Learning about crop wild relatives

Much of my work with plant genetic resources has concerned the conservation and use of landrace varieties, of potatoes and rice.

Diversity in potatoes and rice

Yes, I have done some work with wild species, and helped occasionally with collection of wild species germplasm. In terms of research, I managed an active group of scientists at IRRI in the Philippines working on the biosystematics of rice (mainly AA genome species relationships). I also had undergraduate and postgraduate students work on the wild species of Lathyrus and potatoes during the years I taught at The University of Birmingham.

I made just one short collecting trip with Jack Hawkes in early 1975, into the Andes of Central Peru to find wild potatoes. That was a fascinating trip. He knew his potato ecology; he could almost smell them. On returning to the UK in 1981, I joined my colleague Brian Ford-Lloyd to collect wild beets in the Canary Islands, and some years later assisted one of my PhD students, Javier Francisco-Ortega, to collect seeds of a forage legume in Tenerife. I wrote about these two collecting trips recently.  I also helped to collect some wild rices during a visit to Costa Rica in the late 1990s but, in the main, orchestrated a major germplasm collecting program while leaving the actual collecting to my other colleagues in IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center.

One of my teaching assignments at Birmingham was a 10-week module, two or three classes a week plus plus an afternoon practical, on crop diversity and evolution. Many of the world’s most important crops such as wheat and barley, and a plethora of legume species such as lentil, chickpea, and faba bean originated in the so-called Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. Apart from a couple of short trips to western Turkey, I had limited experience of Mediterranean environments where these crops were domesticated. I’ve since been in Syria a couple of times in the 1990s.

That was all rectified in at the end March-early April 1982¹ when I had the good fortune to participate in a course—two weeks long if my memory serves me well—in Israel, organized by Profs. Gideon Ladizinsky and Amos Dinoor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, at the Rehovot campus near Tel Aviv.

Gideon Ladizinsky explains the ecology of wild lentils (or is that wild chickpea?) while Amos Dinoor looks on.

I recall that the course was funded (or at least supported in part) by the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR). Among the other participants were several MSc students, class of 1981-82, from The University of Birmingham attending the Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources course in the Department of Plant Biology. Not all the students of that intake could take up the invitation to travel to Israel. Those from Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia for example were not permitted (under their national laws) to visit Israel, even though an invitation had been extended to all students regardless of nationality, and the Israeli authorities would have issued visas without a stamp in their passports.

I don’t remeber all the other participants. We must have been half a dozen or so from Birmingham, plus Bruce Tyler from the Welsh Plant Breeding Station (now part of the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences, IBERS, at Aberystwyth University), George Ayad from IBPGR, Zofia Bulinska-Radomska and one of her colleagues from the National Centre for Plant Genetic Resources, IHAR, near Warsaw, Poland, Luis Gusmão from Portugal (who attended a short course at Birmingham), and others whose names I cannot remember.

Standing, L-R: Zofia Bulinska-Radomska (Poland), Mike Jackson, ??, ??, ??, ??, George Ayad (Egypt, IBPGR), Rainer Freund (Germany), Bruce Tyler (WPBS), Amos Dinoor, ??, Luis Gusmao (Portugal). Front row, L-R: Krystina ?, ??, Brazilian MSc student, Gideon Ladizinsky, Ayfer Tan (Turkey), Margarida Texeira (Portugal).

Bruce Tyler, from the WPBS. An inveterate smoker, one of Bruce’s comments on almost anything was ‘He’s a cracker!’

We stayed at a kibbutz near to Rehovot, and were quite comfortable there. It was a short drive each day into the campus for the classroom activities, some lectures and practical classes. But we also made excursions from the north to the south of the country, and east to the Dead Sea to find crop wild relatives in their native habitats. I wonder, 35 years on, how many of those habitats exist. We travelled freely between Israel and parts of what are now the Palestine Authority controlled West Bank.

We had opportunity of seeing these wild relatives in what was essentially a living laboratory. Both Gideon and Amos, experts in their fields of crop diversity and domestication, and disease epidemiology in wild species, respectively, used many of these wild populations for their research and of their students.

My eyes were opened to the important role of ecology in these seasonally dry-wet landscapes, often on limestone, and the differences to be found between north- and south-facing slopes. I unfortunately no longer have some of the photos I took during that trip of the populations of wild barley, Hordeum spontaneum, that grew over large swathes of the landscape, looking to all intents and purposes like a field of cultivated barley. It was in populations like these, and of wild oats that Amos Dinoor studied the dynamics of disease spread and resistance.

Gideon had a wonderful way of linking species in different habitats, how they maintained they biological identity, often through flowering at different times of the day. I remember on one occasion as we walked through a mixture of oat species with different chromosome numbers, or ploidy. I asked Gideon the time, but he didn’t look at his watch. Instead, he picked a panicle of one of the oats alongside the path, and replied ‘It’s about 4:15 pm’. Then he looked at his watch. It was almost 4:15 pm! He was so familiar with the ecology of these species that, under defined conditions, he could predict when different species would flower. Remarkable! On the coast, south of Tel Aviv, we did look at disease in different wild species. I certainly learned a great deal from this course, and discussing crop evolution and domestication with these experts from the Fertile Crescent, and others like Daniel Zohary (who had published on the origin of lentils about the same time as me in the mid-1970s; he passed away in December 2016). Among the young scientists we met was Dani Zamir who pioneered the use of enzymes, or isozymes,to study the diversity of crops and their wild relatives, tomatoes in his case.

There was one interesting episode during the course. When teaching crop evolution to my Birmingham students, I encouraged them to analyse the evidence presented to account for the origin and evolution of different crop species, often based on conflicting hypotheses. So, it was natural for them to ask questions at the end of each lecture, and even question the interpretations they had heard. After just one or two sessions, and much to the consternation of my students, the ‘professors’ refused to take any questions. As I explained to my group, their hosts had worked on a range of species in depth, and were convinced that their interpretations were the correct (and only?) ones to be believed.  My students hadn’t been impolite or ‘aggressive’ in their questioning, just keen to explore more ideas.

We did also have opportunities for sight-seeing, around Jerusalem and to the Dead Sea, as well as understand some more about irrigation agriculture for which Israeli scientists and engineers had become renowned.

¹ I remember the dates quite well, as they coincided with the invasion of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic by Argentina, and the course group had many discussions in the bar at night what the reaction of Margaret Thatcher’s government would be.

Studying at Southampton, 1967-1970

In October 1967 (when I started my undergraduate studies in [Environmental] Botany and Geography¹), The University of Southampton was a very different institution from what it is today. So many changes over the past 50 years! One of the biggest changes is its size. In 1967 there were around 4500-5000 undergraduates (maybe 5000 undergraduates and postgraduates combined) if my memory serves me well, just on a single campus at Highfield.

Today, Southampton is a thriving university with a total enrollment (in 2015/16) of almost 25,000 (70% undergraduates) spread over seven campuses. Southampton has a healthy research profile, a respectable international standing, and is a founding member of the Russell Group of leading universities in the UK.

In 1967, the university was led by Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Kenneth Mather² FRS (1965-1971), an eminent biometrical geneticist, who came to Southampton from the Department of Genetics at The University of Birmingham, where he had been head of department. Since Mather’s tenure, there have been seven, and the current Vice-Chancellor is Sir Christopher Snowden FRS, an engineer, who took up the reins in 2015.

The Chancellor (1964-1974) was Baron Murray of Newhaven. Five Chancellors have served since he retired from the position in 1974. Businesswoman Dame Helen Alexander, who became Chancellor in 2011, passed away in August this year.

(L) Professor Sir Kenneth Mather and (R) Lord Keith Murray (from Wikipedia)

The campus
Looking at a map of the Highfield campus today, many new buildings have risen since 1967, departments have moved between buildings, and some have relocated to new campuses.

In the 1960s, Southampton had benefited from a period of university expansion and new infrastructure under the then Conservative Government (how times have changed), with Sir Edward Boyle at the helm in the Department for Education or whatever it was named in those days.

