Collecting potatoes in Peru – following in Jack Hawkes’ footsteps (Part 2)

A year after returning from collecting in Ancash and La Libertad (as described in Part 1) I was heading north once again, this time to the Department of Cajamarca. In a long wheelbase Land Rover, a donation from the British government to CIP. But alone this time, almost. By May 1974 I was already quite fluent in Spanish, and had done more travelling around the country. It was assumed therefore I could look after myself, so we decided I should travel with just one of the CIP drivers, Octavio. I regret I cannot recall his surname.

Just about to head out (May 1974)

Parked on the side of the Panamericana Norte highway north of Lima

Cajamarca is also the capital city of the department, and is one of my favorite places in Peru. At 2700 m elevation, the city lies in a broad valley among rolling hills. The landscape of Cajamarca has a much gentler feel to it than the high peaks of Ancash or further south around Cuzco, or the altiplano surrounding Puno.

We must have split the journey to Cajamarca city. It’s almost 900 km and even today, on better roads, the journey is estimated to take more than 14 hours. North of the coastal city of Trujillo, the road to Cajamarca diverges east from the Panamericana Norte, winding through a lush river valley in the desert, and climbing into the mountains. Dropping down the other side, you eventually are treated to views of the city unfolding in the distance. The climate is spring-like, the food is good (the leche asada or caramel custard is a local treat), and the architecture of the (unfinished) cathedral on the main square of Plaza de Armas is a wonder.

We spent around three weeks travelling to remote areas, but were able to return from time to time to Cajamarca to enjoy the comforts of the Turista Hotel, and the Inca baths and their hot springs.

As with our collecting the previous year, we stopped to chat with farmers, ask about the varieties they and their neighbors cultivated, and requesting a sample of healthy tubers of each variety.

The market town of Bambamarca, 100 km or so north of Cajamarca was particularly interesting. It was a colorful, vibrant scene with many wearing their typical tall sombreros and russet-red ponchos, typical of Cajamarca.

On one day we stopped to chat with one farmer and his wife who became very interested why we were collecting potato varieties, and what we would do with them once back in Lima. They were so pleased to show me this particular variety with its large tubers. It’s one of my favorite images from my time in Peru.

There was even a little time for some sightseeing. Just 10 km northeast from the Plaza de Armas in Cajamarca stands an unusual archaeological site, the Ventanillas de Otuzco, a pre-Inca necropolis with more than 300 niches carved in the rock face. We even found wild tomatoes growing there.

If I have one abiding image of Cajamarca—city and landscape—it would be this one. Having eaten an early breakfast, Octavio and I headed north from the city, climbing above the valley. We stopped almost at the summit so I could take this photo of the Cajamarca valley. If you look carefully you can see the steam rising from the Inca baths in the distance.

Octavio and I got along quite well. He’d never traveled to that part of Peru before and, as a driver from the big city, had very little knowledge of potatoes. We had just the one falling-out, if you can call it that. He would insist in driving downhill along quite treacherous roads in high gear, or even in neutral, relying solely on the brakes alone to control our speed. I had to insist he use low gear to slow the vehicle or he wouldn’t be driving any more until we reached the coast and the Panamerican highway. Anyway, we arrived back in Lima after an incident-free trip.

Later on that year, I returned to Cajamarca with my wife Steph and two English friends from CIP. Again in 1988, as a member of a CIP project review team, I spent a few days in the city and surrounding countryside looking at seed production and storage systems.

When I visited CIP in 2016 as part of a review of the genebank, the staff showed me some herbarium sheets from some of the varieties I had collected on that trip to Cajamarca.

Earlier in 1974, in February, I traveled to Puno and Cuzco in the south of the country with Dr Peter Gibbs from the University of St Andrews, Scotland. He was studying the floral biology of another Andean tuber crop known as oca (Oxalis tuberosa). He had contacted CIP’s Director General to see if anyone might be headed south for fieldwork with whom he could travel.

I’d already decided to carry out some field studies of potato varietal mixtures and was looking for suitable locations. Peter suggested that we might head to Cuyo Cuyo, a municipality just under 250 km northeast of Puno and Lake Titicaca. Famous for its agricultural terraces or andenes, there had been one study in 1951 describing the cultivation of oca in the valley. Peter convinced me that it was worth heading in that direction. Which is precisely what we did.

On this trip we drove a short wheelbase Land Rover, another donation to CIP from the British government. It had a separate cab; the rear was covered with a canvas hood, not the most secure vehicle for venturing into remote parts.

Heading south down the Panamericana Sur, we had a road trip of almost 1300 km ahead of us. I know we stopped in Nazca on the first night, after driving 447 km. From there to Arequipa was another 568 km, and the final leg into Puno was 295 km. I think we must have made it to Arequipa on the second day, resting up before the climb to the altiplano on the third day.

In Puno, we rested for a couple of days, checking our gear, and meeting with some officials from the Ministry of Agriculture for further advice before setting off for Cuyo Cuyo. Peter had developed a taste for algarrobina, a popular Peruvian cocktail, a bit like egg-nog, but with a kick, especially after one too many. We weren’t in the best shape to head off across the altiplano the next day.

Each time I crossed the altiplano it was hard to understand just how people managed to survive in such a harsh environment: flat, cold, and often over 4000 m. Yet we passed farms, growing the bitter and frost-resistant potatoes that are processed to make chuño as well as herding llamas and alpacas. Crossing several rivers, we finally reached the head of the Cuyo Cuyo valley and, descending into the cloud, encountered workmen struggling to clear a landslide. However that gave an opportunity for some impromptu botany, finding a beautiful begonia with flowers as large as saucers.

Once clear of the landslide, and out of the cloud, the most amazing vista opened up before us. The whole valley was terraced and, as we learned over the next few days, supported a rotation system involving potatoes, oca, barley and faba beans (both imported by the Spanish in the 16th century), and a fallow.

Arriving in the village it was important to find somewhere to stay. We hadn’t thought to make any enquiries before setting out for Cuyo Cuyo. There was no hotel, but the postmaster offered us space to set up our camp beds and herbarium drying equipment, and there we stayed for about five days. We were certainly a curiosity with the village children.

Peter set about collecting samples of oca with different floral structures for his study, and to make herbarium specimens to take back to St Andrews. At the time of our visit many of the oca fields were planted in the lower levels of the valley often close to the river. I set off on my own, guided by a local farmer, to potato terraces higher up the valley to study the varietal mixtures and to learn more about the agricultural system. That study was finally published in the journal Euphytica in 1980 and can be read here.

Peter’s oca samples were the devil to dry because of their fleshy stems. When he finally made it back to St Andrews a couple of months later, he found that his ‘dry’ specimens were still alive. So he planted them in a university glasshouse, and had the best of both worlds being able to continue his study with living plants.

Leaving Cuyo Cuyo, we headed back to Puno staying one night there before setting off for Cuzco some 385 km to the northwest.

I was interested in locating another site for study, and we settled on a community near Chinchero outside Cuzco. We hired horses to reach remote fields, and there I collected flower buds (for chromosome counts) from several fields.

It was interesting to find large commercial cultivation of potatoes (for sale in markets like Cuzco) alongside smaller plots of native varieties that farmers grew for home consumption. As I was collecting samples from one field, two women stopped close-by and one of them crouched down to feed her baby. Both were dressed in the typical costume of that region.

Soon we had all the information we thought we needed (in hindsight I would have done things very differently, and at Cuyo Cuyo), and headed back to Cuzco where we left the vehicle to be collected by Zósimo Huamán who was heading south for his own field studies, and who would drive it back to Lima.

While we in Cuzco, we visited the home of Professor César Vargas, a renowned Peruvian botanist, who I had first met in January 1973 when Jack Hawkes introduced me to him. Jack first met Vargas when he was working in Colombia between 1948 and 1951. Also, Vargas’ daughter Martha was an MSc student at St Andrews so it was a good opportunity for Peter also to meet him.

I only made one field trip with Jack Hawkes, in March 1981 just a few weeks before I left CIP to return to the UK and take up a lectureship at The University of Birmingham.

Jack was in Lima on his way back to the UK having led yet another expedition to collect potatoes in Bolivia. He suggested that we take a long weekend to head up into the mountains and see what wild species of potato could be found. A CIP colleague, potato breeder Juan Landeo, came along for the trip.

On the first day, we set off east up the Carretera Central, over Ticlio at 4800 m and on to the smelting town of La Oroya, before heading north to the important mining center of Cerro de Pasco (4330 m), one of the highest (and bleakest) cities in the world.

The next morning we continued north, finally descending to the warmth of Huánuco, a lovely city at just 1880 m. We spent the night there.

