This month in IRRI history: December

Author // Gene Hettel Categories // IRRI History

This is the twelfth and last blog installment in my year-long trek through IRRI’s history. It’s been fun and exciting to pull it all together and I hope that you readers have enjoyed it. In retirement, I hope to keep working on the timeline. There are a lot of gaps to fill and many more IRRI Pioneer Interviews to conduct. Please help me fill those gaps if you are aware of any research milestones, events, or staff awards that you may have found missing during this 12-month journey through time.

During December, an alternative date for IRRI’s birthday is suggested (which is one reason that IRRI kicked off its year-long 50th birthday celebration in the month); two acting directors general took the reins of IRRI for a time; and rice variety IR8 “rocked” with other landmark inventions such as the jet airliner, TV remote control, microwave oven, cordless tools, the birth control pill, computer mouse, and 41 others in the pages of Popular Mechanics magazine. Also, the last day of the 1960s was the only time, so far, that a sitting U.S. vice president visited the Institute. Enjoy!

IRRI’s real birthday: 9 December 1959?

Dean Rusk in the cover of TIME magazineHenry Heald on the cover of TIME magazineOn this date in 1959, a Memorandum of Understanding between the Republic of the Philippines and the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, was signed in New York by Juan de G. Rodriguez, Philippine secretary of agriculture, Dean Rusk, Rockefeller Foundation president, and Henry Heald, Ford Foundation president. Both Rusk (1963) and Heald (1957) were on Time magazine’s cover—not for signing the IRRI MOU, but for other events in their storied careers.

The MOU established IRRI “as an organization to do basic research on the rice plant and applied research on all phases of rice production, management, distribution, and utilization.” The preamble pointed out the importance of rice as a world food crop and the need to increase its production in order to keep up with the burgeoning population of Asia. Many believe that this event on 9 December 1959 was the true beginning of IRRI, and that the Institute’s birthday should be celebrated on this date instead of the date of the first Board meeting on 14 April 1960.

The MOU goes on to describe the proposed activities and objectives of IRRI, its organization, its powers, and the privileges being granted by the Government of the Philippines. It stated how IRRI would be financed and spelled out the arrangements made with the University of the Philippines for the acquisition of land. The full memorandum is in Appendix 3 of Bob Chandler’s Book, An Adventure in Applied Science: A History of the International Rice Research Institute.

Acting DGs Ken Fischer and Willy Padolina

Ken Fischer, Gene Hettel, Bob Huggan, and DG Bob Havener

On 1 December 1997, Ken Fischer (to my left in the photo) put on an additional hat at IRRI as he began a 52-day stint as acting director general until the arrival of interim DG Bob Havener (at right in photo) on 22 January 1998. At the time, Ken was the fourth deputy director general for research at IRRI, a post that he served in for almost 8 years, from 1991 to 1999. He had also been DDG-R at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) from 1987- to 1991. At left in the photo is the late Bob Huggan, my predecessor as head of Communication and Publications Services and then PR consultant for IRRI. Read more about Ken and his wife Sue and their days at IRRI on page 3 of the May 1999 issue of Sandiwa.

13 Dec2004 Padolina Zeigler

On 13 December 2004, Willy Padolina, deputy director general for operations (at left in photo with Bob Zeigler), began a 98-day stint as acting director general until Bob arrived to take over as IRRI’s eighth director general on 21 March 2005. Of course, exactly 10 years later in 2015, there is no need for an acting DG because Bob will officially hand over the IRRI reins to his successor, Matthew Morell, on 11 December.


IR8—one of 50 inventions that “rocked” the world!

IR8 on the cover of Popular MechanicsOn 1 December 2005, the U.S.-based magazine Popular Mechanics (PM) cited IRRI's IR8 (released in 1966) as among the top 50 inventions that have "rocked the world" during the past half-century. Of IR8, PM states, "The International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines released a semi-dwarf, high-yield Indica variety that, in conjunction with high-yield wheat, ushered in the Green Revolution. Indica rice thrives in tropical regions of Asia and South America, raising worldwide production more than 20 percent by 1970." In this listing, IR8 (1966) joined the company of other inventions such as the TV remote control (1955), microwave oven (1955), jet airliner (1958), float glass (1959), cordless tools (1961), the birth control pill (1957), computer mouse (1962), the smoke detector (1969), the cell phone (1973), GPS (1978), and genetic sequencing (1998).