Until about 1966 or early 1967, Botany had been housed in a small building immediately north of the Library, which has since disappeared. It was one of the early beneficiaries of the ‘Boyle building expansion’ at Southampton, moving to Building #44, shared with Geology.

After I left Southampton in the summer of 1970, Botany and Zoology merged (maybe also with physiology and biochemistry) to form a new department of Biological Sciences at the Boldrewood Campus along Burgess Road, a short distance west of the Highfield Campus. Biological Sciences relocated to a new Institute for Life Sciences (#85) on the main campus at Highfield a few years back.

Geology now resides within Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton located at the Waterfront campus on Southampton Docks.

The Geography department had been located on the first floor of the Hartley Building (#36, now entirely devoted to the university library). By autumn 1968, Geography moved to a new home in the Arts II Building (#2). For some years now it has occupied the Shackleton Building (#44), the former Botany and Geology home.

Spending more time in Botany
As Combined Honours students, the four of us had feet in two departments, and tutors in each. We took the full Single Honours botany course for the first two years, but in the final year, specialised in plant ecology, with a few optional courses (such as plant speciation, plant breeding, and population genetics in my case) taken from the botany common course that all Single Honours students took. I also sat in our the plant taxonomy lectures given by Reading professor and head of the department of botany there, Vernon Heywood (90 next Christmas Eve), who traveled to Southampton twice a week for five or six weeks. In the early 1990s I crossed paths with him in Rome where we were attending a conference at FAO, and enjoyed an excellent meal together and an evening of reminiscing.

Students complain today that they have few formal contact hours during their degree courses. Not so at Southampton in the late 1960s. But that was also a consequence of taking two subjects with a heavy practical class load, and an ancillary, Geology, for one year, also with a practical class component.

During the first term, Fridays were devoted to practical classes from 9-5 with a break for lunch. In the mornings we spent 10 weeks learning about (or honing existing knowledge) plant anatomy, taught by cytologist Senior Lecturer Dr Roy Lane. Afternoons were devoted to plant morphology, taught by Reader and plant ecologist Dr Joyce Lambert. In the Spring Term in 1968, we started a series of practical classes looking at the flowering plants. Ferns and mosses were studied in the second year.

In the second year, we focused on genetics, plant biochemistry, plant physiology, and mycology, taught by Drs. Joe Smartt, Alan Myers, David Morris, and John Manners. On reflection, the genetics course was pretty basic; most of us had not studied any genetics at school. So practical classes focused on Drosophila fruit fly crossing experiments, and analysing the progeny. Today, students are deeply involved with molecular biology and genomics; they probably learn all about Mendelian genetics at school. During the second year, plant taxonomist Leslie Watson departed for Australia, and this was the reason why Vernon Heywood was asked to cover this discipline later on.

The structure of the Single Honours Botany course changed by my final year. There was a common course covering a wide range of topics, with specialisms taken around the various topics. For us Combined Honours students, we took the plant ecology specialism, and three components from the common course. We also had to complete a dissertation, the work for which was undertaken during the long vacation between the second and third years, and submitted, without fail, on the first day of the Spring Term in January. We could choose a topic in either Botany or Geography. I made a study of moorland vegetation near my home in North Staffordshire, using different sampling methods depending on the height of vegetation.

We made two field courses. The first, in July 1968, focusing on an appreciation of the plant kingdom, took us to the Burren on the west coast of Ireland in Co. Clare. We had a great time.

The last morning, Saturday 27 July 1968, outside the Savoy Hotel in Lisdoonvarna. In the right photo, L-R, back row: Alan Myers, Leslie Watson (staff), Jenny?, Chris ? (on shoulders), Paul Freestone, Gloria Davies, John Grainger, Peter Winfield. Middle row: Janet Beazley and Nick Lawrence (crouching) Alan Mackie, Margaret Barran, Diana Caryl, John Jackson, Stuart Christophers. Sitting: Jill Andison, Patricia Banner, Mary Goddard, Jane Elliman, Chris Kirby (crouching)

Checking out the Cliffs of Moher, and working on individual projects (Paul Freestone, John Grainger, Jane Elliman)

We all had to carry out a short project, in pairs, and I worked with Chris Kirby on the brown algae abundant on the coast near Lisdoonvarna which was our base. At the end of the second year, we spent two weeks in Norfolk, when the Americans first landed on the Moon. Led by Joyce Lambert and John Manners, the course had a strong ecology focus, taking us around the Norfolk Broads, the salt marshes, the Breckland, and fens. We also had small individual projects to carry out. I think mine looked at the distribution of a particular grass species across Wheatfen, home of Norfolk naturalist (and good friend of Joyce Lambert), Ted Ellis.

Professor Stephen H Crowdy was the head of department. He had come to Southampton around 1966 from the ICI Laboratores at Jealott’s Hill. He was an expert on the uptake and translocation of various pesticides and antibiotics in plants. I never heard him lecture, and hardly ever came into contact with him. He was somewhat of a non-entity as far as us students were concerned.

Joyce Lambert was my tutor in botany, a short and somewhat rotund person, a chain-smoker, known affectionately by everyone as ‘Bloss’ (short for Blossom). Her reputation as a plant ecologist was founded on pioneer research, a stratigraphical analysis of the Norfolk Broads confirming their man-made origin, the result of medieval peat diggings. Later on, with her colleague and head of department until 1965, Professor Bill Williams, Joyce developed multivariate methods to study plant communities. This latter research area was the focus of much of her final year teaching in plant ecology. Joyce passed away in 2005.

Joe Smartt

I became a close friend of Joe Smartt, who retired in 1996 as Reader in Biology, and a highly respected expert on grain legumes. It was Joe who encouraged my interest in the nexus between genetics and ecology, which eventually led to me applying to Birmingham in February 1970 to join the MSc course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources  in September that year, the beginnings of my career in genetic resources conservation. Outside academics, Joe and I founded a Morris dancing team at Southampton, The Red Stags, in October 1968, and its ‘descendant’ is still thriving today. Joe passed away in June 2013.

I also had little contact outside lectures and practical classes with the other staff, such as physiologists Alan Myers and David Morris, or cytologist Roy Lane. In the late 1980s, when I was a lecturer in plant biology at The University of Birmingham, as internal examiner I joined plant pathologist John Manners (the external examiner) to examine a plant pathology PhD dissertation at Birmingham. I hadn’t seen him since I left Southampton in 1970.

Every October he used to organize a fungus foray into the New Forest for a day. I’ve read a couple of accounts from former botany students, before my time, and how enjoyable these outings were. John was elected President of the British Mycological Society in 1968, and was a recipient of the very special President’s Medal of the Society.

October 1969 – John Manners leading a fungus foray, near Denny Wood in the New Forest

Leslie Watson (who came from my home town of Leek in Staffordshire) taught flowering plant taxonomy, and had an interest in the application of numerical techniques to classify plants. At some point in my second year, he joined the Australian National University in Canberra, completing several important studies on the grass genera of the world. After I had posted something a few years back on my blog, Leslie left a comment. I’ve subsequently found that he retired to Western Australia.

In October 1968 (the beginning of my second year), John Rodwell joined Joyce Lambert’s research group to start a PhD study of limestone vegetation. He had graduated with First Class Honours from the University of Leeds that summer. In the summer of 1969, John stayed with me in Leek for a few days while making some preliminary forays (with me acting as chauffeur) to the Derbyshire Dales. After completing his PhD, John was ordained an Anglican priest, and was based at the University of Lancaster and becoming the co-ordinator of research leading to the development of the British National Vegetation Classification. He joined the faculty at Lancaster in 1991, and became Professor of Ecology in 1997, retiring in 2004.

Until 1970 there were no re-sit exams at Southampton – unlike the general situation today nationwide in our universities. You either passed your exams first time or were required to withdraw. We lost about half the botany class in 1968, including one of the five Combined Botany and Geography students. Students could even be asked to withdraw at the end of their second year. However, after much uproar among the student body in 1969, the university did eventually permit re-sit exams.