I don’t recall if we split the journey back to Lima (or the exact route) or traveled from Huánuco in one day, stopping every now and then to collect potatoes.

Early in the day we came across some farmers using the traditional foot plough or chaqui tacclla. This is an iconic image.

We passed through some awesome landscapes. Even encountering a significant landslide that blocked our path. Closer to the coast the mountains were lost in the clouds as we made our way down the side of the valley.

I learned one very important lesson from Jack Hawkes: that a sound knowledge of the ecology of the species was very important (a point emphasized by Israeli geneticist Gideon Ladizinsky when I took a party of Birmingham students to a genetic resources course near Tel Aviv in 1982).

We’d be driving along, when Jack would suddenly ask us to pull over, saying that we’d find potatoes in the vicinity. Even naming which species we’d be likely to find. And I don’t remember him ever being wrong. It was fascinating to see how his deep knowledge guided his approach to collecting wild potatoes.

This is the only photo of me in the field with Jack, as we collected Solanum multiinterruptum (or was it S. multidissectum?).

It was a great experience, learning more about wild species in the field, from the master. These are memories that will stay with me for years to come.



Collecting potatoes in Peru – following in Jack Hawkes’ footsteps (Part 1)

Professor Jack Hawkes examines a specimen of the wild potato species Solanum raphanifolium in the ruins of Sacsayhuaman outside Cuzco, January 1973

Potatoes are native to the Americas; the wild Solanum species are found from Colorado in the United States, south through Mexico and Central America, and throughout the Andes as far south as northern Argentina. They even grow on the plains of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. Different forms of potato were domesticated thousands of years ago in the Andean region and southern Chile. Even today, farmers in the Andes grow (and conserve) a wonderful range of potato varieties.

Over many decades potato scientists made expeditions to the Americas to collect wild and cultivated potatoes, to learn about their biology and ecology, and how they might be used to enhance potato productivity through plant breeding. Among the potato pioneers was my friend, colleague, and mentor, the late Professor Jack Hawkes, a world-renowned expert on potato diversity and taxonomy and a leading light in the genetic resources conservation movement that emerged in the 1960s.

The wonder of potato diversity

I began my own studies on potato under Jack’s tutelage in September 1971 at The University of Birmingham, after graduating with an MSc degree in genetic resources conservation. Jack took me under his wing, so to speak, to teach me about potatoes and prepare me for a posting at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru where (from January 1973) I worked as an Associate Taxonomist for three years. I had just turned 24 the previous November.

Jack made his first trip to South America in 1939 at the age of 23, turning 24 during the course of the expedition in June that year, as a member of the Empire Potato Collecting Expedition to South America and spending nine months collecting wild and cultivated potatoes along the Andes of Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia.

Jack Hawkes (second from right) with expedition leader Edward Balls (on Jack’s right) and two others outside a church in La Paz, Bolivia in March 1939.

Returning to Cambridge in December 1939, just after the Second World War broke out, Jack continued to study the materials collected on the Empire expedition, completing his PhD in 1941. He remained at Cambridge until 1948 when he was seconded by the Government of Colombia to set up a research station for potatoes near Bogota.

In 1952, he returned to the UK, joining The University of Birmingham as a lecturer in the Department of Botany, but he returned to the Americas many times over the next four decades to collect potatoes. Awarded a personal chair in taxonomic botany in 1961, he became Mason Professor of Botany and head of department in 1967.

In 1969 he launched the one year MSc course I referred to earlier, and that’s when I first met him a year later. It would be no exaggeration to state that Jack Hawkes played an incredibly important role in shaping my subsequent career in international agricultural research and academia.

In December 1970, just three months after I arrived in Birmingham, Jack joined his Danish colleague Peter Hjerting on an expedition to collect wild potatoes in Bolivia, accompanied by Jack’s research assistant and PhD candidate Phil Cribb.

Richard Sawyer

The expedition received support from the newly-established International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima whose Director General, Dr Richard Sawyer kindly loaned a four-wheel drive vehicle. Joining the expedition was a young Peruvian scientist, Zósimo Huamán who had been hired by CIP to manage its large germplasm collection of native potato varieties.

While in Lima, Jack was asked to accept Zósimo on the Birmingham MSc course in September 1971. And then Sawyer asked Jack if he could recommend someone to join CIP on a one-year posting to cover for Zósimo while away in Birmingham. Apparently, so Jack later told me, my name immediately came to mind. Perhaps I’d mentioned that I had a burning ambition to visit South America and, in any case, I would graduate just when Zósimo was expected in the UK.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, immediately on his return to Birmingham at the end of February 1971, Jack told me about the opportunity at CIP. Was I interested? There was no question about it.

Zósimo and Jack in a potato field in Bolivia standing beside a variety of S. ajanhuiri

As it turned out, my departure to Peru was delayed by 15 months while different funding options for my posting were finalized. I began my PhD study, and after he graduated with his MSc in September 1972, Zósimo also registered for a PhD, studying the evolution of a frost-resistant form of cultivated potato known as Solanum ajanhuiri that he and Jack had collected at high altitude in Bolivia.

I departed for Lima on 4 January 1973, and by the beginning of April that year Zósimo had also returned to Peru having completed the first six month residency requirement for his PhD at Birmingham.

With hardly any time to get himself sorted after being outside Peru for 18 months, Zósimo and I organized a trip in May to collect potato varieties from two departments to the north of Lima: Ancash and La Libertad.

To say that I found the experiences beyond my expectations would be an understatement. Peru was everything I hoped it would be when I spent hours poring over a map of the country as a young boy. It is an extremely beautiful country, even if (at least in the 1970s) it was not the easiest country to travel around.

After 49 years, and without access to any notes we made, reports we wrote, or the books in which we recorded the germplasm samples collected, I am unable to detail the routes we took with any degree of confidence, except in the most broad terms. We were away from Lima for almost a month, and explored much of these two departments as best we could: by road, on foot, and on horseback.

At the end of the road, preparing to walk into a distant village; and below, riding back from a side-trip to a village

This was the first collecting trip that I had made. Time to put theory into practice. I bowed to Zósimo’s better knowledge, not only of potatoes and the terrain, but because he was a native Spanish speaker and after just a few months in Peru my Spanish was rudimentary to say the least. Also, as I mentioned earlier, Zósimo already had experience of collecting, having joined the Hawkes-led expedition to Bolivia in 1971.

We headed north on the Panamerican highway, destination Huaraz, the capital of Ancash located in the Callejón de Huaylas, a long north-south valley between the Cordillera Blanca to the east with the highest snow-covered peaks in the country and the Cordillera Negra to the west. Our aim was to explore regions right round these mountain ranges, and we certainly found ourselves in some remote locations.

We moved north into La Libertad, spending a little less time there than in Ancash before heading back to Trujillo on the coast for a well-deserved shower and rest at a good hotel, and better food before heading south to Lima, a journey of 575 km. I don’t recall if we attempted that last sector in one day or made an overnight stop about half way. In any case the journey would have taken about 10 hours or more, and given an incident on the way south that I’ll explain below, maybe we did split the journey.

In 1973, the Peruvian government was led by left-wing-leaning military junta headed by General Juan Velasco Alvarado who came to power in 1968 following a coup d’état. We encountered military checkpoints frequently on our travels in the mountains, often manned by young recruits or conscripts, teenagers even, armed with automatic weapons. Coming from a country where the police never carried firearms (at least then) nor were the armed forces deployed on the streets (that would change in Northern Ireland in the 1970s) I found it extremely disconcerting to be faced with soldiers pointing weapons at me and wondering if their discipline was as tight as I hoped. Needless to say we never encountered any specific threats or hostility.

What particularly struck me during this trip (and others that I made in 1974 and 1975, which I describe in Part 2) was the generosity of almost everyone we met. Farmers were generous with the potato varieties and knowledge they shared with us. Each potato variety collected was carefully labeled with a unique number inscribed on each tuber, and on the paper bags in which they were stored. All the details were recorded in a small booklet; I wonder if these are still archived in the CIP genebank in Lima.

Often we were invited to share a meal with a family, and only on one occasion did I baulk at what was put in front of me: fried cuy or guinea-pig (which are native to Peru and most households keep a small herd of them running around the house ready for the pot). I just couldn’t bring myself to tuck in. Guinea-pigs, to my mind, were furry pets. Needless to say that, as I grew older, such inhibitions diminished.

Despite being memory-deficient when it comes to the route or the places we stayed, there are several anecdotes that are still fresh today.

One experience was particularly emotional. Just 57 km north of Huaraz lies the town of Yungay, and a few kilometers closer to Huaraz, the town of Ranrahirca. On 31 May 1970 a powerful earthquake off the coast west of here, dislodged a massive landslide, a mixture of ice and rocks, that fell from Huascarán, Peru’s highest mountain.

