Sometimes, history just passes me by . . . particularly in Ohio

William Tecumseh Sherman. Red-haired. Union Major-General in the American Civil War. Outstanding military strategist. Commander of the Army of the Tennessee. Mastermind of the March to the Sea (that culminated in the capture of Savannah, GA) and the Carolinas Campaign, both of which contributed significantly to the end of the Civil War in 1865.

Born in 1820, Sherman was a native of Lancaster, Ohio (map). I wish I’d known that just a few weeks ago.

As Steph and I crossed Ohio on our road trip from Massachusetts to Minnesota, we passed through Lancaster on the route I’d planned from Canton, OH to Bloomington, IN. I do recall saying to Steph how prosperous it looked compared to others.

I only learned of the Sherman connection from a biography that I’m reading right now¹, and which I picked up at my favorite bookstore in St Paul, Half Price Books on Ford Parkway in the Highland Park area. This year I added three more to my American Civil War collection.

I could have made the Sherman connection in Lancaster had I looked in my rear-view mirror at the right moment, but I was too intent on following the sat nav instructions.  There, on a west-facing wall on Main Street (we were heading west) is a full height mural of Sherman. I didn’t see it, more’s the pity. I would have stopped to explore further.

During the first part of our 2017 USA road trip, from Atlanta, GA (which Sherman ransacked in 1864) to Savannah, our route more or less mirrored Sherman’s March to the Sea. In the historic neighborhoods of Savannah his name appears on several historical markers, as you might expect.

And there were other surprises. Just 18 miles northeast of Lancaster is the small community of Somerset, OH. It has a lovely town square, in the middle of which is an impressive statue of a mounted soldier, Philip Sheridan, a Major-General of Cavalry during the Civil War, who was eventually promoted to four star rank. Sheridan grew up in Somerset. After the Civil War he served on the Great Plains during the Indian Wars. He was also instrumental in developing Yellowstone as a national park.

Despite its incredibly bloody outcomes and destructive consequences, the American Civil War, 1861-65 holds a certain fascination. To a large extent, it was the first war to be extensively documented photographically, many of the images coming from the lens of Mathew Brady.

But in terms of the war’s theater of operations, much of the fighting took place east of the Mississippi River, across the southern states, and into the maritime states as far north as Pennsylvania.

Imagine the topography, especially in the Appalachians, across which huge armies marched and fought each other. Imagine the effort needed to transport tens of thousands of men and their equipment and supplies over almost impenetrable terrain, along river valleys, crossing ridges, swamps, and huge rivers, while constantly being harassed by and engaging with the enemy.

We saw much of this landscape along our 2017 road trip. At Cumberland Gap there were even reminders how the opposing armies had fought to gain the upper hand and strategic overlook that was afforded on the hills surrounding this important pass through the mountains.

In that Sherman biography, I also learned that his superior, Major-General (then Brigadier General) Ulysses S Grant² (yet another Buckeye from Point Pleasant [map], just across the Ohio River from where we traveled this year) had his headquarters at Cairo (map) at the southern tip of Illinois in 1861, just a couple of miles north of Fort Defiance on the promontory at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Fort Defiance was on our route west in 2017.

Southwest from Canton, OH we passed by close to Dover (map), birthplace of one the Civil War’s most notorious Confederate raiders or bushwhackers, William Clarke Quantrill³. His theater of operations was the Kansas-Missouri border, an area that was already experiencing conflict between abolitionists and those who wanted to keep slavery in Missouri as early as 1858. Quantrill’s Raiders were the perpetrators of one of the Civil War’s most outrageous atrocity, the Lawrence (Kansas) massacre. Sherman’s brother-in-law, Thomas Ewing, Jr was a key Union general opposing Quantrill.

So while I may have missed out on some interesting historical aspects during this year’s road trip, that was not the case in 2011 when we toured extensively in Arizona and New Mexico. Earlier that year I had read an interesting biography of mountain man and Indian fighter Kit Carson whose campaigns against the Navajo are well documented. I planned parts of the trip around locations where he had been active. He is buried in Taos, NM, and after spending time at the Canyon de Chelly (site of a massacre of Navajos) in northeast Arizona, we headed for Taos.

Spider Rock in the Canyon de Chelly.

History is undoubtedly one of my principal hobbies, and occupies much of my reading. On retirement eight years ago I almost enrolled for a history degree with the Open University, but eventually decided to keep it just as a hobby. I read very little fiction, and the catalyst for my 2017 challenge – to read all of the novels by Charles Dickens – was a book (also bought at Half Price Books) about the terrible plight of children (early in the 19th century) in factories and cotton mills in the north of England.

Here in the UK, Steph and I are very active members of the National Trust and English Heritage. Whenever we get the opportunity, we head off to one of their many properties (stately homes, castles, archaeological sites, gardens) open to the public. And we learn a little more each time about the history of this country and the people who shaped events over the centuries, for better or worse.

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¹ Robert L O’Connell (2014). Fierce Patriot – The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman. Random House. ISBN 978-0-8129-8212-1.

² I picked up this biography of Grant which I have yet to start: HW Brands (2012). Ulysses Grant in War and Peace. Anchor Books. ISBN 978-0-307-47515-2.

³ I started this book about Quantrill’s Raiders first. Jesse and Frank James were members of Quantrill’s guerilla band. Edward E Leslie (1998). The Devil Knows How to Ride – the True Story of William Clarke Quantrill and His Confederate Raiders. Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80865-X.

 

Taking back control?

It seems that the [Dis]United Kingdom is inexorably on the path to the ‘Brexit Promised Land’, the Conservative’s ‘Land of Milk and Honey’, as we prepare to leave the European Union (EU) less than one year from now (at 23:00 on Friday 29 March 2019 to be precise, midnight Brussels time). Can that Brexit rollercoaster be stopped in its tracks? Regrettably, I’m less sanguine about that prospect than I was just a month or so back. The UK’s place should be in Europe, taking an active and leading role, bringing our renowned pragmatism to bear on the issues of the day.

What have we done over the past 40 years? Carped and whinged from the sidelines.

As I read online the other day, we spent decades seeking various opt-outs under the terms of the various EU treaties. Now that we are on course to leave, our negotiators are seeking to secure various opt-ins—the cherished ‘bespoke’ agreement that Prime Minister ‘Come What’ May tells us is the government’s end game. Ironic.

Recently, Brexit was knocked off the headlines. Why? Russia! While I agree that there is considerable (circumstantial) evidence linking the Russian government to the recent poisoning by nerve agent of a former Russian double agent and his daughter in Salisbury in the west of England, the government has done its best to exploit that incident, in my opinion, to remove Brexit from daily headlines. Isn’t that what all politicians do when faced with internal dissent. They try to galvanize support around an actual or perceived external threat. Result? Brexit hasn’t been hitting the headlines so much. Until yesterday, that is.

Woe is me! What have I done?

With one year to go, the Prime Minister embarked on a whistle-stop tour of the nation, visiting locations in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland to spread the good word about our bright future once we have left the EU. She even raised, once again, the prospect of a ‘Brexit dividend‘ that would permit us to spend more on the National Health Service (NHS) and education. For my readers outside the UK, let me explain. During the 2016 referendum campaign, the Leave side toured the country in a bright red bus with this slogan emblazoned on its side:

Before the referendum, the UK had the fastest-growing economy among the G7 countries; now it’s the slowest, and we haven’t even left the EU yet.

It’s easy to quantify what we will lose when we leave the EU. What has not been spelled out without equivocation is what we stand to gain. Apart from the usual platitudes negotiating free trade agreements with nations around the world (assuming that they want to have agreements with us), the main driving force seems to be ‘taking back control’. But of what?

Of our borders, our laws, and our money, apparently. After 45 years of being a member of the EU (and the EEC/EC before that), our economy and fabric of the nation is intimately tied to Europe. Unraveling those close ties is complex and a daunting challenge.

The immigration card was played unashamedly by the Leavers during the referendum campaign, the despicable Nigel Farage (of UKIP) chief among them. Yes, membership of the Single Market does mean that citizens of other EU countries have the right to come to live and work in the UK. Many did come, and occupied jobs that UK citizens were often unwilling to take on (such as in the agricultural/horticultural and service/hospitality industries). They also paid their taxes and National Insurance (Social Security) contributions.

Already there has been a negative Brexit effect with EU citizens returning home, leaving vacancies that are hard to fill from local labor pools. The government has been and is obsessed by the immigration statistics, harking back surely to the time when Theresa May was Secretary of State for the Home Office. However, the data show that there has been more immigration from nations from outside the EU than from within.