James H Bird, Professor of Geography and head of department, 1967-1989

Geography in the late sixties
The Head of Geography was Professor James Bird, an expert on transport geography (focusing on ports) who joined the department in 1967, replacing renowned physical geographer, FJ Monkhouse. I can’t recall having seen, let alone met him more than a handful of occasions during my three years at Southampton. But from his obituary that I came across recently, he was remembered with affection apparently. He passed away in 1997.

In the Geography department I had contact with just a few staff who taught aspects of physical geography. Dr R John Small lectured on the geomorphology of the Wessex region, and various tropical erosion processes. He was an excellent lecturer. After I left Southampton he authored a student text on geomorphology, published in 1970, with a second edition in 1978. He became first Reader in Geography, then Professor, and head of department (1983-1989). He retired in 1989. I heard from Professor Jane Hart, who was appointed after his retirement, that he still lives in the Southampton area. He must be in his late 80s.

His younger colleague, Michael Clark (later Professor of Geography) also taught several courses in physical geography, focusing on river erosion and weathering processes. He was only 27 in 1967, and had completed his PhD in the department just a couple of years earlier. His work evolved to focus on environmental management, water resources, coastal zone management and cold regions research and on the interactions between society and risk. His involvement in multi-disciplinary applied research and the application of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to decision-making led to the co-founding of the GeoData Institute in 1984, where he served as Director for 18 years (1988-2010). A Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, he received the Gill Memorial Award in 1983. He passed away in 2014.

The third geomorphology class had eight students: four from Combined honours, and four single Geography honours. Among those was Geoff Hewlett/Hewitt (?), a rather intense, mature student, who was awarded one of just two Firsts in Geography. Just a week before Finals in May/June 1970, John Small took our group of eight students for a short field trip (maybe four days) to Dartmoor in Devon, to look at tropical weathered granite landscapes (the tors) there. It was also an opportunity, they divulged, to get us all away from intense revision, and to relax while learning something at the same time.

My Geography tutor during my first year was Dr Roger Barry, a climatologist who left Southampton in 1968 for a new position at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is still active at the National Snow and Ice Data Center on the Boulder campus, as CIRES Fellow Emeritus and Distinguished Professor of Geography, Emeritus.

Dr Brian P Birch became my tutor in my second and third years (he had interviewed me for a place at Southampton in early 1967 with Joyce Lambert from Botany). Brian taught a course on soils and their classification. But I have subsequently discovered that his interest was in settlement patterns (particularly in the US Midwest, where he had completed his Master’s degree in Indiana; he has undergraduate and PhD degrees from Durham University) and their impact on the environment. I never attended any lectures in this field from him. After contacting Prof Jane Hart at Southampton earlier in the year, she gave me Brian’s address so I wrote to him. In a lengthy reply, he told me about the evolution of the Combined Honours degree course into a fully-fledged Environmental Sciences degree, for which he was the Geography lead person. The course grew to include Geology, Oceanography, and even Chemistry. Brian took early retirement in 1990. It was lovely hearing from him after so many decades; he is now in his 80s. He recalled that on one occasion, I had turned up in the Geography department coffee room, and met with staff. He still knew all about my connections with Peru and potatoes. I wonder if that was in 1975 while I was back in the UK to complete my PhD, or later on in the 80s when I did attend a meeting in Botany/ Biological Sciences on a plant genus, Lathyrus, I was working on.

In my final year, there was a new member of staff, Keith Barber who taught Quaternary studies, and who was still completing his PhD at Lancaster University. Keith later became Professor of Environmental Change, and retired in 2009; he passed away in February this year.

At the end of the first week of classes in October 1967, all geography students had a Saturday excursion to the northwest outskirts of Southampton (I don’t remember the exact route we took), and having been dropped off, we all walked back into the city, with various stops for the likes of Small and Clark, and another lecturer named Robinson, to wax lyrical about the landscape and its evolution and history. This was an introduction to a term long common course about the geography of the Southampton region, examined just before Christmas.

There was only one field course in Geography that I attended, just before Easter in March 1968, to Swansea (where we stayed at the university), and traveled around the region. It was fascinating seeing the effects of industrialization and mining, and pollution over centuries, in the Swansea Valley, and attempts at vegetation regeneration, as well as the physical geography of the Gower Peninsula. The weather was, like the curate’s egg, good in parts. On some days it was hot enough to wear swimsuits on the beach; other days it rained. On the morning of our departure home, there were several inches of snow!

Student life
I had a place in South Stoneham House, an all male hall of residence about 25 minutes walk southeast from the Highfield campus. In the sixties, most of the halls of residence were single sex (some of the time – remember these were the ‘Swinging Sixties’). Across the road from Stoneham was Montefiore House, a self-catering hall mainly for mature students, and just down Wessex Lane was Connaught, another all male hall. Highfield (to the west of the campus) and Chamberlain (to the north) were all female halls; Glen Eyre (close to Chamberlain) was, if I remember, both male and female, and self catering.

Rules about occupancy were supposedly strictly enforced. Being caught was cause for expulsion from hall. However, the number of males in female halls and vice versa overnight on Fridays and Saturdays was probably quite significant.

I enjoyed my two years in Stoneham, being elected Vice-President of the Junior Common Room (JRC) in my second year. Law student Geoff Pickerill was the President of the JCR. One of my roles was to organize the annual social events: a fireworks party and dance in November, and the May Ball.

Several of my closest friends came from my Stoneham days, and Neil Freeman (Law) and I have remained in touch all these years. Neil and I moved into ‘digs’ together (with an English and History student, Trevor Boag, from York) in a house at 30 University Road, less than 100 m south of the university administration building that opened in 1969. Our landlord and landlady were Mr and Mrs Drissell who looked after the three of us as though we were family.

Neil had an old Ford Popular

The university had a very active Students’ Union in the late sixties. A new complex of cafeterias, ballrooms, meeting rooms, and sports facilities had just been completed in 1967. My main interest was folk music and dancing. I joined the Folk Club that met every Sunday evening, and even got up to sing on several occasions. I joined the English and Scottish Folk Dance Society, and as I mentioned earlier, co-founded The Red Stags Morris in Autumn 1968. Through these dancing activities, I attended three Inter-Varsity Folk Dance Festivals in Hull (1968), Strathclyde (1969), and Reading (1970), performing a demonstration dance at each: Scottish at Hull and Strathclyde, and Morris (Beaux of London City) at Reading.

I also was involved in the University Rag Week as part of the Stoneham contributions, although we didn’t take part in this actual 1967 stunt. In my second year, students broke into maximum security prison, Parkhurst, on the Isle of Wight, and daubed some Soton Rag propaganda on the perimeter wall. The authorities were not amused.

In my final year, I bumped into a couple of young women in the foyer of the university library. They were from a local teaching college, and were taking part in the city-wide Rag activities. They asked me to buy a raffle ticket – which I did. Then, I suddenly asked one of the girls, who had very long hair, if her name was Jackson. You can imagine her surprise when she confirmed it was. ‘Then’, I said, ‘you are my cousin Caroline’ (the daughter of my father’s younger brother Edgar). I hadn’t seen Caroline for more than a decade, but when I was speaking with her I just knew we were related!

Three years passed so quickly. I graduated in June 1970, and later in September began graduate studies at The University of Birmingham, and a career in international agricultural research for development. But that’s another story.

I spent some of my happiest years at Southampton, enjoyed the academics and the social life. I grew up, and was able to face the world with confidence. Southampton: an excellent choice.

These are some of my memories. Thinking back over 50 years I may have got some details wrong, but I think the narrative is mostly correct. If anyone reading this would like to update any details, or add information, please do get in touch. Just leave a comment.


¹ In 1967 I applied to study Botany and Geography. During the Autumn Term of my final year, in 1969, the university changed the degree title to ‘Environmental Botany and Geography’ that perhaps better reflected the course structure of (mainly) ecology on the one hand and physical geography (geomorphology, climatology, biogeography) on the other. This was probably one of the first environmental degrees.