Looking north along the Callejón de Huaylas towards the twin peaks of Huascarán

Travelling at speeds up to 335 kph the landslide quickly reached and obliterated both towns, killing tens of thousands. In Yungay, when we visited almost three years later, the only remains of the town still standing were the cemetery mound with a statue of Christ with outstretched arms, and four palm trees. They had survived, yet everywhere else the landscape was dotted with crosses marking where houses used to stand and presumably families perished. What a sobering sight indeed.

The statue of Christ in the site of Yungay, May 1973

This was the site of Ranrahirca where the town had been obliterated by boulders the size of houses, May 1973

We followed the road south from Huaraz and round to the east of the Cordillera Blanca, to Chavín de Huántar.

A stone tenon head, one of the iconic features of the ruins at Chavín

The next day we headed north up a steep and extremely muddy road, slipping and sliding from side to side. Fortunately the road was wide and there were no drop-offs, until we reached the highest point. The road levelled off, snaking along the side of the valley, barely wide enough for our Toyota Landcruiser. It was also quite muddy there as well.

We could see there was a drop-off, but given that we were in cloud, couldn’t see more than about 50-100 m ahead. It was only on the return journey and checking our maps that we saw that the side of the road plunged about 1000 m to the valley below. Talk about a stressful situation.

Having enjoyed a good bistek in Chavín that evening, we both got very drunk on Ron Pomalca, regretting sincerely the following morning that we had imbibed so freely. Incidentally, Zósimo found that the rum was also a useful liniment after several hours on horseback, and kept a bottle for that purpose.

On one occasion, we drove as far as we could before walking to two villages some kilometers away. When we arrived at the first village, we found everyone celebrating the jubilee of its founding (and were informed that the next village was also in fiesta mode). We were made welcome, offered refreshments, and talked with village officials before explaining that we had to push on to the next village before it got dark. There we found almost everyone in an advanced state of inebriation, especially the schoolteacher, who spoke a little English.

As special guests on that auspicious day, the mayor invited us to a reception, where the whole village crammed into the town hall. Speeches were made, with Zósimo translating for me. It was clear we would have to respond, especially me as a representative of La Reina Isabel. I frantically whispered to Zósimo how to say such and such in Spanish, writing his translations on the palm of my hand. When it was my turn to make a short speech, I nervously complimented the village on its anniversary and how pleased we were to be there. On sitting down, everyone in that room, at least a hundred men and women, maybe more, came and shook my hand. What a memory.

Zósimo (on the right) beside the teacher, his wife and child in front of his house where we spent the night

Later in the trip in La Libertad, we arrived in one village looking for a hotel. There were two: one had been opened not many months before our arrival there; the other was quite run down. We chose the new hotel, ignoring ‘advice’ that it was flea-infested. Surely that couldn’t be the case? How wrong could we be, waking next morning covered in flea bites and itching madly. Those pesky fleas got everywhere, so we had to endure several days of purgatory until we reached the coast and could send all our gear for cleaning. And take a welcome shower.

Finally, on the return journey south on the Panamerican Highway south of Trujillo, there was a puncture in the rear nearside tyre. We quickly replaced it with the spare, and resumed our journey, hoping to find a grifo or garage soon where the tyre could be repaired. I was driving. Suddenly there was a bang, and the vehicle lurched wildly. I managed to bring it under control, even though the rear was touching the ground. You can imagine our surprise when the wheel passed beside us, travelling at speed ahead. Zósimo and I had each thought the other made a final check of the wheel nuts. They just worked their way loose until the wheel fell off. Our humble jack was not powerful enough to lift the vehicle, but we flagged down a truck driver who used his more robust jack. We retrieved the wheel several hundred meters down the road, and even located all four wheel nuts scattered across the highway. What luck! Fortunately there were no further incidents before we reached CIP’s headquarters in the La Molina district of the Lima.

What an experience, and despite some stressful incidents (and occasional differences of opinion with Zósimo) we returned to Lima after a successful collecting trip. Maybe there were a couple of hundred samples or more to add to CIP’s germplasm collection. That collection eventually grew to around 15,000 samples or accessions but was reduced to its current more manageable size of around 4000 accessions after possible duplicate samples were removed (although converted to botanical or true seed samples before discarding the tubers). On his trips to Peru after 1973 Jack would spend time in the collection at CIP’s high altitude station in Huancayo (3100 m), a six-hour drive east of Lima, working through the germplasm samples and giving his advice about their conservation status. In the photo below, taken in early 1974, I briefly left off my own research to join Jack as he studied different varieties.

In Part 2, I write about the trips I made to Cuyo Cuyo in the south of Peru in February 1974, then to Cajamarca in May the same year. Finally, I describe the trip over a long weekend I made in March 1981 with Jack and a CIP colleague to collect wild potatoes in the mountains northeast from Lima. This was the only time that I went collecting with Jack, but even in that short journey I learned so much.


The Commonwealth Potato Collection – it really is a treasure trove

A few days ago, a friend and former colleague, Dr Glenn Bryan posted a link on his Facebook page to a story—Treasure trove could hold secrets to potato problems—that appeared in the online edition of Dundee’s The Courier on 20 August.

It was all about the Commonwealth Potato Collection (CPC) that is held at The James Hutton Institute at Invergowrie, just west of Dundee.

Glenn leads the Potato Genetics and Breeding Group there, and also has overall responsibility for the CPC, ably assisted by collection curator Gaynor McKenzie.

Glenn Bryan and Gaynor McKenzie at the James Hutton Institute in Invergowrie, where wild potato species in the Commonwealth Potato Collection are conserved.

Glenn and I go back almost 30 years when, as a young scientist at the John Innes Centre (JIC) in Norwich, he was a member of a rice research project, funded by the British government, that brought together staff at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines where I was Head of the Genetic Resources Center, the University of Birmingham (where I had been a faculty member for a decade from 1981), and the JIC to use molecular markers to study IRRI’s large and globally-important germplasm collection conserved in its International Rice Genebank.

L-R: me, Glenn, and John Newbury (who later became professor at the University of Worcester) during a spot of sight-seeing near IRRI in 1993

The Commonwealth Potato Collection has a long and distinguished history, going back more than 80 years, much longer than the rice collection at IRRI. It is one of a handful of potato germplasm collections around the world in which breeders have identified disease and pest resistance genes to enhance the productivity of cultivated varieties. The CPC is particularly important from a plant quarantine perspective because the collection has been routinely tested and cleaned for various pathogens, particularly seed-borne pathogens.

Jack Hawkes

It is a collection with which Steph and I have both a personal and professional connection, from the 1970s and 80s. It’s also the legacy of one man, Professor Jack Hawkes (1915-2007) with whom I had the privilege of studying for both my MSc and PhD degrees.

Let me tell that story.

In December 1938, a young botanist—just 23 years old the previous June—set off from Liverpool, headed to Lima, Peru to join the British Empire Potato Collecting Expedition to South America, the adventure of a lifetime.

Jack in Bolivia in 1939

John ‘Jack’ Gregory Hawkes, a Christ’s College, Cambridge graduate, was destined to become one of the world’s leading potato experts and a champion of the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture.

He was the taxonomic botanist on the 1939 expedition, which was led by experienced plant collector Edwards Kent Balls (1892-1984). Medical doctor and amateur botanist William ‘Bill’ Balfour Gourlay (1879-1966) was the third member of the expedition. Balls and Gourlay had been collecting plants in Mexico (including some potatoes) in 1938 before moving on to Peru for the ‘Empire’ expedition.

The expedition had originally been scheduled to start in 1937, but had to be delayed because of ill health of the original expedition leader, Dr PS Hudson, Director of the Empire Bureau of Plant Breeding and Genetics in Cambridge. Jack had been hired as his assistant. Whilst waiting for the expedition to get underway, Jack took the opportunity—in August 1938—to visit Leningrad to pick the brains of Russian botanists, Drs SM Bukasov, VS Juzepczuk, and VS Lechnovicz who had already collected potatoes in South America. Jack openly acknowledged that ‘as a raw recently graduated student, [he] knew very little about potatoes’.

Nikolai Vavilov

Not only did Jack receive useful advice from these knowledgeable botanists, but he also met with the great geneticist and ‘Father of Plant Genetic Resources’ Nikolai Vavilov on several occasions during his visit to Leningrad and Moscow, ‘an experience that changed [his] life in many ways’. Vavilov had a profound effect on Jack’s subsequent career as an academic botanist and genetic resources pioneer. Alas there do not appear to be any surviving photos of Jack with Vavilov.

