Killing me softly . . . memories maketh the man!

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

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

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

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

So why this particular song?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early days in Lima – 1973

Potatoes were not my first choice
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Although I spent more than 20 years studying potatoes – in a variety of guises – that had not been my first choice. I originally wanted to become the world’s lentil expert.

Well, not exactly. When I joined the 1970 intake on the MSc course Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources at the University of Birmingham, I quickly decided to work with Trevor Williams on the taxonomy and origin of lentils (Lens culinaris). I wanted to study variation in a crop species that had received little attention; and preferably it had to be a legume species.

Working our way through Flora Europaea, we came across the notation under lentil: Origin unknown. Now that seemed like an interesting challenge, and we began to plan a suitable dissertation project on that basis. I completed my dissertation in September 1971.

Interestingly, unknown to Trevor and me, renowned Israeli expert on crop evolution Professor Daniel Zohary (of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem) had been working on the same problem, and published his results in Economic Botany in 1972 [1], which essentially confirmed the conclusions I’d reached a year earlier.

As it turned out – and this is the hindsight bit – continuing work on lentils was not really an option; and funding for a lentil PhD would have been very difficult to find.

In any case, the MSc course leader Professor Jack Hawkes had, by March 1971, already raised the possibility of spending a year in Peru (see my posts about potatoes in Peru and about Peru in general), which I jumped at. So in January 1973, I landed in Lima, an employee of the recently-founded International Potato Center (CIP).

First impressions
Then, CIP was housed in just a single building on a developing campus in La Molina, on the eastern outskirts of Lima, where the National Agrarian University is located (in fact, just across the road from CIP). In those days, the journey to La Molina from the Lima suburbs of San Isidro or Miraflores (we lived in Miraflores on Av. Larco, close to the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean) took about 20 minutes. Around La Molina it was essentially a rural setting. But even in those days, housing developments were already underway, and today what were once fields of maize are now ‘fields of concrete’. I’m told that the journey can now take forever, and CIP staff often plan to arrive early or depart late just to avoid the horrendous traffic.

But I digress. The CIP building was essentially an empty shell on both floors. This was gradually partitioned to form offices and laboratories, and over the years, new buildings were added. On my first day at CIP (Friday 5 January) I was shown to my ‘office’ on the upper (first) floor. The whole floor at that time was completely open plan from one end to the other, except for one room opposite the staircase that actually had two solid walls either side (the toilets were located on either side), and a wooden panel front. Inside was a desk, a chair, a filing cabinet, and a bookshelf. That was it!

While there were no laboratories as such at CIP until a few months later (the pathologists were using space in a national program laboratory building across the street), we did have access to a couple of screenhouses at La Molina for growing experimental materials, but that was quite a challenge in the heat of the Lima summer from January to April until facilities with some sort of cooling system were constructed.

I must admit I did wonder what I’d let myself in for. There were no established research facilities such as laboratories, I didn’t speak Spanish (although that was rectified in about six months), and went through all the stages of ‘culture shock’.

A planning meeting on germplasm
The following week CIP held the second planning workshop (but the first on germplasm and taxonomy) of a whole series that would be convened over the next decade to help plan its program. The participants were Jack Hawkes, taxonomist Carlos Ochoa (Peru), potato breeder Frank Haynes (North Carolina State University), geneticist Roger Rowe (then with the USDA regional potato germplasm project in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, and later to join CIP in July 1973 as head of the breeding and genetics department), ethnobotanist and taxonomist Don Ugent (Southern Illinois University-Carbondale), and potato breeder Richard Tarn (from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, New Brunswick, and a former PhD student of Jack Hawkes), and myself. We made a trip to Huancayo in the central Andes (more than 3000 m above sea level) where CIP proposed to establish its highland field station (more of that below), and also to Cuzco in southern Peru (where I seized the opportunity, with Richard Tarn, of making a day trip to Machu Picchu). In Huancayo, we visited the small, but growing, potato germplasm collection which in those days was being multiplied on rented land.