² After he retired, Mather returned to his home in Birmingham, and became an Honorary Professor in the Department of Genetics in the School of Biological Sciences. In 1981 I joined the staff of the Department of Plant Biology (where I’d taken my PhD) in the same School. By about 1988, the four departments of the School (Plant Biology, Zoology & Comparative Physiology, Microbiology, and Genetics) had merged to form a unitary School of Biological Sciences, and I became a member of the Plant Genetics Research Group. I also moved my office and laboratory to the south ground floor of the School building, that was previously the home of Genetics. Prof. Mather had an office just down the corridor from mine, and we would meet for afternoon tea, and often chat about Southampton days. At Southampton he taught a population genetics course to a combined group of Botany and Zoology students. It was an optional course for me that I enjoyed. One day, he was lecturing about the Hardy-Weinburg Equilibrium, or some such, and filling the blackboard with algebra. Turning around to emphasise one point, he saw a young woman (from Zoology) seated immediately in front of me. She was about to light a cigarette! Without batting an eyelid, and not missing an algebraic beat, all he said was ‘We don’t smoke in lectures’, and turned back to complete the formula he was deriving. Needless to say the red-faced young lady put her cigarette away.

The late 60s were a period of student turmoil, and Southampton was not immune. Along University Road (which bisects the Highfield Campus), close to the Library, a new Administration building, with the Vice-Chancellor’s office (#37) was completed in late 1969 or early 1970 and, as rumored ahead of the event, was immediately the focus of a student sit-in, and regrettably some significant damage. However, one of Mather’s enduring legacies, however, was the establishment of a Medical School at Southampton.

In the blink of an eye, it seems, 50 years have passed

The first week of October 1967. 50 years ago, to the day and date. Monday 2 October.

I was setting off from my home in north Staffordshire to the port city of Southampton on the the UK’s south coast (via London for a couple of nights), to begin a three year BSc Combined Honours degree course in [Environmental] Botany and Geography at the university. I was about to become a Freshman or ‘Fresher’. Not only anticipating being away from home for the first time (although I’d always been sort of independent), I was looking forward to the excitement of ‘Freshers’ Week’ to make new friends, discovering new activities to take up.

On the afternoon of Wednesday 4 October, I joined the ‘Freshers’ Special’ from Waterloo Station in London, a train chartered by the Students’ Union, and met several fellow students in the same compartment who remained close friends throughout my time at Southampton. Unlike mainline rail services, our train stopped at the small suburban station at Swaythling, and hordes of Freshers were disgorged on to the platform and into buses to take them to their respective Hall of Residence, several of which were close-by.

I’d accepted a place in South Stoneham House (becoming Vice President of the Junior Common Room in my second year in autumn 1968), comprising a sixteen floor tower (now condemned for habitation as there’s a lot of asbestos) alongside a rather elegant Queen Anne mansion built in 1708.

I later discovered that the grounds had been landscaped by Capability Brown. Quite a revelation considering my interest in these things nowadays associated with my membership of the National Trust. It’s sad to know what has happened to South Stoneham in the last decade or so.

I had a room on the sixth floor, with a view overlooking Woodmill Lane to the west, towards the university, approximately 1.2 miles and 25 minutes away on foot. In the next room to mine, or perhaps two doors away, I met John Grainger who was also signed up for the same course as me. John had grown up in Kenya where his father worked as an entomologist. Now that sounded quite exotic to me.

Over the course of the next couple of days, I met the other students who had enrolled for Combined Honours as well as single honours courses in botany or geography, and others who were taking one of these as a two-year subsidiary or one-year ancillary subject.

We were five Combined Honours students: Stuart Christophers from Devon, Jane Elliman from Stroud in Gloucestershire, another whose name was Michael (I forget his surname; he came from Birmingham), John and me. Failing his exams at the end of the first year in early summer 1968, Michael was asked to withdraw, as were about one third of the botany class, leaving fewer than twenty students to head off to an end-of-year field course in Co. Clare, Ireland.

End of first year field course in Co. Clare, 27 July 1968. Dept of Botany lecturers Alan Myers and Leslie Watson are on the left. Beside them is Jenny ? Back row, L-R: Chris ? (on shoulders), Paul Freestone, Gloria Davies, John Grainger, Peter Winfield. Middle row: Nick Lawrence (crouching), Alan Mackie, Margaret Barran, Diana Caryl, John Jackson (Zoology with Botany subsidiary), Stuart Christophers. Front row: Jill Andison, Janet Beasley, Patricia Banner, Mary Goddard, Jane Elliman, Chris Kirby.

As ‘Combined’ students we had, of course, roots in both departments, and tutors in both as well: Dr Joyce ‘Blossom’ Lambert (an eminent quantitative ecologist) in Botany, and Dr Brian Birch, among others, in Geography. However, because of the course structure, we actually had many more contact hours in botany, and for my part, I felt that this was my ‘home department’.

Three years passed quickly and (mainly) happily. The odd pull at the old heart strings, falling in and out of love. I took up folk dancing, and started a Morris dancing team, The Red Stags, that continues today but outside the university as a mixed male-female side dancing Border Morris.

And so, in late May 1970 (the day after the Late Spring Bank Holiday), we sat (and passed) our final exams (Finals), left Southampton, and basically lost contact with each other.

In developing this blog, I decided to try and track down my ‘Combined’ colleagues John, Stuart, and Jane. Quite quickly I found an email address for Stuart and sent a message, introducing myself. We exchanged several emails, and he told me a little of what he had been up to during the intervening years.

Despite my best efforts, I was unable to find any contact information for John, although I did come across references to a ‘John Grainger’ who had been involved in wildlife conservation in the Middle East, primarily Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The profile seemed right. I knew that John had stayed on at Southampton to complete a PhD in ecology. Beyond that – nothing! Then, out of the blue in late 2015, John contacted me after he’d come across my blog and posts that I had written about Southampton. We’ve been in touch ever since.

To date, I’ve had no luck tracking down Jane.

Why choose Southampton?
Southampton was a small university in the late 1960s, maybe fewer than 5000 undergraduates. There was no medical faculty, and everything was centred on the Highfield campus. I recently asked John why he decided to study at Southampton. Like me, it seems it was almost by chance. We both sat the same A level exams: biology, geography, and English literature, and we both applied for quite a wide range of university courses. He got a place at Southampton through clearing; I had been offered a provisional place (Southampton had been my third or fourth choice), and my exam results were sufficiently good for the university to confirm that offer. I’d been very impressed with the university when I went for an interview in February. Instinctively, I knew that I could settle and be happy at Southampton, and early on had decided I would take up the offer if I met the grade.

John and I are very much in agreement: Southampton was the making of us. We enjoyed three years academics and social life. It gave us space to grow up, develop friendships, and relationships. As John so nicely put it: . . . thank you Southampton University – you launched me.

My story after 1970
After Southampton, I moved to the University of Birmingham in September 1970, completing a MSc in conservation and use of plant genetic resources in 1971, then a PhD under potato expert Professor Jack Hawkes in 1975. Thus began a career lasting more than 40 years, working primarily on potatoes and rice.

By January 1973 I’d moved to Peru to work in international agricultural research for development at the International Potato Center (CIP), remaining in Peru until 1975, and moving to Costa Rica between 1976 and 1981. Although it was not my training, I did some significant work on a bacterial pathogen of potatoes in Costa Rica.

I moved back to the UK in March 1981, and from April I taught at the University of Birmingham in the Dept. of Plant Biology (formerly botany) for ten years.

By 1991, I was becoming restless, and looking for new opportunities. So I upped sticks and moved with my family to the Philippines in July 1991 to join the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), firstly as Head of the Genetic Resources Center until 2001, and thereafter until my retirement in April 2010 as Director for Program Planning and Communications.

In the Philippines, I learned to scuba dive, and made over 360 dives off the south coast of Luzon, one of the most biodiverse marine environments in the country, in Asia even.

Retirement is sweet! Back in the UK since 2010, my wife Steph and I have become avid National Trusters (and seeing much more of the UK than we had for many years); and my blog absorbs probably more time than it should. I’ve organized two major international rice congresses in Vietnam in 2010 and Thailand in 2014 and just completed a one year review of the international genebanks of eleven CGIAR centers.