‘Solanum vavilovii’ growing at an experiment station near Leningrad in 1938

In Leningrad, Jack took this photo (right) of a wild potato species that had been described as Solanum vavilovii by Juzepczuk and Bukasov in 1937. Sadly that name is no longer taxonomically valid, and vavilovii is now considered simply as a variant of the species Solanum wittmackii that had been described by the German botanist Friedrich August Georg Bitter in 1913.

The Empire expedition lasted eight months from January 1939, covering northern Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and ending in Colombia (a country where Jack was to reside for three years from 1948 when he was seconded to establish a national potato research station near Bogota).

Route taken by the Empire Potato Collecting Expedition

More than 1150 samples of cultivated and wild potatoes were collected in these five countries as well as a further 46 samples collected by Balls and Gourlay in Mexico in 1938.

Here is a small selection of photographs taken during the expedition, reproduced here by courtesy of the Hawkes family.

By the time the expedition ended in early September 1939, war with Germany had already been declared, and Jack’s return to the UK by ship convoy from Halifax, Newfoundland was not as comfortable as the outbound voyage nine months earlier, docking in Liverpool early in November.

Jack published an official expedition report in March 1941. Then, in 2003, he published an interesting and lengthy memoir of the expedition, Hunting the Wild Potato in the South American Andes.

Redcliffe N Salaman

Potato tubers (and presumably seeds) were shipped back to the UK, and after a quarantine inspection, were planted out in a glasshouse at the Potato Virus Research Station, Cambridge whose director was the renowned botanist (and originally a medical doctor) Redcliffe Nathan Salaman, author of the seminal work on potatoes, The History and Social Influence of the Potato, first published in 1949 and reprinted with a new introduction by Hawkes in 1985. I jealously guard the signed copy that Jack gave me.

On his return to the UK in 1939 Jack began to study the collected germplasm, describing several new species, and completing his PhD thesis (supervised by Salaman) at the University of Cambridge in 1941.

South American potato species in the Cambridge glasshouse in the summer of 1940

Among the species identified in the course of Jack’s dissertation research was Solanum ballsii from northern Argentina, which he dedicated to EK Balls in a formal description in 1944. However, in his 1963 revised taxonomy of the tuber-bearing Solanums (potatoes), Jack (with his Danish colleague Jens Peter Hjerting, 1917-2012) recognized Solanum ballsii simply as a subspecies of Solanum vernei, a species which has since provided many important sources of resistance to the potato cyst nematode.

Jack Hawkes in the glasshouse of the Empire Potato Collection at Cambridge in July 1947.

The 1939 germplasm was the foundation of the Empire Potato Collection. When the collection curator Dr Kenneth S Dodds was appointed Director of the John Innes Institute in Bayfordbury in 1954, the collection moved with him, and was renamed the Commonwealth Potato Collection.

By the end of the decade (or early 1960s) the CPC was on the move again. This time to the Scottish Plant Breeding Station (SPBS) at Pentlandfield just south of Edinburgh when Dr Norman W Simmonds moved there in 1959. He rose through the ranks to become the station’s Director.

But that was not the end of the CPC’s peripatetic existence. It remained at the SPBS until the early 1980s, when the SPBS amalgamated with the Scottish Horticultural Research Institute (which became the Scottish Crop Research Institute or SCRI, and now known as the James Hutton Institute), and the collection moved to its present site near Dundee.

I am not sure how much the CPC grew in the intervening years, but there was a significant boost to the size and importance of the collection around 1987. Let me explain.

As I already mentioned, Jack spent three years in Colombia from 1948, returning to the UK in 1951 when he was appointed Lecturer in Taxonomy in the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham. He was given a personal chair as Professor of Taxonomic Botany in April 1961, and became Head of Department and Mason Professor of Botany in July 1967. He remained at Birmingham until retirement in September 1982.

It was during his Birmingham years that Jack’s work on the tuber-bearing Solanums expanded significantly with several important monographs and taxonomic revisions published, based on his own field work over the years and experimental studies back at Birmingham on the potato samples he brought back to the UK and which formed an important collection in its own right. Because of the quarantine threat from these seeds (particularly of sexually-transmitted pathogens or new variants of potato viruses already present in the UK), Jack had a special licence from the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF, now DEFRA) to maintain his collection at Birmingham. I’ve written about that special quarantine situation here.

In 1958, with Peter Hjerting and young research assistant Richard Lester (who later joined the Department of Botany as a Lecturer), Jack made a six month expedition to the USA , Mexico, and Central America. Here is an account of that trip. Besides potatoes, many other species were made for other institutions and botanic gardens.

Collecting a sample of Solanum agrimonifolium (No. 1854) in Guatemala. L: Jack Hawkes, Peter Hjerting, and Morse (driver?); R: Richard Lester

Just three months after I arrived at Birmingham in September 1970 to enrol on the MSc course on plant genetic resources, Jack was off on his travels once again, this time to Bolivia (report) accompanied by Peter Hjerting once again, his research assistant Phil Cribb and, in South America by Zósimo Huamán from the International Potato Center (CIP) and Moisés Zavaleta and others from Bolivia. Jack and Peter made another trip to Bolivia in 1974 (with research assistant Dave Astley), and another in 1980. They published their monograph of The Potatoes of Bolivia in 1989.

Here are some images from the 1971 expedition, courtesy of Phil Cribb.

In September 1971, Zósimo Huamán and Moisés Zavaleta came to Birmingham to study on the genetic resources MSc course. In that same cohort was a young botanist, Stephanie Tribble, recently graduated from the University of Wales – Swansea (now Swansea University). During the summer of 1972, Steph and I became ‘an item’, so-to-speak. However, by then I was already making plans to leave the UK and join CIP in Lima by January 1973, and on graduation, Steph was keen to find a position to use the experiences and skills she had gained on the course.

Just at that time, a Scientific Officer position opened at the SPBS, as assistant to Dalton Glendinning who was the curator of the CPC. Steph duly applied and was appointed from about October that year. Jack must have supported her application. Coincidentally, the MSc course external examiner was no other that Norman Simmonds who met Steph during his course assessment.

I moved to Peru in January 1973, and within a few days discovered that Jack had mentioned Steph to CIP’s Director General, Richard Sawyer. Well, to cut a long story short, Steph was offered a position as Assistant Geneticist at CIP, to support management of CIP’s large potato collection, similar to the role she’d had at Pentlandfield. She resigned from the SPBS and joined me in Lima in July that year. We married there in October. We remained with CIP in Peru and Central America for another eight years

Steph working in one of CIP’s screen-houses at La Molina on the eastern outskirts of Lima in 1974.

In April 1981 I was appointed Lecturer in Plant Biology at Birmingham, 18 months before Jack’s retirement, the aim being that I would assume Jack’s teaching commitments on the MSc course. When I also took over the Hawkes potato collection in 1982, I had high hopes of identifying funding for biosystematics and pre-breeding research. That was not the case, and as the collection needed a dedicated glasshouse and technician I could not justify (nor financially support) holding on to such valuable research space. And, in any case, continuing with the Hawkes collection was actually blocking the opportunities for other potato research because of the MAFF-imposed restrictions.

Dave Downing was the glasshouse technician who carefully managed the Hawkes collection at Birmingham for many years.

So, with some regret but also acknowledging that Jack’s collection would be better placed elsewhere, I contacted my colleagues at the CPC to see if they would be interested to receive it—lock, stock, and barrel. And that indeed was what happened. I’m sure many new potato lines were added to the CPC. The germplasm was placed in quarantine in the first instance, and has passed through various stages of testing before being added officially to the CPC. Throughout the 80s and 90s Jack would visit the CPC from time-to-time, and look through the materials, helping with the correct identification of species and the like.

His interest in and contributions to potato science remained with him almost up to his death in 2007. By then he had become increasingly frail, and had moved into a care home, his wife of more than 50 years, Barbara, having passed away some years previously. By then, Jack’s reputation and legacy was sealed. Not only has his scientific output contributed to the conservation and use of potato genetic resources worldwide, embodied in the CPC that he helped establish all those decades earlier, but through the MSc course that he founded in 1969, hundreds of professionals worldwide have continued to carry the genetic conservation torch. A fine legacy, indeed!

I was doctored . . . but the benefits were long-lasting

Philosophiae Doctor. Doctor of Philosophy. PhD. Or DPhil in some universities like Oxford. Doctorate. Hard work. Long-term benefits.

Forty-five years ago today I was awarded a PhD by the University of Birmingham. As a freshman undergraduate at the University of Southampton in October 1967, I was naïvely ignorant of what a PhD was [1]. And I certainly never had any ambition then or inkling that one day I would go on to complete a doctorate in botany. Let alone a study on potatoes!

