were looking to strengthen the collection and conservation of indigenous rice varieties and wild rices in that country, it was a logical step to associate our rice biodiversity project administratively with the Lao-IRRI Project. The scientist who we hired for the Lao component of the project, Dr Seppana Appa Rao (originally from a sister center, ICRISAT, in Hyderabad, India) was based in the Lao capital Vientiane, and reported on a day-to-day basis to the leader of the Lao-IRRI Project, Australian agronomist Dr John Schiller (who passed away a couple of years ago).

Enjoying dinner with Appa Rao and John Schiller at John’s home in Vientiane.

In February 1997 I was joined on one of these visits to Laos by my wife Steph. IRRI had a generous travel policy. For every so many days a scientist was travelling outside the Philippines (but discounting the days of departure and arrival), his/her spouse or partner was entitled to one trip to a destination in Asia. So, we took advantage of that policy for a slightly extended visit to Laos (to take in some of the sights) as well as a weekend in Bangkok, through we had to transit in any case. A trip to Laos inevitably involved an overnight stop in Bangkok on both legs of the journey, taking a late flight out of Manila to Bangkok (about three hours) then the first flight on Thai Airways or Lao Aviation the next morning to Vientiane.

When I first visited Laos in 1995, the population of Vientiane was less than 400,000. It’s now reported at over 800,000. Back in the day it had the feel of a small town hugging the banks of the Mekong. But even then the traffic could become snarled at times. I wonder what it’s like nowadays? Looking at a satellite image the other day, the spread from the city center is clear. Even back in the 1990s, the city had begun to rapidly spread eastwards. The National Agricultural Research Center (NARC) of the National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute (NAFRI) had its research station in this area, and where a rice genebank was constructed with financial support from the Swiss.

On this particular trip, Steph and I spent time with Appa and his Lao colleagues, Dr Chay Bounphanousay and Ms Kongphanh Kanyavong at the research center, looking at the genebank, field plots and various other facilities used to conserve the rice varieties collected throughout the country. This was also of interest for Steph as she originally trained in genetic resources, and has an MSc degree in genetic resources conservation  and use from the University of Birmingham (where we met in 1971/72).

L-R: Kongphanh Kanyavong, Appa Rao, and Chay Bounphanousay

We also visited a research site where wild rices were being monitored in a joint project with Japanese scientists. It was hoped that data from that project would inform the establishment of field or in situ conservation sites around the country.

Driving around Vientiane as tourists, we noted that two buildings dominate the skyline in the city center. The first, the Patuxai monument, is a huge war memorial that commemorates the struggle for independence from France. The other, a short distance away to the northeast, is Pha That Luang, a large, gold covered Buddhist stupa.

And after a hard day in the field, or touring the city and markets, what better way to end the day than a stroll along the banks of the Mekong.

That’s Thailand on the far bank.

On another day, Appa, his wife, Chay, and Kongphanh took us for a boat excursion round the Nam Ngum Reservoir, about 70 km north of Vientiane, and afterwards to the Lao Zoo nearby.

Steph and I were also invited to participate in a Baci Ceremony at John’s home, which involves the tying of white cotton strings around person’s wrists and the prayer saying or well wishing for the person that the ceremony is intended for. I had been to one of these ceremonies before, during my first visit to Laos. Another new IRRI staff member, agronomist Bruce Linquist and his family, were also welcomed to Laos at this particular ceremony.

But the tourist highlight of our visit was a weekend in Luang Prabang (a 40 min flight north of Vientiane), an ancient city standing on a peninsula at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan River.

In 1997 there were few tourists in the city besides ourselves. As we walked through the streets of the ‘old town’ the locals we passed would smile and say hello, and go on about their business. They paid no attention to us whatsoever. Luang Prabang has become a mecca for tourists from afar, and must be a very different place nowadays.

After checking into our hotel (I don’t remember which one—it was new and on the southwest of the city center), we set out to explore the sights.

First on our list was the sixteenth century Buddhist temple Wat Xieng Thong, or Temple of the Golden City, at the northern end of the peninsula. It is one of the most important shrines in the country.

The architecture is breathtaking, and as we wandered around the temple, there was a just a feeling of serenity.

Later in the day before sunset, we climbed 100m high Phousi Hill to enjoy the 360° panorama from the summit, looking north over the old town and the Nam Khan River.

I guess the highlight of our trip to Luang Prabang was the 25 km or so boat trip we took upstream along the Mekong to visit the shrines at the Pak Ou Caves, which are opposite the mouth of the Ou River as it flows into the Mekong.

As I already mentioned, Luang Prabang was very quiet, and we hired a river boat to ourselves. The journey took about two hours, during which we had the chance to take in, close-up, the majesty of the Mekong.

At the landing stage where we took our boat. You can see several of these boats behind Steph, looking north along the Mekong.

Approaching the landing stage at Pak-Ou, our boatman carefully positioned his boat so that we could disembark safely. While we were ashore, he turned the boat around ready for the return, but also a short diversion into the mouth of the Ou River.

There are two caves: Tham Ting is the lower; Tham Phum is the upper. Both are filled with hundreds if not thousands of Buddha sculptures.

We were the only visitors on this day, and had the site to ourselves. Nowadays, it’s rather different as this photo (copied from the website clearly shows.

After a late afternoon meal overlooking the Mekong back in Luang Prabang, our visit to this ancient city came to an end, and we flew back to Vientiane the following morning, and on to Bangkok.


Look out, he’s behind you! . . . Oh no, he’s not!

The pantomime season ended a week or so ago here in the UK. Pantomime?

Pantomime is a marvellous and wonderful (if a little eccentric!) British institution.

Pantomimes take place around the Christmas period and are nearly always based on well known children’s stories such as Peter Pan, Aladdin, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty etc. Pantomimes are performed not only in the best theatres in the land but also in village halls throughout Britain. Whether a lavish professional performance or a hammy local amateur dramatic production, all pantomimes are well attended.

Ellen Castelow wrote this for the Historic UK website. And if you want to know a little more about pantomimes, just take a quick look at this YouTube video.

In the mid-1990s at IRRI (the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines where I worked from 1991-2010), a group of us staged our own pantomimes in the IRRI Auditorium in the period leading up to Christmas, although not conforming entirely to the format described in the video.

With Kate Kirk (wife of soil chemist Guy) as Director, there were three pantomimes from 1994 to 1996. I took part in two of these: Snow White (or was it Sleeping Beauty?) and Robin Hood and his Merry Men, but had to drop out of the third, Aladdin, during rehearsals due to unforeseen travel commitments.

These good memories have resurfaced because I referred to the Robin Hood pantomime in my recent tribute to my friend Martin Mortimer who passed away just before Christmas last year. And also because in the process of working my way through boxes of old photographs in preparation for our house move later this year, I came across a small album of photos from Robin Hood and his Merry Men that was the pre-Christmas highlight at IRRI in mid-December 1995.

I joined IRRI in July 1991 as Head of the Genetic Resources Center, and when Kate asked me to be part of one of her productions, I jumped at the chance. Since my undergraduate days at Southampton I’d enjoyed taking part in reviews and the like, but only on an occasional basis.

It was Christmas 1992 that we staged our first panto, Snow White/Sleeping Beauty, in which I played a dipsomaniac King, father of the leading lady.

We had great fun with Robin Hood, inspired by Mel Brooks’ 1993 film Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

I guess there must have been five performances, Wednesday to Saturday (with an afternoon matinee on the Saturday).

So who was involved? As I mentioned, Kate Kirk was the Director, and Crissan Zeigler (wife of IRRI Program Leader and plant pathologist, Bob Zeigler) was the Producer.

L-R: Crissan Zeigler, Rebecca Nelson (as Maid Marian), and Kate Kirk, with Nick Zeigler (as Will Scarlet photobombing in the background).

Most of us had little stage experience, so we were fortunate to depend upon Jay Herrera (a semi-professional actor from Manila) and Pam Denning (wife of Glenn Denning, then head of IRRI’s International Programs Management Office and now Professor of Professional Practice in International and Public Affairs at Columbia University) as the ‘anchors’ around whom we attempted to appear better than we were.

Jay Herrera and Pam Denning at the Sheriff of Nottingham and his wife.

Where are they now?
Robin Hood was played by Michael Price, husband of visiting scientist and anthropologist Lisa M Price (now Professor of Anthropology at Oregon State University).

Rebecca Nelson, a plant pathologist) played Maid Marian. After leaving IRRI (around 1996 or so) she moved to the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru to head research on late blight disease. She is now Professor at Cornell University.

Rice agronomist Len Wade was Little John. After leaving IRRI in 2002, Len held Chairs in Agronomy at the University of Western Australia and Charles Sturt University in his native Australia. Following retirement he is now Honorary Professor at the University of Queensland.

Friar Tuck was played by Rainfed Lowland Rice Program Leader and plant pathologist Bob Zeigler, who left IRRI in 1998 to become Chair of the Department of Plant Pathology at Kansas State University. He returned to IRRI in 2005 as Director General.

Guy Kirk was a soil chemist at IRRI for thirteen years. After leaving the institute, he returned to the UK, took a sabbatical at the University of Cambridge to write a book on The Biogeochemistry of Submerged Soils, and in 2003 was appointed Professor of Soil Systems at Cranfield University.

John Bennett was Senior Molecular Biologist at IRRI, and retired about fifteen years ago.

Jane Guy from South Africa (but domiciled in Canada) played the nanny or Yaya (in Filipino) whose husband Peter was an Environment Project Manager for a Canadian-funded project in Los Baños during 1994 and 1995. Their daughter Katherine was one of the Forest Fairies (kneeling in the middle in the photo above) who, in 2018, married Chris, the elder son of my close colleague and head of IRRI Communication and Publications Services, Gene Hettel.

As for myself, I played a very camp Prince John, dyeing my whiskers yellow to match the luxuriant wig I had acquired. In May 2001, I moved into a senior management position at IRRI, as Director for Program Planning and Communications (DPPC) until my retirement in April 2010.

Happy days!

You can view a more extensive album of photos taken during make-up and rehearsals here.

Perception is truth

Is it just me? The older I get (I’ll be 71 one month from now) the faster time seems to fly by.

This came home to me quite vividly yesterday morning. Ever since we’ve been married (46 years now) Steph and I enjoy an early morning cup of tea in bed. It’s my job to make the tea from Monday to Friday, Steph’s at the weekend. Anyway, after we were up and dressed, I was about to go downstairs for breakfast carrying the tea tray, and not bothering to turn on the light, even though it’s quite dark these days at 07:15.

I had to stop and tell myself that it would be foolish to slip in the dark and damage my leg as I did in January 2016 when I fell and broke my leg. Then reality hit home. It’s almost four years since my accident. Four years! Where has the time gone?

Notwithstanding that I was very busy in those four years, it seems just like yesterday that I was whisked away by ambulance to the local hospital.

And I got to thinking about things past and present. Through social media and this blog I’ve made contact with a number of friends from school days and university. I haven’t met any of my Southampton University classmates since we graduated almost 50 years ago in July 1970.

In my mind’s eye they are still the same, even though I have aged. Does anyone else have the same issue?

1968 – at the end of a botany field course on the west coast of Ireland at Lisdoonvarna.

