This month in IRRI history: July

Author // Gene Hettel Categories // IRRI History

July is the beginning of the home leave season at IRRI, so things slow down somewhat, but not really that much. It was in July that IRRI's first breeder, Peter Jennings, got his epithany. Also, sadly, two great IRRI researchers, James Moomaw and Dharmawarnsa Senadhira passed away much too soon. And IRRI's third director general, Nyle Brady, arrived.

Also, to enhance some IRRI history between June 1998 and January 2009, there is now a landing page for 91 issues of the old Sandiwa newsletter. So take a break to go down memory lane for this 10-1/2 year period.

A breeder’s epiphany in July sets the stage for the first Green Revolution (GR1.0)

Peter Jennings
IRRI's first breeder, Peter Jennings

In his various presentations recently, IRRI DG Bob Zeigler has been talking about the fact that the second Green Revolution—GR2.0 as he calls it—has already been going on since 31 July 2008. In case you don’t already know why, his reason for pinpointing that date has been reported in a number of publications, including The Economist, and, most recently, the January-March issue of Rice Today and an op-ed piece in The Economic Times.

So, I asked Bob one day, "If you can pinpoint the exact start of GR2.0, at least in your opinion, what date might the first Green Revolution (which we have now given a GR1.0 shorthand) have started?" We had no stories or references to when the first farmer, most likely in the Philippines in 1966, might have harvested a field of the newly released IR8, the semidwarf rice variety that started it all and ultimately prevented famine across Asia.

Peter Jennings 19July2007After some creative thinking, we went back in time 3 more years to July 1963, when IRRI’s first breeder, Peter Jennings, visited the experimental rice plots on the Institute’s research farm and most likely got goose bumps. Peter was walking a plot of F2 (second-generation) rice plants derived from a set of 38 crosses involving dwarf rice varieties from Taiwan when—as he told me during my 2007 Pioneer Interview with him-- he had what he later called "his epiphany."

He observed tall plants and short plants in a ratio of 3:1—classic Mendelian inheritance—indicating that he had just discovered a single recessive gene for shortness (later called sd1-d). Well, the rest is history as selections in later generations ultimately resulted in the semidwarf IR8—and all succeeding modern rice varieties.

July 1963 to July 2008: 45 years between the respective beginnings of GR1.0 and GR2.0 were an unusually long time period. But, a lot had to be done. Once the high-yielding semidwarfs were in place with a recipe for proper irrigation and fertilization to go with them, various GR1.Xn's kicked in as scientists painstakingly worked to incorporate insect and disease resistances for farmers and grain quality for consumers.


Nyle C. Brady arrives as IRRI’s third director general

Nyle C. BradyOn 1 July 1973, after 26 years at Cornell University, Nyle C. Brady became IRRI's third director general. Interestingly, he may have never become director general if Ralph Cummings, Sr., had not made an abrupt departure after only serving 3 months as the Institute’s second DG to become the first DG of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). See more about Cummings’ departure in my June blog. Nyle quickly resigned his position as associate dean of Cornell’s College of Agriculture to promptly fill the management void at IRRI.

During 8 years at the helm, Nyle pioneered new cooperative relationships between the Institute and the national agricultural research systems in Asia. To begin serious collaboration with China, he led a seven-member IRRI delegation to that still relatively closed country in October 1976.

Nyle BradyAfter IRRI, he served as senior assistant administrator for science and technology at the U.S. Agency for International Development from 1981 to 1989 and was also a senior international development consultant for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank in Washington, D.C. Born in Colorado in the U.S., he earned his BS in chemistry from Brigham Young University in 1941 and his PhD in soil science from North Carolina State University in 1947.

Nyle was an emeritus professor at Cornell and he was the co-author (with Ray R. Weil) of the classic textbook, The nature and properties of soils, now in its 14th edition. Nyle passed away at age 95 in Colorado on 24 November 2015. See the obituary I wrote

Klaus Lampe, Nyle Brady, and Gene HettelRead excerpts from my Pioneer interview with Nyle that appeared in the July-September 2008 issue of Rice Today. You can also view video clips from that interview, in which he talks about challenges for IRRI and "IRRI class" being better than first class.The last time I saw Nyle was during the recording of that Interview during an IRRI Alumni gathering in June 2006 at the University of California, Davis (photo at right)..

In what has become an IRRI tradition of naming buildings after outgoing directors general, the N.C. Brady Laboratory (housing social sciences, plant breeding and genetics, and the Genetic Resources Center) was dedicated to Nyle on 24 October 1981. His successor as director general, Klaus Lampe, commented on the occasion in a YouTube video. Klaus also wrote following Nyle's death: "When I met Nyle in the late 70's, I was deeply impressed by his sharp intellect, his professional engagement, his frankness, and his honesty. What I did not foresee was that he would become a friend, sharing with me very openly his views about rice, IRRI, and the CGIAR. I didn't agree with all the time, but I always valued highly his observations and they helped specifically during the difficult years of change in Los Banos."

Additional memories of Nyle from colleagues: Gelia Castillo, IRRI consultant and Philippine national Scientist, wrote: "Nyle was someone I knew even before I got married when I was teaching American History at the U.P. Rural High School. His years at IRRI were eventful when I knew him even better while I was at the University of the Philippines, Los Banos. Nyle got in touch with me when he was at USAID and gave me a job to do for Philippine agriculture."

