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.

I had a dream . . .

Well, more of a nightmare, actually.

I dreamt that I’d been elected a Member of Parliament. For the Labour Party even. Me, an MP sitting in the House of Commons! Nothing could be further from any aspirations I ever had nor, at my age, could I now want to explore.

I can’t imagine why I would have such a dream, except that my mind must be sensitized to politics given that Brexit is rarely out of the news for five minutes these days.

However, given the parlous state of the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn (increasingly anti-Semitic in some quarters of the Party), that would not be my natural home. As I mentioned in a recent post, I once voted (in the General Election of June 1970) for the Conservative Party candidate. Never again. My seat in the House of Commons could never be on the Conservative benches, a party standing accused of entrenched Islamophobia.

I also wrote recently that politics in the UK is broken. Broken by Brexit. The fissures were already there perhaps, underneath the surface. They have been blown wide open by Brexit, an issue that has split the two major parties, Conservative and Labour. It’s not an issue that lends itself to tribal loyalties, For or Against, that dominate so many of the issues that Parliament is tasked to resolve.

So the idea that I should go into politics is ludicrous, to say the least. But then again? Political gravity pulls me to the center-center left, towards the Liberal Democrats, but since the 2017 General Election the Lib Dems are no longer a force to be reckoned with. They had already been punished in the 2015 election for having gone into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 (although I personally believe they didn’t really have much choice, and did help moderate some [many?] of the more extreme Conservative aims in government). They have not shone in recent months although always supporting Remain and a People’s Vote.

But what has become clear to me during the whole Brexit debacle is that politics in the UK needs a root and branch reform. I’ve come to this conclusion because I have probably watched more than my fair share of broadcasts from Parliament.

Our way of doing politics is anachronistic. Just watch the goings-on in the House of Commons during PMQs (Prime Minister’s Questions, which are questions to the PM). I doubt many would argue that change isn’t needed. Debates and member behavior in the House of Lords are much more restrained, probably because half of the members are asleep.

The whole Westminster set up is adversarial, opposing benches of tribal MPs baying at each other. Such a set-up is not conducive to compromise – precisely what is needed at this time of national crisis brought on by Brexit. Party before country! Whatever must anyone from outside the UK think?

It’s interesting to note that the devolved legislatures in Scotland (the Scottish Parliament or Parlàmaid na h-Alba in Gaelic) and Wales (the National Assembly for Wales or Cynulliad Cenedlaethol Cymru in Welsh) are not configured in this way, nor the Northern Ireland Assembly (if it ever meets again). Each member has an individual desk. In the House of Commons there is not enough room for all 650 MPs. Many are forced to stand during certain sessions like PMQs attended by all MPs. At other times it must be quite disheartening to be an MP. Here is Green Party MP Caroline Lucas is introducing a debate (video) last week on an issue as important as climate change to an almost empty chamber.

Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, introduces a debate on climate change to an almost empty House of Commons on 28 February 2019.

And then there is the antiquated voting system, where the Speaker asks MPs to signify their support, Aye of No, before deciding whether an actual ‘hard’ vote is needed. Then MPs file through the Lobby to cast their votes. You can imagine how long this can take if there are multiple votes, one by one. Parliamentary procedures and rituals seem locked in the Medieval Period.

The Palace of Westminster (where both the House of Commons and House of Lords meet in separate chambers) is no longer fit for purpose. Indeed it is falling down around Parliamentarians’ heads and is need of an urgent (and very costly) refurbishment. Yet MPs are reluctant to abandon the ‘Westminster ship’ to decamp to temporary premises while the buildings are brought up to standard one might expect in the 21st century for ‘the Mother of Parliaments‘.

But how about moving, permanently, to a bespoke parliament building, preferably in one of the regions outside London? The Palace of Westminster could then be converted to the museum it has (increasingly) become.

And while we’re considering reforms, how about introducing proportional representation in our voting system? Yes, that would probably lead to more frequent coalitions, but unless we break the stranglehold of the main parties I fear increased lurches to the right and left of politics.

MPs’ pay is a contentious issue. Currently MPs receive a basic salary of £77,379 (plus allowances and expenses). Personally, I think that £77,000 is rather low for such an important and responsible position. Not that many MPs are currently worthy perhaps of what they actually receive or might expect in the future. However, one proviso I would insist upon, that no MP may increase his/her income through external emoluments (directorships and the like, or as newspaper columnists, for example). Politics might then attract another (and better) generation of aspiring politicians.

You may accuse me of naïvety, and I would accept the criticism. But unless and until we are willing to openly confront the issues that challenge politics today in the UK, nothing will change. We will continue to be mired in a pit of our own delusions that Westminster really is the ‘Mother of Parliaments’, the epitome of democracy.