Steph and me at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland in mid-September 2017

I was made an OBE in the 2012 New Year’s Honours for services to international food science, and attended an investiture at Buckingham Palace in February 2012.

Receiving my gong from HRH The Prince of Wales (L); with Philippa and Steph after the ceremony in the courtyard of Buckingham Palace (R)

Steph and I met at Birmingham when she joined the genetic resources MSc course in 1971. We married in Lima in October 1973 and are the proud parents of two daughters. Hannah (b. 1978 in Costa Rica) is married to Michael, lives in St Paul, Minnesota, and works as a group director for a company designing human capital and training solutions. Philippa (b. 1982), married to Andi, lives in Newcastle upon Tyne, and is Senior Lecturer at Northumbria University. Both are PhD psychologists! We are now grandparents to four wonderful children: Callum (7) and Zoë (5) in Minnesota; and Elvis (6) and Felix (4) in Newcastle.

Our first full family get-together in the New Forest in July 2016. Standing: Michael and Andi. Sitting, L-R: Callum, Hannah, Zoë, Mike, Steph, Elvis, Felix, and Philippa

Stuart’s story (in his own words, 2013)
I spent my first year after Southampton teaching English in Sweden and the following year doing a Masters at Liverpool University. From there I joined Nickersons, a Lincolnshire-based plant breeding/seeds business, acquired by Shell and now part of the French Group Limagrain. 

In 1984 I returned to my native Devon to run a wholesale seeds company that fortunately, as the industry rationalised, had an interest in seed-based pet and animal feeds. Just prior to coming home to Devon I was based near York working with a micronutrient specialist. A colleague of mine there was Robin Eastwood¹ who certainly knew of you. Robin tragically was killed in a road accident while doing consultancy work in Nigeria.

This is my third year of retirement. We sold on our business which had become centred around wild bird care seven years ago now and I stayed on with the new owners for four years until it was time to go !

Stuart has a son and daughter (probably about the same as my two daughters) and three grandchildren.

John’s story
John stayed on at Southampton and in 1977 was awarded his PhD for a study that used clustering techniques to structure and analyse grey scale data from scanned aerial photographs to assess their use in large-scale vegetation survey. In 1975 he married his girlfriend from undergraduate days, Teresa. After completing his PhD, John and Teresa moved to Iran, where he took up a British Council funded lecturing post at the University of Tehran’s Higher School of Forestry and Range Management in Gorgan, on the southern shore of the Caspian Sea.

Alice, Teresa, and John at the Hejaz railway in Saudi Arabia, c. 1981/82.

By early 1979 they were caught up in the Iranian Revolution, and had to make a hurried escape from the country, landing up eventually in Saudi Arabia in February 1980, where John joined the Institute of Meteorology and Arid Land Studies at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah. Between Iran and Saudi Arabia there was an ‘enforced’ period of leisure in the UK, where their daughter Alice was born in December 1979.

John’s work in Jeddah included establishing an herbarium, researching traditional range conservation practices (hima system), and exploring places with intact habitats and interesting biodiversity. This is when his career-long interest in and contributions to wildlife management took hold, and in 1987 he joined a Saudi Commission for wildlife conservation. The work included an ambitious programme of establishing protected areas and breeding endangered native wildlife species for re-introduction – particularly Arabian oryx, gazelles and houbara bustards. The photos below show some of the areas John visited in Saudi Arabia, often with air logistical support from the Saudi military. 

In 1992, he was recruited by IUCN to lead a protected area development project in Ghana where he spent an exhausting but exhilarating 28 months doing management planning surveys of eight protected areas including Mole National Park. Then in 1996, the Zoological Society of London appointed him as  the project manager for a five year, €6 million EU-funded project in South Sinai to establish and develop the Saint Katherine Protectorate. John stayed until 2003, but by then, Teresa and he had separated; Alice had gained a good degree from St Andrew’s University in Scotland.

With a range of other assignments, and taking some time out between in Croatia, South Africa and other places, he was back in Egypt by 2005 to head up a project aimed at enhancing the institutional capacity of the Nature Conservation Sector for planning and implementing nature conservation activities. By 2010, and happily settled with a new partner, Suzanne, John moved to South Africa for several years, returning to Somerset in the past year. Suzanne and John were married in 2014. Retirement brings extra time for pastimes such as sculpting (many stunning pieces can be seen on his website), and some continuing consultancies in the wildlife management sector.

But I can’t conclude this brief account of John’s career without mentioning his thoughts on what being at Southampton meant to him: I have many reasons to be grateful to Southampton University – the degree involved me in the nascent environmental movement and provided me with the general tools and qualifications to participate professionally in the field. It was I think in the years that I was a postgraduate that I learned the true value of being at university and to become intellectually curious.

John sent me a more detailed account of his post-Southampton career that you can read here.

What next?
Fifty fruitful years. Time has flown by. I wonder what others from our cohort got up to? I have some limited information:

  • Allan Mackie went into brewing, and he and I used to meet up regularly in Birmingham when I was a graduate student there.
  • Peter Winfield joined what is now the Department for Agriculture & Fisheries for Scotland at East Craigs in Edinburgh.
  • Diana Caryl married barrister Geoffrey Rowland (now Sir Geoffrey) who she met at Southampton, and moved to Guernsey, where Geoff served as the Bailiff between 2005 and 2012. She has been active with the plant heritage of that island.
  • Mary Goddard completed a PhD at the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge (awarded by the University of Cambridge), and married Dr Don MacDonald from the university’s Dept. of Genetics.
  • Zoologist John Jackson (who took the subsidiary botany course for two years) completed a Southampton PhD on deer ecology in the New Forest, and spent many years in Argentina working as a wildlife coordinator for INTA, the national agricultural research institute.

The others? Perhaps someone will read this blog and fill in some details. As to geography, I have no contacts whatsoever.

However, through one of the earliest posts on this blog, Proud to be a botanist, which I wrote in April 2012, I was contacted by taxonomist Les Watson, who was one of the staff who took us on the first year field course to Co. Clare, and by graduate student Bob Mepham, who had taught a catch-up chemistry course to students like John Grainger and me, as we hadn’t studied that at A Level, and which was a requirement to enter the Single Honours course in botany. Another botany graduate, Brian Johnson, two years ahead of me and who sold me some books he no longer needed, also commented on one post about a field course in Norfolk.

I’m ever hopeful that others will make contact.


¹Robin Eastwood had completed the Birmingham MSc course in the early 1970s when I had already left for Peru. If memory serves me right, Robin did start a PhD, and was around the department when I returned from Lima in Spring 1975 to submit my PhD dissertation.

Outside the EU . . . even before Brexit

Imagine a little corner of Birmingham, just a couple of miles southwest of the city center. Edgbaston, B15 to be precise. The campus of The University of Birmingham; actually Winterbourne Gardens that were for many decades managed as the botanic garden of the Department of Botany / Plant Biology.

As a graduate student there in the early 1970s I was assigned laboratory space at Winterbourne, and grew experimental plants in the greenhouses and field. Then for a decade from 1981, I taught in the same department, and for a short while had an office at Winterbourne. And for several years continued to teach graduate students there about the conservation and use of plant genetic resources, the very reason why I had ended up in Birmingham originally in September 1970.

Potatoes at Birmingham
It was at Birmingham that I first became involved with potatoes, a crop I researched for the next 20 years, completing my PhD (as did many others) under the supervision of Professor Jack Hawkes, a world-renowned expert on the genetic resources and taxonomy of the various cultivated potatoes and related wild species from the Americas. Jack began his potato career in 1939, joining Empire Potato Collecting Expedition to South America, led by Edward Balls. Jack recounted his memories of that expedition in Hunting the Wild Potato in the South American Andes, published in 2003.