July 1970 and October 2019. Spot the difference!

Older? Definitely. Wiser? Maybe.

There are so many memories from those years, still fresh in my mind. What did I do last week? Heaven knows.

But I was taken back to my university days recently when I received something the university alumni office. It was a Map of the Tracks, on which alumni memories (and music tracks associated with those memories) were posted.

That got me thinking. I didn’t go to many live concerts. But three stick in my mind. In January 1968, Pink Floyd supported T. Rex. On another occasion, the Alan Price Set played the Students’ Union. Alan Price had played keyboards with The Animals.

But the concert that is most vivid in my mind was late 1967 or early 1968. Or was it later in 1968 at the beginning of the new academic year? Nevertheless, I’m inclined to recall it was during Freshers’ Week in October 1967, just as I started at Southampton.

So who has stayed in my mind all these years? The Crazy World of Arthur Brown! He performed what would become their hit Fire that did well on both sides of the Atlantic after its release in June 1968.

What a performance! Brown came on stage with this contraption on his head, shooting flames, and it wasn’t long before his hair caught fire. Quickly doused (this wasn’t the first time that this happened, apparently) the performance continued. What a night.

Here he is in all his pyrotechnic glory.


On yer bike . . . !

1886 Rover safety bicycle at the British Motor Museum.

It was the late Professor John Jinks (former head of the Department of Genetics at The University of Birmingham), if memory serves me right, who used to say that the invention of the bicycle, and its wider availability in the last quarter of the 19th century, did more for the genetic health of human communities than almost any other.

Variety is, so they say, the spice of life. And when it comes to genetics, it’s variety (specifically genetic variation) that keeps populations healthy. Too much inbreeding is not a good thing. Just look what happened to the Habsburgs.

So what’s the link between the bicycle and human genetics?

For millennia, human societies comprised isolated rural communities, with limited contact between them. Members of these communities tended to marry among themselves. I think it’s fair to assume there was some degree of inbreeding, only overcome by marriage with members of unrelated (or less related) communities.

But as the Industrial Revolution progressed and agriculture was increasingly mechanized, there were significant demographic changes as people moved into urban areas. By the end of the 19th century more people in England and Wales were living in towns and cities than in rural areas.

Having access to a bicycle, whether one lived in a rural village, a small market town, or a city, meant that a young man could court his sweetheart miles away. No more shank’s pony. More and more couples married who did not live in the same immediate community, and these communities became genetically more diverse. At least that’s the idea, in a nutshell, behind Jinks’s idea.

So I decided to look into the various geographical connections of my family.

Since 1980, my eldest brother Martin has developed a fascinating and comprehensive genealogy web site (just click on the image below) to record our family history. And I’ve delved into that database for this particular post.

While the ancestry on my father’s side of the family can be traced back five centuries, Martin has uncovered information to the beginning of the 19th century only on my mother’s. Her parents were Irish and came over to England at the turn of the 20th century.

However, let’s look at my mother’s side of the family first in a little more detail.

My mum, Lilian (actually Lily) Healy, was born in Shadwell, in the East End of London in April 1908, the second child (and second daughter) of Martin Healy and Ellen Lenane. Mum had five sisters and two brothers.

Mum married Dad, Frederick Jackson, in November 1936.

Wedding on 28 November 1936 in Epsom, Surrey. L-R: Grandma Alice, Grandad Tom, Rebecca (Dad’s sister), Ernest J. Bettley (best man), Dad, Mum, Eileen (Mum’s sister), Grandad Martin, Grandma Ellen.

The Healy and Lenane families (both Catholic) came from Co. Kilkenny and Co. Waterford respectively, some 75-80 miles apart. While the birth and baptism information going back five generations (to my 2nd great grandparents) is not as complete as desirable, there’s every reason to believe that marriages took place between families that lived close to one another.

But my grandparents, Martin and Ellen, did not meet in Ireland.

Born in 1876, Grandad Martin was the seventh of nine children, from Castlecomer, Co. Kilkenny. After serving in the Royal Irish Regiment of the British army (Ireland was part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Ireland at that time) in India (on the Northwest Frontier) and South Africa during the Boer War, he became a police constable in the East End of London. He met Ellen in London and they were married in Wimbledon in January 1905.

Grandma Ellen, born in 1878, near Youghal on the southern coast of Ireland in Co. Waterford, was the second eldest of 13 children, although we don’t know how many survived childhood. I also discovered, to my surprise (although thinking about it, I’m not sure why I should be surprised), that she was an Irish speaker.

Both families came through the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s. But at what cost?

My mother once told me that some of her parents’ siblings emigrated to the USA. Others took up arms following the 1916 Easter Rising, and perhaps also during the Irish Civil War, on the Republican side. How much of this is true I have no way of confirming. But it adds another interesting dimension to the Healy-Lenane story.

Now let me turn to my father’s family.

My father, Fred Jackson, is from Staffordshire-Derbyshire stock. He was born in Burton on Trent in 1908. Grandad Tom (born in 1872 in Burton) was profoundly deaf since a young age, and never served in the armed forces. Grandma Alice (born 1880), was Tom’s second wife. Not only raising four children of her own (Winifred, Fred, Edgar, and Rebecca), she was stepmother to Alice and Bill.

Tom and Alice celebrated their Golden Wedding with family and friends in Hollington in 1954, and their Diamond Wedding in 1964 at the home of Wynne (their elder daughter and my dad’s elder sister) where they had moved after leaving their home of decades in Hollington.

Golden Wedding celebration in August 1954. Sitting, left to right: Fred, Wynne, Grandad Tom (with cousin Timothy on his knee), Grandma Alice (holding cousin Caroline, I believe), Bill, and Alice. Their other daughter, Rebecca, is standing on the back row, fifth from the left. I’m sitting on the grass, front left.

Diamond Wedding in August 1964.

Our ancestry can be traced through Grandma Alice Bull as far back as the late 15th century. I’m the 13th great-grandson of someone named Bull, whose son Thomas was born around 1505 in Ellastone on the Staffordshire-Derbyshire border. As shown on the map below (just zoom in for more details) many of my Bull ancestors (shown in red) came from Ellastone, Cubley, and Hollington (a five mile radius from Cubley) and, in the main, married spouses from the same village or one nearby. But there are a few examples where spouses came from much further away, and it would be interesting to know how the various individuals came to meet in the first place, never mind marrying.

The geographical origins of the Jacksons (shown in blue) are a little more widespread, although coming from southeast Derbyshire in the main. Grandad Jackson lived and worked in Burton, and after the death of his first wife Maria Bishop, I’m not sure how he came to know Alice (who was living in Hollington, about 12 miles on foot), marrying her two years after he became a widower.

Several generations of my forebears were agricultural laborers, some were coal merchants (maybe with a horse and cart for traveling around). Nothing particularly noteworthy.

We are fortunate (thanks to Martin’s impressive research – and others who are also researching many of the same family branches) to have such a fine record for our ancestry. Each time I look through the database I think about the life and times of these forebears of mine. What sort of lives did they really lead? How were they impacted by national events like the Civil War of the 1640s, or the Jacobite Rebellions of 1715 and 1745, for example. In 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie marched his men right through the area where the Bull family lived, before reaching Derby. Or even international events such as the Napoleonic Wars, the Battle of Waterloo for example, or the Crimean War of the 1850s.

Just plotting their birthplaces on a map (it’s the geographer in me) gives me a sense of belonging. At heart, I am a Staffordshire man.

It’s all in the timing . . .

Last night, I tuned into BBC Radio 4 to listen to the news program at 10 pm expecting all the latest on the Brexit discussions from Brussels. Just before the news, I caught the tail-end of a discussion (in the program In Our Time, chaired by Melvyn Bragg) about the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889).

Now, for whatever reason, a memory was pulled from the deepest recesses of my mind about someone else whose name was Gerard. Beyond that, I couldn’t recall much else. Except that, when I was a small boy, I’d heard ‘Gerard’ telling an amusing story about a man and a brick barrel. I fell asleep none the wiser.

Until this morning that is, when I called on the power of Google to provide me with answers.

I typed in ‘raconteur’ and ’empty brick barrel’, and pressed Enter. And immediately had the answer I was looking for.

Gerard Hoffnung (1925-1959)

I had been thinking about Gerard Hoffnung, artist, musician, and raconteur known for his many humorous stories and recordings.

Hoffnung was born in Germany but grew up in London, having escaped the Nazis. He trained as an artist, became an accomplished musician (the tuba), and a regular contestant on panel games broadcast by the BBC. He is best remembered perhaps for his many humorous recordings, delivered (with an excellent sense of timing that has hardly been bettered) in his inimitable, and rather fruity, style.

Among his most celebrated recordings is his bricklayer’s tale. Thus my Google search for ‘brick barrel’.

And here it is. It must date from around 1958 (when he gave a famous speech to the Oxford Union). Sixty years on, it’s as fresh as then, and when I also first heard it. I sat at my computer this morning, chuckling away, almost tears in my eyes. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

Here is the full Oxford Union speech as well. The bricklayer’s tale clip is taken from this longer speech.

Sadly, Hoffnung was taken from us at an early age in 1959, having suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. He was a one-off.

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 22: Iberian capitals

As Director for Program Planning and Communications (DPPC, from 2001 until my retirement in 2010) at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), I managed the institute’s portfolio of research projects, reporting back to donor agencies on progress and outcomes, such as the UK’s DFID, USAID in the USA, or the SDC in Switzerland, to mention just three. And working with them to ensure continued financial support to the institute each year.

On a rolling basis, I tried to meet officials from these agencies on their home turf, so to speak, and would coordinate several meetings in a single trip. I often scheduled meetings with European donor agencies when I was back on leave in the UK each year. And this was the case in early July 2003 when I visited Portugal (Lisbon) and Spain (Madrid).

At that time, one of my IRRI colleagues, Dr Swapan Datta, had a joint research project with Professor M. Margarida Oliveira of the Instituto de Tecnologia Química e Biológica António Xavier (ITQB), a scientific research and advanced training institute of the Universidade NOVA de Lisboa in Portugal. One of her students, Marta Vasconcelos, worked on rice biofortification with ferritin in Datta’s lab. Another, Sónia Negrão, worked with IRRI’s plant breeders for part of her PhD study, and held a post-doctoral fellowship at IRRI as well.

On the beach at Oeiras close to ITQB, with Margarida, Marta, and Sonia (in the left image) and Sonia and Marta (right).

Prof. Oliveira and I visited the Portuguese overseas aid agency to seek funding for joint rice projects. Portugal, at that time, provided only a small amount of funding (if any—I don’t remember the details) to IRRI. I also got to see some rice growing at the ITQB experiment station.

During the visit to ITQB, I gave a seminar about the genetic resources of rice and, with the donor visit, most of my second day in Lisbon was quite full. But, as was often the case in visits to donor capitals, there also was an opportunity for some sight-seeing.

I had arrived to Lisbon the day before, in the early afternoon. After settling into the Hotel Lutécia in the Areeiro district (map), north of the city center, I decided to see what Lisbon had to offer and took the metro to the city center, about a 20 minute ride from the Roma-Areeiro station to the Baixa-Chiado station.