Party time at Magsaysay Center in Manila

Magsaysay party

On 10 December 2009, the kick-off celebration for IRRI’s 50th birthday, a significant event in the history of agricultural research, was held at the Ramon Magsaysay Center in Manila. Joining the celebration were Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo; former Philippine President Fidel V. Ramos; ambassadors to the Philippines from Asia, Europe, and North America; Philippine government officials; donors; the private sector; and IRRI staff. The photo shows some of those present, including DG Robert Zeigler and Michael Jackson (whose brainchild this event was), flanking President Arroyo—and me at the far left shooting video. I can’t believe I was still using that small Sony camera without a miniature tripod, but, in any event this 9:50 YouTube video resulted in showing President Arroyo's arrival and comments from Bob Zeigler.

Dr. Zeigler told the assembled crowd, “Rice science has helped to more than double rice yields in the last fifty years. Higher rice yields have increased the capacity of rice farmers to go beyond self-sufficiency in rice while simultaneously providing additional income for education and health care, supporting economic development in Asia, and helping keep rice prices low.” 

Spiro Agnew: The only U.S. vice president to visit IRRI

U.S. Vice President Spiro T. Agnew visits IRRI

On 31 December 1969, U.S. Vice President Spiro T. Agnew (center in photo) visited the Institute, here pictured in the rice plots with IRRI Director General Robert Chandler (gesturing with his hand). Also on hand were IRRI agronomist S.K. De Datta (far right) and IRRI Associate Director Colin McClung (far left). According to a front-page story in the 1 January 1970 issue of the Chicago Tribune, Agnew was in the Philippines for the Tuesday, 30 December inauguration of Ferdinand Marcos’ second term as Philippine president.

Notes from NBC-Universal on the visit: “Spiro T. Agnew, U.S. Vice-President, helicopters to the International Rice Research Institute 40 miles south of Manila in the Philippine Islands to gain information on the latest varieties of the so-called 'miracle rice,' developed at the institute. Welles Hangen, NBC reporter, comments on the Vice-President's visit to the institute as Mr. Agnew alights from the helicopter and is greeted by Robert Chandler, Director of the Institute, and members of the 7-nation staff. Mr. Agnew is next seen entering a briefing room where, according to Mr. Hangen, he is told the rice strains have already earned $400 million for Asian farmers.

"As Mr. Agnew tours some of the institute's experimental rice plots where the higher-yielding strains are grown, he listened to Dr. Chandler's explanations of the new varieties in the fields. Mr. Agnew sees a demonstration of rice harvesting and threshing by machine and by traditional hand methods.

"From the rice research institute, the Vice President takes off by helicopter for overflight of Corregidor and Bataan. He is seen flying low over the ruins of barracks in Corregidor, occupied by American troops until they were driven into the surrounding hills during the Japanese invasion. Mr. Agnew's helicopter also flies over the Mt. Samat memorial commemorating Filipino and American soldiers who died in defense of Bataan."

NBC reporter Welles HangenThree sidenotes to this story: (1) Welles Hangen, the NBC reporter who covered Agnew’s visit to IRRI, and his TV crew were captured by Viet Cong and Khmer Rouge guerillas in Cambodia exactly five months later on 31 May 1970. They were killed three days later. I will try to get some of the archival footage of the report by Hangen of the only sitting U.S. vice president to visit IRRI. (2) Read in my October blog about the only U.S. president to visit IRRI (Lyndon Johnson in 1966). (3) Vice President Agnew would have become U.S. president on 9 August 1974 upon the resignation of Richard Nixon because of Watergate, had he himself not already resigned as vice president on 10 October 1973 due to U.S. income tax evasion charges when he was the governor of Maryland.



About the Author

Gene Hettel

Gene Hettel

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

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