Although registered for my PhD at the University of Birmingham, I actually carried out much of the research while working as an Associate Taxonomist at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru. My thesis was supervised by eminent potato experts Professor Jack Hawkes, head of the Department of Botany (later Plant Biology) in the School of Biological Sciences at Birmingham, and Dr Roger Rowe, head of CIP’s Department of Breeding & Genetics.

Jack Hawkes (L) and Roger Rowe (R)

On 12 December 1975 I was joined at the Birmingham graduation ceremony or congregation by Jack and Dr Trevor Williams (on my left below, who supervised my MSc dissertation on lentils). Trevor later became the first Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (now Bioversity International). I’d turned 27 just a few weeks earlier, quite old in those days when it wasn’t all that unusual for someone to be awarded a PhD at 24 or 25, just three years after completing a bachelor’s degree. My research took four years however, from 1971, when I was awarded the MSc degree in genetic resources conservation at Birmingham.

The moment of being ‘doctored’ in the university’s Great Hall.

Sir Peter Scott, CH, CBE, DSC & Bar, FRS, FZS (by Clifton Ernest Pugh, 1924–1990)

As a biologist, it was particularly special that my degree was conferred by one of the most eminent naturalists and conservationists of his age, Sir Peter Scott (son of ill-fated Antarctic explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott), who was Chancellor of the University of Birmingham for a decade from 1973.

According to the Birmingham PhD degree regulations today, a candidate must enter on a programme, normally of three years’ duration, in which the key activity is undertaking research, combined with appropriate training. Registered students must produce a thesis which makes an original contribution to knowledge, worthy of publication in whole or in part in a learned journal.

It was much the same back in the 1970s, except that we had eight years from first registration to submit a thesis. By the end of the 1980s this had already been reduced to four years.

Like the majority of PhD theses I guess, mine (The evolutionary significance of the triploid cultivated potato, Solanum x chaucha Juz. et Buk.) was a competent piece of original research, but nothing to write home about. However, I did fulfil the other important criterion for award of the degree as three scientific papers from my thesis research were later accepted for publication in Euphytica, an international journal of plant breeding:

  1. Jackson, MT, JG Hawkes & PR Rowe, 1977. The nature of Solanum x chaucha Juz. et Buk., a triploid cultivated potato of the South American Andes. Euphytica 26, 775-783. PDF

  2. Jackson, MT, PR Rowe & JG Hawkes, 1978. Crossability relationships of Andean potato varieties of three ploidy levels. Euphytica 27, 541-551. PDF

  3. Jackson, MT, JG Hawkes & PR Rowe, 1980. An ethnobotanical field study of primitive potato varieties in Peru. Euphytica 29, 107-113. PDF

It took me just over six weeks to write my thesis of about 150 pages. I achieved that by sticking to a well-defined daily schedule. I was under a tight time constraint.

Having returned from Peru at the beginning of May 1975, I still had a couple of things to wrap up: checking the chromosome numbers of some progeny from experimental crosses, then preparing all the hand drawn diagrams and maps (fortunately my cartographic skills from my geography undergraduate days at the University of Southampton placed me in good stead in this respect) and photographs. My thesis was typed on a manual typewriter; none of that fancy word processing and formatting available today. Nevertheless, I did submit my thesis by the mid-September deadline to meet the December graduation. I could hardly return to CIP by the beginning of the New Year without a PhD in my back pocket.

Looking at my thesis 45 years on, it does seem rather ‘thin’ compared to what PhD students can achieve today. In the early 1970s we didn’t have any of the molecular biology techniques that have become routine (essential even) today, to open up a whole new perspective on plant diversity, crop evolution, and crop domestication that were the basic elements of my thesis research.

Back in the day, it was normal for a PhD thesis to be examined by just one external examiner and an internal university one, usually from a candidate’s department and often the person who had supervised the research. Today the supervisor cannot be the internal examiner at many if not all universities in the UK, and it has become more common for a PhD student to have a committee to oversee the research.

So, towards the end of October 1975 I met with my examiners for what turned out to be a viva voce of over three hours. It got off to a good start because the external examiner told me he had enjoyed reading my thesis. That allowed me to relax somewhat, and we then embarked on an interesting discussion about the work, and potatoes and their evolution in general. The examiner found just one typographical error, and I corrected that immediately after the viva. I then sent the thesis for binding and official submission to the university library (where it languishes on a shelf somewhere, or maybe reduced to just a microfilm copy).

On the evening of my examination I rang my parents to tell them the good news, only to discover that my dad had suffered a heart attack earlier in the day. That certainly but a damper on the exhilaration I felt at having just passed my final exam – ever! Dad was resting, but expected to make a full recovery. By December, when the congregation was held, he was back on his feet, and he and mum attended the congregation. Having been allocated only two guest tickets, Steph gave hers up so mum and dad could attend.

They gave me a Parker fountain pen, engraved with my name and date, as a graduation present. I still have it.

So, I completed a PhD. Was it worth it? I actually waxed lyrical on that topic in a blog post published in October 2015. When the idea of working in Peru was first mooted in February 1971, it was intended to be just a one year assignment from September. Registering for a PhD was not part of the equation. But circumstances changed, my departure to Peru was delayed until January 1973, so Jack registered me for a PhD, setting me on a path that I have never regretted.

In any case, once I was established at CIP in Lima, I quickly came to the viewpoint that a career in international agricultural research was something I wanted to pursue. And without a PhD under my belt that would have been almost impossible. The PhD degree became a sort of ‘union card’, which permitted me to work subsequently in Central America, as a lecturer at the University of Birmingham for a decade, and almost 19 years up to my retirement in 2010 at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines in roles managing the world’s largest genebank for rice, and then as one of the institute’s senior management team.

[1] Unlike our two daughters Hannah and Philippa. They grew up in a home with parents having graduate degrees (Steph has an MSc degree in genetic resources from Birmingham). And when we moved to the Philippines in 1991, almost every neighbor of ours at IRRI Staff Housing had a PhD degree. So although it was never inevitable, both went on to complete a PhD in psychology (although different branches of the discipline) in 2006 and 2010 respectively, at the University of Minnesota and Northumbria University.

L (top and bottom): Phil, Hannah, and Steph after the graduation ceremony; Hannah with her cohort of graduands, Emily and Michael in Industrial & Organizational Psychology on 12 May 2006. R (top and bottom): Phil’s graduation at Northumbria University on 11 December 2010.

How long is a piece of string?

Just three decades after Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro first encountered the potato in the high Andes of Peru in 1532, the potato was already being grown in the Canary Islands. And it found its way to mainland Europe via the Canaries shortly afterwards [1].

The first known published illustration of the potato in Gerard’s Herball of 1597.

The potato was described by English herbalist John Gerard in his Herball published in 1597. In a revised version, published in 1633 over 20 years after his death, there is another beautiful woodcut of the potato, referred to Battata Virginiana or Virginian potatoes.

Potatoes became an important crop by the late 18th century, and particularly the staple of Ireland’s impoverished citizens in the years leading up to the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-1840s.

Today, potatoes are one of the world’s most important crops, grown in every continent except Antarctica. Known scientifically as Solanum tuberosum, it was given this name by the famous Swedish naturalist, Carl Linnaeus in his 1753 magnum opus, Species Plantarum.

The potato and its wild relatives must be one of the most studied groups of crop plants. Not that I’m biased (having researched potatoes for more than 20 years).

Potato diversity and germplasm collections
Its clear that there is a wealth of information about the diversity within the section of the genus Solanum that encompasses the potato. They have been studied extensively from a taxonomic point of view, breeding efforts worldwide have incorporated genes from many wild species to enhance productivity, and important germplasm collections were set up decades ago to preserve this important diversity, to study it, and use it in potato breeding.

My former colleague (and fellow PhD student at Birmingham), Dr Zosimo Huaman, describes the management of CIP’s wild potato collection in Huancayo to members of the CGIAR’s Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources who held their annual meeting at CIP in 1996.

Among the most important collections are held at:

The wild relatives of the potato have one of the broadest geographical and ecological ranges among species that have been domesticated for human consumption. While the various forms of cultivated potatoes were domesticated in the Andes of Peru and Bolivia, and on the coast of Chile, the wild species are found from the southwest USA (in the coniferous forests of Arizona, for instance) through Mexico and the countries of Central America to Panama, along the Andes south to Chile and northern Argentina, and south and east on to the plains of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. Wild species are found in the coastal desert of Peru, in the cloud forests of central America to almost 3000 m, at the highest altitudes of the Andes, well over 4000 m, and also growing in the highly humid transition zone on the eastern side of the Andes dropping down to the lowland forests (known as the ‘eyebrow of the mountain’ or ceja de la montaña).