29 March 1939: Bolivia, dept. La Paz, near Lake Titicaca, Tiahuanaco. L to R: boy, Edward Balls, Jack Hawkes, driver.

The origins of the Commonwealth Potato Collection
Returning to Cambridge, just as the Second World War broke out, Jack completed his PhD under the renowned potato breeder Sir Redcliffe Salaman, who had established the Potato Virus Research Institute, where the Empire Potato Collection was set up, and after its transfer to the John Innes Centre in Hertfordshire, it became the Commonwealth Potato Collection (CPC) under the management of institute director Kenneth S Dodds (who published several keys papers on the genetics of potatoes).

Bolivian botanist Prof Martin Cardenas (left) and Kenneth Dodds (right). Jack Hawkes named the diploid potato Solanum cardenasii after his good friend Martin Cardenas. It is now regarded simply as a form of the cultivated species S. phureja.

Hawkes’ taxonomic studies led to revisions of the tuber-bearing Solanums, first in 1963 and in a later book published in 1990 almost a decade after he had retired. You can see my battered copy of the 1963 publication below.

Dalton Glendinning

The CPC was transferred to the Scottish Plant Breeding Station (SPBS) at Pentlandfield just south of Edinburgh in the 1960s under the direction of Professor Norman Simmonds (who examined my MSc thesis). In the early 1970s the CPC was managed by Dalton Glendinning, and between November 1972 and July 1973 my wife Steph was a research assistant with the CPC at Pentlandfield. When the SPBS merged with the Scottish Horticultural Research Institute in 1981 to form the Scottish Crops Research Institute (SCRI) the CPC moved to Invergowrie, just west of Dundee on Tayside. The CPC is still held at Invergowrie, but now under the auspices of the James Hutton Institute following the merger in 2011 of SCRI with Aberdeen’s Macaulay Land Use Research Institute.

Today, the CPC is one of the most important and active genetic resources collections in the UK. In importance, it stands alongside the United States Potato Genebank at Sturgeon Bay in Wisconsin, and the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru, where I worked for more than eight years from January 1973.

Hawkes continued in retirement to visit the CPC (and Sturgeon Bay) to lend his expertise for the identification of wild potato species. His 1990 revision is the taxonomy still used at the CPC.

So what has this got to do with the EU?
For more than a decade after the UK joined the EU (EEC as it was then in 1973) until that late 1980s, that corner of Birmingham was effectively outside the EU with regard to some plant quarantine regulations. In order to continue studying potatoes from living plants, Jack Hawkes was given permission by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF, now DEFRA) to import potatoes—as botanical or true seeds (TPS)—from South America, without them passing through a centralised quarantine facility in the UK. However, the plants had to be raised in a specially-designated greenhouse, with limited personnel access, and subject to unannounced inspections. In granting permission to grow these potatoes in Birmingham, in the heart of a major industrial conurbation, MAFF officials deemed the risk very slight indeed that any nasty diseases (mainly viruses) that potato seeds might harbour would escape into the environment, and contaminate commercial potato fields.

Jack retired in 1982, and I took up the potato research baton, so to speak, having been appointed lecturer in the Department of Plant Biology at Birmingham after leaving CIP in April 1981. One of my research projects, funded quite handsomely—by 1980s standards—by the Overseas Development Administration (now the Department for International Development, DFID) in 1984, investigated the potential of growing potatoes from TPS developed through single seed descent in diploid potatoes (that have 24 chromosomes compared with the 48 of the commercial varieties we buy in the supermarket). To cut a long story short, we were not able to establish this project at Winterbourne, even though there was space. That was because of the quarantine restrictions related to the wild species collections were held and were growing on a regular basis. So we reached an agreement with the Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) at Trumpington, Cambridge to set up the project there, building a very fine glasshouse for our work.

Then Margaret Thatcher’s government intervened! In 1987, the PBI was sold to Unilever plc, although the basic research on cytogenetics, molecular genetics, and plant pathology were not privatised, but transferred to the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Consequently our TPS project had to vacate the Cambridge site. But to where could it go, as ODA had agreed a second three-year phase? The only solution was to bring it back to Birmingham, but that meant divesting ourselves of the Hawkes collection. And that is what we did. However, we didn’t just put the seed packets in the incinerator. I contacted the folks at the CPC and asked them if they would accept the Hawkes collection. Which is exactly what happened, and this valuable germplasm found a worthy home in Scotland.

In any case, I had not been able to secure any research funds to work with the Hawkes collection, although I did supervise some MSc dissertations looking at resistance to potato cyst nematode in Bolivian wild species. And Jack and I published an important paper together on the taxonomy and evolution of potatoes based on our biosystematics research.

A dynamic germplasm collection
It really is gratifying to see a collection like the CPC being actively worked on by geneticists and breeders. Especially as I do have sort of a connection with the collection. It currently comprises about 1500 accessions of 80 wild and cultivated species.

Sources of resistance to potato cyst nematode in wild potatoes, particularly Solanum vernei from Argentina, have been transferred into commercial varieties and made a major impact in potato agriculture in this country.

Safeguarded at Svalbard
Just a couple of weeks ago, seed samples of the CPC were sent to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) for long-term conservation. CPC manager Gaynor McKenzie (in red) and CPC staff Jane Robertson made the long trek north to carry the precious potato seeds to the vault.

Potato reproduces vegetatively through tubers, but also sexually and produces berries like small tomatoes – although they always remain green and are very bitter, non-edible.

We rarely see berries after flowering on potatoes in this country. But they are commonly formed on wild potatoes and the varieties cultivated by farmers throughout the Andes. Just to give an indication of just how prolific they are let me recount a small piece of research that one of my former colleagues carried out at CIP in the 1970s. Noting that many cultivated varieties produced an abundance of berries, he was interested to know if tuber yields could be increased if flowers were removed from potato plants before they formed berries. Using the Peruvian variety Renacimiento (which means rebirth) he showed that yields did indeed increase in plots where the flowers were removed. In contrast, potatoes that developed berries produced the equivalent of 20 tons of berries per hectare! Some fertility. And we can take advantage of that fertility to breed new varieties by transferring genes between different strains, but also storing them at low temperature for long-term conservation in genebanks like Svalbard. It’s not possible to store tubers at low temperature.

Here are a few more photos from the deposit of the CPC in the SGSV.

I am grateful to the James Hutton Institute for permission to use these photos in my blog, and many of the other potato photographs displayed in this post.


Through hard work, great things are achieved

BirminghamUniversityCrestPer Ardua Ad Alta

That’s the motto of The University of Birmingham, and ‘these sentiments sum up the spirit of Birmingham and illustrate the attitude of the people who have shaped both the city and the University.’

Almost 50 years ago, I had no inkling that I would have more than half a lifetime’s association with this university. Receiving its royal charter in 1900 (although the university was a successor to several institutions founded in the 19th century as early as 1828), Birmingham is the archetypal ‘redbrick university‘, located on its own campus in Edgbaston, about 3 miles southwest of Birmingham city center.

First encounter in 1967

My first visit to the university was in May or June 1967—to sit an exam. Biology was one of the four subjects (with Geography, English Literature, and General Studies) I was studying for my Joint Matriculation Board Advanced Level high school certificate (essentially the university entrance requirement) here in the UK. We were only four or five biology students at my high school, St Joseph’s College in Trent Vale, Stoke-on-Trent (motto: Fideliter et Fortiter).

Now, I don’t remember (maybe I never knew) whether we were too few in number to sit our biology practical exam at the school, or all students everywhere had to attend an examination venue, but we set off by train from Stoke to Birmingham, and ended up at the School of Biological Sciences building. It was a new building then, and the (federal) School had only recently been formed from the four departments of Botany, Zoology & Comparative Physiology, Genetics, and Microbiology.

Just before 2 pm, the five of us—and about 100 other students—trooped into the main laboratory (that I subsequently came to know as the First Year Lab) on the second floor. Little did I know that just over three years later I’d be joining the Department of Botany as a graduate student, nor that 14 years later in 1981 I would join the faculty as Lecturer in Plant Biology. Nothing could have been further from my mind as I settled down to tackle a dissection of the vascular system of a rat, and the morphology of a gorse flower, among other tasks to attempt.

