This month in IRRI history: April

Author // Gene Hettel Categories // IRRI History

As you will see in this edition to the history blog, April is indeed one of IRRI’s busiest months, perhaps because it is spring time! Maybe so, but more likely because the full Board of Trustees (BOT) has always met in April since IRRI was founded in 1960.

The BOT meeting has usually been at headquarters (unlike in 2015 when the meeting was held in Hyderabad to celebrate, with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, 50 years of rice research in India), which always called for an annual sprucing up of the campus and a plethora of side events, activities, and awards, often associated with key Institute anniversaries and milestones. So, sit back, read about all this exciting stuff tied to IRRI’s April cavalcade—and be sure to click some of the links and watch some of the videos!

Harrar Hall is dedicated

Harrar Hall Dedication
J. George Harrar at left in photo with his wife Georgetta on dedication day

On 21 April 1980, as part of IRRI's 20th anniversary celebration, Harrar Hall was dedicated in honor of J. George Harrar, retired president of the Rockefeller Foundation. He is considered IRRI’s cofounder along with Forrest F. Hill (see my March blog about ‘Frosty’). Also an Ohio native like myself, George Harrar graduated from Oberlin College in 1928, just 25 miles east of my family’s farm in Norwalk, Ohio.

While still vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation, Dr. Harrar came up with the idea of an international center in Asia devoted to rice research. He wrote the first outline of such an “international rice research institute,” a plan that was followed closely in the building, staffing, and programming of the actual institution. He was one of IRRI’s incorporators and served as the first chair of the Board of Trustees. His creative leadership during the Institute’s formative years was a major factor in its successful beginning.

During my pioneer interview with Peter Jennings, IRRI’s first breeder, he said that, “The driving force behind IRRI was George Harrar; he was magnificent,
a giant!” It would also be at Dr. Harrar’ssuggestion that Peter would come to IRRI as a breeder in 1961.

Recognizing his historic contribution during the dedication, the plaque placed on the building’s wall reads: “IRRI’s Board of Trustees, named the training and dormitory complex Harrar Hall, for his farsighted leadership and creativity in helping conceptualize, organize, and obtain financial support for the Institute, and for championing the concept that IRRI’s strong research focus should be complemented by an equally strong and effective training program.”

Less than 2 years later on 18 April 1982, Dr. Harrar passed away unexpectedly of a heart attack at his home in Scarsdale, New York.


IRRI trustees meet for the first time

First IRRI BOT meeting
Charter members of the IRRI Board of Trustees

On 13 April 1960, the charter members of the IRRI Board of Trustees got together for the first time, chaired by J. George Harrar to kick off its first 3-day meeting. This date that we officially use as IRRI’s birthday was not always the case. For example, IRRI’s 10th anniversary was celebrated during a set of activities the week of 18 April 1972 (see this date further down in this blog).

I always liked to think that, in those early days, Bob Chandler, IRRI’s first DG, and others on his team, were thinking more of getting things done rather than celebrating anniversaries. And perhaps, sometime after 1970, they realized that the 10th anniversary had already passed and so they celebrated it in 1972—the year that the Institute’s research actually began once the physical plant had been built and the field plots established.

The next day (14 April 1960), IRRI was officially organized when the by-laws were adopted and approved in Manila—and then on the last day (15 April 1960), the BOT Program, a subset of the full IRRI BOT Committee, met for the first time.

The photo of the first Board in session (shown here) includes quite a who’s who (from extreme left and going around the table): J. George Harrar (Rockefeller Foundation; chair), Paul C. Ma (hidden; Taiwan), Paulino J. Garcia (chair of the Philippine National Science Development Board), Vicente G. Sinco (president, University of the Philippines), Hitoshi Kihara (Japan), Robert Chandler, Jr. (IRRI director general), M.C. Chakrabandhu (Thailand), Juan de G. Rodriguez (Philippine secretary of agriculture and natural resources), and Forrest F. Hill (Ford Foundation). Not present that day was K.R. Damle (India).


50th anniversary celebration went into high gear in April 2010

Unveiling of IRRI historical marker
Faustino Salacup and NHI Executive Director Ludovico Badoy unveil historical marker.

It doesn’t seem like 5 years ago already, but IRRI’s 50th anniversary celebration went into overdrive at headquarters during BOT week on 14 April 2010. Anyone here then will not forget that busy momentous day.

Faustino Salacup and daughter Ma. Socorro Arbodela with former DDG for Operations Willy Padolina
Faustino Salacup center in photo with Willy Padolina, then DDG for operations, and his daughter Ma. Socorro Arboleda.

In the morning, historical markers (one in English and one in Tagalog) were unveiled, which designate that IRRI is a national historical site in the Philippines, as recognized by the National Historical Institute (NHI; view my video). 

In addition, two large plaques were unveiled, designating 332 IRRI pioneers who worked at IRRI with its first director general, Robert Chandler Jr., during the period from December 1959 to February 1962. Faustino Salacup, guest of honor and former IRRI assistant treasurer; executive officer; controller; director, protocol and liaison (1961-89), responded on behalf of all the pioneers listed (view my video).

IRRI stampsThe Philippine Postal Corporation issued that day a set of commemorative stamps celebrating the Institute's important work in rice research for the world, much of it done in IRRI's host country. View a great historical video, prepared by Michael Jackson (former head of IRRI’s Genetic Resources Center and Director of Program Planning), shown during the stamp-issuing ceremony. Also see my video of Postmaster General Hector Villanueva's comments and the signing of the first-day cover.

