Farewell to a Queen . . .

Halloween. 31 October 1967. Tuesday.

I’d been an undergraduate at the University of Southampton for less than a month, and here I was already skipping classes. But, in my defence, it was for a once-in-a-lifetime event. For that was the day that the iconic ocean liner, RMS Queen Mary, owned and operated by the Cunard Line, made her last voyage from her home port of Southampton, bound (via Cape Horn) to Long Beach, California where she was destined to become a luxury hotel and major tourist attraction. Almost 50 years on, she is still a fixture on the Long Beach skyline.

QueenMary31-10-67

What started as just a whim among a group of friends quickly gained traction. And once we’d persuaded one of our colleagues, Tom Power (a mature student who was studying geology and, more importantly, had his own set of wheels) we had to decide on the best vantage point from which to observe the Queen Mary glide down Southampton Water towards the Isle of Wight and the English Channel. My father’s cousin, Chris Jewett and her husband Norman (and daughters of roughly my age, Anne and Pat) lived in Weston, on the east shore of Southampton Water, and just south of what was then Cunard’s Ocean Terminal in the port. I checked with her and was told that they would have an excellent view from the terrace of their house overlooking Southampton Water. And so, quite early in the morning that’s where about five of us headed, piled into Tom’s Hillman Imp.

And what a magnificent sight the Queen Mary was, surrounded by a flotilla of sailing vessels of all sizes. She was escorted on her way by tug boats, and overhead flew a squadron of helicopters.

PACIFIC_Royal.inddSo what has brought all these memories to the surface. Well, I’m about halfway through a book I was given last Christmas called Pacific: The Ocean of the Future by Simon Winchester. It’s an interesting series of essays about events and people that have shaped the history and influence of this region of the world. The first chapters were concerned with the atomic bomb tests on Bikini Atoll, the rise of surfing as a Pacific Ocean phenomenon, the ‘nuisance’ (his words) that is North Korea and, in the chapter that I have just begun, Winchester describes the demise of the Queen Mary’s younger sister ship, the RMS Queen Elizabeth. After the Queen Elizabeth had been decommissioned, it was sold as a possible tourist rival to the Queen Mary (but on the US east coast), but eventually made its final voyage to Hong Kong destined to become the floating  Seawise University. Instead it ended up lying on its starboard side, settling into the mud of Hong Kong harbour in January 1972. In what was clearly a well-planned arson attack, the beautiful Queen Elizabeth was destroyed in a wanton act of violence. It was scrapped two years later but its steel lives on in the many skyscrapers that make up the Hong Kong skyline. The Parker Pen Company made a limited edition pen from the salvaged brass fittings on board. What could not be salvaged, mainly the keel, now lies buried beneath one of Hong Kong’s container ports on land reclaimed from the sea.

queenelizabeth07

RMS Queen Elizabeth on fire in Hong Kong Harbour in January 1972

Seawise_University_wreck

The once magnificent RMS Queen Elizabeth lying on her starboard side and settling into the mud of Hong Kong Harbour

My father, Fred Jackson, was born in 1908 in the Staffordshire brewing town of Burton upon Trent in the English Midlands. It hard to think of anywhere in the country that’s further from the coast than Burton. Yet, he and his younger brother Edgar both had naval careers, and when war broke out in 1939 and they were finally conscripted into the armed forces, they joined the Royal Navy. But in the previous decade my father had sailed the Atlantic almost 100 times as ship’s photographer on ships operated by the Cunard White Star Line. His favourite ship was the RMS Aquitania.

He met my mother on one of these Atlantic crossings, and before they married in 1936 they returned to the UK on board the Aquitania. He did not serve on either the Queen Mary (launched 1934) or the Queen Elizabeth (launched 1938). However, I recall my mother mentioning that she had sailed just the once on the Queen Mary, but I may be mistaken.

Apart from my university days in Southampton, our family has a long ‘Southampton connection’. Dad’s aunt and uncle, Albert and Rebecca Osman (my grandmother’s sister) settled in Southampton, with their son Jim Osman and daughter Chris who I mentioned earlier. Dad’s brother Edgar moved to Lyndhurst in the New Forest, and their elder son Roger joined the merchant marine spending some years as an engineer on the SS Canberra.

My cousin Roger Jackson and his bride Anne. That’s my bridesmaid cousin Caroline on the left, Roger’s younger sister.

On holidays in the New Forest around 1960, we paid a couple of visits to Southampton Docks, nostalgic visits for my Mum and Dad. In those days you could just wander around on the quayside, enter the Ocean Terminal and get up really close to the ships. Here are a few images of both the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth and other ships in port. The girl with my brother Ed and me is our older second cousin Anne Jewett.