Lisbon is a lovely maze of narrow streets, and large open plazas. One thing that immediately struck me, especially from the heights of the Castelo de S. Jorge, were the orange tile roofs of all the houses spread over the surrounding hills, and the views over the Tagus River, and west to the expanses of the Atlantic Ocean.

Anyway, I made my way from the metro, south along Rua Agustina (mostly traffic free) full of designer shops and cafes and restaurants towards the Praça de Comércio.

And although I’d intended to carry on walking around the city, I did something I’d never done before. Seeing a line of double-decker open top buses to one side of the plaza, I decided to take a city tour. Having only a short time in Lisbon I realized this would be the best way of seeing much of the city.

The tour lasted about two hours, and I certainly saw many of the important sites, some of which I went back to explore on foot afterwards.

The tour took in: Praça da Figueira; Praça D. Pedro IV; Praça da Restauradores; Av. da Liberdade; Praça do Marquês de Pombal; the view down to the coast from the Alameda Cardeal Cerejeira; west to the Torre de Belém; and back to the city center via the Praça do Império and the magnificent Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, passing under the impressive  Ponte 25 de Abril over the Tagus.

Although it was getting on in the afternoon, I decided to walk up to the Castelo de S. Jorge and enjoy the views over the city.

Castelo de S. Jorge from Praça da Figueira (L) and the plaza from the castle (R).

Then, it was back down to enjoy a beer or three and a dish of bacalhau (a typical dish of cod), before heading back to my hotel.

On the second evening I decided to stay near my hotel, write up my notes, and get ready for a mid-morning departure to Madrid the following day.

I had just a couple of nights in Madrid. I’d been through the city’s airport in 1981 on my way to the Canary Islands. That was in June, and I remember stepping outside the airport terminal building to experience the heat. It was over 40ºC. Now, I’d lived in the tropics for over eight years up till then, but I’d never experienced heat like that.

In July 2003 it was pretty hot as well. I arrived mid-afternoon on my flight from Lisbon. I was booked into a boutique hotel near Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu Stadium. By the time I was settled into my hotel, it was late afternoon, and fortunatley it was cooling down. So I took the metro to the Puerta del Sol plaza.

I wandered along the Calle Mayor, taking in the Plaza Mayor and Plaza de la Villa on my left, on on towards the Catedral de Santa María la Real de la Almudena and the Palacio Real.

Nearby there was a cafe where I could sit outside and enjoy a cold beer, before I headed back towards the Puerta del Sol plaza to choose a restaurant for my evening meal. Then it was back on the metro to my hotel.

I had meetings the next day, all day at the Instituto Nacional de Investigación y Tecnología Agraria y Alimentaria (INIA) in the Moncloa-Aravaca district, northwest of the city center.

In the evening I chose a small restaurant close to the hotel. Excellent food!

Then, early the next day, it was off to the Madrid-Barajas Adolfo Suárez Airport, and an Iberia flight to Switzerland (Zurich), where I had a meeting in Bern at the SDC.

Before heading back to BHX, I visited old friends in The Hague, Gordon and Joan MacNeil. Gordon had been IRRI’s Deputy Director General for Finance, and left the institute in 2002.

All in all, an enjoyable trip, but not very fruitful donor-wise, unfortunately.

In 2012, Steph and I had a short holiday in Portugal, visiting my eldest brother Martin and his wife Pauline who live about 100 km north of Lisbon.


Lentils (and Mrs. Vavilov) on my mind . . .

Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov (1887-1943)—The Father of Plant Genetic Resources—is one of my scientific heroes. Yet I knew nothing about him until September 1970 when I began my graduate studies concerning the conservation and use of plant genetic resources at The University of Birmingham (in the Department of Botany as it was then).

Last Saturday, 26 January, was the 76th anniversary of Vavilov’s death in a Soviet prison.

Prison photos of Vavilov.

Vavilov’s grave in Saratov.

Botanist, science writer, and broadcaster James Wong (@Botanygeek) posted a short thread of tweets about Vavilov. So, I tweeted a reply to James about three scientists (two I worked with; the other I’d been introduced to) who met Vavilov in the 1930s.

I followed up with another  tweet.

Actually, Elena Barulina (1896-1957) was Vavilov’s second wife who passed away just two years after Vavilov had been ‘rehabilitated’ by the Soviet government, as she was working her way through his various publications.

Vavilov had first married Ekaterina Saharova in 1912, and they had one son, Oleg (born 1918).

Vavilov with his first wife Ekaterina, and son Oleg.

Vavilov divorced Ekaterina in 1926 and married Elena; they had one son, Yuri (born 1928). Both Oleg and Yuri became physicists, like their renowned uncle Sergey, Nikolai’s younger brother. Ekaterina died in 1963 never having remarried.

Elena Barulina and Nikolai Vavilov.

Elena (Helena) Barulina was an international lentil expert, publishing an important monograph in 1930. During the course of 1970-71, I got to know this publication in great detail.

So how did I get involved with lentils, and what was the outcome? As part of the MSc course requirements at Birmingham, each student had to present a short dissertation. I opted to carry out a study of crop variation, but first I had to choose the species for my study.

Trevor Williams

My dissertation supervisor was Dr J Trevor Williams (who went on to become the first Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources or IBPGR (that then became the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute or IPGRI, and is now Bioversity International) in Rome.

In November 1970, we scanned the pages of Flora Europaea, looking for potential targets among the various legume species. And there, under the cultivated lentil (Lens culinaris) was the important comment: Origin unknown. Now there was a challenge if ever we saw one!

Lentil is an ancient crop, associated with the earliest developments and spread of agriculture in the Near East and Mediterranean, and this is where the wild lentil species are also found. When I began my study, there were just five recognized lentil species (this was increased to seven in a 2015 paper):

  • Lens culinaris (the cultivated species)
  • L. orientalis
  • L. nigricans
  • L. ervoides
  • L. montbretii (now regarded as a species of Vicia)

I presented my dissertation, Studies in the genus Lens Miller with special reference to Lens culinaris Medik., in September 1971, having used Barulina’s monograph as my lentil ‘Bible’ throughout.

I grew a large field trial of lentil varieties and, from my analysis of the variation in morphological characters, some chromatographic analyses, and growth pattern relationships, concluded that the small- and large-seeded forms described by Barulina as subsp. microsperma and subsp. macrosperma were the extremes of a continuous variation pattern, and not correlated with geographical origin. Similar small- and large-seeded forms can also be seen in other legumes like faba bean and grasspea.

To analyze the relationships between the different lentil species, I spent several days working in the Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, measuring variation in many morphological characters on as many herbarium specimens of lentil species I could get my hands on. I also borrowed herbarium specimens from several other herbaria. In all I must have looked at least a couple of hundred herbarium sheets.

Hybrid indices for lentil species.

Species were compared by constructing hybrid indices (a numerical method developed and first described in 1949 by renowned American botanist, Edgar Anderson—another scientific hero of mine—in his seminal publication Introgressive Hybridization). This allowed me to determine to what extent variation patterns in lentil species overlapped, or were distinct. Click on the image to the right to see an enlarged version of the resulting hybrid indices.

While the variation patterns between some species were quite distinct, the continuity in variation between L. orientalis and L. culinaris led me to the conclusion that we might be describing a wild species progenitor-domesticate relationship. And, indeed, this is what I proposed in my dissertation.

A year later, the eminent Israeli botanist Daniel Zohary actually published a paper¹ in the scientific journal Economic Botany arriving at the same conclusion. The studies I commenced in 1970-71 were continued by Carmen Sánchez Kilner the following year, and in our 1974 paper we proposed that L. culinaris and L. orientalis were subspecies of the same species, L. culinaris. In 1979, another Israeli botanist, Gideon Ladizinsky, reached the same conclusion based on hybridization experiments and cytogenetic analysis, in a paper published in Euphytica.

Today, I’m sure students would dive straight into analyses of molecular markers to clarify the taxonomy and species relationships. Almost 50 years ago these techniques were not available, so we had to rely on a thorough analysis of species morphology, an approach that is often regarded today as ‘old hat’ but still remains the solid foundation of plant taxonomy. It was an approach that served us well, and our conclusions were corroborated by others later on.

I see my studies on lentils as an important link to Vavilov and his colleagues such as Elena Barulina. Also, in later research, I drew on Vavilov’s Law of Homologous Series and its relevance to potatoes, especially with regard to resistance to the cyst nematode (Globodera spp.).

It’s also interesting to note just how relevant the ‘Vavilov approach’ still is today (76 years after his death), guiding the exploration and use plant genetic resources to increase agricultural productivity, which was the focus of my career over 40 years.

¹ Zohary, D., 1972. The wild progenitor and the place of origin of the cultivated lentil, Lens culinaris. Econ. Bot. 26: 326–332.

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 21: Taking in Tokyo (and Tsukuba)

I recently wrote about a trip to Bali in 2005 when the IRRI Board of Trustees (BoT) held one of its biannual meetings there.

Four years later, in September 2009,  Steph joined me when I attended the BoT meeting in Japan that was held in Tsukuba, the science city just over 60 km or so northeast of Tokyo, followed by a couple of days in Tokyo itself. Since  the meeting was held in the week before Steph’s 60th birthday, we decided to stay on an extra couple of nights and see something of Tokyo. I had been in Tokyo just once before¹, around 1994; Steph had never visited. However, we’d both passed through Tokyo’s Narita airport many times while flying to the USA.

In the good old days, before Northwest Airlines merged with and was taken over by Delta. Narita was a major hub for NW flights to and from the USA, as is the case now with Delta.

Leaving Manila for Tokyo on the early morning flight (a very early start from Los Baños to check-in three hours ahead of the flight) was not without its challenges, and we weren’t entirely certain we’d be able to fly. The Philippines had been hit the day before by Typhoon Ketsana (known in the Philippines as Ondoy), the first of two typhoons to hit the country within one week. There was extensive flooding in parts of Manila (which we saw as the Delta 747 climbed out of the city). At Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport or NAIA there was chaos at the check-in and in the departure areas. Many flights had failed to leave the previous day, and with so many passengers with nowhere else to go, the airport was heaving with people hoping to get a flight out.

Since Steph was traveling with me, I used air miles to upgrade our booking to Business Class as a special treat. The flight to Narita takes four hours. On arrival at Narita, we had a short wait for the bus to Tsukuba, around an hour northwest from the airport. We stayed at the Okura Frontier Hotel (the square building on the right) in the center of the city.

The Board and IRRI Management (and scientists as needed) met for three and a half days at the Tsukuba International Conference Center (just over a five minute walk south from the hotel).

The entrance to the Tsukuba International Conference Center.

Meanwhile, Steph joined the other spouses for several excursions in the surrounding region, as well as into Tokyo, to visit markets, see local handicrafts, take part in traditional Japanese flower arranging, a tea ceremony, and the like.

Then, after four days in Tsuskuba, we all decamped to central Tokyo, to the the Sheraton Miyako Hotel where, close-by, several events were organized by IRRI’s Japanese partner organization, the Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences or JIRCAS.

The Sheraton Miyako Hotel (on the left) in the Minato district of Tokyo.

As I mentioned earlier, Steph and I stayed on for an extra couple of nights, so we could explore parts of Tokyo at the weekend, on Saturday 3 October, departing for Manila on the Sunday evening flight.