What about our laws? I haven’t seen the British Parliament sitting on their laurels or out of a job since we joined the EU. Parliamentarians are constantly enacting new legislation. The bugbear of arch-Brexiteers such as Ian Duncan-Smith, Bernard Jenkin, Bill Cash, John Redwood, Peter Bone, and the pompous and inimitable Jacob Rees-Mogg, is the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). Being a member of the European club, we are subject to its rules and regulations but benefit from common rights, and any infringements come under the jurisdiction of the ECJ which is anathema to Brexiteers. The worry for Remainers is that when we leave the EU, and powers are repatriated to the British Parliament, there will be a wholesale ditching of many of these hard-won rights. Time will tell, but will be resisted fiercely.

DaDa, LiFo, and BoJo – the three Brexiteers

The UK is one of the top financial contributors to the EU budget, and there will be a black hole when we leave. That’s why, in the Brexit negotiations, the EU has (rightly) insisted that the UK meets its financial contributions to commitments it has already made. These stretch into decades in the future and amount to tens of billions of pounds. So much for the ‘Brexit dividend’ that the delusional Boris Johnson promoted (and successfully duped a section of the electorate) on the Leave campaign bus. As our economy slows, as the tax base declines, as trading possibly becomes more difficult, what will be the real economic outcome for us all? I cannot believe it can be as rosy as Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davis has indicated, or the number of free trade agreements lined up as International Trade Secretary Liam Fox seems to believe.

At almost 70, I’m part of the demographic that overwhelmingly voted to leave the EU. Which I didn’t, I hasten to add, something you must have realized by now reading this blog post.

The next years outside the EU are likely to be tough economically and financially. There will be inconveniences that I guess we will cope with, albeit grumbling all the time. I have fewer years ahead of me than I have enjoyed. I fear for the younger generations, and how life outside the EU will impact on them. Our younger daughter and husband live in the northeast, one of the areas that is predicted to be most negatively impacted by Brexit (even though a majority there voted to leave). They have two young boys, six and four. What does the future hold for them. Our elder daughter lives in the USA and will soon become a US citizen. There again, the USA is going through its own Trumpian dystopia right now.

Listening to pro-Leave supporters interviewed on various news channels yesterday, it seems to me that they haven’t yet fully understood the impact of their fateful voting decisions two years ago. It’s hard to appreciate just what factors drove their agendas. Even regions of the nation that have benefited from EU regional development funds voted to leave. Extraordinary! But it will come home to them in due course in a very personal way, when they make plans for their annual summer vacations in Spain or Portugal, the south of France or sunny Greece. No more reciprocal health cover arrangements probably, possible airline and flights issues, long queues to pass through immigration, unexpected mobile phone roaming charges, among many others. Once their pockets are hit—and hard—for things they have come to expect, they will complain that they never signed up for these restrictions when they voted Leave.

Of course, everything is going to be fine, say May & Co. Even though we are leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union, we will eventually come to agreement with the EU for a sensible solution, if they would just stop bullying us. Or are we going to face that oft-quoted ‘cliff edge’ Here are two views.

And still nothing appropriate is said about the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, the only part of the UK that has a land border with another EU country. David Davis seems to be in ‘La-La Land’ on this issue.

The real negotiations for our future prosperity and security have yet to start. Liam Fox and others talk about free trade talks and agreements as if they are a one-way ticket. It is about arriving at a position acceptable to both parties to the negotiation. Compromise, give-and-take is the name of the game. Win some, lose some. That probably means that more of the so-called ‘red lines’ will be crossed, positions abandoned in the interests of an overall agreement. The fishermen (and their parliamentary supporters like Farage and Rees-Mogg) who were so enraged last week when the transition agreement was announced, and which did not exclude access to British territorial waters by boats from other EU countries, will probably find that in order to secure a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU, fishing rights will be sacrificed. That’s just the reality.

Here are some more broken promises. Just click on the image below to read the article in The Guardian from a couple of days ago.

Another concern is that the UK just not have the technical capacity to negotiate multiple trade agreements. The government is frantically recruiting trade negotiators. Surely, heavyweights like the USA (with whom we have been ‘promised’ a quick and comprehensive free trade agreement after Brexit, notwithstanding Trump’s current protectionist stance) will flex their muscles, to ensure access by US corporations to UK markets and the NHS, the former for food produced under lower standards than we currently enjoy through the EU, and the latter with the aim of privatizing health cover. I envisage our government just rolling over in its desperation to secure the deal.

Will there be a second referendum to vote on the actual terms of the final agreement with the EU? While I hope there will be, I’m not optimistic, although I will continue to support efforts to make one a reality.

With less than a year to go before Brexit, and almost two years after the referendum, we are still no closer to knowing, never mind understanding, what a post-Brexit relationship with the EU (or the rest of the world for that matter) will look like. Either the Theresa May, David Davis et al. are playing their cards very close to their chests, or they simply have no idea, nor have effectively planned for the future. I fear the latter. The sooner the Conservatives are voted out of power the better. Unfortunately, the Labour alternative under left-wing Jeremy Corbin looks no more rosy. Where is the middle ground of politics? Where are the statesmen and women who are more concerned about the fate of the nation rather than their own political party or career? I despair of politics in the UK today, and I despair that the country is meandering down a path to its own economic decline.

Taking back control? Humbug! This must be the first time, as someone wrote recently, that a government is actively working to bring about a decline in the nation’s prosperity rather than the reverse.

There’s more to genebanking than meets the eye (or should be)

The weather was awful last Sunday, very cold, with snow showers blowing in on a strong easterly wind throughout the day. From time to time, I found myself staring out of the window at the blizzards and letting my mind wander. A couple of seemingly unconnected ideas were triggered by a tweet about genebanks I’d read earlier in the day, and something I’d seen about a former IRRI colleague on Facebook the day before.

That got me thinking. It’s almost eight years now since I retired from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines where I worked for almost 19 years from July 1991 until the end of April 2010. As the snowflakes fell in increasing abundance, obscuring the bottom of our garden some 15 m away, I began to reminisce on the years I’d spent at IRRI, and how they’d been (mostly) good years to me and my family. My work had been very satisfying, and as I retired I felt that I’d made a useful contribution to the well-being and future of the institute. But one thought struck me particularly: how privileged I felt to have worked at one of the world’s premier agricultural research institutes. It was though I was recalling a dream; not reality at all.

In rice fields at IRRI, with magnificent Mt. Makiling in the background.

Behind the plough – now that IS reality. I still have that sombrero, which I purchased shortly after I arrived in Peru in January 1973.

That journey began, as I said, in July 1991 when I became the first head of IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center (GRC) taking responsibility for one of the world’s largest and most important genebanks, the International Rice Genebank (IRG), as well as providing administrative oversight to the International Network for Genetic Evaluation of Rice (INGER). I gave up genebanking in 2001 and joined the institute’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning and Coordination (DPPC, later Communications). As I had made many important changes to the genebank operations and how rice germplasm was managed, my successor, Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton (who joined IRRI in 2002) probably did not face so many operational and staff challenges. However, he has gone on to make several important improvements, such as bar-coding, commissioning new facilities, and overseeing the first germplasm deposits (in 2008) in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

Any success I achieved at IRRI during those 19 years is also due to the fine people who worked closely with me. Not so long ago, I wrote about those who brought success to IRRI’s project management and resource mobilization. I haven’t, to date, written so much about my Filipino colleagues who worked in GRC, although you will find several posts in this blog about conserving rice genetic resources and how the genebank operates (or operated until 2010). The 15 minute video I made about the genebank shortly before leaving IRRI shows what IRRI’s genebank is and does, and featuring several staff.

The tweet I referred to earlier was posted by someone who I follow, Mary Mangan (aka mem_somerville | Wossamotta U, @mem_somerville), commenting on a genebank video produced by the Crop Trust on behalf of the CGIAR’s Genebank Platform.

She tweeted: Finally someone did a genebank video. People don’t understand that scientists are doing this; they are told by PBS [the broadcaster] that some grizzled farmer is the only one doing it.

What particularly caught my attention (apart from viewing the entertaining and informative video) was her comment about the role of scientists and, by implication I suppose, that genebanking is (or should be) supported by scientific research. From my own experience, however, a research role for genebanks has not been as common as you might think, or wasn’t back in the day. Unlike IRRI, where we did have a strong genebanking research program¹.

When I interviewed for the head of GRC in January 1991, I made it quite plain that I hoped for—expected even, almost a condition of accepting an appointment—a research role around germplasm conservation and use, something that had not been explicitly stated in the job description. Once I was appointed, however, at the same senior level as any other Division (i.e. department) Head or Program Leader, I was able to bring my genebanking perspectives directly to discussions about the institute’s research and management policies and program. In that respect, I was successful and, having secured an appropriate budget and more staff, I set about transforming the genebank operations.

The IRG organizational structure then was extremely hierarchical, with access to the head by the national staff often channeled through one senior member, Eves Loresto. That was how my predecessor, Dr TT Chang ran the genebank. That was not my style, nor did I think it an effective way to operate. I also discovered that most of the Filipino scientific staff, as Research Assistants, had been in those positions for several years, with little expectation of promotion. Something had to be done.