There really was a majesty about these great ocean liners. The RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 (launched 1967, but now enjoying retirement in Dubai) and the RMS Queen Mary 2 (launched 2003) carried on the graceful tradition and lines of their predecessors, and are worthy successors to their 1930s namesakes.

The cruise behemoths that now carry 4-5000 passengers at a time have, in my eyes, a fraction of the grace and glamour of the Queens, notwithstanding that they are wonders of modern maritime engineering and technology.

 

The Man in the Moon

FullMoon2010 copyDo you remember where you were on Sunday 20 July 1969? I do.

I was attending an ecology field course in Norfolk having just completed my second year at the University of Southampton (studying botany and geography). I was one of a group of 20 or so botany and combined honours students spending two weeks studying plant ecology under course tutors Dr Joyce Lambert and Dr John Manners.

Looking back, I think we had a good time, visiting the Norfolk Broads (the origin of which Joyce Lambert had determined many years earlier), and the Breckland, among other places. The first week was spent on site visits, and during the second, we split into pairs to carry out a series of mini-projects at Wheatfen Broad, home to celebrated Norfolk naturalist and broadcaster, EA ‘Ted’ Ellis.

We stayed at Wymondham College, a boarding school in the village of Wymondham about 15 miles southwest of Norwich. Now a state day and boarding school for pupils (including international students), in the late 1960s it catered more to families from rural Norfolk, if I recall correctly.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, there we were ensconced in Wymondham College, almost the only occupants as the school was closed for the summer holiday. It was also more than a mile walk to the nearest pub, which we undertook almost every evening once any after dinner studies had been completed.

During the first week, however, Apollo 11 had blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center (Cape Canaveral) in Florida on 16 July on its way to the Moon, for the first landing mission. A momentous occasion, and one we did not want to miss. The problem was that there was no television to watch.

Apollo_11_first_stepBut four days later, in the early hours of 20 July we were all huddled around a TV in the common room, watching rather grainy live pictures from the Moon as Neil Armstrong stepped off the lunar landing module and uttered those forever famous words: That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.

We had clubbed together and rented a TV—much to the disapproval of Joyce Lambert and John Manners—from a local company so that we could participate in one of the most significant events of the twentieth century. I don’t think botanical productivity was particularly high at Wheatfen Broad the next morning. We were a group of very sleepy botanists staggering around up to our knees in Norfolk mud as we tried to work out plant succession in the various communities we were tasked to study.

And of course, just a few days ago it was the 46th anniversary of the first Moon landing, bringing back so many other memories as well.

It’s also interesting to see that this important anniversary has brought all the Moon landing deniers out of the woodwork. First Moon landing astronaut Buzz Aldrin and broadcaster Professor Brian Cox (from the University of Manchester) were soon on social media refuting these denials.

Whatever next will the deniers get their teeth into?

First impressions: two weeks in 1967

It was the first week of October, or thereabouts. 1967. I was headed to Southampton to begin a three-year undergraduate course in botany and geography at the city’s university.

Like all students in the UK, I’d applied for admission to six courses at different universities: King’s College, London (geography); Aberystwyth (zoology and geography); Southampton (botany and geography); York (biology); Queen Mary College (combined sciences); and Newcastle (botany and geography). I don’t really remember my priority list, but I do know that King’s was my first choice and Southampton was my third. I had interviews at King’s, Southampton, Queen Mary, and York; I never heard from the other two before I made my choice. The interview at York was a disaster. I was asked to describe Krebs Cycle, not something with which I was at all au fait. In fact, at a later date – at Birmingham – I came across something that an obviously bored student had written on a bench in one of the lecture rooms in the School of Biological Sciences: ‘I wouldn’t know Krebs Cycle if it ran me over‘. I couldn’t have agreed more!

Because I’d been off school with flu, I wasn’t able to make interviews at several universities on the dates requested around February or so in 1967, so had to try and reschedule these. My dad and I drove to the various campuses, and in fact ended up visiting York, King’s, and Southampton in the same week! The King’s interview went quite well, and I was offered a place. I can’t remember now who interviewed me, only that he was a Professor of Geography and had taught my elder brother Ed (1964-1967, in the Joint School of Geography between the London School of Economics and King’s).

The day I visited Southampton was a bright sunny day, and even warm for that time of the year. In those days, the Department of Geography was housed in the Hartley Building (which also housed the library and various administrative departments), and I had a 1 hour interview with Dr Joyce Lambert* from the Department of Botany and Dr Brian Birch from Geography. The interview must have gone well because a few weeks later I received a conditional offer in the post. My place at Southampton was guaranteed if I received the necessary exam grades.