The field supervisor was a young agronomist, David Baumann, who can be seen in this photo explaining the collection to the workshop participants. Around this time, plant pathologist Dr Marco Soto – who had just returned from his PhD studies in the USA – was named as the head of the Huancayo station.

The arrangements for that meeting say a lot about the early CIP days. We traveled to Huancayo by road, in two Iranian-built Hillman station wagons, one of them driven by the CIP Director General, Richard Sawyer. Another point worth mentioning is the research planning strategy that CIP implemented. Since potato research was strong in many countries around the world, Sawyer decided it would be effective to engage potato scientists from elsewhere in CIP’s research. Not only were they invited to participate in planning workshops, they also received research grants to carry out specific research projects (such as the potato breeding and nematology resistance research at Cornell University, for example), and provide graduate opportunities for students sponsored by CIP. This approach, as well as developing a regional program for research and dissemination, were heavily criticised in the early days of the CGIAR. This was not the approach taken by other centers such as IRRI, CIMMYT, and CIAT for example. It now seems a rather silly opposition, and is more the norm than the exception in how the centers of the CGIAR do business.

So who worked at CIP in the early days?
In Lima, there were only a handful of staff in January 1973 (click on the photo to see the list), me included as a Fellow in Taxonomy, even though I only had a masters degree, and would continue with my PhD research while working for CIP.

Head of plant pathology, and long-time North Carolina team member, Ed French (a US citizen of Anglo-Argentinian ancestry) had already begun to recruit staff. Post-doctoral fellow John Vessey from the UK worked on resistance to bacterial wilt, and he and his wife Marian became close friends (we are still in touch with them), although John departed for CIMMYT in Mexico in 1974, followed by United Fruit in Honduras – more bacterial wilt – before returning to the UK (John was my principal contact for the somaclone project I reported in another post).

At first, there were few internationally-recruited staff, but throughout 1973, the staff increased quite rapidly. Rainer Zachmann, a German plant pathologist working on Rhizoctonia solani, joined in February, followed by Julia Guzman, a late blight specialist from Colombia; Parviz Jatala, a nematologist from Iran; Ray Meyer, an agronomist from the USA; and Dick Wurster as head of the Outreach Dept. , among others. Dick had been working in Uganda prior to joining CIP.

A qualified pilot, Dick brought his plane with him (it had two engines – one at the front, and one behind!), which was also used by CIP to ferry staff to Huancayo on occasion, although we usually made the six hour journey by road. Jim Bryan returned from his leave in the USA to join CIP as a seed specialist.

Among the Peruvian staff were virologist Luis Salazar (who gained his PhD some years later from the University of Dundee in Scotland), nematologist Javier Franco (who studied at Rothamsted for a University of London PhD), and plant pathologist Oscar Hidalgo (who went to North Carolina State University). Just returned from Cornell was Dr Marco Soto (a plant pathologist) who became superintendent of the Huancayo experiment station. About to return from graduate studies overseas were plant physiologists Willy Roca (and his wife Charo) and Fernando Ezeta, and virologist Anna-Maria Hinostroza. Nematologist Maria Scurrah (who was born in Huancayo of German parents, and who spoke Spanish, German and English will equal rapidity) returned from her PhD studies at Cornell in 1972. Entomologist Luis Valencia was mentored by Maurie Semel who was on sabbatical from Cornell. Zosimo Huaman returned from Birmingham in April 1973.

The first support staff  included secretaries Rosa Benavides (who sadly succumbed to cancer just a few years later) and Haydee de Zelaya, caretaker José Machuca, messenger Victor Madrid (who eventually became a very talented member of the communications support team), carpenter Maestro Caycho, and screenhouse technicians, the Gomez brothers – Lauro, Felix, and Walter.

My fiancée Stephanie joined me in Lima in July 1973 and began work as a germplasm expert with the CIP potato collection. We married in October 1973 in the Municipalidad de Miraflores, near to where we were renting a 12th floor apartment on Av. Larco.

[1] Zohary, D. 1972. The wild progenitor and the place of origin of the cultivated lentil: Lens culinaris. Economic Botany 26: 326-332.