The perfect Brexit storm

I have voted Conservative just once, in the June 1970 General Election that brought Ted Heath to power. It was the first election in which I was eligible to vote, aged 21 (although the voting age had been lowered to 18 in January of that year).

Now, wild horses couldn’t drag me into the polling booth to vote for the Conservative Party. Nor for Labour either, while Jeremy Corbyn remains Leader.

I can’t remember a more chaotic situation in British politics than we are currently experiencing. Politics is broken. Indeed, it’s hard to remember when politics was held in such low esteem nationwide; respect for politicians has evaporated.

And the cause? Brexit, of course, which has thrown politics into disarray. And while the same tribal party loyalties affect most parliamentary decisions, perspectives on Brexit or No Brexit, Leave or Remain, cut right across party lines and policies.

No wonder then that eight MPs resigned from the Labour Party last week and formed The Independent Group (TIG), joined by three Conservative MPs. Another Labour MP has resigned from the party, but not joined TIG.


Prime Minister Theresa May is the Death Star of British politics and Leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn is a politician of low intellectual calibre which, alloyed with rigid and obstinately held ideological beliefs, renders him stupefied, or stupid, or both.

Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May

Not my descriptions, I should add, although they are ones that resonate with me. No, they come from the pen of  long-time Conservative supporter, former Conservative Member of Parliament for West Derbyshire, and newspaper columnist, Matthew Parris.

Writing in The Times last Friday, 22 February, he wrote what is probably one of the most damning indictments of two party leaders that I have ever read. But particularly damning of Theresa May. Click on the image below to read the article in full.

With just 32 days before the UK is due to leave the European Union (EU), potentially crashing out without a deal if the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated over many months with the EU is once again rejected by Parliament, Theresa May has again kicked the ‘Brexit can’ down the road. Parliament will not hold a ‘meaningful vote‘ to decide the future of that agreement until 12 March. FFS! Pardon my language.

You can imagine some of the reactions. Mike Galsworthy is a leading Remain campaigner.

And this, despite the EU and European Commission consistently stating that negotiations over the Withdrawal Agreement will not be re-opened to rework the wording over the Irish backstop.

Now listen to former Conservative MP (and TIG member) Anna Soubry commenting on Theresa May’s leadership and her obsession with immigration that seems to be driving her Brexit ‘strategy’.

Anna Soubry is not the only person concerned about Theresa May’s approach to Brexit. Philosopher and author AC Grayling tweeted this message a couple of days ago.

Here’s another view from Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley Jess Phillips.

Corbyn has led a totally ineffective Opposition throughout the whole Brexit process. Labour should be points ahead in the polls. Instead they are lagging behind the Conservatives. Extraordinary! Corbyn appears more concerned about winning a General Election, and implementing a ‘real’ Socialist agenda than he is about Brexit and its impact on the nation. Post-Brexit, the country won’t be able to afford his vision.

Because of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, Parliament will have to vote to hold a General Election, if Theresa May decides to call one. Corbyn will find himself on a very sticky wicket. Because of his consistent calls for an election, Labour can hardly vote against such a motion even though recent polls don’t give them much hope of success.

Unless . . . ?

Unless Labour openly support a second referendum or People’s Vote (that seems to be the favored option among the electorate). Clearly, there is a groundswell of support for such a vote, even within Labour.

So, with the nation staring down the barrel of a Brexit gun, who knows what the outcome will be, after 29 March. Brexit has opened fissures in both main political parties that are unlikely to heal very quickly. Is this the beginning of a realignment in British politics? Only time will tell. Brexit has caused the perfect storm.

 

 

 

 

Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 23: An Anglo-Italian connection

I’ve twice traveled by train, in 2004 and 2006, from my home in Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire to Rome in central Italy. And if I had my way, I’d travel everywhere by train, if that were possible.

When visiting government agencies that provided financial support to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) when I was Director for Program Planning & Communications (DPPC), I tried to combine as many visits into a single trip as possible, thus making the best use of my time on the road. In Europe, traveling by train was by far the most convenient (and comfortable) way of visiting several cities on the way, rather than hopping on and off planes for relatively short flights. Not to mention the inconvenience of additional waiting time at airports and the hassle of actually getting to and from them.

Train travel in many European countries is reliable and, compared to the UK, competitively priced. Purchasing a Eurail pass was by far the cheapest option, even for First Class tickets, and could be bought online from the Philippines.