I accepted that offer. In fact, almost as soon as I walked through the front door of the Hartley Building I knew I would accept an offer from Southampton. I just had this immediate feeling of well-being. And my instinct didn’t let me down. I had three wonderful undergraduate years there.

In the late 60s, Southampton was still quite a small university, with only about 4500 undergraduates. After all it had received its own charter only in 1952; prior to that its degrees had been awarded by the University of London. Today there are more than 16,000, and the expansion has been phenomenal over the past 45 years since I graduated. A medical school opened not long after I graduated, and the botany department merged with other life sciences and moved to another campus location about a mile away. The Centre for Biological Sciences is now back on the main campus.At the end of my first year, in 1968 or early 1969, the geography department (now geography and environment) moved to a new building (part of that late 60s expansion that benefitted Southampton), but is now housed in the Shackleton Building, actually the old botany building 44 where I studied for three years.

However, to return to that first week in 1967. I may have difficulties these days remembering what I did last week, but my early memories of Southampton are crystal clear.

The tower block of South Stoneham House. I had a room on the west-facing sixth floor (shown here from Woodmill Lane) in my first year, and a south-facing room on the 13th floor in my second year. This block, constructed in the 60s, has been decommissioned because of an asbestos problem.

I was lucky to secure a place in one of the halls of residence, South Stoneham House, and had sent a trunk with clothes and other belongings on ahead of my arrival. The Students Union had organised a special train from London Waterloo to carry new undergraduates – or Freshers – to Southampton, and arrange transport at the other end to everyone’s accommodation. I stopped with my brother Ed for a couple of nights in London. He had just started his first job after graduating from LSE that summer. I bought his bicycle and on the day of my train to Southampton, I hopped on that bike and rode it through the rush hour traffic from his flat in Kilburn across the Thames to Waterloo. I left it at the station and returned to the flat to collect my suitcase. At Waterloo I retrieved my bike from the Left Luggage office, deposited it on the train and then searched for a seat. In those days, railway carriages were generally not open plan as they are today, but had a corridor down one side and compartments with seat for eight passengers. I remained close friends with three of the other seven in that compartment for the rest of my time at Southampton, and have kept in touch with one, Neil Freeman, ever since. We were even assigned rooms on the same floor at South Stoneham House.

Neil studied law, and in fact my close circle of friends was generally outside either botany or geography. Another law student who became a good friend was Malcolm Forster. I did lose contact with him but did come across his name a couple of years ago and briefly made contact then. Recently, however, he came across one of my blog posts and left a comment.

They often say that first impressions last longest. Well, these two in February and October 1967 certainly remained with me. Choosing Southampton over other universities was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Three great years, and good friendships. What more can you ask for?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
* Who received the nickname ‘Blossom’ from several generations of botany students.

“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.

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.

Dr Joe Smartt

Dr Joe SmarttJoe Smartt, an old and dear friend, passed away peacefully in his sleep on Friday 7 June, in Southampton, UK, just three months shy of his 82nd birthday. He had been in poor health for several years, and towards the end of 2012 he’d moved into a care home. I last visited Joe in July 2012, and although he was essentially bed-ridden by then, we sat and reminisced over old times while drinking many mugs of tea (a ‘Joe favorite’!).

Groundnuts and beans
A geneticist by training, Joe obtained his BSc from Durham University, took a diploma in tropical agriculture from Cambridge University, and spent time in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) working on groundnuts. He completed his PhD in the Department of Genetics at North Carolina State University (NCSU) in 1965, submitting a thesis Cross-compatibility relationships between the cultivated peanut Arachis hypogaea L. and other species of the genus Arachis.

In 1967 he was appointed to a Lectureship in the Department of Botany at the University of Southampton, and remained there until his retirement in 1996, having been appointed Reader in Biology in 1990, and awarded the DSc degree by the university in 1989 for his significant work on grain legumes – the area of scientific endeavour for which he will perhaps be best remembered. He authored two books on grain legumes, edited a major volume on groundnuts, and was invited to co-edit a second edition of the important Evolution of Crop Plants with the late Professor Norman Simmonds. In the late 60s he worked on cross compatibility relationships of Phaseolus beans, and also published a series of strategically important synthesis articles on grain legumes, which did much to re-energize interest in their development and improvement.

In the latter part of his career Joe turned his attention to the genetics and breeding of goldfish, co-editing one book and authoring another two which became essential texts for goldfish enthusiasts.