In 1991, the genebank collection comprised more than 70,000 seed samples or accessions² of cultivated rices (Oryza sativa or Asian rice, and O. glaberrima or African rice) and the 20 or so wild species of Oryza. I needed to understand how the genebank operated: in seed conservation; data management; the various field operations for regeneration, characterization and evaluation of germplasm; and germplasm exchange, among others. I’d never worked on rice nor managed a genebank, even though my professional formation was in the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. That was a steep learning curve.

 

So I took my time, asked lots of questions, and listened patiently (mostly) to the detailed explanations of how and why rice germplasm was handled in this way and not that. It was also the period during which I got to know my Filipino staff. I say ‘got to know’ with some reservation. I’m ashamed to admit that I never did learn to speak Tagalog, although I could, at times, understand what was being said. And while almost all the staff spoke good English, there was always a language barrier. Obviously they always spoke Tagalog among themselves, even when I was around, so I came to rely on one or two staff to act as go-betweens with staff whose English was not so fluent.

After six months I’d developed a plan how to upgrade the genebank operations, and felt confident to implement staff changes. I was also able eventually to find a different (and more significant) role for Eves Loresto that took her out of the ‘chain of command’ between me and other staff members. We took on new ‘temporary’ staff to assist with the burdensome seed handing operations to prepare samples for long-term conservation (many of whom are still with the institute a quarter of century later), and I was able, now that everyone had better-defined responsibilities, to achieve the promotion of more than 70% of the staff.

The genebank needed, I believed, a flatter organizational structure, with each area of the genebank’s critical operations assigned to a single member of staff, yet making sure that everyone had a back-up person to take over whenever necessary. In the structure I’d inherited it was not uncommon for several members of staff to have overlapping responsibilities, with no-one explicitly taking a lead. And no-one seemed to be accountable. As I told them, if they wanted to take on more responsibility (which was a common aspiration) they had to be accountable for their own actions. No more finger-pointing if something went wrong.

How they all grew in their posts! Today, several of the national staff have senior research support positions within the institute; some have already retired.

Flora de Guzman, known to one and all as Pola, is the genebank manager. It soon became obvious to me that Pola was someone itching to take on more responsibility, who was dedicated to germplasm conservation, and had a relevant MS degree. She didn’t let me down, and has become one of the leading lights in genebank management across the eleven CGIAR genebanks that are supported through the Genebank Platform that I mentioned earlier.

Pola manages all the operations inside the genebank: germplasm acquisition; seed cleaning and storage; and exchange (and all the paperwork that goes with that!). Take a peek inside the genebank with Pola, from 1:00 in the video. She worked closely with Renato ‘Ato’ Reaño for the multiplication/regeneration of seeds when seed stocks run low, or seed viability declines. She has done a fantastic job, leading a large team and has eliminated many of the seed conservation backlogs that were like a millstone around our collective necks in the early 1990s. She will be a hard act to follow when the time comes for her to retire.

Ato is a self-effacing individual, leading the genebank field operations. Just take a look at the video I mentioned (at around 2:03 onwards) to see Ato in his domain of several hectares of rice multiplication plots.

Taking the lead from my suggestions, Ato brought all the genebank field operations back on to the institute’s experimental station from farmers’ fields some distance away where they were when I joined IRRI. He enthusiastically adopted the idea of separating multiplication/regeneration of germplasm accessions from those related to characterization, effectively moving them into different growing seasons. For the first years, his colleague Tom Clemeno took on the germplasm characterization role until Tom moved away from GRC and eventually out of the institute. After a battle with cancer, Tom passed away in 2015. ‘Little Big Man’ is sadly missed.

Soccie Almazan became the curator of the wild rices that had to be grown in a quarantine screenhouse some distance from the main research facilities, on the far side of the experiment station. But the one big change that we made was to incorporate all the germplasm types, cultivated or wild, into a single genebank collection, rather than the three collections. Soccie brought about some major changes in how the wild species were handled, and with an expansion of the screenhouses in the early 1990s (as part of the overall refurbishment of institute infrastructure) the genebank at last had the space to adequately grow (in pots) all this valuable germplasm that required special attention. See the video from 4:30. Soccie retired from IRRI in the last couple of years.

I’ve written elsewhere about the challenges we faced in terms of data management, and the significant changes we had to make in fusing what were essentially three separate databases using different coding systems for the same characters across the two cultivated species of rice and the wild species. There were three data management staff in 1991: Adel Alcantara, Vangie Gonzales, and Myrna Oliva.

L to R: Myrna, Adel’s daughter, Adel, and Vangie, during a GRC reunion in Tagaytay, just before my retirement in 2010.

One of the first changes we made during the refurbishment of GRC was to provide each of them with a proper workstation, and new computers. Each time our computers were upgraded, the data management staff were the first to benefit from new technology. Once we had made the necessary data structure changes, we could concentrate on developing a genebank management system that would incorporate all aspects from germplasm acquisition through to exchange and all steps in between. After a year or so we had a working system, the International Rice Genebank Collection Information System (IRGCIS). Myrna left IRRI by the mid-90s, and Adel and Vangie have retired or moved on. But their contributions to data management were significant, as access to and manipulation of data were fundamental to everything we did.

In terms of research per se, there were two young members of staff in 1991, Amy Juliano and Ma. Elizabeth ‘Yvette’ Naredo, who were tinkering with several projects of little consequence. They were supervised by a British scientist, Duncan Vaughan (who spent about six months a year collecting wild rices and writing his trip reports). As I said, I was keen to establish a sound research base to rice conservation in GRC, and felt that Amy and Yvette’s talents were not being put to good use. In my opinion we needed a better taxonomic understanding of the genus Oryza based on sound experimental taxonomic principles and methods. After all, the genebank contained several thousand samples of wild rice seeds, a resource that no other laboratory could count on so readily. Despite my best efforts to encourage Duncan to embrace more research he was reluctant to do so. I wasn’t willing to tolerate ‘passengers’ in my group and so encouraged him to seek ‘pastures greener’ more suitable to his personal objectives. By mid-1993 he had left IRRI for a new position in Japan, and we could recruit his replacement to lead the taxonomic research effort.

L to R: Duncan Vaughan inside the genebank’s cold store; Bao-Rong collecting wild rices in Irian Jaya.

Bao-Rong Lu joined us in 1994, having completed his PhD in Sweden, and took Amy and Yvette under his taxonomic wing, so to speak. Amy and Yvette flourished, achieving thousands of crosses between the different wild and cultivated rices, developing tissue culture techniques to rescue seedlings through embryo culture and, once we had a collaborative research project with the University of Birmingham and the John Innes Centre (funded by UK government department for international aid, DFID), establishing a laboratory to study molecular markers in rice germplasm.

Amy Juliano in the molecular marker laboratory in GRC that she developed (with Sheila Quilloy).

Amy spent a couple of months at Birmingham around 1996 learning new molecular techniques. She was destined for so much more. Sadly, she contracted cancer and passed away in 2004, a great loss to her family and GRC.

I knew from my early days at IRRI that Yvette had considerable promise as a researcher. She was curating the wild species collection, among other duties, and her talents were under-utilized. She took the lead for the biosystematics and cytogenetic research, and under my partial supervision, completed her MS degree at the University of the Philippines – Los Baños (UPLB).

Bao-Rong moved back to China around 2000, giving us the opportunity of moving the research in another direction, and recruiting molecular biologist/biochemist Ken McNally. Ken was already at IRRI, completing an assignment on a perennial rice project. Ken took GRC’s molecular research to another level, with Yvette working alongside, and expanding the research into genomics, culminating in the 3000 rice genomes project. Yvette completed her PhD at UPLB in 2013 as part of that international collaboration, but has now recently retired from IRRI. It was the Facebook post about her being recognized last weekend as a UPLB Outstanding Alumnus that partly triggered this post.

In the early 90s Dr Kameswara Rao and I, supported by Ato, looked at the effects of seed-growing environment and its effect on long-term viability of rice seeds. More recently, Ato worked with Fiona Hay, a British seed physiologist who was recruited to GRC around 2007 or 2008 to extend this research, and they made some interesting changes to seed multiplication protocols and how to dry them post harvest.

The collection grew significantly between 1995 and 2000, with funding from the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC), especially with regard to germplasm from the Lao PDR where GRC staff member Dr Seepana Appa Rao was based. We also had an important research component about on-farm conservation of rice varieties recruiting staff with expertise in population genetics and social anthropology. You can read more about that particular Swiss-funded project, and the staff involved, in this story from 2015.

The GRC secretaries who worked with me (L ro R): Zeny (1997-2001); Sylvia (1991-1997), and Tessie (1991 until her retirement a couple of years ago).

There were many support staff who all played their roles, and formed a great team. But I cannot end this post without mentioning the secretaries, of course. When I joined GRC, my secretary was Sylvia Arellano. She helped me through those first months as I was finding my feet. Syl was supported by Tessie Santos. When Sylvia was ‘poached’ by the Director General George Rothschild to become his secretary in 1997 (a position she would occupy until her retirement a couple of years back), Zeny Federico became my secretary. When I crossed over to senior management in 2001, Zeny came with me.