I’ve marked the places we visited on the map below.

We took full advantage of the extensive Tokyo subway system. We were able to purchase day tickets that gave access to the whole of the Tokyo subway system, over both the Toei Line and the Tokyo Metro Line. However, our first challenge was to purchase two tickets using the ticket machines. Eventually a very kind Japanese gentleman saw we were having a little difficulty, and helped us successfully navigate the menu.

The entrance to Shirokanedai subway station.

Starting at Shirokanedai Station (station I02, center bottom left on the map) on the Mita Line (Toei Line system), we traveled to the commercial district of Akihabara (I08), well known for its many electronics outlets. From there we visited Hibiyakōen (via Hibiya station, I08/H07), a park (near the Imperial Palace) where an agricultural exhibition was being held, that also featured a booth for the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (including IRRI). Then it was on to the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden (via Shinjuku-Gyoemmae station, M10), and back to the hotel.

One thing struck us quite forcefully during this day excursion: how quickly one could get away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo at the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. It was a haven of peace and tranquility. Early October was perhaps not the best time of the year to see the garden. But it was lovely, nevertheless, and being enjoyed by locals with their families, although not at all busy.

Here is a 17 minute video that I made of the day.

One day is surely not enough to explore a city the size of Tokyo, but we did get to visit three areas that we had chosen. Getting around Tokyo was much easier than I anticipated, and more so than I remembered from my visit in the 1990s.

Of course there are many other places in Japan that we never had the opportunity and maybe one day we will return. The only other city I have seen—from the airport constructed on an artificial island—is Osaka.

¹ During that trip, when I was hosted by a former member of IRRI’s Board of Trustees, and another who was currently serving on the Board, I visited both Tsukuba and Tokyo. In  Tokyo I met officials at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (MAFF), and there I came across one of my former students, Yoshi Nishikawa, who attended the University of Birmingham plant genetic resources MSc course in 1987-88.

A botanical field trip to the south of Peru . . . 45 years ago

In 1976, a paper appeared in the scientific journal Flora, authored by University of St Andrews botanist Peter Gibbs¹ (now retired), on the breeding system of a tuber crop, oca (Oxalis tuberosa), that is grown by farmers throughout the Andes of Peru and Bolivia.

Like a number of Oxalis species, oca has a particular floral morphology known as heterostyly that promotes outcrossing between different plants. In his 1877 The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species, Charles Darwin had illustrated (in Fig. 11) the particular situation of tristyly in ‘Oxalis speciosa‘, the same floral morphology that is found in oca. In this illustration taken from Darwin’s publication, the ‘legitimate’ pollinations are shown; stigmas can only receive pollen from stamens at the same level in another flower.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, Peter had visited Peru in early 1974 (hard to believe that it’s 45 years ago), made collections of oca from a number of localities, particularly one village, Cuyo Cuyo, in the Department of Puno in the south of Peru (just north of Lake Titicaca), and then studied the breeding system of the oca varieties that he’d collected. His 1976 paper in Flora emanated from that field trip.

But there’s more to that story (and publication) than meets the eye. It was also tied up with the research I was carrying out on potatoes in the Peruvian Andes at that time. Peter and I made that field trip together, spending at least three weeks on the road, before flying back to Lima from Cuzco.

I don’t recall precisely when I first met Peter. We were obviously in touch when planning the trip south, but I simply can’t remember whether, during 1973, Peter had passed through Lima where I was working at the International Potato Center (CIP) in La Molina since January that year, or he had contacted CIP’s Director General Richard Sawyer asking if the center could provide logistical support and the DG had passed that request on to me. Whatever the course of events, Peter and I came to an agreement to make a field trip together to the south of Peru.

This is the route of more than 2000 km that we took.

While working as an Associate Taxonomist at CIP I was also registered for a PhD in potato biosystematics (under potato expert Professor Jack Hawkes at The University of Birmingham) which I was expected to complete by 1975. My work, studying the breeding relationships of potato varieties with different chromosome numbers was similar, in some respects, to that Peter envisaged with oca.

I’d been looking for suitable field locations where it might be possible to study the dynamics of potato cultivation in an ‘unspoiled’ area where mostly traditional potato varieties were cultivated rather than varieties bred and released on the market in recent years. At the back end of 1973 I made a short visit to Puno on the shore of Lake Titicaca to explore several possible field sites. Then, Peter proposed we visit the remote village of Cuyo Cuyo, around 250 km north of Puno. He’d come across a paper (either one by AW Hill in 1939 or another by WH Hodge in 1951 – both are cited by Peter in his Flora paper) that described widespread oca cultivation at Cuyo Cuyo on a series of ancient terraces, but also of potato varieties. I wasn’t sure if this was the location I was looking for, but agreed that we could explore Cuyo Cuyo first before heading north towards Cuzco in search of other likely sites.

Our journey south to Puno took at least three days if memory serves me correctly. Our trusty chariot was a short wheelbase Land Rover, with a canvas hood.

Not the most secure vehicle if you have to park up overnight in an unprotected lot. Nor the most comfortable; very sturdy suspension. But an excellent vehicle otherwise for ‘driving’ out of tricky situations.

We headed south on the Panamericana Sur, stopping at Ica or Nazca on the first night south of Lima, then on the Arequipa on the second day.

The Panamericana hugs the coast through the southern desert, crossing river valleys that flow down from the Andes to meet the Pacific Ocean. Along these, and in the area of Camana (where the road heads inland to Arequipa) quite a lot of rice is grown.

From Arequipa it must have taken another day to travel to Puno across the altiplano.

We then had another night to recoup in Puno, enjoying a comfortable bed, some good food, and perhaps one too many algarrobina cocktails (made from pisco) that Peter had taken a shine to.

Along the shore of Lake Titicaca near Puno

It took a day to travel to Cuyo Cuyo, across the altiplano (>4000 masl), fording rivers, and then, as we approached the village from the south, dropping into a steep-sided valley, the Sandia Gorge.

We hit a cloud layer, obscuring views of the valley, but also coming across a landslide that had to be cleared before we could make progress.

Once past that barrier, the cloud cleared and we began to see something of the majesty of the Cuyo Cuyo valley, with the steep valley sides covered in ancient terraces that, as we discovered over the next few days, were still be farmed communally as they had been for generations apparently. On the descent into Cuyo Cuyo, the banks alongside the road were also covered in masses of a beautiful begonia (Begonia clarkei Hook.) with large white flowers about 3-4 inches in diameter.

Where to stay? There was no hotel or pensión in Cuyo Cuyo. We did however have some camping gear with us such as camp beds, sleeping bags and the like. Plus all our other equipment for collecting (and drying) herbarium samples, and flowers and flower buds for pollen and chromosome studies.

After some enquiries we met Sr Justo Salas Rubín (who was, if I remember correctly, the local postmaster – seen with Peter below) who gave us space in one of the rooms of his home (the ‘post office’?) to set up ‘camp’. We also soon became quite a curiosity for the local children (and some animal friends as well).

I was not disappointed that we chose Cuyo Cuyo first. It was an extraordinary location where we could interact with potato and oca farmers who grew a wide range of varieties, and who were open to collaborate with us. Since that visit in 1974 several other botanists (and anthropologists) have made field studies at Cuyo Cuyo on the agricultural terraces that I described here.

While Peter set about collecting samples in the many oca fields (mainly beside the river on the valley floor), I set off up the terraces to study a couple of fields for their varietal composition, the ploidy (or chromosome number) of these varieties, and the factors that led farmers to accept or reject varieties. I was interested to see how triploid varieties (sterile forms with 36 chromosomes that can only be formed following hybridization between varieties with 48 and 24 chromosomes) could enter farmer systems, and at what frequency.

I also looked at the methods used to cultivate potatoes, and the tools used.²

On the left is a foot plough, about 4 feet in length, known in Cuyo Cuyo as a ‘huire’ (most often ‘chaqui taccla’ in other parts of Peru). Its component parts are: A. ‘calzada’ that rests on the shoulder; B. ‘huiso’ or hand grip; C. ‘lazo’ or leather binding fastening the parts together; D. ‘taquillpo’ or foot rest; and E. the ‘reja’ or blade. On the right is a hand tool used for harvesting potatoes (and presumably oca as well) called the ‘lawccana’, as well as other cultivations during the growing season. Its component parts are: A. the ‘ccalo’ or handle; B. the ‘lazo’, a leather thong holding the blade C. or ‘chonta’ on to the handle.

My paper on potatoes at Cuyo Cuyo was finally published in 1980 in the journal Euphytica. And that’s a tale in itself.³

Peter was keen to make herbarium sheets of many of the varieties he’d collected. We set up a dryer in the house where we were staying. But there was a problem. Most of the samples were pretty wet to begin with, as we experienced intermittent rain during our stay in Cuyo Cuyo. Oca stems are very fleshy, and despite our best efforts, they just didn’t dry out. Even when we got them back to Lima, and Peter prepared them for shipping back to St Andrews, many of the samples were still showing signs of life.

Indeed, after he returned to Scotland, Peter was able to take cuttings from his herbarium samples and grow plants to maturity in the glasshouse, thus continuing his studies there.

After three or four days in Cuyo Cuyo, we retraced our steps to Puno, then headed north towards Cuzco and further study sites near Chinchero.

At these, I was particularly interested in taking flower bud samples from different potato fields. In the area we chose, farmers grew a combination of bred varieties for sale in the local markets of Cuzco and, around their homes, native varieties for home consumption. In this photo, large plantings of commercial varieties stretch into the distance. Around the homes in the foreground, in walled gardens, farmers grew their native varieties.

As I was busy looking at different varieties, these two women came by, and one sat down to breastfeed her baby. They are wearing the traditional dress of that region of Cuzco.

On another day we set out to study potato (and oca) fields a little more remote, so had to hire horses to reach our destination.

Field work complete, Peter and I spent a couple of days resting up in Cuzco before flying back to Lima. We left the Land Rover there for one of my colleagues Zósimo Huamán to pick up, as he planned to undertake some fieldwork as well before driving back to Lima.

During the couple of days in Cuzco we paid a call on Prof. César Vargas, a renowned Peruvian botanist (and close friend of my PhD supervisor Jack Hawkes), who I’d met once before in January 1973 not long after I arrived in Peru. Prof Vargas’s daughter Martha studied for her MSc degree in botany at the University of St Andrews.

L to R: my wife Steph, Peter, and Martha Vargas

All in all, we had a successful field trip to the south of Peru. It’s hard to believe it all took place 45 years ago next month. But it remains, in my mind’s eye, quite a significant trip from the years I spent in Peru.

¹ Peter graduated in botany from the University of Liverpool, and completed his PhD in 1964 there under the supervision of Professor Vernon Heywood, who moved to the University of Reading to become head of that university’s Department of Botany a couple of years later. Peter and I had a lot to talk about, because in 1969-70, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Southampton, Vernon Heywood gave a series of 20 lectures on flowering plant taxonomy over 10 weeks to Southampton botanists, because Leslie Watson, Southampton’s taxonomy lecturer had moved to Australia. Vernon and I renewed our acquaintance some years later, in 1991, when he and I attended a genetic resources meeting at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome just before I moved to the Philippines to join the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

² One interesting piece of information that didn’t make it into my thesis but which I remember clearly was the incidence of geophagy among some residents of Cuyo Cuyo. I was taken to a location where farmers would excavate small quantities of a hard clay, that would be ground to a powder and mixed with water to form a slurry or soft paste. They would then dip recently harvested boiled potatoes in the clay as this, apparently, would decrease the slightly ‘spicy’ flavor of some of the varieties. I’m not sure how widespread this behavior was, but it’s something that has stuck in my mind all these years. I think I once had photos but they are long lost, more’s the pity.