L to r: Russell Meredith, Mike Jackson, Steve Jordan, and Joe

Sticks, bells and hankies
I first met Joe in 1968, which might seem strange as I began my undergraduate studies at Southampton in 1967 in the Departments of Botany and Geography. Joe taught a second year class on genetics, so it wasn’t until the autumn term in October 1968 that I was faced with ‘Smartt genetics’. But by then I had made myself known to him, as I have described in another post on this blog. Joe and I were the co-founders of the first Morris side at the university in autumn 1968 – the Red Stags, and our common interest in traditional music (particularly bagpipe music – see this post) was the basis of a friendship that lasted more than 45 years. Many’s the time Joe and I sat down with a beer or a wee dram to enjoy many of the LPs from his extensive music library.

A friend indeed
But Joe was more than a friend – he was a mentor whose opinions and advice I sought on several occasions. In fact, it was a suggestion from him in February 1970 that I apply to the University of Birmingham for a new MSc course under the direction of Professor Jack Hawkes that got me into genetic resources conservation and use in the first place, and the start of a successful career in international agricultural research lasting more than 40 years.

Physically, Joe was a big man – but a gentle person and personality. I’ve seen him slightly cross, but I never saw him angry. It seemed to me that he had the most equitable of temperaments. He married Pam in 1970, and they had two daughters, Helena and Fran (about the same ages as my two daughters), and both have been very successful academically. Joe often told me of his pride in what they had achieved. I know that was a source of great comfort to him in his latter years as his health declined.

While I feel sadness at his passing, I can also celebrate the many scientific contributions he made, and his true friendship over so many decades. He will be missed by many colleagues in legume and goldfish circles, but particularly by his family and friends. Friends like Joe come along very few times in one’s lifetime. It’s been my luck – and privilege – to be among his.

Proud to be a botanist

Botanist. That’s right. Not plant scientist or plant biologist. Botanist!

Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer the term ‘botany’ to ‘plant sciences’ or ‘plant biology’ that are now preferentially used to give the study of plants a more ‘modern’ image.

And I’m proud that I received my university education in botany: BSc at Southampton (combined with geography, 1970), and MSc (in genetic resources, 1971) and PhD (botany – biosystematics of potatoes, 1975) at Birmingham. By the time I returned to teach at the University of Birmingham in 1981, the Department of Botany had already become the Department of Plant Biology, a decision made in the late 1970s in the hope of attracting more undergraduates to study plant courses offered as part of the biological sciences degree.

Botany has had a bit of a bad press, I guess. For one thing there’s an image issue. It’s often seen as old-fashioned, the purview of enthusiastic Victorian amateurs like country parsons collecting and studying wild flowers, and perhaps not relevant for today’s society. And there has been a significant decline in teaching plant sciences at university level in the UK. Nothing could be further from the truth. Given that food security is dependent upon the productivity of agricultural systems – all life depends on plants in one way or another – the study of plants is essential for humanity’s survival.

In an interesting article [1], Grierson et al. (2011) ask what are the 100 most important questions for plant science research. They also propose that “We need to radically change our culture so that ‘plant scientist’ (or, if we can rehabilitate the term, ‘botanist’) can join ‘doctor’, ‘vet’ and ‘lawyer’ in the list of top professions to which our most capable young people aspire.”

I’ve had a successful career over 40 years based on botany, one way or the other. So why did I become a botanist in the first place? In high school, I didn’t study biology until I began my GCE Advanced Level courses in 1965. Biology was not taught at my school in earlier years, and only accepted a handful of students for the advanced course. I’d always had an interest in natural history, particularly bird watching, and had harbored ideas at one time of becoming a professional ornithologist. But over the two years of the biology ‘A level’, I came to realize there was likely to be a more secure future in plants, and even the possibility of getting into agriculture in some way, better still if that would take me overseas.

Southampton University was not my first choice, but once I’d attended an interview there, I knew that was where I wanted to study. As a botany-geography undergraduate, I knew that there would be a focus on plant ecology, even though we took the full honours course for two years, and selected modules in the final year. My tutor was Dr Joyce Lambert, Reader in Ecology, who had studied the origin of the Norfolk Broads in the east of England, and shown that they were actually man-made, the result of medieval peat diggings that became flooded. Just before I went to Southampton (and for the rest of her career at Southampton – she retired in 1979) she began working on multivariate methods to study plant communities (with former head of department Bill Williams, who had left Southampton in 1966 to join CSIRO in Australia). I even completed my dissertation on an assessment of vegetation sampling techniques based on quadrat size related to the height of the vegetation (not really a success). I made this study in the Back Forest area of the Roaches in the Staffordshire Moorlands. I measured quadrats along a 200 m transect from open heath to larch-oak woodland dropping steeply to the Black Brook and River Dane. I used a tape recorder with a thumb switch microphone to record the presence and absence of species in each quadrat, using a checklist of species.