This was my itinerary on both occasions:

  • Bromsgrove – Birmingham New Street – London Euston (into Birmingham on London Midland—now operated by West Midlands Trains—then Virgin Trains to London; around 2 hours or so; map)
  • London Waterloo (Eurostar now operates from London St Pancras) – Brussels Midi (on Eurostar; around 2 hours; map)
  • Brussels Midi – Cologne – Bonn Central (on the Thalys to Cologne, and Deutsche Bahn, DB; just over 2 hours; map)
  • Bonn Central – Basel – Bern (Deutsche Bahn to Basel, then Swiss Federal Railways, or SBB/CFF/FFS), along the Rhine Valley (around 5½ hours; map)
  • Bern – Milan Central (on Swiss Federal Railways; around 4½ hours; map)
  • Milan Central – Rome Termini (on Trenitalia; 3 hours; map)

On the second trip I traveled with IRRI Director General Bob Zeigler (and his wife Crissan) to visit donor agencies in Brussels (Directorate General for International Cooperation or DGCI of Belgium, and the European Union, EU), the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) in Bonn, the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) in Bern (and a side trip to Basel where Bob gave a seminar at the Syngenta Foundation), and finally, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD, an agency of the United Nations) in Rome – all members of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research or CGIAR.

Crissan and Bob Zeigler


We met at London’s Waterloo station for the Eurostar service to Brussels, arriving there mid-afternoon. Since no meetings had been arranged that same day, we enjoyed the warm afternoon sunshine for a stroll around La Grand-Place (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), before enjoying our dinner at one of the many cafes close by.

Bob and Crissan feasted on one of the local delicacies: moules (mussels).

I like mussels, but in moderation, just a few added to a fish pie or a fish soup. Not a whole meal. In any case, our meal was accompanied, of course, by several glasses of excellent Belgian beer.


The day after our meetings, we caught the Thalys (the Belgian TGV) to Cologne, and then a regional service for the short hop to Bonn. We had just one day of meetings in Bonn, with the German aid ministry (BMZ), and then spent an excellent day touring the vineyards of the Ahr Valley just south of Bonn. Our main contact was my old friend Marlene Diekmann who I’d known for many years before she joined the BMZ when she was a plant pathologist at the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI, now Bioversity International) in Rome.

On previous visits to Bonn, in all weathers, Marlene and I had gone walking along the terraces of the Ahr Valley, as I described in this blog post. On this current trip with the Zeiglers, as in the past, we sampled some of the fruits of the vintner’s art. And very good it was.

Each time I have visited the Ahr Valley I have never failed to be impressed at the cultivation of the vines on such steep slopes. In the early evening we headed to Rheinbach (map) to join Dr Hans-Jochen de Haas, who was Germany’s representative to the CGIAR, and became a good friend.

I’d last seen him the previous year in Bonn and presented him with a book on rice culture.

A few years later (and before I retired in 2010) he sadly passed away after contracting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or CJD.

Bob and I (with Marlene) also made a one-day visit to Hannover (again by train) to visit the Volkwagen Foundation to try and tempt them to support a research project on rice and climate change involving a German scientist seconded to IRRI.

Commitments in Germany completed, Switzerland was our next stop, so we took the train along the River Rhine to Basel, and transferring to Swiss railways to Bern.


I first visited Switzerland in July 1984 when I attended the 9th Triennial Conference of the European Association for Potato Research (EAPR), that was held in Interlaken in the heart of the Bernese Oberland.

A group of us from the UK flew from London Gatwick to Bern (Switzerland’s capital city) on a Swissair BAe 146, and then taken the train for the 1 hour rail journey to Interlaken. There are no flights to Bern nowadays; Switzerland is served by two major international airports in Geneva (in the west) and Zurich (in the north central part of the country). And, in any case, rail services across the country are frequent, convenient, and comfortable.

In 1984, I’d taken a trip up to Wengen (1274 m) from Interlaken, with the last leg on the funicular railway from Lauterbrunnen. The Zeiglers and I repeated this trip. And after lunch in Wengen, we took the cable car up to Männlichen (2343 m), before dropping to Grindelwald (1034 m) on Europe’s longest gondola cableway (and third longest in the world).

At Männlichen there are fabulous views of the Eiger, Jungfrau and other mountains.

Watch this video that I found on YouTube of the cable car ride to Männlichen and the gondola cableway down to Grindelwald.

All too soon, our Swiss visit was over, and we took the train to Milan, an impressive journey through the Alps and the Italian lakes.

In Milan, we transferred to the high speed train to Rome. That was an interesting journey. In 2006, the 18th FIFA World Cup was hosted by Germany. Although Mexico had been eliminated from the competition by then, our train was full of supporters from Mexico on their way to Rome to enjoy the sights. Bob, Crissan and I all spoke Spanish. Bob and Crissan had actually lived in Mexico for a few years before returning to IRRI in 2005. So we had a great time with the Mexicans, and our fast train journey to Rome (a city I have visited numerous times) passed even faster it seemed.


 

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.

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?