³ I completed my PhD in December 1975, and shortly afterwards moved to Costa Rica to continue working for CIP, in potato breeding and agronomy. I started to prepare three manuscripts from my thesis for publication in Euphytica. The first, on varietal diversity, was submitted in February 1977, and published later the same year. The second, on breeding relationships, was published in 1978, having been submitted in July 1977. The third, on the ethnobotany of potato cultivation in Cuyo Cuyo finally appeared in print in 1980, having been submitted to Euphytica in February 1979.

But Euphytica had not been the first choice for this third paper. I actually produced a manuscript for the journal Economic Botany, and it included more details of the cropping systems and varietal choices made by farmers. My paper was received by the journal and acknowledged, but then I heard nothing more, for months and months. Eventually I wrote to the editor asking about the status of my manuscript. And I received a very strange reply.

It seemed that the editor-in-chief had retired, and his replacement had found, on file, manuscripts that had been submitted up to 20 years earlier, but had never been published! I was asked how I wanted to proceed with my manuscript as there was no guarantee it would appear in print any time soon. But about the same time, I received a nice letter from the then editor of Euphytica, Dr AC Zeven, complimenting me on my PhD thesis (which he had read in the library at Wageningen University in the Netherlands) and encouraging me to publish my work on the ethnobotany of potatoes – if I hadn’t already done so. I withdrew my manuscript from Economic Botany, and after some reformatting to fit the Euphytica style, sent it to Dr Zeven. He requested some deletions of the more descriptive sections on ethnobotany, and published my paper in 1980.

One last thing: I also remember was the novel that Peter was reading throughout the trip. Watership Down by Richard Adams, first published in 1972, that went on to become a literary sensation. I did read it myself at some point, but whether I borrowed Peter’s copy immediately after the trip, or some time later, I don’t recall. I know I didn’t think it would become the phenomenon that it did. What do I know?


Killing me softly . . . memories maketh the man!

Memories. Powerful; fleeting; joyful; or sad. Sometimes, unfortunately, too painful and hidden away in the deepest recesses of the mind, only to be dragged to the surface with great reluctance.

Some memories float to the surface at the slightest instigation. Often all it takes is a glimpse of a treasured landscape, a word spoken by a friend, a few bars of music, or a particular song. Some memories need more persuasion.

And then, one is transported back days, months, years, even decades. Memories can be vague; they can be crystal clear, even while the precise context may be fuzzy round the edges – where, when, or why. They are part and parcel of who each and every one of us is as a person. Without memories, we are nobody.

I have one particular – and very strong – memory whenever Roberta starts to kill me softly . . . Yes, one song. Just a few bars, and I’m taken back 46 years to late January 1973. Lima, Peru.

So why this particular song?

I’d arrived in Lima at the beginning of the month to start my assignment as Associate Taxonomist at the International Potato Center (CIP) in La Molina on the eastern outskirts of the city (now totally subsumed into Lima’s urban sprawl).

After spending a couple of weeks holed up in the Pensión Beech (a guest house in the San Isidro district of Lima), I signed a contract for my own apartment on the 11th or 12th floor of an apartment building (still standing today) at Pasaje Los Pinos in the heart of the Miraflores District. In 1973, there was just a dirt parking lot in front of the apartment building, and the Todos Supermarket (no longer there) was to one side. Now the apartment building is surrounded by high-rise on all sides. It’s a wonder that it has survived about 50 years of earthquakes, including several rather large ones. It never did seem that sturdy to me, but there again, what do I know about engineering?

The arrow indicates the approximate location of my apartment. In January 1973 this building stood in a wide open space – no longer the case.

I moved in, just after my small consignment of airfreight (including a stereo system) had arrived a few days earlier. I had music!

Steph joined me in Lima at the beginning of July 1973, and we stayed in the same apartment for about six weeks more before moving to a larger one elsewhere in Miraflores. My stereo is prominently displayed on the left!

And on the radio station that I tuned into, Radio Panamericana, Killing Me Softly With His Song was played, almost non-stop it seemed, from its release on 21 January 1973 for the next couple of months. It became an instant worldwide success for Roberta Flack. But she wasn’t the first to record it.

KMSWHS was penned by American lyricist Norman Gimbel (who passed away in December 2018), with music by his long-time collaborator Charles Fox. However, there is some dispute over the song’s origins. KMSWHS was originally recorded by American singer Lori Lieberman in 1971.

Whatever the situation, KMSWHS remains a great favorite of mine. Whenever I hear it, I’m 24 years old again, starting out on a career in international agricultural research for development. The world was my oyster!

As I wrote a few years back, I would include KMSWHS on my list of eights discs to take to a desert island. That perspective has not changed.

Discovering Vavilov, and building a career in plant genetic resources: (3) Becoming a genebanker in the 1990s, and beyond

My decision to leave a tenured position at the University of Birmingham in June 1991 was not made lightly. I was about to be promoted to Senior Lecturer, and I’d found my ‘home’ in the Plant Genetics Research Group following the reorganization of the School of Biological Sciences a couple of years earlier.

But I wasn’t particularly happy. Towards the end of the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government had become hostile to the university sector, demanding significant changes in the way they operated before acceding to any improvements in pay and conditions. Some of the changes then forced on the university system still bedevil it to this day.

I felt as though I was treading water, trying to keep my head above the surface. I had a significant teaching load, research was ticking along, PhD and MSc students were moving through the system, but still the university demanded more. So when an announcement of a new position as Head of the Genetic Resources Center (GRC) at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines landed on my desk in September 1990, it certainly caught my interest. I discussed such a potential momentous change with Steph, and with a couple of colleagues at the university.

Nothing venture, nothing gained, I formally submitted an application to IRRI and, as they say, the rest is history. However, I never expected to spend the next 19 years in the Philippines.

Since 1971, I’d worked almost full time in various aspects of conservation and use of plant genetic resources. I’d collected potato germplasm in Peru and the Canary Islands while at Birmingham, learned the basics of potato agronomy and production, worked alongside farmers, helped train the next generation of genetic conservation specialists, and was familiar with the network of international agricultural research centers supported through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research or CGIAR.

What I had never done was manage a genebank or headed a department with tens of staff at all professional levels. Because the position in at IRRI involved both of these. The head would be expected to provide strategic leadership for GRC and its three component units: the International Rice Germplasm Center (IRGC), the genebank; the International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice (INGER); and the Seed Health Unit (SHU). However, only the genebank would be under the day-to-day management of the GRC head. Both INGER and the SHU would be managed by project leaders, while being amalgamated into a single organizational unit, the Genetic Resources Center.

I was unable to join IRRI before 1 July 1991 due to teaching and examination commitments at the university that I was obliged to fulfill. Nevertheless, in April I represented IRRI at an important genetic resources meeting at FAO in Rome, where I first met the incoming Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (soon to become the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute or IPGRI), Dr Geoff Hawtin, with whom I’ve retained a friendship ever since.

On arrival at IRRI, I discovered that the SHU had been removed from GRC, a wise decision in my opinion, but not driven I eventually discerned by real ‘conflict of interest’ concerns, rather internal politics. However, given that the SHU was (and is) responsible, in coordination with the Philippines plant health authorities, to monitor all imports and exports of rice seeds at IRRI, it seemed prudential to me not to be seen as both ‘gamekeeper and poacher’, to coin a phrase. After all the daily business of the IRGC and INGER was movement of healthy seeds across borders.

Klaus Lampe

My focus was on the genebank, its management and role within an institute that itself was undergoing some significant changes, 30 years after it had been founded, under its fifth Director General, Dr Klaus Lampe, who had hired me. He made it clear that the head of GRC would not only be expected to bring IRGC and INGER effectively into a single organizational unit, but also complete a ‘root and branch’ overhaul of the genebank’s operations and procedures, long overdue.

Since INGER had its own leader, an experienced rice breeder Dr DV Seshu, somewhat older than myself, I could leave the running of that network in his hands, and only concern myself with INGER within the context of the new GRC structure and personnel policies. Life was not easy. My INGER colleagues dragged their feet, and had to be ‘encouraged’ to accept the new GRC reality that reduced the freewheeling autonomy they had become accustomed to over the previous 20 years or so, on a budget of about USD1 million a year provided by the United Nations Development Program or UNDP.

When interviewing for the GRC position I had also queried why no germplasm research component had been considered as part of the job description. I made it clear that if I was considered for the position, I would expect to develop a research program on rice genetic resources. That indeed became the situation.

Once in post at IRRI, I asked lots of questions. For at least six months until the end of 1991, I made no decisions about changes in direction for the genebank until I better understood how it operated and what constraints it faced. I also had to size up the caliber of staff, and develop a plan for further staff recruitment. I did persuade IRRI management to increase resource allocation to the genebank, and we were then able to hire technical staff to support many time critical areas.

But one easy decision I did make early on was to change the name of the genebank.  As I’ve already mentioned, its name was the ‘International Rice Germplasm Center’, but it didn’t seem logical to place one center within another, IRGC in GRC. So we changed its name to the ‘International Rice Genebank’, while retaining the acronym IRGC (which was used for all accessions in the germplasm collection) to refer to International Rice Genebank Collection.

In various blog posts over the past year or so, I have written extensively about the genebank at IRRI, so I shall not repeat those details here, but provide a summary only.

I realized very quickly that each staff member had to have specific responsibilities and accountability. We needed a team of mutually-supportive professionals. In a recent email from one of my staff, he mentioned that the genebank today was reaping the harvest of the ‘seeds I’d sown’ 25 years ago. But, as I replied, one has to have good seeds to begin with. And the GRC staff were (and are) in my opinion quite exceptional.

In terms of seed management, we beefed up the procedures to regenerate and dry seeds, developed protocols for routine seed viability testing, and eliminated duplicate samples of genebank accessions that were stored in different locations, establishing an Active Collection (at +4ºC, or thereabouts) and a Base Collection (held at -18ºC). Pola de Guzman was made Genebank Manager, and Ato Reaño took responsibility for all field operations. Our aim was not only to improve the quality of seed being conserved in the genebank, but also to eliminate (in the shortest time possible) the large backlog of samples to be processed and added to the collection.

Dr Kameswara Rao (from IRRI’s sister center ICRISAT, based in Hyderabad, India) joined GRC to work on the relationship between seed quality and seed growing environment. He had received his PhD from the University of Reading, and this research had started as a collaboration with Professor Richard Ellis there. Rao’s work led to some significant changes to our seed production protocols.

Since I retired, I have been impressed to see how research on seed physiology and conservation, led by Dr Fiona Hay (now at Aarhus University in Denmark) has moved on yet again. Take a look at this story I posted in 2015.

Screen house space for the valuable wild species collection was doubled, and Soccie Almazan appointed as  wild species curator.