Working with such dedicated staff in GRC made my job easier, and very enjoyable. It was always a pleasure to show others just what the staff had achieved, and invariably visitors to the genebank came away impressed by what they had seen. And they understood that conserving rice varieties and wild species was not just a case of putting seeds in a cold store, but that there were many important and inter-linked components, underpinned by sound research, that enabled to the genebank to operate efficiently and safely preserve rice germplasm long into the future.

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¹ The research led to many publications. Click here to see a list (and many more that I have published on crop species other than rice).

² The collection has now grown to almost 128,000 samples. During my tenure the collection grew by more than 25%.

No time for complacency . . .

There was a germplasm-fest taking place earlier this week, high above the Arctic Circle.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault celebrated 10 years and, accepting new seed samples from genebanks around the world (some new, some adding more samples to those already deposited) brought the total to more than 1 million sent there for safe-keeping since it opened in February 2008. What a fantastic achievement!

Establishment of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault really does represent an extraordinary—and unprecedented—contribution by the Norwegian government to global efforts to conserve plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. Coinciding with the tenth anniversary, the Norwegian government also announced plans to contribute a further 100 million Norwegian kroner (about USD13 million) to upgrade the seed vault and its facilities. Excellent news!

An interesting article dispelling a few myths about the vault was published in The Washington Post on 26 February.

The CGIAR genebank managers also met in Svalbard, and there was the obligatory visit to the seed vault.

Genebank managers from: L-R front row: ICRAF, Bioversity International, and CIAT, CIAT; and standing, L-R: CIMMYT, ILRI, IITA, ICRISAT, IRRI, ??, CIP, ??, Nordgen, ICRAF

Several of my former colleagues from six genebanks and Cary Fowler (former director of the Crop Trust) were recognized by the Crop Trust with individual Legacy Awards.

Crop Trust Legacy Awardees, L-R: Dave Ellis (CIP), Hari Upadhyaya (ICRISAT), Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton (IRRI), Daniel Debouck (CIAT), Ahmed Amri (ICARDA), Cary Fowler (former Director of the Crop Trust). and Jean Hanson (ILRI). Photo courtesy of the Crop Trust.

This timely and increased focus on the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, celebrities getting in on the act, and HRH The Prince of Wales hosting (as Global Patron of the Crop Trust) a luncheon and meeting at Clarence House recently, help raise the profile of safeguarding genetic diversity. The 10th anniversary of the Svalbard vault was even an item on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today news program this week. However, this is no time for complacency.

We need genebanks
The management and future of genebanks have been much on my mind over the past couple of years while I was leading an evaluation of the CGIAR’s research support program on Managing and Sustaining Crop Collections (otherwise known as the Genebanks CRP, and now replaced by its successor, the Genebank Platform). On the back of that review, and reading a couple of interesting genebank articles last year [1], I’ve been thinking about the role genebanks play in society, how society can best support them (assuming of course that the role of genebanks is actually understood by the public at large), and how they are funded.

Genebanks are important. However, don’t just believe me. I’m biased. After all, I dedicated much of my career to collect, conserve, and use plant genetic resources for the benefit of humanity. Genebanks and genetic conservation are recognized in the Zero Hunger Goal 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture of the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

There are many examples showing how genebanks are the source of genes to increase agricultural productivity or resilience in the face of a changing climate, reduce the impact of diseases, and enhance the nutritional status of the crops that feed us.

In the fight against human diseases too I recently heard an interesting story on the BBC news about the antimicrobial properties of four molecules, found in Persian shallots (Allium hirtifolium), effective against TB antibiotic-resistance. There’s quite a literature about the antimicrobial properties of this species, which is a staple of Iranian cuisine. Besides adding to agricultural potential, just imagine looking into the health-enhancing properties of the thousands and thousands of plant species that are safely conserved in genebanks around the world.

Yes, we need genebanks, but do we need quite so many? And if so, can we afford them all? What happens if a government can longer provide the appropriate financial support to manage a genebank collection? Unfortunately, that’s not a rhetorical question. It has happened. Are genebanks too big (or too small) to fail?

Too many genebanks?
According to The Second Report on The State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture published by FAO in 2010, there are more than 1700 genebanks/genetic resources collections around the world. Are they equally important, and are their collections safe?

Fewer than 100 genebanks/collections have so far safeguarded their germplasm in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, just 5% or so, but among them are some of the largest and most important germplasm collections globally such as those in the CGIAR centers, the World Vegetable Center in Taiwan, and national genebanks in the USA and Australia, to name but a few.

I saw a tweet yesterday suggesting that 40% of the world’s germplasm was safely deposited in Svalbard. I find figure that hard to believe, and is more likely to be less than 20% (based on the estimate of the total number of germplasm accessions worldwide reported on page 5 of this FAO brief). I don’t even know if Svalbard has the capacity to store all accessions if every genebank decided to deposit seeds there. In any case, as explained to me a couple of years ago by the Svalbard Coordinator of Operation and Management, Åsmund Asdal, genebanks must meet several criteria to send seed samples to Svalbard. The criteria may have been modified since then. I don’t know.

First, samples must be already stored at a primary safety back-up site; Svalbard is a ‘secondary’ site. For example, in the case of the rice collection at IRRI, the collection is duplicated under ‘black-box’ conditions in the vaults of the USDA’s National Lab for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado, and has been since the 1980s.

The second criterion is, I believe, more difficult—if not almost impossible—to meet. Apparently, only unique samples should be sent to Svalbard. This means that the same sample should not have been sent more than once by a genebank or, presumably, by another genebank. Therein lies the difficulty. Genebanks exchange germplasm samples all the time, adding them to their own collections under a different ID. Duplicate accessions may, in some instances, represent the bulk of germplasm samples that a genebank keeps. However, determining if two samples are the same is not easy; it’s time-consuming, and can be expensive. I assume (suspect) that many genebanks just package up their germplasm and send it off to Svalbard without making these checks. And in many ways, provided that the vault can continue to accept all the possible material from around the world, this should not be an issue. It’s more important that collections are safe.

Incidentally, the current figure for Svalbard is often quoted in the media as ‘1 million unique varieties of crops‘. Yes, 1 million seed samples, but never 1 million varieties. Nowhere near that figure.

In the image below, Åsmund is briefing the press during the vault’s 10th anniversary.

Svalbard is a very important global repository for germplasm, highlighted just a couple of years ago or so when ICARDA, the CGIAR center formerly based in Aleppo, Syria was forced to relocate (because of the civil war in that country) and establish new research facilities—including the genebank—in Lebanon and Morocco. Even though the ICARDA crop collections were already safely duplicated in other genebanks, Svalbard was the only location where they were held together. Logistically it was more feasible to seek return of the seeds from Svalbard rather than from multiple locations. This was done, germplasm multiplied, collections re-established in Morocco and Lebanon, and much has now been returned to Svalbard for safe-keeping once again. The seed vault played the role that was intended. To date, the ICARDA withdrawal of seeds from Svalbard has been the only one.

However, in terms of global safety of all germplasm, blackbox storage at Svalbard is not an option for all crops and their wild relatives. Svalbard can only provide safe storage for seeds that survive low temperatures. There are many species that have short-lived seeds that do not tolerate desiccation or low temperature storage, or which reproduce vegetatively, such as potatoes through tubers, for example. Some species are kept as in vitro or tissue culture collections as shown in the images below for potatoes at CIP (top) or cassava at CIAT (below).

Some species can be cryopreserved at the temperature of liquid nitrogen, and is a promising technology for potato at CIP.

I believe discussions are underway to find a global safety back-up solution for these crops.

How times have changed
Fifty years ago, there was a consensus (as far as I can determine from different publications) among the pioneer group of experts (led by Sir Otto Frankel) that just a relatively small network of international and regional genebanks, and some national ones, was all that would be needed to hold the world’s plant genetic resources. How times have changed!

Sir Otto Frankel and Ms Erna Bennett

In one of the first books dedicated to the conservation and use of plant genetic resources [2], Sir Otto and Erna Bennett wrote: A world gene bank may be envisaged as an association of national or regional institutions operating under international agreements relating to techniques and the availability of material, supported by a central international clearing house under the control of an international agency of the United Nations. Regional gene banks which have been proposed could make a contribution provided two conditions are met—a high degree of technical efficiency, and unrestricted international access. It is of the greatest importance that both these provisos are secured; an international gene bank ceases to fulfil its proper function if it is subjected to national or political discrimination. In the light of subsequent developments, this perspective may be viewed as rather naïve perhaps.

