This month in IRRI history: January

Author // Gene Hettel Categories // IRRI History

IRRI has had a long and lustrous history that spans some 55 years. Since its inception in 1960, the Institute has provided a home to innovative scientists many of whom have made it their lives' work to feed the hungry and reduce poverty through rice research. Although not a scientist myself, I’m proud to have devoted half my working career as a communicator at IRRI, more than 20 years: 14 months as a visiting editor (1982-83), 2-1/2 years as a senior science editor (1995-97), 16-1/2 years as head of Communication and Publications Service (1997-2013), and the last 14 months as editor-in-chief of Rice Today magazine and IRRI historian.

It is my role as IRRI historian, a new title I got after stepping down as CPS head in October 2013, that is the gist of this blog. For the next 12 months, my last year at IRRI before retirement, I’ll be taking a look, month by month, at the growing collection of IRRI’s achievements, activities, and events over the last 5-1/2 decades.

I first became interested in IRRI’s rich history in 2006 in advance of and preparation for IRRI’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2010. I decided to develop IRRI’s timeline of significant dates, currently on the IRRI web site, and to begin conducting video-recorded oral history interviews. Summaries of 13 of these interviews are published in Rice Today and video excerpts from these and others are on YouTube. Since 2010, I have continued to conduct the Pioneer Interviews and to update (whenever I unearth new information) the evolving timeline.

Winding down from the busy holiday season, the first month of the year is often thought of as a sleepy period as it takes some time to get into the hustle and bustle of the coming new year. But this has never been true at IRRI.

Rare wedding at IRRI

Gene and Aurora Hettel's wedding held at IRRI in 1985

January is particularly significant for me. On the joyous side—30 years ago—on 6 January 1985, I married Aurora Ammayao in IRRI Staff Housing in the garden of the residence of my long-time mentor and friend Tom Hargove and his wife Susan. I met Aurora during my 1982-83 stint as a visiting editor at IRRI. She took me to see her home in Banaue and the rest is history. Then Director General M.S. Swaminathan and wife Mina (9th and 8th from left in our wedding party photo) were among our sponsors. Throughout IRRI’s 55 years, only one other couple was married in IRRI Staff Housing. That was in 1968. You can speculate who they were until I get to September in this blog.

Gurdev Khush and Tom Hargrove examining a rice plantJanuary also had its sad time for me and many others when Tom Hargrove, who brought me to IRRI as a visiting editor from Iowa State University in 1982, passed away unexpectedly of a heart attack at the very premature age of 66 on 23 January 2011. Tom (pictured at right in the photo with celebrated IRRI breeder Gurdev Khush) was a long-time IRRI editor and CPS head (1973-91). He recounted his 1994-95 experience as a kidnap victim in the Colombian mountains into a book, Long March to Freedom, which was one background source for the Hollywood movie, Proof of Life. In 1996, the 11-month ordeal of Tom, his wife Susan, and sons Geddie and Miles was recounted in the U.S. news magazine program, 60 Minutes. In my June 2008 Pioneer interview with Tom, he discussed future challenges for IRRI.

Canadian prime minister visits IRRI

Canadian Prime Mister Trudeau visits IRRI in January 1983

After U.S. President Lyndon Johnson’s appearance at IRRI in October 1966, perhaps the second most significant visit to IRRI of a head of government was that of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his 8-year-old son Michel on 15 January 1983. I was there during my visiting editor stint on this day and I remember that Mr. Trudeau was keenly interested in IRRI’s work.

I was further impressed with his informality highlighted by the tagging along of his son Michel—captured by my photo of him in the foreground as then head of IRRI Agricultural Engineering Clarence Bockhop (left) briefs Mr. Trudeau and then Philippine Prime Minister Cesar Virata. Sadly, Michel was killed 15 years later in an avalanche while skiing at British Columbia's Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park on 13 November 1998. On 19 October 2015, his older brother Justin became Canadian Prime Minister, the first person to follow a parent into the PM office.

IRRI assists typhoon victims

IRRI donates rice seeds to farmers hit by Typhoon Yolanda

Soon after Typhoon Yolanda, one of the strongest tropical typhoons ever recorded, struck the central region of the Philippines in November 2013, Director General Robert Zeigler sent a letter to Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III offering help to the Philippine government in the recovery efforts. As part of IRRI’s long-standing traditional support to its host country, the Institute offered two shipments of seeds of high-yielding rice varieties for devastated farmers in the affected areas, the second one coming on 8 January 2014.

Construction of IRRI infrastructure begins on UP campus

Construction of IRRI in UP campus 

In 1961, on 4 January, construction of the first units of IRRI staff housing began (photo), followed on 15 January by the start of construction of the administration building (Chander Hall), laboratory building (Hill Hall), and the cafeteria-dormitory building (Harrar Hall). This was the physical beginning of a fruitful joint venture between IRRI and the University of the Philippines College of Agriculture (UPCA), renamed the University of the Philippines Los Baños in 1972. The relationship has been mutually beneficial for both institutions to this day.

Golden Rice arrives

Dr. Ingo Potrykus, IRRI DG Ronald Cantrell, and Dr. Peter Beyer

On 19 January 2001, the co-inventors of Golden Rice, Drs. Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer (in the photo, flanking IRRI DG Ronald Cantrell, left and right, respectively) delivered to IRRI a small quantity of the seeds of their genetically modified invention, which contains beta-carotene and other carotenoids, a potential source of Vitamin A for poor rice consumers worldwide. The controversial Golden Rice has been in the headlines ever-since as the anti-GMO lobby has continued to try blocking the research and development efforts of IRRI and its public sector partners. As IRRI DG Bob Zeigler wrote recently in a book chapter, Biofortification: Vitamin A deficiency and the case for Golden Rice, that I worked with him on, “It would be a pity to see Golden Rice’s delivery further delayed by those opposing the adoption of a new technology at any cost—especially when it is millions of very poor people who must shoulder those costs, not the opponents.”


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


So, that completes about 1/12 of IRRI's history to date. Stay tuned as I'll be featuring February in this blog in a few weeks. In the mean time, knowing that my accumulation of information is far from complete, I continue to add more items to the IRRI timeline. If staff members or others associated with IRRI are aware of any missing achievements, activities, and events that have taken place over the last 55 years during any month—or have run across any errors, please leave a comment at the bottom of this blog or let me know with an email message!


About the Author

Gene Hettel

Gene Hettel

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

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