One of the most critical issues I had to address was data management, which was in quite a chaotic state, with data on the Asian rice samples (known as Oryza sativa), the African rices (O. glaberrima), and the remaining 20+ wild species managed in separate databases that could not ‘talk’ to each another. We needed a unified data system, handling all aspects of genebank management, germplasm regeneration, characterization and evaluation, and germplasm exchange. We spent about three years building that system, the International Rice Genebank Collection Information System (IRGCIS). It was complicated because data had been coded differently for the two cultivated and wild species, that I have written about here. That’s a genebank lesson that needs to be better appreciated in the genebank community. My colleagues Adel Alcantara, Vanji Guevarra, and Myrna Oliva did a splendid job, which was methodical and thorough.

In 1995 we released the first edition of a genebank operations manual for the International Rice Genebank, something that other genebanks have only recently got round to.

Our germplasm research focused on four areas:

  • seed conservation (with Richard Ellis at the University of Reading, among others);
  • the use of molecular markers to better manage and use the rice collection (with colleagues at the University of Birmingham and the John Innes Centre in Norwich);
  • biosystematics of rice, concentrating on the closest wild relative species (led by Dr Bao-Rong Lu and supported by Yvette Naredo and the late Amy Juliano);
  • on farm conservation – a project led by French geneticist Dr Jean-Louis Pham and social anthropologists Dr Mauricio Bellon and Steve Morin.

At the beginning of the 1990s there were no genome data to support the molecular characterization of rice. Our work with molecular markers was among use these to study a germplasm collection. The research we published on association analysis is probably the first paper that showed this relationship between markers and morphological characteristics or traits.

In 1994, I developed a 5-year project proposal for almost USD3.3 million that we submitted for support to the Swiss Development Cooperation. The three project components included:

  • germplasm exploration (165 collecting missions in 22 countries), with about half of the germplasm collected in Laos; most of the collected germplasm was duplicated at that time in the International Rice Genebank;
  • training: 48 courses or on-the-job opportunities between 1995 and 1999 in 14 countries or at IRRI in Los Baños, for more than 670 national program staff;
  • on farm conservation to:
    • to increase knowledge on farmers’ management of rice diversity, the factors that
      influence it, and its genetic implications;
    • to identify strategies to involve farmers’ managed systems in the overall conservation of
      rice genetic resources.

I was ably assisted in the day-to-day management of the project by my colleague Eves Loresto, a long-time employee at IRRI who sadly passed away a few years back.

When I joined IRRI in 1991 there were just under 79,000 rice samples in the genebank. Through the Swiss-funded project we increased the collection by more than 30%. Since I left the genebank in 2001 that number has increased to over 136,000 making it the largest collection of rice germplasm in the world.

We conducted training courses in many countries in Asia and Africa. The on-farm research was based in the Philippines, Vietnam, and eastern India. It was one of the first projects to bring together a population geneticist and a social anthropologist working side-by-side to understand how, why, and when farmers grew different rice varieties, and what incentives (if any) would induce them to continue to grow them.

The final report of this 5-year project can be read here. We released the report in 2000 on an interactive CD-ROM, including almost 1000 images taken at many of the project sites, training courses, or during germplasm exploration. However, the links in the report are not active on this blog.

During my 10 year tenure of GRC, I authored/coauthored 33 research papers on various aspects of rice genetic resources, 1 co-edited book, 14 book chapters, and 23 papers in the so-called ‘grey’ literature, as well as making 33 conference presentations. Check out all the details in this longer list, and there are links to PDF files for many of the publications.

In 1993 I was elected chair of the Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources, and worked closely with Geoff Hawtin at IPGRI, and his deputy Masa Iwanaga (an old colleague from CIP), to develop the CGIAR’s System-wide Genetic Resources Program or SGRP. Under the auspices of the SGRP I organized a workshop in 1999 on the application of comparative genetics to genebank collections.

Professor John Barton

With the late John Barton, Professor of Law at Stanford University, we developed IRRI’s first policy on intellectual property rights focusing on the management, exchange and use of rice genetic resources. This was later expanded into a policy document covering all aspects of IRRI’s research.

The 1990s were a busy decade, germplasm-wise, at IRRI and in the wider genetic resources community. The Convention on Biological Diversity had come into force in 1993, and many countries were enacting their own legislation (such as Executive Order 247 in the Philippines in 1995) governing access to and use sovereign genetic resources. It’s remarkable therefore that we were able to accomplish so much collecting between 1995 and 2000, and that national programs had trust in the IRG to safely conserve duplicate samples from national collections.

Ron Cantrell

All good things come to an end, and in January 2001 I was asked by then Director General Ron Cantrell to leave GRC and become the institute’s Director for Program Planning and Coordination (that became Communications two years later as I took on line management responsibility for Communication and Publications Services, IT, and the library). On 30 April, I said ‘goodbye’ to my GRC colleagues to move to my new office across the IRRI campus, although I kept a watching brief over GRC for the next year until my successor, Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton, arrived in Los Baños.

Listen to Ruaraidh and his staff talking about the genebank.

So, after a decade with GRC I moved into IRRI’s senior management team and set about bringing a modicum of rationale to the institute’s resource mobilization initiatives, and management of its overall research project portfolio. I described here how it all started. The staff I was able to recruit were outstanding. Running DPPC was a bit like running a genebank: there were many individual processes and procedures to manage the various research projects, report back to donors, submit grant proposals and the like. Research projects were like ‘genebank accessions’ – all tied together by an efficient data management system that we built in an initiative led by Eric Clutario (seen standing on the left below next to me).

From my DPPC vantage point, it was interesting to watch Ruaraidh take GRC to the next level, adding a new cold storage room, and using bar-coding to label all seed packets, a great addition to the data management effort. With Ken McNally’s genomics research, IRRI has been at the forefront of studies to explore the diversity of genetic diversity in germplasm collections.

Last October, the International Rice Genebank was the first to receive in-perpetuity funding from the Crop Trust. I’d like to think that the significant changes we made in the 1990s to the genebank and management of rice germplasm kept IRRI ahead of the curve, and contributed to its selection for this funding.

I completed a few publications during this period, and finally retired from IRRI at the end of April 2010. Since retirement I have co-edited a second book on climate change and genetic resources, led a review of the CGIAR’s genebank program, and was honored by HM The Queen as an Officer of the British Empire (OBE) in 2012 for my work at IRRI.

So, as 2018 draws to a close, I can look back on almost 50 years involvement in the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. What an interesting—and fulfilling—journey it has been.





Discovering Vavilov, and building a career in plant genetic resources: (2) Training the next generation of specialists in the 1980s

When, in the mid- to late-60s, Jack Hawkes was planning a one-year MSc course, Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources (CUPGR), at the University of Birmingham (in the Department of Botany), Sir Otto Frankel (that doyen of the genetic resources movement) predicted that the course would probably have a lifetime of just 20 years, at most. By then, he assumed, all the persons who needed such training would have passed through the university’s doors. Job done! Well, it didn’t turn out quite that way.

The first cohort of four students graduated in September 1970, when I (and four others) arrived at the university to begin our careers in plant genetic resources. In 1989, the course celebrated its 20th anniversary. But there was still a demand, and Birmingham would continue to offer graduate training (and short course modules) in genetic resources for the next 15 or so years before dwindling applications and staff retirements made the course no longer viable.

Over its lifetime, I guess at least 500 MSc and Short Course students from more than 100 countries received their training in genetic conservation and use. So, for many years, the University of Birmingham lay at the heart of the growing genetic resources movement, and played a pivotal role in ensuring that national programs worldwide had the trained personnel to set up and sustain genetic conservation of local crops and wild species. Many Birmingham graduates went on to lead national genetic resources programs, as evidenced by the number who attended the 4th International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources convened by FAO in Leipzig in June 1996.

Birmingham PGR students at the Leipzig conference in 1996. Trevor Sykes (class of 1969) is wearing the red tie, in the middle of the front row, standing next to Andrea Clausen (Argentina) on his left. Geoff Hawtin, then Director General of IPGRI is fourth from the right (On the back row), and Lyndsey Withers (who gave a course on in vitro conservation to Birmingham students) is second from the right on the front row (standing in between Liz Matos (from Angola) on her left, and the late Rosa Kambuou (Papua New Guinea).

In April 1981, I joined that training effort as a faculty member at the university. For the previous eight years, I had been working for the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru and Costa Rica. Around September 1980 (a couple months before I left Costa Rica to return to Lima and my next assignment with CIP), I was made aware that a Lectureship had just been advertised in the Department of Plant Biology (as the Department of Botany had been renamed) to contribute to the MSc course curriculum.

Jack Hawkes was due to retire in September 1982 after he reached the mandatory retirement age (for full professors) of 67. He persuaded the university to create a lectureship in his department to cover some of the important topics that he would vacate, primarily in crop diversity and evolution.

After my arrival in Birmingham, I didn’t have any specific duties for first four months. With the intake of the 1981-82 cohort, however, it was ‘full steam ahead’ and my teaching load remained much the same for the next decade. My teaching focused on crop diversity and evolution, germplasm exploration, and agricultural systems, although I made some small contributions to other topics as well.

I also took on the role of Short Course Tutor for those who came to study on one or both of the semester modules (about 12 weeks each).

Since its inception in 1969, the overall structure of the course remained much the same, with about nine months of theory, followed by written examinations. The curriculum varied to some degree over the lifetime of the course, as did the content as new biology opened new opportunities to study, conserve, and use genetic resources.

Following the examinations, all students completed a three-month research project and submitted a dissertation around the middle of September, which was examined by an external examiner. The first external examiner, from 1970-1972, was Professor Norman Simmonds, then Director of the Scottish Plant Breeding Station, and a widely respected plant breeder and potato and banana expert.

Financial support for students came from a variety of sources. The year after I graduated, the course was recognized by one of the UK research councils (I don’t remember which) for studentship support, and annually three or four British students were funded in this way through the 1970s and 80s. By the late 1970s, the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources¹ (IBPGR) funded many of the students coming from overseas, and had also agreed an annual grant to the department that, among other aspects, funded a lectureship in seed physiology and conservation (held by Dr Pauline Mumford). A few students were self-funded.

Here are some of the classes from 1978 to 1988; names of students can be found in this file. Do you recognize anyone?

L: Class of 1978 | R: Class of 1979

L: Class of 1984 | R: Class of 1985

L: Class of 1986 | Class of 1987

L: Class of 1988 | R: Short Course participants, Autumn semester 1987

The first group of students that I had direct contact with, in the autumn of 1981, came from Bangladesh, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia, Portugal, Turkey, and Uruguay. After nearly 40 years I can’t remember all their names, unfortunately.

The MSc class of 1982: L-R: Ghani Yunus (Malaysia), ?? (Uruguay), Rainer Freund (Germany), Ayfer Tan (Turkey), Dr Pauline Mumford (IBPGR-funded lecturer), ?? (Bangladesh), ?? (Bangladesh), Maria Texeira (Portugal), ?? (Indonesia).