Everything changed in December 1993 when the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) came into force. Until then, plant genetic resources for food and agriculture had been viewed as the ‘heritage of mankind’ or ‘international public goods’. Individual country sovereignty over national genetic resources became, appropriately, the new norm. Genebanks were set up everywhere, probably with little analysis of what that meant in terms of long-term security commitments or a budget for maintaining, evaluating, and using these genebank collections. When I was active in genebank management during the 1990s, and traveling around Asia, I came across several examples where ‘white elephant’ genebanks had been built, operating on shoe-string budgets, and mostly without the resources needed to maintain their collections. It was not uncommon to come across genebanks without the resources to maintain the integrity of the cold rooms where seeds were stored.

Frankel and Bennett further stated that: . . . there is little purpose in assembling material unless it is effectively used and preserved. The efficient utilization of genetic resources requires that they are adequately classified and evaluated. This statement still has considerable relevance today. It’s the raison d’être for genetic conservation. As we used to tell our genetic resources MSc students at Birmingham: No conservation without use!

The 11 genebanks of the CGIAR meet the Frankel and Bennet criteria and are among the most important in the world, in terms of: the crop species and wild relatives conserved [3]; the genebank collection size (number of accessions); their remarkable genetic diversity; the documentation and evaluation of conserved germplasm; access to and exchange of germplasm (based on the number of Standard Material Transfer Agreements or SMTAs issued each year); the use of germplasm in crop improvement; and the quality of conservation management, among others. They (mostly) meet internationally-agreed genebank standards.

For what proportion of the remaining ‘1700’ collections globally can the same be said? Many certainly do; many don’t! Do many national genebanks represent value for money? Would it not be better for national genebanks to work together more closely? Frankel and Bennett mentioned regional genebanks, that would presumably meet the conservation needs of a group of countries. Off the top of my head I can only think of two genebanks with a regional mandate.  One is the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Plant Genetic Resource Centre, located in Lusaka, Zambia. The other is CATIE in Turrialba, Costa Rica, which also maintains collections of coffee and cacao of international importance.

The politics of genetic conservation post-1993 made it more difficult, I believe, to arrive at cooperative agreements between countries to conserve and use plant genetic resources. Sovereignty became the name of the game! Even among the genebanks of the CGIAR it was never possible to rationalize collections. Why, for example, should there be two rice collections, at IRRI and Africa Rice, or wheat collections at CIMMYT and ICARDA? However, enhanced data management systems, such as GRIN-Global and Genesys, are providing better linkages between collections held in different genebanks.

Meeting the cost
The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture provides the legal framework for supporting the international collections of the CGIAR and most of the species they conserve.

Running a genebank is expensive. The CGIAR genebanks cost about USD22 million annually to fulfill their mandates. It’s not just a case of putting seed packets in a large refrigerator (like the Svalbard vault) and forgetting about them, so-to-speak. There’s a lot more to genebanking (as I highlighted here) that the recent focus on Svalbard has somewhat pushed into the background. We certainly need to highlight many more stories about how genebanks are collecting and conserving genetic resources, what it takes to keep a seed accession or a vegetatively-propagated potato variety, for example, alive and available for generations to come, how breeders and other scientists have tapped into this germplasm, and what success they have achieved.

Until the Crop Trust stepped in to provide the security of long-term funding through its Endowment Fund, these important CGIAR genebanks were, like most national genebanks, threatened with the vagaries of short-term funding for what is a long-term commitment. In perpetuity, in fact!

Many national genebanks face even greater challenges and the dilemma of funding these collections has not been resolved. Presumably national genebanks should be the sole funding responsibility of national governments. After all, many were set up in response to the ‘sovereignty issue’ that I described earlier. But some national collections also have global significance because of the material they conserve.

I’m sure that genebank funding does not figure prominently in government budgets. They are a soft target for stagflation and worse, budget cuts. Take the case of the UK for instance. There are several important national collections, among which the UK Vegetable Genebank at the Warwick Crop Centre and the Commonwealth Potato Collection at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland figure prominently. Consumed by Brexit chaos, and despite speaking favorably in support of biodiversity at the recent Clarence House meeting that I mentioned earlier in this post, I’m sure that neither of these genebanks or others is high on the agenda of Secretary of State for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), Michael Gove MP or his civil servants. If a ‘wealthy’ country like the UK has difficulties finding the necessary resources, what hope have resource-poorer countries have of meeting their commitments.

However, a commitment to place their germplasm in Svalbard would be a step in the right direction.

I mentioned that genebanking is expensive, yet the Crop Trust estimates that an endowment of only USD850 million would provide sufficient funding in perpetuity to support the genebanks. USD850 million seems a large sum, yet about half of this has already been raised as donations, mostly from national governments that already provide development aid. In the UK, with the costs of Brexit becoming more apparent day-by-day, and the damage that is being done to the National Health Service through recurrent under-funding, some politicians are now demanding changes to the government’s aid budget, currently at around 0.7% of GDP. I can imagine the consequences for food security in nations that depend on such aid, were it reduced or (heaven help us) eliminated.

On the other hand, USD850 million is peanuts. Take the cost of one A380 aircraft, at around USD450 million. Emirates Airlines has just confirmed an order for a further 36 aircraft!

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation continues to do amazing things through its generous grants. A significant grant from the BMGF could top-up the Endowment Fund. The same goes for other donor agencies.

Let’s just do it and get it over with.

Then we can get on with the job of not only making all germplasm safe, especially for species that are hard to or cannot be conserved as seeds, but by using the latest ‘omics’ technologies [4] to understand just how germplasm really is the basis of food security for everyone on this beautiful planet of ours.

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[1] One, on the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog (that is maintained by two friends of mine, Luigi Guarino, the Director of Science and Programs at the Crop Trust in Bonn, and Jeremy Cherfas, formerly Senior Science Writer at Bioversity International in Rome and now a Freelance Communicator) was about accounting for the number of genebanks around the world. The second, published in The Independent on 2 July 2017, was a story by freelance journalist Ashley Coates about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, and stated that it is ‘the world’s most important freezer‘.

[2] Frankel, OH and E Bennett (1970). Genetic resources. In: OH Frankel and E Bennett (eds) Genetic Resources in Plants – their Exploration and Conservation. IBP Handbook No 11. Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford and Edinburgh.

[3] The CGIAR genebanks hold major collections of farmer varieties and wild relatives of crops that feed the world’s population on a daily basis: rice, wheat, maize, sorghum and millets, potato, cassava, sweet potato, yam, temperate and tropical legume species like lentil, chickpea, pigeon pea, and beans, temperate and tropical forage species, grasses and legumes, that support livestock, and fruit and other tree species important in agroforestry systems, among others.

[4] McNally, KL, 2014. Exploring ‘omics’ of genetic resources to mitigate the effects of climate change. In: M Jackson, B Ford-Lloyd and M Parry (eds). Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change. CABI, Wallingford, Oxfordshire. pp.166-189 (Chapter 10).

Mark making tools, paper, and a steady hand

Ask anyone to name a famous English composer and they’d probably mention Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) or, more probably, Sir Edward Elgar.

Elgar was born in June 1857 in a small cottage, The Firs, in the village of Lower Broadheath, a stone’s throw west of Worcester, and 20 miles southwest from our home in Bromsgrove. The cottage (formerly the Elgar Birthplace Museum) came into the care of the National Trust in 2016 following an agreement with the Elgar Foundation. Closed for a year for some refurbishment, and the addition of a tea-room at the existing Visitor Centre among other improvements, The Firs re-opened in September 2017.

As the weather forecast for Friday (yesterday) had looked promising from earlier in the week, Steph and I made plans for a day out. But where to go? Looking through the 2018 handbook I came across The Firs (which had not featured in the 2017 handbook for obvious reasons). And with the added attraction of a two-mile circular walk in Elgar country in the vicinity, this was just what the doctor ordered!

Our visit to The Firs was beyond my expectations and unbelievably moving, even bringing me to the point of tears as I watched the 15-20 minute film about Elgar in the Visitor Centre. Throughout our visit, but especially in ‘Elgar’s Study’, I really had the feeling of being in the presence of greatness, and I can’t recall ever having had that reaction before.

Elgar’s parents William and Anne had seven children, although two died young.

William was a piano tuner, and held a warrant from Queen Adelaide (wife of William IV).

Although Elgar moved away to Worcester with his family at the age of two, he retained a life-long attachment to The Firs. At the bottom of the cottage garden (see map) there is a lovely life-size sculpture of Elgar sitting on a bench (by Jemma Pearson) gazing through a gap in the hedge towards the Malvern Hills that he loved so much. It was commissioned by the Elgar Foundation in 2007 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Elgar’s birth.

Elgar’s daughter, Carice (born in 1890) was the inspiration, in 1935, to acquire The Firs as a memorial to her father.

Entrance to the house is by timed tickets. There’s obviously not a great deal of space inside to accommodate too many visitors at a time.

Inside the entrance porch was a small room with an iron range for heating water and cooking. Today, the National Trust has decorated the room with contemporary though not original-to-the-house items, including a piano tuner’s set of instruments.