Birmingham was not on the list of universities to which I had applied in December 1966. I’d chosen King’s College, London (geography), Aberystwyth (zoology and geography), Southampton (botany and geography), York (biology), Queen Mary College, London (general biological sciences), and Newcastle (botany and geography). In the end, I chose Southampton, and spent three very happy if not entirely fruitful years there.

Entering the postgraduate world

Jack Hawkes

Jack Hawkes

The next time I visited Birmingham was in February 1970. I had applied to join the recently-founded postgraduate MSc Course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources. I was interviewed by Course Director and Head of the Department of Botany, Professor JG Hawkes and Senior Lecturer and plant ecologist, Dr Denis Wilkins.

Despite the grilling from both of  them, I must have made an impression because I was offered a place for the following September. The only problem: no support grant. Although Hawkes had applied for recognition by one of the research councils to provide postgraduate studentships, nothing had materialized when I applied (although he was successful the following year, and for many years afterwards providing studentships to British students). So, after graduation from Southampton in July 1970 I was on tenterhooks all summer as I tried to sort out a financial solution to attend the course. Finally, around mid-August, I had a phone call from Hawkes telling me that the university would provide a small support grant. It was only £380 for the whole year, to cover all my living expenses including rent. That’s the equivalent of about £5600 today. The university would pay my fees.

All set then. I found very comfortable bed-sit accommodation a couple of miles from the university, and turned up at the department in early September to begin my course, joining four other students (from Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey and Venezuela). It was during this one year course that I really learned how to study, and apart from my weekly Morris dancing night, I had few other distractions. It was study, study, study: and it paid off. The rest is history. I graduated in September 1971, by which time I’d been offered a one-year position at the newly-founded International Potato CenterCIP logo (CIP) in Lima, Peru, and I was all set for a career (I hoped) in the world of genetic resources and conservation. As it turned out, my travel to South America was delayed by more than a year during which time I registered for and commenced a PhD study on potatoes, finally landing in Lima in January 1973 and beginning a career in international agricultural research that lasted, on and off, until my retirement in 2010. I carried out most of my PhD research in Peru, and submitted my thesis in October 1975.

Jack Hawkes and me discussing landrace varieties of potatoes in the CIP potato germplasm collection, Huancayo, central Peru in early 1974.

Graduation December 1975. L to R: Jack Hawkes (who co-supervised my PhD), me, and Trevor Williams (who became the first Director General of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources). Trevor supervised my MSc dissertation.

Then I returned to Lima, spending another five years with CIP in Costa Rica carrying out research on bacterial diseases of potatoes among other things.

I should add that during the academic year 1971-72, a young woman, Stephanie Tribble, joined the MSc course. A few months later we became an ‘item’.

Steph’s MSc graduation at the University of Birmingham in December 1972, just weeks before I flew to South America and join the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru.

After graduation, she joined the Scottish Plant Breeding Station just south of Edinburgh, but joined me in Lima in July 1973. We married there in October, and she also had a position with CIP for the years we remained in Lima.

A faculty position
On 1 April 1981 I joined the University of Birmingham as a lecturer in the Department of Plant Biology.

Richard Sawyer

By mid-1980, after almost five years in Costa Rica, I felt that I had achieved as much as I could there, and asked my Director General in Lima, Dr Richard Sawyer, for a transfer to a new position. In November, we moved back to Lima, and I was expecting to be posted either to Brazil or possibly to the Philippines. In the meantime, I had been alerted to a recently-established lectureship in the Department of Plant Biology (formerly Botany) at Birmingham, and had been encouraged to apply¹. With encouragement from Richard Sawyer², and having been invited for interview, I made the trek back to the UK from Lima towards the end of January 1981. The interview process then was very different from what might be expected nowadays. No departmental seminar. Just a grilling from a panel chaired by the late Professor John Jinks, FRS, Dean of the Faculty of Science and head of the Department of Genetics. There were three staff from Plant Biology (Hawkes, Dennis Wilkins, and Brian Ford-Lloyd), and the head of the Department of Biochemistry and Deputy Dean, Professor Derek Walker.

We were three candidates. Each interview lasted about 45 minutes, and we all had to wait outside the interview room to learn who would be selected. I was interviewed last. Joining the other two candidates afterwards, we sat side-by-side, hardly exchanging a word between us, nervously waiting for one of us to be called back in to meet the panel. I was the lucky one. I was offered the position, accepted immediately, and a couple of days later flew back to Lima to break the news and make plans to start a new life with Steph and our daughter Hannah (then almost three) in Birmingham.

Over the 10 years I spent at Birmingham I never had the worry (or challenge) of teaching any First Year Course – thank goodness. But I did contribute a small module on agricultural systems to the Second Year common course (and became the Second Year Chair in the School of Biological Sciences), as well as sharing teaching of flowering plant taxonomy to plant biology stream students mtj-and-bfl-book-launchin the Second Year. With my colleague Brian Ford-Lloyd (with whom I’ve published three books on genetic resources) I developed a Third Year module on genetic resources that seems to have been well-received (from some subsequent feedback I’ve received). I also contributed to a plant pathology module for Third Year students. But the bulk of my teaching was to MSc students on the graduate course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources – the very course I’d attended a decade earlier. My main focus was crop evolution, germplasm collecting, and agricultural systems, among others. And of course there was supervision of PhD and MSc student research projects.

One of the responsibilities I enjoyed was tutoring undergraduate students, and always had an open door if they needed to see me. It quite shocked me in the late 1990s when my elder daughter, then a student at Swansea University, told me that her tutors had very limited and defined access hours for students. Of course you can’t be on call all day, every day, but you have to be there if a student really need to see you. And my tutees knew that if my office door was open (as it mostly was) they were free to come in and see me.

Once the four departments of the School of Biological Sciences merged into a single department in 1988, I aligned myself with and joined the Plant Genetics Group, and found a better role for myself. I also joined and became Deputy Chair of a cross-disciplinary group called Environmental Research Management (ERM) whose aim was to promote the strength of environment-related research across the university. Through ERM I became acquainted with Professor Martin Parry, and together with Brian Ford-Lloyd we published a book on genetic resources and climate change in 1990, and another in 2014 after we had retired.

Moving on
Even though the prospect of promotion to Senior Lecturer was quite good (by 1989 I’d actually moved on to the Senior Lecturer pay scale), I was becoming somewhat disillusioned with university life by that time. Margaret Thatcher and her government had consistently assaulted the higher education sector, and in any case I couldn’t see things getting any better for some years to come. In this I was unfortunately proved correct. In September 1990 a circular dropped into my post, advertising a new position at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. This was for a germplasm specialist and first head of the Genetic Resources Center. So I applied, was interviewed in January 1991, and accepted the position with a view to joining the institute from 1 July. They actually wanted me to start on 1 April. But as I explained—and IRRI Management accepted—I had teaching and examination commitments to fulfill at the university. In February I began to teach my third year module on genetic resources for the last time, and set the exams for all students to take in May and June. Once the marking and assessments had been completed, I was free to leave.

Friday 28 June was my last day, ending with a small farewell party in the School. I flew out to the Philippines on Sunday 30 June. And, as they say, the rest is history. I never looked back. But now, retirement is sweet, as are my memories.

¹ Jack Hawkes was due to retire in September 1982 and, recognizing that his departure would leave a big hole in the MSc teaching, the university approved the recruitment of a lecturer in plant genetic resources (with a focus on crop evolution, flowering plant taxonomy, and the like) essentially covering those areas where Jack had contributed.
² Dick Sawyer told me that applying for the Birmingham position was the right thing to do at that stage of my career. However, the day before I traveled to the UK he called me to his office to wish me well, and to let me know whichever way the interview went, he would have a new five-year contract waiting on his desk for me on my return. From my point of view (and I hope CIP’s) it was a win-win situation. Thus I left for the interview at Birmingham full of confidence.


“There isn’t a tree to hang a man, water to drown a man nor soil to bury a man”.

So said – or words to that effect – an army officer named Ludlow during Oliver Cromwell’s campaign of persecution throughout Ireland between 1649 and 1653.