Here is just a very small sample of the diversity—and beauty—of wild potato species (photos courtesy of my friends at the Commonwealth Potato Collection).

How many potato species are there?
Well, it depends, to some extent, on one’s perspectives as a taxonomist, use of different species concepts, and the methods used to study species diversity, and also on the work that earlier taxonomists published.

Essentially, there are three basic taxonomic approaches:

  • Morphology: often based on the study of dried herbarium specimens collected in the wild. In the case of potatoes, this has led to the description of a multiplicity of species, with almost every variant being described as a separate species. This reliance on plant morphology was the approach taken by the 19th and early 20th century botanists.
  • Biosystematics: takes an experimental view of species diversity, of breeding behaviour and relationships, and very much based on collections in the field and the study of ecology, and growing samples in a uniform environment such as the study one of my PhD students, Susan Juned, made of Solanum chacoense, a species from Argentina and Paraguay.
  • Molecular biology: methods have become available in the last couple of decades to analyse the most basic variation in DNA, and helped to refine further how potato taxonomists view the diversity within the tuber-bearing Solanums, and the relationships between species.

While these different approaches still do not provide a definitive answer to the question of how many species there are, we know that taxonomists have described and named more than 200 species. To some extent it’s like asking how long is a piece of string. And that helps me to provide an analogy.

Take a piece of string. If you were to view this string along its length that, to your vision would be fore-shortened, it would be very difficult to say with any degree of certainty just how long the string actually was. However, if you increase the angle at which you view the string, until you are looking at right angles, your ability to estimate its length also increases. At right angles you can see the whole length, and measure it accurately in many different ways.

Taxonomic study is a bit like looking at the string from different angles. Each taxonomist builds on earlier studies, and describing new species or subsuming previously described ones into another species (as merely variants). This is one of the challenges of studying wild potato species: they are highly variable and show considerable phenotypic (or morphological) plasticity. It’s not always possible to study large numbers of plants under uniform conditions to reduce the variation caused by differences in habitats.

The 2n=3x=36 chromosomes of a triploid potato, from a root-tip squash in two cells.

Furthermore potatoes have considerable chromosomal variation, with a base number of x=12, with diploids (2n=24) the most frequent, and mostly self-incompatible (i.e. they cannot self fertilise), infertile triploids (2n=36, including two cultivated species), tetraploids with 2n=48 (mostly self-fertile, and including the cultivated Solanum tuberosum of world-wide agriculture), some pentaploids (2n=60; including one cultivated form), and a few hexaploids with 2n=72. Wild potatoes are uncommonly promiscuous when grown together under experimental conditions, and will inter-cross readily (they are bee-pollinated), yet hybrids often do not survive beyond the second generation in the wild. Many species are separated by ecology, and generally do not come into contact with each other, thus maintaining their species identity.

Nevertheless, this is what makes the study of potatoes and wild species so very interesting, and that captured my interest directly for over two decades, and continues to do so, even though I moved on to the study of other crops like rice and grain legumes.

The potato taxonomists
Many botanists have taken an interest in wild potatoes. During the 19th century, the Swiss-French botanist Alphonse de Candolle (d. 1893) named a number of species, as did François Berthault (d. 1916). But the first decades of the 20th century leading up to the Second World War saw a lot of collecting and taxonomic description. In Germany, Friedrich August Georg Bitter, who specialised in the genus Solanum, described and named many species. However, it was the involvement of several Russian botanists and geneticists, under the leadership of Nicolai Vavilov, that saw an expansion in the collection of potatoes throughout the Americas, but a systematic evaluation of this germplasm leading to even more species being described.

SM Bukasov

Two names come to mind, in particular: SM Bukasov and VS Juzepczuk. They were active during the 1920s and 30s, taking part in several missions to South America, and developing further the concept of potato species. But much of their work was based on morphological comparison leading to the identification of even small variants as new species.

In August 1938, a young Cambridge graduate, Jack Hawkes, traveled to Leningrad in Russia to meet and discuss with Bukasov and Juzepczuk (and Vavilov himself) in preparation for the 1938-39 British Empire Potato Collecting Expedition to South America (which Jack has described in his 2004 memoir Hunting the Wild Potato in the South American Andes [2]).

A young Jack Hawkes (second from right) stands outside a church near Lake Titicaca in northern Bolivia, alongside expedition leader Edward Balls (second from the left).

Jack Hawkes

That collecting expedition, and the subsequent studies (which led to Hawkes being awarded his PhD from the University of Cambridge in 1941 for a thesis Cytogenetic studies on South American potatoes supervised by renowned potato scientist Sir Redcliffe N Salaman), was the launch pad, so to speak, of potato taxonomy research for the rest of the 20th century, in which Hawkes became one of the leading exponents.

After Cambridge, Hawkes spent some years in Colombia (where he no doubt continued his studies of wild potatoes) but it was on his return to the UK in 1952 when appointed to a lectureship in the Department of Botany at The University of Birmingham (where he was to remain until his retirement in 1982) that his potato studies flourished, leading him to publish in 1956 his first taxonomic revision of the tuber-bearing Solanums (with a second edition appearing in 1963).

In 1990, he published his final synopsis of the tuber-bearing Solanums [3]; that taxonomic treatment is the one followed by the curators of the Commonwealth Potato Collection.

Jack’s approach to potato taxonomy was based on a thorough study of morphology backed up by rigorous crossing experiments, and a cytogenetic and sometimes serological evaluation of species relationships.

I first met Jack in February 1970 when he interviewed me for a place on his newly-founded MSc course on plant genetic resources, joining the course later that same year. In September 1971 I became one of Jack’s PhD students, joining others who were looking at the origin and evolution of the cultivated species [4].

Donovan S CorrellIn these revisions he was also taking into account the work of US botanist, Donovan S Correll who published his own potato monograph in 1962 [5], as well as three important South American botanists with whom he would collaborate from time-to-time: Professor César Vargas from the National University of Cuzco; Professor Martín Cárdenas from Cochabamba in Bolivia; and Professor Carlos Ochoa, originally from Cuzco, who was a professor at the Universidad Nacional Agraria (UNA) in La Molina, Lima and, around 1975 or so, joined the International Potato Center across the street from the UNA.

L-R: Danish botanist J Peter Hjerting, Martin Cardenas, and Jack Hawkes in Cochabamba.

Vargas published a number of species descriptions in the 1950s, but made his most significant contribution in his two part monographs, Las Papas Sudperuanas published in 1949 and 1956. I met Vargas on a couple of occasions, first in January 1973 just after I’d joined CIP as Associate Taxonomist. And a second time in February 1974 when I was passing through Cuzco with Dr Peter Gibbs from the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Peter was making a study of incompatibility among different forms of the Andean tuber crop, oca (Oxalis tuberosa), and had joined me on an excursion to Cuyo-Cuyo in the Department of Puno. Vargas’s daughter Martha was studying for her MSc degree under Peter’s supervision at St Andrews.

With Prof Cesar Vargas at his home in Urubamba, near Cuzco

It was Carlos Ochoa, however, whose studies of potatoes and their relatives rivalled (and in some respects eclipsed) those of Jack Hawkes. They were quite intense taxonomic rivals, with a not-altogether harmonious relationship at times. Carlos certainly played his taxonomic cards very close to his chest.

Me consulting with Carlos Ochoa concerning the identity of some triploid potatoes, in one the screenhouses at the International Potato Center in 1974.

But the fact that he grew up in the Andes and had, from an early age, taken an interest in the diversity of this quintessential Andean crop and its wild relatives, led him to dedicate his life to uncovering the diversity of potatoes in his homeland. He was also a potato breeder and released some of the most important varieties in Peru, such as Renacimiento, Yungay, and Tomasa Condemayta.

In this video (in Spanish, and broadcast on Peruvian TV on his death in 2008) he talks about his early life in Cuzco, the pressures on him to study medicine or become a lawyer, and how he found his true vocation: the study of wild potatoes.

Setting potato taxonomy and germplasm exploration priorities at CIP
Forty-five years ago this week, CIP convened the first planning workshop on the exploration and taxonomy of potatoes [6], inviting a group of taxonomists and potato breeders to meet in Lima and mull over the ‘state of play’ taking into consideration what taxonomic research had already been accomplished, what was in the pipeline, and what CIP’s germplasm exploration policy (especially in Peru) should be. I attended that meeting (as an observer), having landed in Lima just a few days earlier.

On the taxonomic side were Jack Hawkes, Carlos Ochoa, and Donald Ugent who was a ethnobotany professor at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Richard Tarn, a potato breeder from Agriculture Canada at Fredericton, New Brinswick, had completed his PhD under Jack’s supervision at Birmingham. Frank Haynes, a professor of genetics and potato breeder at North Carolina State University (and long-time friend and colleague of CIP’s first Director General, Richard Sawyer) and Roger Rowe [7], then curator of the USDA’s potato collection at Sturgeon Bay (who would join CIP in July 1973 as the Head of Breeding and Genetics, and become my PhD co-supervisor) were the other participants.