Gurdev Khush, former IRRI breeder (1967-2001) and World Food Prize Laureate, wrote: "He was a caring boss and encouraged us and supported us in our research for the benefit of the rice-consuming world and poverty alleviation. Major advances were made in rice science during his tenure as director general of IRRI."

Jauhar Ali, IRRI breeder working on the Green Super Rice project, wrote: "I walk through the NCBL [Nyle C. Brady Laboratory] that houses IRRI's Plant Breeding, Genetics, and Biotechnology Division and I am moved by the news of the sad demise of such a great stalwart. I remember him best for his wonderful soil science book, The nature and properties of soils, that students globally use to read for their graduate and undergraduate courses.His immense contribution to the rice community, particularly at IRRI, stands high."

Robert Zeigler, IRRI director general emeritus (2005-2015), wrote: "Nyle Brady led IRRI into a tremendous period of growth in the 1970s, through which some of its greatest achievements came to fruition. He understood the the power of what IRRI had to offer some of the world's least advantaged people and what he could to help us realize our full potential."

The tragic death of Dharmawarnsa Senadhira

Dharmawarnsa SenadhiraTo my knowledge, the only person to lose his life while working in the line of duty for IRRI is Dharmawarnsa Senadhira. An IRRI breeder who was leader of the Institute's Flood-prone Rice Research Program, Sena was killed in a tragic traffic accident in Bangladesh on 7 July 1998. He was returning to Dhaka from a field trip associated with a deepwater fish-rice production project.

A citizen of Sri Lanka, he had worked at IRRI for 13 years. With his colleagues, he had successfully developed and refined screening techniques in determining the inheritance of tolerance for soil-related stresses, low temperature, and submergence in rice. Working in close collaboration with national agricultural research and extension systems in several countries, he had also developed improved germplasm for tidal wetlands and deep-flooded ricelands, and for irrigated ricelands affected by low temperatures and salinity. Sena also had administrative responsibility for IRRI's office in Bangkok, Thailand.

Before joining IRRI, in 1985, Sena had been deputy director of agriculture (research) and senior rice breeder in the Sri Lankan Department of Agriculture. While in that position, he won his country's President's Award for Scientific Achievement and the CERES Medal from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Just prior to his death, he was informed that he had been awarded Japan’s prestigious Fukui International Koshihikari Rice Prize for 1998 in recognition of his outstanding achievements in rice culture development.

Those of us who worked with him remember his ever-friendly personality, his irrepressible sense of humor, and his willingness to take on new tasks and responsibilities whenever asked. I always enjoyed visiting him in his office on the second floor of the N.C. Brady Laboratory and just chatting after getting out of the way what business I was there for.

Dharmawarnsa Senadhira To perpetuate the memory of Sena (at center in photo), the Senadhira family established an endowment fund to support the Senadhira Rice Research Award, which consists of a plaque and a cash gift. IRRI presents this award every two years. Any institute or university that is part of a NARES or any other research organization can nominate qualified scientists who have made outstanding contributions to rice research, for example, successful varieties developed, scientific papers published, or other tangible contributions to the development of rice for current and future needs. Special consideration is given to achievements in the areas of Sena’s work—rice breeding and genetics, increasing tolerance for abiotic stresses, and improving micronutrient density. The recent 2014 winner of the award is Thelma F. Padolina, a chemist-turned-breeder at PhilRice.


IRRI’s first agronomist, James Moomaw, passes away prematurely

James MoomawOn 23 July 1983, James Curtis Moomaw, IRRI’s first agronomist (1961-69), passed away much too soon at age 55. He established IRRI's long-term continuous cropping experiment in 1962, which continues to this day.

Jim was an agronomist at the University of Hawaii specializing in tropical pastures and forage crops, and had never grown a rice crop. However, Robert Chandler, IRRI’s first director general, knew he was the right man to become the Institute’s first agronomist in 1961. The North Dakota native specialized in soil fertility and developed a first-class research program at IRRI to investigate continuous rice cropping management practices involving fertilizer response, water management, and weed control.

His extensive knowledge was matched by his passion to search for solutions to poverty and hunger. Jim believed that knowledge holds the answers. He proved this with the LTCCE, which he pioneered, by producing 18.8 tons per hectare of rice from 3 crops in a year, in 1966—the first rice scientist to do so—using improved rice cropping technology.


He knew that global hunger was a constant threat, "If your technology fails for whatever reason at just one time, you have a disaster on your hands," he once said. Fifty-two years later, the LTCCE, in line with Dr. Moomaw's conviction and vision, continues to update and validate rice production practices for a changing climate, keeping the threat of global hunger at bay.

One of my first—and best—Pioneer Interviews, Reflections of a rice widow, was with his widow, Carolyn Moomaw Wilhelm. In a summary of that interview in the April-June 2008 issue of Rice Today, you can also read Jim's view of the World Food crises, circa 1976, which paralleled another food crisis 32 years later in 2008. View a video segment of my pioneer interview with Carolyn.


See other notable activities and events in July 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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