On the ground floor, the Parlour (dedicated to Carice Elgar) has a lovely piano, possibly played by Elgar.

At the top of the stairs is a room the full width of the cottage (perhaps earlier divided into two rooms) where Elgar was born. Two other rooms and this one have displays of various musical instruments, his sporting and scientific interests, and other personal belongings such as watches.

Elgar was apparently a keen cyclist, and on one wall of the Visitor Centre there’s a mural of an exuberant cycling Elgar. We were told, although this may well only be anecdotal, that Elgar once cycled from Malvern to Wolverhampton to watch his favorite football team Wolverhampton Wanderers play. A round trip of 100 miles!

Alice and Edward Elgar in 1890

Inside the Visitor Centre, an exhibition illustrates highlights from Elgar’s life and career. He married Caroline Alice Roberts in 1889. Her parents disapproved of Elgar—a ‘jobbing musician’—and did not attend their wedding in the Brompton Oratory in London. I hadn’t realized until yesterday that Elgar was a Catholic.

Alice (who died in 1920) was his inspiration, and early on in their relationship recognized his genius. And that leads to the second point I didn’t know. Elgar received no formal musical training. It wasn’t until 1899, with the first performance of the Enigma Variations, that his growing reputation as a composer was sealed.

In ‘Elgar’s study’ there are original scores of some of his most famous works, as well as the desk at which he worked.

Alice used to prepare the paper on which Elgar composed. Apparently, specially printed paper with the staves was not available, and had to be drawn by hand using the five-pointed pen you can see in a couple of the photos above.

Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the free‘. Famous words by Arthur C Benson put to music in Elgar’s 1901 Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, sung here by contralto Clara Butt.

A page from the original score of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’

Who hasn’t heard Land of Hope and Glory? It’s the theme accompanying high school and university graduations around the world. Our two daughters graduated from Manila International School in the Philippines in the 1990s, and it was used then.

Another large room in the Visitor Centre, the Carice Room, is used for concerts, and where we watched the film about Elgar. There was also a lovely exhibition yesterday of watercolors by Worcestershire artist David Birtwhistle.

After a spot of lunch—we even sat outside at one of the many picnic tables—we set off on our walk, which took just over an hour. The walk begins on a public bridleway just behind The Firs, and then crosses three fields sown with oilseed rape and winter barley. By the time we reached terra firma again at Bell Lane, it felt  as though we were carrying half of Worcestershire on our muddy boots.

And at this point I must come back to Vaughan Williams for a moment, because as we were walking across the barley field, and looking back towards Worcester Cathedral to the east, a skylark rose into the air in front of us, singing lustily throughout its ascent and as it glided slowly back to earth.

What a wonderful sight and sound, reminding me instantly of Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending premiered in 1920, although originally written for violin and piano in 1914.

The staff and volunteers at The Firs were outstanding, and their friendliness and readiness to engage with us added to the enjoyment of our visit. As I said at the outset, we didn’t have any particular expectations when deciding to visit Elgar’s birthplace. I came away deeply affected by what I saw, heard, and learned, and I’m sure that the emotion will stay with me for many days to come. And, coincidentally, as I am finishing writing this post, while listening to Classic FM, Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 has just been featured.

 

 

 

 

 

Fashion, so said Louis XIV, is the mirror of history

Amber Butchart (photo by Jo Duck – used with permission)

Just when you least expect it, a real gem of a television series comes along. You’re gathered in. Then you’re hooked!

And that was our experience with fashion historian Amber Butchart’s six part series, A Stitch In Time, recently screened on BBC4.

This is what Amber has to say about the series on her blog: Fusing biography, art and the history of fashion, throughout A Stitch in Time I get to explore the lives of historical figures through the clothes they wore, while key garments are recreated using the original techniques.

She peers into the mirror and helps us to interpret the costume clues held within Van Eyck’s mysterious Arnolfini portrait, the role of hand-me-downs among 18th century workers, the impact of cotton on British life, a flamboyant armorial piece which sits at odds with the allegedly brutal nature of its wearer and the impact a scandalously informal gown would have on an already unpopular queen.

What an eye-opener A Stitch in Time has been! And from what I’ve seen in various media, we are not alone in being enthralled by the series.

My wife Steph and I enjoy watching almost any history-related program, so tuned into the first episode on 3 January almost by default. We had no idea what to expect, and we’d never heard of Amber Butchart (herself a fashion icon) even though (as I’ve now discovered) she has broadcast regularly over the past four or five years on BBC radio.

To recreate the items of clothing, Amber relied on the talents and experience of historical costumier Ninya Mikhaila  and her team, Harriet Waterhouse and Hannah Marples. It was amazing to see how every item of clothing was hand stitched. Not a sewing machine is sight, nor an electric iron.

L to R: Harriet, Ninya, Amber, and Hannah

In each program Amber talked about a particular painting—and a tomb effigy in one program—and what each tells us about the person(s) portrayed, how their clothing speaks to us about their social status, and the society in which they lived. And then she enjoyed modeling each of the recreated costumes.

She also delved into other background issues that are part of the story, none perhaps more emotive than that of Dido Belle, born in 1761 the natural (i.e. illegitimate) daughter of Sir John Lindsay and a slave, who moved in the highest circles of English aristocracy since her great uncle was Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice. I was already familiar with her story having read the 2014 book that same year by Paula Byrne.

Choosing the topics
I asked Amber how she came to choose the six subjects for the series. She replied: I wanted to show a real range of clothing from history—not just womenswear and royalty. I also wanted to touch on stories that are harder to uncover, to show the difficulties that can be part of the process when looking at marginalised histories. So I chose the artworks for a mixture of these reasons—plus some which are more well known within fashion history, such as Marie Antoinette and Charles II.

Charles was the subject of the first program (depicted receiving a pineapple from his head gardener, in a painting from around 1667, now part of the Royal Collection Trust, © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II) and “how he used fashion as propaganda with an outfit that foreshadowed the three piece suit”. From what appeared a rather drab suit of clothes in the painting, the completed reconstruction was extremely elegant, with its shot silk lining and black silk ‘bows’ on the trousers, shoulder and sleeves. The other fashion statement is the fantastic number of handmade buttons and their corresponding button-holes.The second program considered the famous Arnolfini portrait by Van Eyck from 1434, that hangs today in the National Gallery.

Once thought to portray a pregnant Mrs Arnolfini, wife of a wealthy merchant, this is no longer believed to be the case. She’s just holding up the rather large amount of cloth that went into making her dress—just because she could, a sign of the family’s wealth. The resulting recreation was stunning, and it was also interesting to watch how the green dye was made. Not for those of a weak olfactory constitution!

The ‘common man’ was the subject of the third program, depicted in a full-size portrait at Broughton Castle in Oxfordshire. Portraits of working men are uncommon. Just take a visit to any National Trust property, as Steph and I do all year round, and there are a thousand and one portraits of members of the aristocracy in all their finery. Such statements of power and fashion!

But The Hedge Cutter at Broughton shows a working man wearing a hand-me-down leather coat, evidently worn by several  generations and generously patched. It’s dark and stained, tattered in places.

The coat expertly recreated by Ninya and her team from soft, pale leather was a delight to behold. Even more compelling were the sewing techniques they had to employ to join the expensive pieces of leather together.

The story of Dido Belle in Program 4, was particularly interesting. In the painting of Dido (with Lady Elizabeth Murray), on display at Scone Palace in Scotland, not all of her dress can be seen, so Ninya and her team had to interpret how it might have been made.

Calling upon all their knowledge and experience, they recreated a dress that they believe was close to the original. Ninya confirmed to me that Dido’s clothes were the biggest challenge to research, mainly because so much of them are obscured in the painting, and because very little survives in the way of informal dress. Loose, voluminous garments made from expensive silk are prime targets for being made over, cut and reused. As we said in the programme, we were very happy with the results, but there were definitely several possible answers for how this gown was actually cut and constructed!

The Black Prince, son of King Edward III and father of King Richard II, is buried in Canterbury Cathedral, and Amber took us to look at the prince’s gilt-bronze tomb effigy, which shows the item of clothing that was the focus of this episode. The prince is wearing a jupon, a close-fitting tunic worn over a suit of armor and bearing heraldic arms. Warriors wore such an item of clothing in battle so they could be recognized and serve as a rallying point for their troops.

What was particularly interesting about this program (5) is that the prince’s original jupon still exists although no longer on display. After 600 years it’s just too fragile. But after his death in 1376, the jupon was hung above the prince’s tomb and remained there for centuries. Now stored carefully away in a box at the cathedral, the jupon no longer displays its vibrant colors, and although there was perhaps less interpretation needed to reconstruct it, there were still some challenges. The principal one was how to sew the cotton protective wadding between the layers of linen as a backing and the red and blue velvet of the outer layer.

Nevertheless, the completed garment was the most exuberant of the series. As Ninya told me: I loved working on the Black Prince’s jupon. It was an incredibly time-consuming process but it was so rewarding seeing it emerge in all its brightly coloured, gold-embellished glory!