Over the decade I remained at Birmingham, I must have supervised the dissertation projects of about 20-25 students, quite an intensive commitment during the summer months. Since my main interest was crop diversity and biosystematics, several students ran projects on potatoes and Lathyrus. I curated the Hawkes collection of wild potato species, and had also assembled a large collection of Lathyrus species from different countries and diverse environments. Some students wanted to work on crops and species important in their countries and, whenever possible, we tried to accommodate their interests. Even with glasshouse facilities it was not always possible to grow many tropical species at Birmingham². In any case, the important issue was for students to gain experience in designing and executing projects, and evaluating germplasm effectively. Two students from Uganda for example, studied the resistance of wild potatoes from Bolivia to the potato cyst nematode, in collaboration with the Nematology Department at Rothamsted Experiment Station.

Several students stayed on to complete PhD degrees under my supervision, or jointly supervised with my colleague Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd (who was the MSc Course Tutor), and I have written more about that here.

Immediately on joining the department in 1981, Jack asked me to take on the supervision of two of his students, Lynne Woodwards and Adi Damania who were half way through their research. Lynne competed her study of the non-blackening trait in a tetraploid (2n=4x=48 chromosomes) wild potato species from Mexico, Solanum hjertingii in 1982. Adi split his time between Birmingham and the Germplasm Institute in Bari, Italy, where he was co-supervised by Professor Enrico Porceddu, studying barley and wheat landraces from Nepal and Yemen. One of the methods he used was the separation of seed proteins using gel electrophoresis. His PhD was completed in 1983.

Lynne’s research on Solanum hjertingii was continued by Ian Gubb, in collaboration with the Institute of Food Research in Norwich.

Two Peruvian students, Rene Chavez (1978) and Carlos Arbizu (1979) completed their PhD theses in 1984 and 1990 respectively. They did all their experimental work at CIP in Lima, studying wide crosses in potato breeding, and wild potatoes as sources of virus resistance.

Malaysian student Ghani Yunus (1982) returned to Birmingham around 1986 to commence his PhD and continued his study of the grasspea (Lathyrus sativus) that he began for his MSc dissertation.

While the MSc course comprised my main teaching load, I also had some undergraduate teaching commitments. I did no First Year teaching, thank goodness! In the Summer Semester I had a 50% commitment to a Flowering Plant Taxonomy module as part of the Second Year Plant Biology stream. I also gave half a dozen lectures on agricultural systems as part of a Second Year Common Course attended by all Biological Sciences students, and I eventually became chair of that course.

With Brian, we offered a Third (Final) Year option in conservation and use of genetic resources under the Plant Biology degree. I guess during the 1980s some 40 students (maybe more) chose that option. The five-week module comprised about 20-25 lectures, and each student also had to undertake an practical project as well. It was quite a challenge to devise and supervise so many ‘doable’ projects during such a short period.

While all this was going on, I also had a couple of research projects on potatoes. The first, on true potato seed, was in collaboration with CIP in Peru and the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge. Over the project’s five-year life, I traveled to Lima at least once a year. This also gave me an opportunity to check on progress of my PhD students there.

In another project (with Brian) funded by industry, we investigated the opportunity for using somaclonal variation to identify genotypes resistant to low temperature sweetening in potatoes. The research had an important spin-off however for the genetic conservation of vegetatively-propagated crops like potatoes, as we demonstrated that genetic changes do occur during in vitro or tissue culture.

Knowing of my annual trips to Peru, the chocolate and confectionery manufacturers in the UK asked me to scope the possibility of establishing a field genebank in Peru of cacao (cocoa) trees in the northeast of the country. The industry had funded a project like this in Ecuador, and wanted to replicate it in Peru. Regrettably, the security situation deteriorated markedly in Peru (due to the Shining Path or Sendero Luminoso terrorist group), and the project never went ahead.

Brian and I collaborated a good deal during the 1980s, in teaching, research, and publishing.

Around 1983 he and I had the idea of writing a short general text about genetic resources and their conservation. As far as we could determine there were no books of this nature suitable for both undergraduates and postgraduates. Having approached the publisher Edward Arnold, we set about putting our ideas down on paper. The book appeared in 1986, with a print run of 3000, which quickly sold out. After Edward Arnold was taken over by Cambridge University Press, our modest volume was re-issued in a digitally printed version in 2010.

In 1988, we organized the first International Workshop on Plant Genetic Resources at Birmingham, on in situ conservation. The topic of the second two-day workshop, in April 1989, focused on climate change and genetic resources. We were ahead of our time! Proceedings from the workshop were published by Belhaven Press in 1990. It was a theme that my co-editors and I returned to in 2014, published by CAB International.

Around 1989, however, I was becoming increasingly disillusioned with university life, and had begun to think about seeking other opportunities, although none seemed to come along. Until September 1990, that is. One morning, I received in the mail a copy of a recruitment announcement for Head of the Genetic Resources Center at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. To this day I have no idea who sent me this announcement, as there was no cover note.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I decided to submit my application. After all, IRRI was a sister center of CIP, and I was very familiar with the international agricultural research centers funded through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

Personally, I knew it would be a huge opportunity, but also a challenge for Steph and our two daughters Hannah (13) and Philippa (9). But apply I did, and went for an interview at the beginning of January 1991, learning three weeks later that I was the preferred candidate of three interviewed. All three of us were ex-Birmingham MSc and PhD, having completed our theses under the supervision of Jack Hawkes. My ‘rivals’ were managing genebanks in the UK and Nigeria. I had no genebank experience per se.

I was about to become a genebanker, but I couldn’t join the institute quite as early as IRRI management desired. I still had teaching and examination commitments to fulfill for that academic year, which would not be finished until the end of June. Nevertheless, IRRI did ask me to represent the institute at a meeting in April of the Commission on Plant Genetic Resources at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome, the first of many that I would attend over the next decade.

Friday 28 June was my last day at the university. Two days later I was on my way to Manila, to open the next chapter of my genetic resources adventure.

¹ Around 1990, IBPGR became the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), and later, Bioversity International, expanding its headquarters in Rome.

² One of the students in my 1970-71 class, Folu Ogbe from Nigeria, undertook a project on West African rice and part of one glasshouse was converted to a ‘rice paddy’!



Discovering Vavilov, and building a career in plant genetic resources: (1) Starting out in South America in the 1970s

Nikolai Vavilov

Russian geneticist and plant breeder Nikolai Vavilov (1887-1943) is a hero of mine. He died, a Soviet prisoner, five years before I was born.

Until I began my graduate studies in the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham in the conservation and use of plant genetic resources (i.e., crops and their wild relatives) almost 50 years ago in September 1970, his name was unknown to me. Nevertheless, Vavilov’s prodigious publications influenced the career I subsequently forged for myself in genetic conservation.

Jack Hawkes

At the same time I was equally influenced by my mentor and PhD supervisor Professor Jack Hawkes, at Birmingham, who met Vavilov in St Petersburg in 1938.

Vavilov undoubtedly laid the foundations for the discipline of genetic resources —the collection, conservation, evaluation, and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA). It’s not for nothing that he is widely regarded as the Father of Plant Genetic Resources.

Almost 76 years on from his death, we now understand much more about the genetic diversity of crops than we ever dreamed possible, even as recently as the turn of the Millennium, thanks to developments in molecular biology and genomics. The sequencing of crop genomes (which seems to get cheaper and easier by the day) opens up significant opportunities for not only understanding how diversity is distributed among crops and species, but how it functions and can be used to breed new crop varieties that will feed a growing world population struggling under the threat of environmental challenges such as climate change.

These tools were not available to Vavilov. He used his considerable intellect and powers of observation to understand the diversity of many crop species (and their wild relatives) that he and his associates collected around the world. Which student of genetic resources can fail to be impressed by Vavilov’s theories on the origins of crops and how they varied among regions.

In my own small way, I followed in Vavilov’s footsteps for the next 40 years. I can’t deny that I was fortunate. I was in the right place at the right time. I had some of the best connections. I met some of the leading lights such as Sir Otto Frankel, Erna Bennett, and Jack Harlan, to name just three. I became involved in genetic conservation just as the world was beginning to take notice.

Knowing of my ambition to work overseas (particularly in South America), Jack Hawkes had me in mind in early 1971 when asked by Dr Richard Sawyer, the first Director General of the International Potato Center (CIP, based in Lima, Peru) to propose someone to join the newly-founded center to curate the center’s collection of Andean potato varieties. This would be just a one-year appointment while a Peruvian scientist received MSc training at Birmingham. Once I completed the MSc training in the autumn of 1971, I had some of the expertise and skills needed for that task, but lacked practical experience. I was all set to get on the plane. However, my recruitment to CIP was delayed until January 1973 and I had, in the interim, commenced a PhD project.

I embarked on a career in international agricultural research for development almost by serendipity. One year became a lifetime. The conservation and use of plant genetic resources became the focus of my work in two international agricultural research centers (CIP and IRRI) of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), and during the 1980s at the University of Birmingham.

My first interest were grain legumes (beans, peas, etc.), and I completed my MSc dissertation studying the diversity and origin of the lentil, Lens culinaris whose origin, in 1970, was largely speculation.

Trevor Williams

Trevor Williams, the MSc Course tutor, supervised my dissertation. He left Birmingham around 1977 to become the head of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR) in Rome, that in turn became the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), and continues today as Bioversity International.

Joe Smartt

I guess that interest in legume species had been sparked by Joe Smartt at the University of Southampton, who taught me genetics and encouraged me in the first instance to apply for a place to study at Birmingham in 1970.

But the cold reality (after I’d completed my MSc in the autumn of 1971) was that continuing on to a PhD on lentils was never going to be funded. So, when offered the opportunity to work in South America, I turned my allegiance to potatoes and, having just turned 24, joined CIP as Associate Taxonomist.

From the outset, it was agreed that my PhD research project, studying the diversity and origin, and breeding relationships of a group of triploid (with three sets of chromosomes) potato varieties that were known scientifically as Solanum x chaucha, would be my main contribution to the center’s research program. But (and this was no hardship) I also had to take time each year to travel round Peru and collect local varieties of potatoes to add to CIP’s germplasm collection.

I explored the northern departments of Ancash and La Libertad (with my colleague Zósimo Huamán) in May 1973, and Cajamarca (on my own with a driver) a year later. Each trip lasted almost a month. I don’t recall how many new samples these trips added to CIP’s growing germplasm collection, just a couple of hundred at most.

Collecting in Ancash with Zosimo Huaman in May 1973.

Collecting potatoes from a farmer in Cajamarca, northern Peru in May 1974 (L); and getting ready to ride off to a nearby village, just north of Cuzco, in February 1974 (R).

In February 1974, I spent a couple of weeks in the south of Peru, in the department of Puno, studying the dynamics of potato cultivation on terraces in the village of Cuyo-Cuyo.

Potato terraces at Cuyo Cuyo in Puno, southern Peru.

I made just one short trip with Jack Hawkes (and another CIP colleague, Juan Landeo) to collect wild potatoes in central Peru (Depts. of Cerro de Pasco, Huánuco, and Lima). It was fascinating to watch ‘the master’ at work. After all, Jack had been collecting wild potatoes the length of the Americas since 1939, and instinctively knew where to find them. Knowing their ecological preferences, he could almost ‘smell out’ each species.

With Jack Hawkes, collecting Solanum multidissectum in the central Andes north of Lima, early 1975.

