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.

J Trevor Williams, genetic resources champion, passes away at 76

Yesterday evening I heard the sad news that an old friend and someone who was very influential at important stages of my career, had passed away peacefully at his home on 30 March, at the age of 76.

21 June 1938 – 30 March 2015

Professor J T Williams (JT to his friends, or simply Trevor) played an important role during the late 70s and throughout the 80s in establishing an international network of genebanks that today underpin world food security.

The Birmingham years
I first met Trevor in September 1970 when I joined the 1-year MSc course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources at the University of Birmingham. There’s no need to write about the course here as I have done so elsewhere on my blog. Short and stocky, a whirlwind of energy – and an inveterate chain smoker – Trevor joined the Department of Botany in 1968 or 1969, having been recruited by head of department Jack Hawkes to become the Course Tutor for that genetic resources course (which opened its doors in September 1969 and continued to train students over more than three decades).

20 Ed & Mike

L to R: Prof. Jack Hawkes, Dr Mike Jackson, and Dr Trevor Williams. Graduation Day, 12 December 1975, University of Birmingham

One of Trevor’s main teaching responsibilities was a course on taxonomic methods that inspired me so much that very quickly I decided that I wanted to write my dissertation under his supervision. Fortunately, Trevor was quite happy to take on this role, and by November 1970 we had agreed on a topic: on the origin and diversity of lentils (Lens culinaris). I’d indicated an interest in working on grain legumes, a hangover, I guess, from my Southampton undergraduate days where Joe Smartt, a leading grain legume specialist, had encouraged me to apply to the Birmingham course. But why how did we settle on lentils? Trevor and I worked our way through the various genera of the Fabaceae in Flora Europaea until we came to Lens and read this concise statement under the cultivated lentil, L. culinaris: Origin not known. Well, that piqued our curiosity and we set about acquiring seed samples of as many different varieties from a wide geographical range as possible.

In 1971-72 my wife Steph also worked with Trevor for her dissertation on growth and reproductive strategies in a range of grain legumes – lentil and chickpea among them. While Trevor supervised several MSc students during his years at Birmingham, I believe he had only one PhD student – another close friend, Emeritus Professor Brian Ford-Lloyd, and together they carried out a pioneering study of the genus Beta (beets!) When I moved to the University of Birmingham in 1981, I was assigned Trevor’s old office in the Department of Plant Biology (formerly Botany).

Cambridge and Bangor
Trevor took his first degree in Natural Sciences from Cambridge University (Selwyn College, I believe), followed by a PhD at the University College of North Wales (now Bangor University) under the eminent ecologist and plant population biologist, Professor John Harper. Trevor then moved to Switzerland (I don’t remember where), and took a higher doctoral degree on the study of plant communities, or phytosociology. I’m also not sure if this was supervised by Josias Braun-Blanquet, the most influential phytosociologist of the time.

The move to Rome
In about 1977 Trevor was recruited to become the Executive Secretary of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources that was founded under the auspices of the FAO in 1974. He remained with IBPGR until 1990. Following his retirement from IBPGR, it became the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), then Bioversity International in 2006.Under his tenure, IBPGR sponsored a large number of collecting missions around the world – this was the germplasm collecting decade – as well sponsoring training opportunities for genetic resources specialists, not least to the MSc course at Birmingham. Although IBPGR/IPGRI remained under the auspices of FAO until the early 1990s, it had become part of the network of international agricultural research centers under the CGIAR. And Trevor served as Chair of the Center Directors for at least one year at the end of the 1980s. In 1989 the Birmingham course celebrated its 20th anniversary; IBPGR sponsored a special reunion and refresher course at Birmingham and in Rome for a number of past students. We also recognized the unique contribution of IBPGR and Trevor joined us for those celebrations – which I have written about elsewhere in my blog.

Adi Damania (now at UC-Davis) sent me the photo below, of IBPGR staff on 2 December 1985, and taken at FAO Headquarters in Rome.

JTWFAODec2_1985

Sitting from L to R: Dorothy Quaye, Murthy Anishetty, unknown, J. Trevor Willams, Jean Hanson, unknown, Jane Toll. Standing L to R: Unknown, Adi Damania, unknown, unknown, Jeremy Watts, Merril, unknown, George Sayour, Pepe Esquinas-Alcazar, unknown, Chris Chapman, John Peeters, Jan Konopka, unknown temp, unknown, John Holden, Dick van Sloten.

After IBPGR
In the 1990s Trevor spent some years helping to organize the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) as a legal entity with its headquarters in Beijing, China. And it was there in about 1995 or 1996 or so that our paths crossed once again. I was visiting the Institute of Botany in Beijing with one of my staff from IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center, Dr Bao-Rong Lu. One evening, after a particularly long day, we were relaxing in the hotel bar that overlooked the foyer and main entrance. As we were chatting, I noticed someone crossed the foyer and into the dining room who I thought I recognized. It was Trevor, and I joined him to enjoy more than a few beers until late into the night. I didn’t have any further contact with Trevor until one evening in January or February 2012. It was about 7.30 pm or so when the phone rang. It was Trevor ringing to congratulate me on my appointment as an OBE in the New Year’s Honours List. We must have chatted for over 30 minutes, and it was great to catch up. That was the last time I spoke with him, and even then he told me his health was not so good.

But let’s not be too sad at Trevor’s passing. Instead let’s celebrate the man and his enormous contribution to the conservation of plant genetic resources worldwide. His important role will be remembered and recognized for decades to come. I feel privileged that I knew and worked with him. His incisive intellect and commitment to the conservation of genetic resources and community made him one of my role models. Thank you, Trevor, for your friendship, words of wisdom, and above all, your encouragement – not only to me, but to your many students who have since contributed to the cause of genetic conservation.

Remembering Trevor – updates
Trevor’s funeral was held on Wednesday 22 April at 13:30, at St Chad’s Church, Handforth, Cheshire. His sister Wendy asked that in lieu of sending flowers, donations could be made to the Millennium Seed Bank at Kew. Jill Taylor, Development Officer at the Kew Foundation has set up an ‘account fund’ in Trevor’s name – that way she can collate the donations and be able to provide the family with a total amount raised. She will of course make sure that the whole amount is used for the work of the Millennium Seed Bank. All donations can be sent for Jill’s attention:

Jill Taylor Kew Foundation 47 Kew Green Richmond TW9 3AB
Tel: 020 8332 3248
Cheques should be made payable to ‘Millennium Seed Bank’
Donations can also be made online using this live link – https://thankqportal.kew.org/portal/public/donate/donate.aspx
 If you donate online, please also email Jill at commemorative@kew.org so that she can assign it to Trevor’s ‘fund’. That email inbox is monitored by a small group so will be attended even if Jill is away.

Brian Ford-Lloyd and I attended Trevor’s funeral, along with Roger Croston, also a Birmingham MSc course alumnus and a collector for IBPGR for about two years from 1980 or so.

Trevor’s sister, the Reverend Wendy Williams (celebrating 55 years since she was ordained) gave a beautiful eulogy, highlighting Trevor’s strong Christian faith – something neither Brian, Roger or I were aware of – and the charitable work he was involved with in Washington, DC after he left IBPGR, but also in Rome during his IBPGR years. Click on the image below to read the Service of Thanksgiving.

JTW

Obituaries
Here’s the link to the obituary that was published on 1 May in the UK’s Daily Telegraph broadsheet newspaper.

An obituary was published online on 1 July in the international journal Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution. Click here to read.