Apparently the gold embroidery alone took 900 hours to complete, stitched on to a linen backing, cut out, and then sewn on to the jupon. Stunning!

In the final programme, Amber explained the court reaction to the most unroyal-like muslin dress (chemise de la reine) worn by the unpopular Austrian-born Queen Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI, in an infamous portrait painted by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun in 1783. Such was the uproar, that the artist had to paint another portrait in a more appropriate dress worthy of a French queen. Muslin was used for undergarments, not for royal portraits. Vigée Le Brun painted more than 30 portraits of Marie Antoinette.

The recreation was an elegant, free-flowing gown, but not (to our modern eyes) the scandalous display for which Marie Antoinette was censured. She would have worn this type of dress in informal settings such as her retreat in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles, the Petit Trianon, surrounded by intimates. Underneath the dress Marie Antoinette would have worn stays, and these were also part of the recreation. Ninya told me: . . . the silk damask stays that Harriet made for Marie Antoinette were ridiculously beautiful. There was an elegant sash at the waist, made by Hannah.

Even though the dress looks simple in style, it would nevertheless have been costly to make in the 18th century, as was demonstrated in its reconstruction. Ninya also gave a useful tip to all budding seamstresses on how to make a level hem. Tip of the series!

Perspectives
On reflection, I found the story of Dido Belle the most compelling. And while her dress appeared the most simple among the six, it was, as Ninya told me, a challenge for her team.

But as I think back on the last program and the beautiful dress that was worn by Marie Antoinette, I have to say that was my favorite. Elegant in its ‘simplicity’.

I asked Amber which costume she found the most challenging. This is what she told me: The most challenging to research in many ways was Dido Belle, and also the Hedge Cutter. Researching working dress can be difficult as it doesn’t tend to be kept in museums and wasn’t seriously written about until relatively recently. Dido has a really compelling story, and the transatlantic slave trade played a huge part in our history but is often overlooked. It runs like a thread through fashion history as it relates to cotton, and so I felt it needed to be addressed.

But what was her favorite costume? Having discovered online (from an interview she once gave) that green is apparently her favorite color, I expected her to choose the Arnolfini dress. But no!

In terms of aesthetic, I love the Charles II suit and would absolutely wear it, she replied (in the photo above it does really look elegant on her). In terms of uniqueness of experience, she continued, and historical revelation, it would be the Black Prince’s jupon. Such an incredible experience to literally walk in his shoes, and so far from the clothing that we’re used to today. Experimental archaeology at its best!

So there you have it.

I don’t think I’ll look at a portrait again in quite the same way during one of my many National Trust visits. This series has certainly opened my eyes to another aspect of social history that had, until now, passed me by.

If I have one criticism of the series, it would be this. Each program was short by about 15 minutes, that would have allowed just a little more time to explore the background story, and to focus in on some more detail of the actual techniques for making the costumes. BBC producers take note!

So, I hope that the BBC will commission another series, and allocate sufficient air time to do justice to this fascinating subject. Amber Butchart’s A Stitch in Time has been a joy to watch. This is why we willingly pay the TV licence fee.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Birmingham Class of ’71: plant genetic resources pioneers

Pioneers. That’s what we were. Or, at least, that’s what we thought we were.

Five individuals arriving at The University of Birmingham’s Department of Botany in September 1970 to study on the one-year MSc degree course Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources (CUPGR).

Professor Jack Hawkes was the Course Leader, supported by Dr Trevor Williams (as Course Tutor) [1].

Professor Jack Hawkes (L) and Dr Trevor Williams (R)

The MSc course had its first intake (of four students from Canada, Brazil, and the UK) in September 1969. Twenty years later (which was celebrated at the time), hundreds of students had received training in genetic conservation at Birmingham. The course would continue to flourish for a further decade or so, but by the early 2000s there was less demand, limited financial resources to support students, and many of the staff at the university who were the lynch-pins of teaching on the course had moved on or retired.

However, the course had made its impact. There is no doubt of that. Birmingham genetic resources graduates were working all around the world, leading collection and conservation efforts at national levels and, in many cases, helping their countries—and the world—to set policy for the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA). At the FAO conference on PGRFA held in Leipzig, Germany in 1996, for example, about 50 of the national delegations were led by, or had members, who had received training at Birmingham.

Former Birmingham MSc and Short Course PGR students (and two staff from IPGRI), at the Leipzig conference in 1996. Trevor Sykes (class of 1969) is wearing the red tie in the middle of the front row. Just two former students who attended the conference do not feature in this photo.

The Class of ’71
So, in September 1970, who comprised the second CUPGR cohort? We came from five countries:

  • Felix Taborda-Romero from Venezuela
  • Altaf-ur-Rehman Rao from Pakistan
  • Ayla Sencer from Turkey
  • Folu Dania-Ogbe from Nigeria
  • Mike Jackson (me!) from the UK

Having just graduated a couple of months earlier from the University of Southampton with a BSc degree in Botany and Geography, I was the youngest of the group, just approaching my 22nd birthday. Folu was almost four years my senior, and Ayla was perhaps in her late twenties or early thirties, but I’m not sure. Altaf was 34, and Felix the ‘elder’ of the class, at 38.

I guess Ayla was the only one with a specific genetic resources background, coming to Birmingham from an agricultural research institute near Izmir, and having already been involved with conservation work. Felix and Altaf were both academics. As recent graduates, Folu and I were just starting to think about a career in this new field of plant genetic resources. We wouldn’t be disappointed!

Studying alongside mature students who were not only older than my eldest brother (nine years my senior), but who had taken a year out from their jobs to study for a higher degree, was a novel experience for me. There was also a language barrier, to some extent. Felix probably had the weakest English skills; Ayla had already made some good progress before arriving in Birmingham but she struggled with some aspects of the language. Both Altaf and Folu spoke English fluently as a second language.

We occupied a small laboratory on the north corridor, first floor of the School of Biological Sciences building, just a couple of doors down from where Jack, as Mason Professor of Botany and Head of Department, had his office, and just across from Trevor’s office. In 1981, when I returned to Birmingham as Lecturer in Plant Biology, that same room became my research laboratory for six or seven years.

Folu and myself had desk space on one side of the lab, and the others on the other side. We spent a lot of time huddled together in that room. In order to save us time hunting for literature in the university library, we had access to a comprehensive collection of photocopies of many, if not most, of the scientific papers on the prodigious reading lists given to us.

Richard Lester

We had a heavy schedule of lectures, in crop evolution, taxonomic methods, economic botany (from Dr Richard Lester), population genetics and statistics (from staff of the Department of Genetics), computer programming and data management (in its infancy then), germplasm collection, and conservation, among others. At the end of the course I felt that the lecture load during that one year was equivalent to my three-year undergraduate degree course. We also had practical classes, especially in crop diversity and taxonomy, and at the end of the teaching year in May, we had to sit four written exam papers, each lasting three hours.

There were also guest lectures from the likes of experts like Erna Bennett (from FAO) and Jack Harlan from the University of Illinois.

We also had to choose a short research project, mostly carried out during the summer months through the end of August, and written up and presented for examination in September. While the bulk of the work was carried out following the exams, I think all of us had started on some aspects much earlier in the academic year. In my case, for example, I had chosen a topic on lentil evolution by November 1970, and began to assemble a collection of seeds of different varieties. These were planted (under cloches) in the field by the end of March 1971, so that they were flowering by June. I also made chromosome counts on each accession in my spare time from November onwards, on which my very first scientific paper was based.

At the end of the course, all our work, exams and dissertation, was assessed by an external examiner (a system that is commonly used among universities in the UK). The examiner was Professor Norman Simmonds, Director of the Scottish Plant Breeding Station (SPBS) just south of Edinburgh [2]. He made his scientific reputation working on bananas and potatoes, and published several books including an excellent text on crop evolution [3].

Then and now
So how did we all end up in Birmingham, and what happened after graduation?

Felix received his first degree in genetics (Doutor em Agronomia) in 1955 from the Escola Superior de Agricultura Luiz de Queiroz, Universidade de São Paulo in Brazil. He was a contemporary of Almiro Blumenschein, who went on to collaborate with geneticist and Nobel Laureate Barbara McLintock on the maizes of South America, and head the Brazilian agricultural research institute EMBRAPA (which is the parent organization for the Brazilian national genebank CENARGEN).

Returning to Venezuela, Felix was involved (from 1956-1961) with a national project to breed the first Venezuelan hybrid corns and to organize commercial seed production while also looking after a collection of local varieties and races of corn.

In 1961 he started to work in the Facultad de Agronomía at the Universidad del Zulia, now one of the largest and most important universities in Venezuela. It seems he found out about the Birmingham course in 1969 through contact with Dr Jorge León, a Costarrican botanist working for IICA who had also been worked at FAO in genetic resources, and was a contemporary of Jack Hawkes in the 1960s genetic resources movement. León is second from right, standing, in the photo below. But Felix had also been inspired towards plant genetic resources by the book Plants, Man and Life by American geneticist Edgar Anderson.