My research (and Zósimo’s) contributed to a better understanding of potato diversity in the germplasm collection, and the identification of duplicate clones. During the 1980s the size of the collection maintained as tubers was reduced, while seeds (often referred to as true potato seed, or TPS) was collected for most samples.

Potato varieties (representative ‘morphotypes’) of Solanum x chaucha that formed part of my PhD study. L-R, first row: Duraznillo, Huayro, Garhuash Shuito, Puca Shuito, Yana Shuito L-R, second row: Komar Ñahuichi, Pishpita, Surimana, Piña, Manzana, Morhuarma L-R, third row: Tarmeña, Ccusi, Yuracc Incalo L-R, fourth row: Collo, Rucunag, Hayaparara, Rodeñas

Roger Rowe

Dr Roger Rowe was my department head at CIP, and he became my ‘local’ PhD co-supervisor. A maize geneticist by training, Roger joined CIP in July 1973 as Head of the Department of Breeding & Genetics. Immediately prior to joining CIP, he led the USDA’s Inter-Regional Potato Introduction Project IR-1(now National Research Support Program-6, NRSP-6) at the Potato Introduction Station in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin.

Although CIP’s headquarters is at La Molina on the eastern outskirts of Lima, much of my work was carried out in Huancayo, a six hour drive winding up through the Andes, where CIP established its highland field station. This is where we annually grew the potato collection.

Aerial view of the potato germplasm collection at the San Lorenzo station of CIP, near Huancayo in the Mantaro Valley, central Peru, in the mid-1970s.

During the main growing season, from about mid-November to late April  (coinciding with the seasonal rainfall), I’d spend much of every week in Huancayo, making crosses and evaluating different varieties for morphological variation. This is where I learned not only all the practical aspects of conservation of a vegetatively-propagated crop, and many of the phytosanitary implications therein, but I also learned how to grow a crop of potatoes. Then back in Lima, I studied the variation in tuber proteins using a tool called polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (that, I guess, is hardly used any more) by separating these proteins across a gel concentration gradient, as shown diagrammatically in the so-called electrophoregrams below. Compared to what we can achieve today using a range of molecular markers, this technique was really rather crude.

Jack Hawkes visited CIP two or three times while I was working in Lima, and we would walk around the germplasm collection in Huancayo, discussing different aspects of my research, the potato varieties I was studying, and the results of the various crossing experiments.

With Jack Hawkes in the germplasm collection in Huancayo in January 1975 (L); and (R), discussing aspects of my research with Carlos Ochoa in a screenhouse at CIP in La Molina (in mid-1973).

I was also fortunate (although I realized it less at the time) to have another potato expert to hand: Professor Carlos Ochoa, who joined CIP (from the National Agrarian University across the road from CIP) as Head of Taxonomy.

Well, three years passed all too quickly, and by the end of May 1975, Steph and I were back in Birmingham for a few months while I wrote up and defended my dissertation. This was all done and dusted by the end of October that year, and the PhD was conferred at a congregation held at the university in December.

With Jack Hawkes (L) and Trevor Williams (R) after the degree congregation on 12 December 1975 at the University of Birmingham.

With that, the first chapter in my genetic resources career came to a close. But there was much more in store . . .

I remained with CIP for the next five years, but not in Lima. Richard Sawyer asked me to join the center’s Regional Research Program (formerly Outreach Program), initially as a post-doctoral fellow, the first to be based outside headquarters. Thus, in April 1976 (only 27 years old) I was posted to Turrialba, Costa Rica (based at a regional research center, CATIE) to set up a research project aimed at adapting potatoes to warm, humid conditions of the tropics. A year later I was asked to lead the regional program that covered Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.

CATIE had its own germplasm collections, and just after I arrived there, a German-funded project, headed by Costarrican scientist Dr Jorge León, was initiated to strengthen the ongoing work on cacao, coffee, and pejibaye or peach palm, and other species. Among the young scientists assigned to that project was Jan Engels, who later moved to Bioversity International in Rome (formerly IBPGR, then IPGRI), with whom I have remained in contact all these years and published together. So although I was not directly involved in genetic conservation at this time, I still had the opportunity to observe, discuss and learn about crops that had been beyond my immediate experience.

It wasn’t long before my own work took a dramatically different turn. In July 1977, in the process of evaluating around 100 potato varieties and clones (from a collection maintained in Toluca, Mexico) for heat adaptation (no potatoes had ever been grown in Turrialba before), my potato plots were affected by an insidious disease called bacterial wilt (caused by the pathogen Ralstonia solanacearum).

(L) Potato plants showing typical symptoms of bacterial wilt. (R) An infected tuber exuding the bacterium in its vascular system.

Turrialba soon became a ‘hot spot’ for evaluating potato germplasm for resistance against bacterial disease, and this and some agronomic aspects of bacterial wilt control became the focus of much of my research over the next four years. I earlier wrote about this work in more detail.

This bacterial wilt work gave me a good grounding in how to carefully evaluate germplasm, and we went on to look at resistance to late blight disease (caused by the fungus Phytophthora infestans – the pathogen that caused the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s, and which continues to be a scourge of potato production worldwide), and the viruses PVX, PVY, and PLRV.

One of the most satisfying aspects of my work at this time was the development and testing of rapid multiplication techniques, so important to bulk up healthy seed of this crop.

My good friend and seed production specialist colleague Jim Bryan spent a year with me in Costa Rica on this project.

Throughout this period I was, of course, working more on the production side, learning about the issues that farmers, especially small farmers, face on a daily basis. It gave me an appreciation of how the effective use of genetic resources can raise the welfare of farmers and their families through the release of higher productivity varieties, among others.

I suppose one activity that particularly helped me to hone my management skills was the setting up of PRECODEPA in 1978, a regional cooperative potato project involving six countries, from Mexico to Panama and the Dominican Republic. Funded by the Swiss, I had to coordinate and support research and production activities in a range of national agricultural research institutes. It was, I believe, the first consortium set up in the CGIAR, and became a model for other centers to follow.

I should add that PRECODEPA went from strength to strength. It continued for at least 25 years, funded throughout by the Swiss, and expanding to include other countries in Central America and the Caribbean.

However, by the end of 1980 I felt that I had personally achieved in Costa Rica and the region as much as I had hoped for and could be expected; it was time for someone else to take the reins. In any case, I was looking for a new challenge, and moved back to Lima (38 years ago today) to discuss options with CIP management.

It seemed I would be headed for pastures new, the southern cone of South America perhaps, even the Far East in the Philippines. But fate stepped in, and at the end of March 1981, Steph, daughter Hannah (almost three) and I were on our way back to the UK. To Birmingham in fact, where I had accepted a Lectureship in the Department of Plant Biology.

The subsequent decade at Birmingham opened up a whole new set of genetic resources opportunities . . .



With The Beatles . . .

Last weekend, Steph and I spent a couple of days in Liverpool where, in the 1960s, there was an explosion of musical talent—the ‘Mersey Sound‘ (a somewhat patronizing video)—that had been influenced by and built on the late 1950s skiffle music of Lonnie Donegan, among others.

The greatest among greats to emerge from the ‘Mersey Sound’ have to be The Beatles – Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, and John Lennon.

It was my 70th birthday on the 18th and, in celebration, we planned this special trip to Liverpool to take in The Beatles’ Childhood Homes and The Beatles Story, among other sights. A full album of photos can be viewed here.

We originally intended to drive to Liverpool. Not difficult in itself, you might imagine: a mere 109 miles. But as most of that journey is along the notorious M6 motorway, potentially it would have been 109 miles of traffic hassle, and long stretches of roadworks. And although the weather has been quite mild recently, November can be foggy and frosty. These were the points we considered when finalizing our travel plans in late August. So we opted to travel by rail from Bromsgrove to Liverpool-Lime Street (via Birmingham New Street).

As it turned out, we had a weekend of the most wonderful weather—clear skies, bright and sunny. No rain whatsoever.

Although our train from Birmingham departed about 20 minutes late, we still arrived to Lime Street before 13:00, and after a 20 minute walk to the hotel, we were out and about exploring well before 14:00.

Our hotel was the 4-star Jurys Inn, located right on the Liverpool Waterfront, just across the road from the Royal Albert Dock, home to The Beatles Story. It was also starting point for the National Trust tour of The Beatles’ Childhood Homes. Right beside the hotel are the 60 m (196 ft) Wheel of Liverpool, the Echo Arena, and convention centre.

We used Emirates Airlines airmiles (Rocketmiles) that were about to expire and a small cash supplement to pay for the hotel.

To begin with, let me take you back to late June 1967.

Just a month earlier, The Beatles had released their eighth and iconic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. Little did I realize then that I’d be regularly visiting the home of The Beatles in the coming weeks.

Having just left school, I was waiting for my exam results and hoping I’d done well enough to secure a coveted place to study botany and geography, from October, at The University of Southampton. As I couldn’t spend the summer kicking my heels around my parent’s home, I found a temporary job for the next couple of months working for a local Leek company, Adams Butter (which I’ve written about elsewhere), as driver’s mate on the company’s fleet of trucks.

Adams Butter took raw, unsalted butter (mostly from Australia and New Zealand), blended and packed it into household packs, and distributed it to supermarkets and other retail outlets all over the country. Having emptied a truck of 25 tons of butter (in 26lb boxes), we’d head off to the nearest port to load up with another 25 tons of frozen butter, in 56lb boxes, to transport back to the dairy in Leek.

That first week saw me in Liverpool twice, and over eight or nine weeks or so, I must have gone back there a dozen times or more. But I haven’t been back there since, apart from a half-day visit around 2000, when I was invited to give a seminar at The University of Liverpool. Until last weekend, that is.

Fifty years on and Liverpool is a transformed city. Gone is the frenetic activity of the docks; there were no containers then. Once the River Mersey and port were bustling with ships from all over the world; a huge labor force of dockers manhandled produce off the ships. By the 1980s many of the docks along the Liverpool Waterfront were closed, and warehouses were derelict.

Now the Waterfront is a World Heritage Site, a place for everyone to enjoy. And also home to The Beatles Story, Tate Liverpool, the Museum of Liverpool, shops, cafes, and restaurants. During our visit, there were funfair rides set up along the Waterfront, as well as an ice rink, and some sections of the German market, all part of Liverpool’s run up to Christmas.

Our tour of the Beatles’ Childhood Homes started at 10:00 when the National Trust driver, Joe, met us in the lobby of Jurys Inn. We were an international party of just 13 persons (5 UK, 1 Irish, I Czech, I French, 1 Maltese, 1 Australian, and 3 Malaysian). The drive to the first property, John Lennon’s home, took just over 15 minutes. Once we were all strapped in and ready for the off, Joe turned on the music: Love Me Do, and it was Beatles songs all throughout the tour. What a way to start! And, as it turned out, three quite emotional hours.

‘Mendips’. 251 Menlove Avenue, Woolton (a desirable suburb of Liverpool) is a 1930s semi-detached house (that has retained many of its original design features). John was born in October 1940. When his mother Julia separated from father Alfred in 1945, John went to live with Julia’s oldest sister Mimi and her husband George at ‘Mendips’. It was felt that a two-room flat in a rough part of the city near the cathedral was not a suitable place to raise a young boy.