Following a busy day of anniversary activities, fireworks broke out over the IRRI rice plots (view my video). Later in the month (19-24 April 2010), IRRI hosted an alumni homecoming week. A montage of video clips shows the wide range of memorable activities that took place that week. You can also view a set of 39 videos that I compiled on YouTube, which covers all of IRRI’s 50th anniversary celebrations, including the kick-off events in November-December 2009.


150th crop of the LTCCE harvested

Roland Buresh
Roland Buresh during LTCCE's ceremonial harvesting

On 15 April 2014, IRRI marked the 150th crop of its Long-Term Continuous Cropping Experiment. For many years, when promoting this remarkable experiment, we always stated that it started in 1963. However, while doing some research in advance of celebrating the experiment’s 150th crop last year, I discovered that it really started in 1962. There was some confusion because when James Moomaw, IRRI’s first agronomist, started the project, he called it the Maximum Yield Experiment. The name change to the LTCCE came in 1963.

I still remember what Roland Buresh, IRRI soil scientist and current lead LTCCE researcher, said during the ceremonial harvesting: “What we have here arerecords through time and the opportunities to really see how to sustain this system in the changing climate. We have before us not only the 52 years of history of sustainability, but a benchmark on sustainability into the future.”

There was a lot of coverage of the ceremonial harvest that day and the event can be relived in a 1:58 video and photos on Flickr. Also, Roland and Teodoro Correa Jr., LTCCE manager, give an excellent explanation of the experiment in a 4:48 video on YouTube.


Two IRRI DGs arrived in April

Two new directors general came to IRRI in the month of April: On 1 April 1982, M.S. Swaminathan arrived as IRRI’s fourth director general; and on 3 April 1995, George Rothschild began a 2-year, 5-month period as IRRI’s sixth director general.

M.S. Swaminathan
M.S. Swaminathan, former IRRI director general (1982-88)

A kinder-gentler DG. Shortly after his own arrival, Dr. Swaminathan brought me to IRRI for the first time as a visiting editor in September 1982. I owe him a debt of gratitude for that because it altered the path of my career in a direction that I never anticipated. When I completed that visiting stint at IRRI in October 1983, he asked me to stay on as a permanent staff member in communication, but I was committed to return to my extension editor position at Iowa State University for at least 2 more years, which I did. Of course, I eventually did return to IRRI in January 1995.

On the occasion of Dr. Swaminathan being presented with the very first World Food Prize in 1987, Javier Perez de Cuellar, then Secretary General of the United Nations, wrote: "Dr. Swaminathan is a living legend. His contributions to agricultural science have made an indelible mark on food production in India and elsewhere in the developing world. By any standards, he will go into the annals of history as a world scientist of rare distinction."

Dr. Swaminathan’s many achievements and awards are chronicled at this link. He has been IRRI’s only Asian (non-western) director general and, as such, he brought a different feel to the Institute during his 6 years at the helm. He had a kinder-gentler and accommodating management style. He even took time out of his busy schedule on 6 January 1985 to serve as one of the sponsors at Aurora’s and my wedding held at IRRI staff housing. I always look forward to touching base with him during his occasional visits to IRRI.

M.S. Swaminathan with Gene Hettel
M.S. Swaminathan (at left) with me

In the course of my IRRI Pioneer interview sessions with him on 10-11 October 2006 at his office in New Delhi, I believe he hit the nail on the head when he said, “Life becomes more interesting when some old challenges are solved and new challenges come along. We need new challenges as we enter the 21st century, and as you can see we have them. An institute such as IRRI should always be ready to change course. If it is not, it will be passed by others.”

Later this year, on 7 August 2015, Dr. Swaminathan turns 90. I hear that appropriate celebrations are being planned. Age certainly has not slowed him down. When I asked him to write a Grain of Truth column on the Outstanding 50-year partnership between India and IRRI for the current April-June issue of Rice Today, he quickly obliged. And in late March, he appeared on CNN-IBN to discuss the current desperate plight of many Indian farmers.

Compassion for the school children. I believe one of the crowning achievements during George Rothschild’s brief time as IRRI DG in the mid-1990s was his vision that IRRI had to accommodate the families of internationally recruited staff (IRS) members—if indeed the Institute was to continue attracting the best young scientists available around the world.

George Rothschild
George Rothschild, former IRRI director general (1995-97)

A case in point was that many new young staff members coming on board were regularly bringing along their families with children of kindergarten and early grade-school age. When a couple came to campus for an interview and discovered that their 7-year-old daughter would have to get up at 4:30 a.m. to catch the IRRI school bus for the sometimes 2+-hour ride to the International School Manila (ISM) then in Makati, interest in coming to the Philippines to work at IRRI waned rapidly.

So, it was a momentous day on 14 August 1996 when the International School Los Baños (ISLB), under the auspices of ISM, opened its doors to the children of IRS for kindergarten through grade 6. So, for young children, including our own son and daughter at the time, a 150-minute bus ride to Manila was reduced to around a 10-minute trip to the IRRI campus. Several IRS with young children have mentioned to me that they never would have considered coming to IRRI had it not been for ISLB (now Brent IRRI under the auspices of the Brent International School). I give George the lion’s share of the credit for this welcomed development because the school would never have been established on campus without the enthusiastic proactive support of the director general.

A portion of my IRRI pioneer interview with George, conducted in July 2010 at his office outside London, covered change in the CGIAR. He said, “It'll be learning by doing because obviously a Consortium Board making decisions on the technicalities, for example, of the programs of 15 centers working in different continents on different subjects is totally beyond them.”


See other notable activities and events in April on This week in IRRI history.


About the Author

Gene Hettel

Gene Hettel

Gene Hettel is an IRRI historian and editor-in-chief of Rice Today.

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