Workshop participants looking at CIPs germplasm collection in the field at Huancayo (3000 m) in central Peru. L-R: David Baumann (CIP field manager), Frank Haynes, Jack Hawkes, Roger Rowe, and Don Ugent.

In 1969, Jack had published (with his Danish colleague Peter Hjerting [8]) a monograph of the potatoes of southern cone countries of South America [9], and by the time of the CIP 1973 workshop was well into research on the potatoes of Bolivia [10], leading publication of a monograph in 1989.

Peter Hjerting collecting Solanum chacoense in Bolivia in 1980. Standing next to him is Ing. Israel Aviles, a Bolivian member of the expedition. Their driver looks on.

What I’ve never been able to fathom after all these years is why Ochoa decided to write his own monograph of the Bolivian species rather than concentrating in the first instance on the Peruvian species. Nevertheless Ochoa did produce his own fine monograph in 1990 [11], beautifully illustrated with some fine watercolours by CIP plant pathologist Franz Frey. This was followed by an equally magnificent volume on the potatoes of Peru in 2004 [12], also illustrated by Frey.

Throughout his expeditions and research, Ochoa was supported by several assistants, the most notable being Ing. Alberto Salas. Now in his mid-70s, he has been collecting wild potatoes for five decades.

I knew Alberto when I first joined CIP in 1973, and it was a delight to meet him again (although he had retired) during my visit to CIP in July 2016.

Taking up the baton
With retirement, Hawkes and Ochoa passed the potato taxonomy baton to a new generation of researchers, principally David Spooner, a USDA scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who made several collecting trips throughout the Americas.

David Spooner

David’s research took potato systematics to a new level, employing the developing molecular and genomic approaches, and use of different classes of markers to help him refine his understanding of the diversity of the tuber-bearing Solanums, building of course on the very solid Hawkes and Ochoa foundations.

Although no longer working on potatoes (his most recent focus on carrots supported the PhD thesis of Carlos Arbizu, Jr, the son of one of my PhD students at Birmingham in the 1980s), David’s scientific output on potatoes has been prodigious. With molecular insights supporting more traditional methods he has proposed a 50% reduction in the number of potato species from the more than 200 listed in Hawkes’s 1990 publication.

Is this the end of the potato taxonomy story? Probably for the time-being. It’s unlikely that anyone will pursue these studies to the same depth as Hawkes and Hjerting, Ochoa, or Spooner. Nevertheless, as the curators of the Commonwealth Potato Collection have done, most potato researchers will take a pragmatic approach and fix on a particular taxonomic treatment on which to base their management or use of germplasm. Taxonomy is one of those disciplines in which subjective interpretations (obviously based on empirical studies of diversity) can lead to contrary classifications. What is a distinct species to one taxonomist may be merely a variant to another. Undoubtedly these different taxonomic treatments of the tuber-bearing Solanums have permitted us to have a much better appreciation of just how long ‘the potato piece of string’ really is.


[1] Hawkes, JG & J Francisco-Ortega, 1993. The early history of the potato in Europe. Euphytica 70, 1-7.

[2] Hawkes, JG, 2004. Hunting the Wild Potato in the South American Andes – Memories of the British Empire Potato Collectiing Expedition to South America 1938-1939. Wageningen, the Netherlands. ISBN: 90-901802-4.

[3] Hawkes, JG, 1990. The Potato – Evolution, Biodiversity and Genetic Resources. Belhaven Press, London.

[4] Since I was working on the origin and evolution of a cultivated species of potato for my PhD, I made only one short collecting trip for wild species with Jack in early 1975, to the Departments of Huanuco, Cerro de Pasco, and Lima. On his trips to Peru between 1973 and 1975 he would join me in the field to look at the germplasm I was studying and give me the benefit of his potato wisdom.

[5] Correll, DS, 1962. The Potato and its Wild Relatives. Contributions from the Texas Research Fiundation 4, pp. 606. Texas Research Foundation, Renner, Texas.

[6] International Potato Center, 1973. Report of the Workshop on Germplasm Exploration and Taxonomy of Potatoes. Lima, Peru. 35 pp.

[7] I’ve kept in touch with Roger and his wife Norma all these years. After I left CIP in 1981, Roger moved to East Africa to work with the animal diseases center that became ILRI after its merger with another CGIAR livestock center in Ethiopia. He was DDG-Research at CIMMYT in Mexico in the late 1980s and early 1990s. While I was at IRRI, he was based in Cairo working for the CGIAR center that became WorldFish (with its headquarters in Penang, Malaysia). Before it moved to Malaysia, ICLARM as it then was had its offices in Manila, and we would see Roger in the Philippines from time-to-time. It was great to meet up with Roger and Norma again in July 2016 when I was in Lima for the genebank review that I led.

[8] From what I can determine through a Google search, as of January 2018, Peter celebrated his 100th birthday in 2017. He has a Mexican tetraploid (2n=4x=48) species named after him, Solanum hjertingii. When I was at Birmingham in the 1980s I had two PhD students, Lynne Woodwards and Ian Gubb who studied this species because its tubers lack so-called enzymatic blackening, a trait that could be very useful in potato breeding.

[9] Hawkes, JG & JP Hjerting, 1969. The Potatoes of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay – A Biosystematic Study. Annals of Botany Memoirs No. 3. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

[10] Hawkes, JG & JP Hjerting, 1989. The Potatoes of Bolivia – Their Breeding Value and Evolutionary Relationships. Clarendon Press, Oxford.

[11] Ochoa, CM, 1990. The Potatoes of South America: Bolivia. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

[12] Ochoa, CM, 2004. The Potatoes of South America: Peru. International Potato Center, Lima, Peru.

It was 40 years ago today . . .

News item in The Birmingham Post, 2 January 1973

News item in The Birmingham Post, 2 January 1973

One evening in February 1971 I received a phone call from Professor Jack Hawkes who was head of the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham, and Course Director for the MSc on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources. I’d begun my studies at Birmingham in September 1970 after graduating some months earlier from the University of Southampton with a BSc in environmental botany and geography. He asked me if I was interested in working in Peru for a year. Well, it had been my ambition for many years to visit Peru, and here was my chance.

Jack was a world-renowned authority on the potato, its taxonomy and origins in the Andes of South America. And on the day that he phoned me, he had just returned from a two month expedition to Bolivia to collect samples of wild potato species. He had been joined on that expedition by his close collaborator from Denmark, Dr Peter Hjerting, and one of his PhD students, Phillip Cribb (who went on to become an orchid expert at the Royal Botanic Gardens – Kew).

Dr Richard L Sawyer, Director General of CIP, 1971-1991

Dr Richard L Sawyer, Director General of CIP, 1971-1991

The expedition also received logistical support from the North Carolina State University-Peru USAID project, led at that time by Dr Richard Sawyer who would go on to found and become the first Director General of the International Potato Center (CIP) in October 1971.

Peruvian potato expert, Dr Zosimo Huaman

While in Lima at the start and end of the expedition, Jack has stayed with Richard and his wife Norma. Richard talked of his vision to found CIP, and that he wanted to send a young Peruvian to study on the MSc course at Birmingham. That was Zosimo Huaman, who would go on to complete his PhD with Jack, and stay with CIP for the next 20 or more years. Zosimo was helping to manage a collection of native varieties of potato from Peru that the USAID project had taken over, and which would pass to CIP once that institute was open for business.

But if Zosimo went off to the UK, who would look after the potato collection? Richard asked Jack if he knew of anyone from Birmingham who might be interested in going out to Peru, just for a year, while Zosimo was completing his master’s studies. ‘I think I know just the person’, was Jack’s reply. And that’s how Jack came to phone me that February evening over 40 years ago.

But it wasn’t quite that simple.

There was the question of funding to support my year-long appointment, and Richard Sawyer was hoping that the British government, through the then Overseas Development Administration (now the Department for International Development – DfID) might cough up the support. The intention was for me to complete my MSc and fly out to Peru in September 1971. In the event, however, my departure was delayed until January 1973.

By February 1971, an initiative was already under way that would lead to the formation of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) later that same year, and the ODA was contemplating two issues: whether to join the CGIAR, and whether to fund a position at CIP on a bilateral basis, or on a multilateral basis if it became a member of the CGIAR. But that decision would not be made before my expected move to Peru in September.