Felix self-financed his studies at Birmingham, having taken a sabbatical leave from his university, and arriving in Birmingham by the middle of August. In December 1970, Felix returned briefly to Venezuela to bring his young wife Laura and his newly-born son Leonardo to Birmingham. They took up residence in a house owned by Jack Hawkes in Harborne, a suburb close to the university.

His dissertation, on the effect on growth of supra-optimal temperatures on a local Venezuelan sorghum variety, was supervised by plant physiologist Digby Idle. Having been awarded his MSc (the degree was conferred in December 1971), Felix returned to his university in Maracaibo, and continued his work in sorghum breeding. He was one of the pioneers to introduce grain sorghums in Venezuela, and continued working at the university up until about five years ago when, due to the deteriorating economic and social situation in his native country, Felix and Laura (who has an MSc degree from Vanderbilt University) decided to move to Florida and enjoy their retirement there. His three sons and six grandchildren had already left Venezuela.

Felix and I made contact with each other through Facebook, and it has been wonderful to catch up with him after almost five decades, and to know that since his Birmingham days he has enjoyed a fruitful career in academia and agricultural research, and remains as enthusiastic today, in his mid-eighties, as he was when I first knew him in September 1970.

Altaf was born in Faisalabad in December 1936, and when he came to Birmingham in 1970 he was already Assistant Professor in the Department of Botany at the University of Agriculture in Faisalabad. He had received his BSc (Agric.) degree from that university in 1957, followed by an MSc (Agric.) in 1962.

I cannot remember the topic of his dissertation nor who supervised it, perhaps Richard Lester. After graduation he moved to Bangor University to complete a PhD in 1974 on the genetic variation and distribution of Himalayan wheats and barleys, under the supervision of Professor John Witcombe (from whom I obtained the various photos of Altaf). In 1974 he joined a joint Bangor University-Lyallpur University to collect wheats and barley in northern Pakistan.

He continued his teaching at Faisalabad until 1996 when he retired as Professor of Botany. But he wasn’t finished. He joined the Cholistan Institute of Desert Studies at Islamia Universty and was director from 1998 to 2000. Sadly, in December 2000, just four days after his 64th birthday, Altaf passed away, leaving a wife, two daughters and four sons. Remembered for his devotion to plant genetic resources and desert ecology, you can read his obituary here.

Genetic resources conservation in Turkey received a major boost in the mid-1960s when an agreement was signed between the Government of Turkey and the United Nations Special Fund to establish a ‘Crop Research and Introduction Centre‘ at Menemen, Izmir. The Regional Agricultural Research Institute (ARARI, now the Aegean Agricultural Research Institute) became the location for this project, and Ayla was one of the first scientists to be involved.

Ayla came to Birmingham with a clear focus on what she wanted to achieve. She saw the MSc course as the first step to completing her PhD, and even arrived in Birmingham with samples of seeds for her research. During the course she completed a dissertation (with Jack Hawkes) on the origin of rye (Secale cereale), and she continued this project for a further two years or so for her PhD. I don’t recall whether she had the MSc conferred or not. In those days, it was not unusual for someone to convert an MSc course into the first year of a doctoral program; I’m pretty sure this is what Ayla did.

Completing her PhD in 1973 or 1974, Ayla continued to work with the Turkish genetic resources program until 1981 when she accepted a position at the International Maize and Wheat and Improvement Center (CIMMYT) near Mexico City, as the first curator of the center’s wheat collection.

I believe Ayla stayed at CIMMYT until about 1990 or so, and then returned to Turkey. I know that she has retired with her daughter to a small coastal town southwest from Izmir, but I’ve been unable to make contact with her directly. The photo below was sent to me by Dr Tom Payne who is the current curator of CIMMYT’s wheat collection. He had dinner with Ayla a couple of years ago during one of his visits to Turkey.

Folu married shortly before traveling to Birmingham. Her husband had enrolled for a PhD at University College London. He had seen a small poster about the MSc course at Birmingham on a notice board at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria where Folu had completed her BSc in Botany. She applied successfully for financial support from the Mid-Western Nigeria Government to attend the MSc course, and subsequently her PhD studies.

Dr Dennis Wilkins

Before coming to Birmingham, Folu had not worked in genetic resources, but had a flair for genetics. Like me, she hoped that the course would be a launch pad for an interesting career. Her MSc dissertation—on floating rice—was supervised Dr Dennis Wilkins, an ecophysiologist. In the late 70s and early 80s, Dennis supervised the PhD of World Food Prize Laureate Monty Jones, who is now the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security in Sierra Leone.

After completing her MSc, Folu began a PhD under the supervision of Trevor Williams on the taxonomy of West African rice, which she completed in 1974. To successfully grow her rice varieties, half of one glasshouse at the department’s garden at Winterbourne was successfully converted to a rice paddy.

In this photo, taken during her PhD studies, Folu’s mother (who passed away in January 2018) visited her in Birmingham. Folu can’t remember the three persons between her and her mother, but on the far left is Dr Rena Martins Farias from Brazil, who was one of the first cohort of MSc students in 1969.

Folu also had the opportunity of joining a germplasm collecting mission to Turkey during 1972. In this photo, Folu (on the right) and Ayla (on the left) are collecting wheat landrace varieties.

Returning to Nigeria, Folu joined the Department of Plant Biology at the University of Benin, Benin City until 2010, when she retired. She taught a range of courses related to the conservation and use of plant genetic resources, and conducted research on the taxonomy of African crop plants, characterization of indigenous crops from West Africa, and the ethnobotany of useful indigenous African plants. She counts among her most important contributions to genetic resources the training courses she helped deliver, and the research linkages she promoted among various bodies in Nigeria. She has published extensively.

After retirement from the University of Benin, she was seconded to the new Samuel Adegboyega University at Ogwa in Edo State, where she is Professor and Dean of the College of Basic and Applied Sciences. She has three children and five grandchildren.

As for myself, I was the only member of our class to be interviewed for a place on the MSc course, in February 1970. I’d heard about it from genetics lecturer at Southampton, Dr Joe Smartt, who stopped me in the corridor one day and gave me a pamphlet about the course, mentioning that he thought this would be right up my street. He wasn’t wrong!

However, my attendance was not confirmed until late August, because Jack Hawkes was unable to secure any financial support for me until then.

Trevor Williams supervised my dissertation on the origin of lentil (Lens culinaris), but as early as February 1971, Jack Hawkes had told me about an opportunity to work in Peru for a year after I’d completed the course, looking after a germplasm collection of native potato varieties at the newly-established International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima. In October 1971 I began a PhD (under Jack’s supervision) on the relationships between diploid and tetraploid potatoes (which I successfully defended in October 1975), and joined CIP in January 1973. Continuing with my thesis research, I also made several potato collecting missions in different regions of Peru.

From 1976-1981 I continued with CIP as its regional research leader in Central America, based in Costa Rica, working on disease resistance and potato production. I spent a decade back at The University of Birmingham from April 1981, mainly teaching on the genetic resources MSc course, carrying out research on potatoes and legumes, and supervising PhD students.

In 1991, I joined the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) at Los Baños in the Philippines as the first head of the Genetic Resources Center, looking after the International Rice Genebank, and managing a major project to collect and conserve rice genetic resources worldwide. In 2001, I gave up research, left the genebank, and joined IRRI’s senior management team as Director for Program Planning and Communications, until 2010 when I retired.

But I’ve not rested on my laurels. Since retirement, I’ve organized two international rice science conferences for IRRI in Vietnam and Thailand, co-edited a second book on genetic resources and climate change, and led a review of the CGIAR’s genebank program.

My wife Steph is a genetic resources graduate from Birmingham, in 1972, and she joined me at CIP in July 1973 after leaving her position at the Scottish Plant Breeding Station where she helped to curate the Commonwealth Potato Collection (CPC).

We have two daughters, Hannah and Philippa (both PhD psychologists), and four grandchildren.

Sitting (L to R): Callum, Hannah, Zoe, Mike, Steph, Elvis, Felix, and Philippa. Standing: Michael (L) and Andi (R).

Looking back at the past five decades, I think I can speak for all of us that we had successful careers in various aspects of the conservation and use of plant genetic resources, repaying the investments supporting us to study at Birmingham all those years ago. What a journey it has been!

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[1] Trevor left Birmingham at the end of the 1970s to become the first Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (now Bioversity International) in Rome.

[2] The SPBS merged with the the Scottish Horticultural Research Institute in Dundee in 1981 to become the Scottish Crops Research Institute. It is now the James Hutton Institute.

[3] Simmonds, NW (ed), 1976. Evolution of Crop Plants. Longman, London. A second edition, co-edited with Joe Smartt was published in 1995.