As a final year student, however, my interests had already begun to turn from ecology. I took courses on plant speciation and plant breeding with geneticist Dr Joe Smartt, and a special course in flowering plant taxonomy offered by Professor Vernon Heywood of Reading University. Southampton’s own taxonomist, Leslie Watson had emigrated to Australia in 1969, and it was felt that a botany degree without any taxonomy component was not complete. Heywood travelled down from Reading once a week for 10 weeks, giving two lectures each time. This was not one of my specific elective courses for examination, but I decided to sit in and listen – and I was hooked. Linking what I heard in Heywood’s lectures with the plant speciation and plant breeding courses, and ecology was the foundation for my career-long study of plant variation, and entry into the world of plant genetic resources.

But there was one research endeavor that really fired my imagine (and others) – and it’s as good today as when it was originally published in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. In a ground-breaking series of experiments, geneticist/ecologist Jens Clausen, taxonomist David Keck, and plant physiologist William Hiesey, from the Carnegie Institute of Washington located on the campus of Stanford University, studied the adaptation of plants to their environments, the variation in plant populations, and the genetical and physiological basis of the variation they observed.

Establishing a series of experimental stations across California, they undertook transplant experiments in a range of species such as Achillea and Potentilla, to understand the nature of variation and species, and published in a series of monographs Experimental Studies on the Nature of Species.

Similar work had been carried out in Scandinavia by Turesson and in Scotland by Gregor, but the Californian group was, in my estimation, pre-eminent. Thus was the concept of the ecotype established. And the methods of experimental taxonomy and genecology which they developed are used to study the nature of variation in the genetic resources of crop plants conserved in genebanks around the world – and certainly the approach I took with my own work on lentils and grasspea (Lathryus sativus), potatoes, and rice.

Another influence was Missouri Botanical Garden geneticist Edgar Anderson. If you’ve not read his highly entertaining and readable Plants, Man & Life, then grab yourself a copy.

But the most influential concept he developed was introgressive hybridization, the merging of plant species populations through crossing and backcrossing – a phenomenon we believe to have played a major role in the evolution of many crop plants.

Joe Smartt encouraged me to follow a career in plant genetic resources. In fact he was the one who suggested I should apply for a place on the Birmingham MSc course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources, founded by Jack Hawkes in 1969. Joe had studied the cytogenetics of groundnut (= peanut, Arachis spp.) under Walter C Gregory at North Carolina State University, and joined the Department of Botany at Southampton in 1967. He had also spent time in Northern Rhodesia (= Zambia) working on groundnuts in the 1950s.

And the rest is history, as they say, and I spent the rest of my career studying genetic resources and agriculture in many different countries (Peru, Costa Rica, Canary Islands, Philippines and other countries in Asia).

Some of my own interests have included the species relationships of triploid potatoes, and we have looked at the compatibility relationships between wild and cultivated forms.

These photos show the growth of pollen tubes in compatible (left) and incompatible (right) crosses between wild potato species.

In potatoes and rice we made tens of thousands of crosses to understand the biological relationships between different species.

It’s important to make many crosses when the chances of success are quite low. And we have looked at the morphological and biochemical variation in different plant populations – the ability to study species relationships at the molecular level is throwing a whole new perspective on plant speciation; applications of GIS permit easier mapping of diversity.

One of the concepts that has guided much of my work with genetic resources is the genepool concept developed by Illinois geneticists Harlan and de Wet in 1971 [2]. This allows one to assess the relationship between crops and their wild relatives based on crossability, and the accessibility of different genetic resources that can be used in crop improvement.

I’ve been very fortunate in my career choices – all because of my decision to become a botanist. Who says that botany is an old-fashioned science? Just look through the 100 science challenges I referred to earlier on and you will see just how and why it’s ever more important that we invest in the study of plants.

[1] C. S. Grierson, S. R. Barnes, M. W. Chase, M. Clarke, D. Grierson, K. J. Edwards, G. J. Jellis, J. D. Jones, S. Knapp, G. Oldroyd, G. Poppy, P. Temple, R. Williams, and R. Bastow, 2011. One hundred important questions facing plant science research. New Phytologist 192 (1): 6-12.

[2] J.R. Harlan and J.M.J. de Wet, 1971. Toward a rational classification of cultivated plants. Taxon 20: 509-517.

Standing on Vavilov’s shoulders . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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