At what became a pivotal meeting in London in mid-1971, Jack argued – convincingly as it turned out – that he’d identified a suitable candidate, me, to join CIP’s genetic resources program, and that if some funding support was not found quickly, I’d likely find a job elsewhere. And so ODA agreed to support me at Birmingham on a Junior Research Fellowship for 15 months until December 1972, and that if negotiations to join the CGIAR went smoothly, I could expect to join CIP in January 1973. In the interim, Richard Sawyer did come through Birmingham and I had the chance to meet him, and for him to give me the once over. All seemed set for a January 1973 move to Peru, and I settled down to begin a PhD study under Jack’s supervision, working on the group of triploid potatoes known as Solanum x chaucha.

Mike discussing potato taxonomy with renowned Peruvian potato expert, Prof. Carlos Ochoa

Steph checking potatoes in the CIP germplasm collection in one of the screenhouses at La Molina

Although I went on to the CIP payroll on 1 January 1973, I didn’t fly out to Peru until the 4th (a Thursday). After spending Christmas with my parents in Leek, then a couple of days in London with my girlfriend Stephanie (who joined me in Peru in July 1973, where we were married in October, and she joined CIP’s staff as well) I spent a couple of nights in Birmingham with Jack and his wife Barbara before we set out on the long journey to Lima.

In those days, the ‘direct’ route to Peru from the UK was with BOAC from London-Heathrow, with three intermediate stops: in St John’s, Antigua in the Caribbean; in Caracas, Venezuela; and finally in Bogotá, Colombia. We finally arrived in Lima late at night, were met at Jorge Chavez airport by plant pathologist Ed French, and whisked off to our respective lodgings: me to the Pension Beech on Los Libertadores in the San Isidro district of Lima, and Jack to stay with the Sawyers. Thus began my association with CIP – for the next eight and a half years (I moved to Costa Rica in April 1976), and with the CGIAR until my retirement in 2010.

Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Birmingham genetic resources MSc course in 1989. R to L: Trevor Williams, Jim Callow (Mason Professor of Botany), Jack Hawkes, Brian Ford-Lloyd, Mike Jackson, not sure

After CIP I returned to the UK to teach at the University of Birmingham. By then, many of the overseas MSc students were being supported by another of the CGIAR institutes, the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources, IBPGR (later to become the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, IPGRI, then Bioversity International) based in Rome. A former Birmingham faculty member, Dr Trevor Williams (who had supervised my master’s thesis) was the first Director General of IBPGR. I maintained my links with CIP, and for a number of years had a joint research project with it and the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge on true potato seed. I also took part in a very detailed project review for CIP in about 1988.

In 1991 I joined the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, which was founded in 1960, and is the oldest of the 15 centers that are part of the CGIAR Consortium. I was head of IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center for 10 years, followed by almost nine as Director for Program Planning and Communications.

The CGIAR gave me a great career. I was able to work for excellent scientific research organizations that had noble goals to reduce rural poverty, increase food security, ensure better nutrition and health, and manage resources sustainably. As a small cog in a big wheel it’s hard to fathom what contribution you might be making. But I often thought that if people were going to bed less hungry each night, then we were making a difference. This does not diminish the scale of the continuing problems of poverty and food security problems in the developing world, which are all-too-often exacerbated by civil strife and conflict in some of the most vulnerable societies. Nevertheless, I feel privileged to have played my part, however small. It was my work with the CGIAR that led to my appointment as an OBE by HM The Queen in 2012, for services to international food science.

Standing on Vavilov’s shoulders . . .

Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov (1887-1943). Not a name familiar to many people. Vavilov is, however, one of my scientific heroes.

Until I began graduate school in September 1970, when I joined the MSc course at the University of Birmingham on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources, I’d never even heard of him. In fact, looking back, I’m rather surprised that his name didn’t crop up once during my undergraduate years. I’d been encouraged to apply for a place on the Birmingham course by a lecturer in genetics at Southampton University, Dr Joe Smartt. But Vavilov and his work was not on the curriculum of botany courses that I took.

In preparation for Birmingham, I’d been advised to purchase and absorb a book that was published earlier that year, edited by Sir Otto Frankel and Erna Bennett [1] on genetic resources, and dedicated to NI Vavilov. And I came across Vavilov’s name for the first time in the first line of the Preface written by Frankel, and in the first chapter on Genetic resources by Frankel and Bennett. I should state that this was at the beginning of the genetic resources movement, a term coined by Frankel and Bennett at the end of the 60s when they had mobilized efforts to collect and conserve the wealth of diversity of crop varieties (and their wild relatives) – often referred to as landraces – grown all around the world, but were in danger of being lost as newly-bred varieties were adopted by farmers. The so-called Green Revolution had begun to accelerate the replacement of the landrace varieties, particularly among cereals like wheat and rice.

Thus began my fascination with Vavilov’s work, and a career in genetic resources in a broad sense that was to last 40 years until my retirement in 2010.

Vavilov was a botanist, geneticist and plant breeder who rose to the top of agricultural research in the Soviet Union who, through his many expeditions around the world (described in the book Five Continents [2], published posthumously in English in 1997) assembled a vast array of diversity in many crop species. Vavilov developed two seminal theories of crop evolution, which have influenced the science of genetic resources ever since.

The first was his Centers of Diversity and Origin, in which he stated that “the place of origin of a species of a cultivated plant is to be found in the area which contains the largest number of genetic varieties of this plant.” While we now appreciate that this was an oversimplification, his ideas about the origin of crop diversity have been the foundation for much of the genetic resources exploration carried out in subsequent decades.

The second was his Law of Homologous Series in the Case of Variation, published in Russian in 1920 and in English in 1922. I applied this concept in my search for pest resistance in wild potatoes, which I presented at a Symposium organized by the Linnean Society of London and the Institute of Archaeology, University College, London in 1987 to celebrate the centenary of Vavilov’s birth [3].

Vavilov died of starvation in prison at the relatively young age of 55, following persecution under Stalin through the shenanigans of the charlatan Trofim Lysenko. Lysenko’s legacy also included the rejection of Mendelian genetics in the Soviet Union for many years. Eventually Vavilov was rehabilitated, long after his death, and he was commemorated on postage stamps at the time of his centennial.

Although never having the privilege of knowing Vavilov, I do feel that I met him vicariously through three people I have known, who did meet him, and I worked with two of these for many years.

First, Sir Otto Frankel FRS, who I first met at a genetic resources meeting in Jakarta in the mid-80s, was an eminent wheat breeder and geneticist, and one of the founders of the genetic resources movement. Originally from Austria, he had escaped before the Nazis came to power, and moved to New Zealand and Australia afterwards. Frankel visited Vavilov in Leningrad (now St Petersburg again) in 1935.

Jack Hawkes, Mason Professor of Botany at the University of Birmingham and my PhD supervisor, travelled to Leningrad in 1938 to consult with Vavilov’s colleague, SM Bukasov, about the potatoes he had collected in South America. He wrote about his meeting with Vavilov, which he presented at the Vavilov Symposium referred to above [4].

John S Niederhauser was an eminent plant pathologist who spent many years researching the potato late blight fungus in Mexico. He was awarded the World Food Prize in 1990. I worked for several years with John in the 1970s when I was regional leader for the International Potato Center in Costa Rica, and we were developing and implementing what turned out to be the first consortium, PRECODEPA (Cooperative Regional Potato Program – in four Central American countries, Mexico and the Dominican Republic), of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). As a young man of about 17, so John told me, he’d asked a travel agent how far he would be able to travel (return) from San Francisco with the money he had available: Leningrad was the destination. Walking around a research garden there one day, he was approached by a kindly gentleman – Vavilov as it turned out – who offered him the chance to work for a few weeks harvesting germplasm evaluation trials on one of his institute’s research stations in the Soviet southeast.

What all three emphasised – in their writings or related to me personally – was Vavilov’s friendliness, generosity of spirit, his boundless energy, and above all, his humanity, and that he treated everyone as an equal, even young persons as Hawkes and Niederhauser were when they met him.

Vavilov’s legacy endures. He is recognized as one of the giants of 20th century biology. And he has been an inspiration for countless students of genetic resources conservation and use.

[1] Frankel, OH & E Bennett (eds), 1970. Genetic Resources in Plants – their Exploration and Conservation. IBP Handbook No 11. International Biological Programme, London and Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford and Edinburgh. pp. 554. SBN 632 05730 0.

[2] Vavilov, NI, 1997. Five Continents. International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, Rome, Italy. pp. 198. ISBN 92-9043-302-7.

[3] Jackson, MT, 1990. Vavilov’s Law of Homologous Series – is it relevant to potatoes? Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 39, 17-25.

[4] Hawkes, JG, 1990. NI Vavilov – the man and his work. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 39, 3-6.