And what was he referring to? The Burren – located in the west of Ireland, in County Clare, and one of the most impressive – and ostensibly bleak – landscapes anywhere. I have visited Ireland three times, and each time I made a beeline for the Burren.¹

The Burren is a landscape of limestone pavement, or karst, one of the largest expanses of such in Europe, covering an area of more than 200 km². The Burren National Park – the smallest in Ireland – covers an area of only 1500 ha. Although ‘devoid of trees, water and soil’, it is nevertheless an incredibly biodiverse environment, with an impressive array of wildlife.

Dryas octopetala

Botanically, the Burren is fascinating, with Arctic-alpine plants growing alongside those more typical of the Mediterranean, as well as both lime-loving (calcicole) and acid-loving (calcifuge) species. One of the signature species of the Burren is the mountain avens (Dryas octopetala) which is found throughout the Alps and far into the north of Europe. But here on the Burren it grows almost at sea level. There is also an impressive list of orchids that have been recorded here.

The Burren attracts many tourists wishing to have a special ‘botanical experience’ to discover all manner of plants among the grikes and clints of the limestone pavement. And it was in July 1968 that I first visited the Burren, participating in an end of first year undergraduate field course from the University of Southampton. Based in the small town of Lisdoonvarna (famous for its annual matchmaking festival), the course was led by tutors Mr Leslie Watson (a plant taxonomist) and Dr Alan Myers (a plant physiologist/ biochemist). We were a small group of only about 19 students who had survived the end of year exams when several of our colleagues who had failed were required to withdraw from the university. There were no re-sits in those days! The group included four students (including me) studying for a combined degree in botany and geography, and one zoology student who would continue with botany as a subsidiary subject into his second year. The others were all ‘single honours’ students in botany.

Back row (standing), L to R: Chris ? (on shoulders), Paul ?, Gloria Davies; John Grainger; Peter Winfield. Middle row, L to R: Alan Mayers, Leslie Watson, Jenny ?, Nick Lawrence (crouching), Alan Mackie, Margaret Barron, Diana Caryl, John Jackson, Stuart Christophers. Front row (sitting): Jill Andison, Janet Beazley (?), Patricia Banner, Mary Goddard, Jane Elliman, Chris Kirby.

Spending two weeks on the west coast of Ireland could have been a disaster, weather-wise. But how fortunate we were. Almost two weeks of perfect sunny and warm days. Apart from several days exploring the Burren – in clear weather and in fog! – we had day trips to the mountains of Connemara, along the beaches close to Lisdoonvarna (where I did a short project on brown algae), and a ‘free day’ to search for ‘Kerry diamonds‘ – actually quartz crystals – on the Dingle Peninsula, about 100 miles south of Lisdoonvarna.

Close to Lisdoonvarna are the spectacular Cliffs of Moher², rising over more than 120 m from the Atlantic Ocean – next stop North America! Part of our interest was to look for fossils in the shale layers that make up the cliffs.

But all work and no play makes Jack(son) a dull boy. We had plenty of opportunity of letting our hair down. Every day when we returned from the field we were pleased to see a line of pints of Guinness that had been already been poured in readiness for our arrival, around 5 pm. In the evening – besides enjoying a few more glasses of Guinness – we enjoyed dancing to a resident fiddler, Joseph Glynn, and a young barmaid who played the tin whistle. Since I had spent the previous year learning folk dancing, I organized several impromptu ceilidhs.

Joseph Glynn of Limerick, July 1968

Joseph Glynn of Limerick, July 1968

All too soon, our two weeks were over, and we headed back to Dublin via Limerick to catch the boat train from Dún Laoghaire to Holyhead and on to our homes from there. We arrived in Holyhead in the early morning, and I had to travel to Stoke-on-Trent where my parents would pick me up. Leslie Watson also came from Leek, and we were headed in the same direction together as he was taking the opportunity of visiting his parents there. I remember that we cheered ourselves up around 6 am or so on Crewe station, taking a wee dram from a ‘smuggled’ bottle of raw poteen, a traditional spirit distilled from potatoes or grain, whose production was outlawed and remained illegal until the 1990s.

¹ Landscapes photos of the Burren used from Wikipedia under its Creative Commons licences – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Burren, where all attributions are filed.
² Photos of the Cliffs of Moher used from Wikipedia under the respective Creative Commons licences – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cliffs_of_Moher, where all attributions are filed.

Study botany and the world’s your oyster . . .

You bet!

Botany or banking? Is there really a serious choice? I saw a report last year in which botany graduates received higher initial salaries after graduation than many other professions, ranking third after medicine and dentistry, in the UK. That’s hard to believe really. Bankers might certainly reach for the giddy heights in terms of salary packages (and bonuses) but I’m sure that more botanists go to bed each night with a clearer conscience than bankers. And when was the last time you heard of a botanist being reviled by society at large? Well, perhaps if you are in the GM business . . . ?

Not convinced? Well let me tell you why. There is, however, a small caveat. It might be more appropriate to talk about ‘plant sciences’ in the widest sense, because many of the people I’ve met over the decades who do scientific research on and about plants didn’t necessarily study botany per se at university. I don’t think that diminishes my point, however. In the UK, I don’t think there’s a single botany department any longer in the university sector. They all morphed into ‘plant sciences’ or ‘plant biology’ (supposedly more appealing names) or became part of  biological sciences departments. If you were lucky there might be a ‘plants stream’. Botany appears to be in a healthier position in North America.

Plant scientists, it seems, are in great demand. And the traditional image of a botanist couldn’t be further from reality. Whether employed as molecular biologists, geneticists or biochemists (the distinctions are diminishing by the day), plant or crop physiologists, plant breeders, plant pathologists, ecologists, biodiversity and conservation specialists, or even taxonomists, there’s never been a greater need for people to study plants. After all, life on earth depends on plants. Where would we be if we could not successfully grow the crops needed for survival, to adapt to climate change, to keep one step ahead of evolving pathogens, or simply try and understand this wonderful world of ours and its glorious diversity?

Botany has been my ticket to a successful and fruitful career. It’s taken me to many countries in the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Oceania over four decades – as plant hunter, researcher, teacher, project manager, and speaker. I worked on two important plant species: potato (Solanum tuberosum) and rice (Oryza sativa) and their wild relatives as a taxonomist, germplasm expert, seed physiologist, agronomist, plant breeder, and plant pathologist. My work has been both lab and field based. What more could I have asked for? And I’ve worked with some inspiring colleagues who came to work on potatoes and rice – and other crops – through one avenue or another, not necessarily as botanists, but perhaps through an interest in and love of plants as part of agriculture.

I can’t deny that I have been fortunate – when opportunities arose I was well-placed to take advantage. I studied with some inspiring heavyweights in my chosen fields. But a love and study of plants has made me a happy person – on the whole.

I was out and about yesterday on one of my daily walks. It was a beautiful day, Spring was definitely in the air (at last), and the hedgerows were creeping back into life. In one spot, the bedstraws (Galium spp.) were in their first flush of new growth,  profusely spreading over the bank beside the road, and responding to milder days we have begun to experience recently (in any case it really has been a mild winter). And it was that sight that made me think back to my student days in the late 60s as an undergraduate at Southampton University. There were times when I did wonder if I’d ever use again some of things we were taught and how relevant they might become – like plant anatomy, for example. It’s interesting to know how important anatomy studies have become in the search for and development of a C4 rice to make its photosynthesis more efficient. Researchers at IRRI have studied the leaf anatomy of hundreds of samples of wild rice species, since C4 photosynthesis in plants is associated with the specialized Kranz anatomy.

As an undergraduate I took several plant ecology courses with Dr Joyce ‘Blossom’ Lambert who had worked on and discovered the origin of the Norfolk Broads in East Anglia, UK – not as natural lakes but flooded peat diggings abandoned by the 14th century. But once I’d discovered the ‘link’ between ecology and genetics, I was hooked, and that led to my focus on the conservation and use of plant genetic resources. The rest, as they say, is history . . .