This month in IRRI history: June

Author // Gene Hettel Categories // IRRI History

Throughout the decades, it appears that June is a month of recognition for those contributing to IRRI’s important work—from a couple of World Food Prize announcements to ACE awards for IRRI’s publishing and communication efforts—and of course, continued mention of our work in major media. Enjoy this month’s installment.


IRRI’s second director general only stayed 3 months

Ralph Cummings, Sr. with Robert Chandler
Ralph W. Cummings, Sr. at right in photo with outgoing DG Robert Chandler

On 1 June 1972, Ralph W. Cummings, Sr. arrived as IRRI's second director general. With a PhD in Soil Science in 1938 from my own alma mater, The Ohio State University, the North Carolina native had worked in a variety of capacities as a scientist (Cornell and North Carolina State Universities) and a science administrator (the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, among others).

Ralph W. CummingsIn 1966-68, he had served on the IRRI BOT, representing the Rockefeller Foundation. His time at the helm of IRRI was very brief. Because of his experience as the director of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Indian Agricultural Program, the Government of India and the trustees of the newly formed International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), requested him to become that organization’s first director general. He stayed on in that capacity at ICRISAT until March 1977.

Dr. Cummings' work took him all over the world, but it was his stay in India that he remembered most, according to his daughter Mary Ann Hardee. Old-timers still remember the grace and hospitality of Ralph and his wife Mary for whom the Mary Cummings Park at ICRISAT headquarters in Patancheru is named. The beautiful park was the site of the reception for the IRRI BOT, which I attended, during its recent annual meeting held at ICRISAT on 15-18 April.

On 25 June 2001, Dr. Cummings passed away at the age of 90. He is the only IRRI director general that I did not have the privilege of meeting.


The world rice germplasm collection is initiated

International Rice Genebank
IRRI's International Rice Genebank had its humble beginning 54 years ago on 1 June 1961. Today, it is the repository for the world's largest collection of rice genetic diversity, containing more than 124,000 accessions of traditional and modern varieties and wild relatives.

On 1 June 1961, Sterling Wortman, then IRRI assistant director, initiated the Institute’s world rice germplasm collection, the forerunner of today’s International Rice Genebank. Peter Jennings, IRRI’s first rice breeder, assumed responsibility for the collection as soon as he arrived in October 1961.

germplasm collection
As shown here, rice has an incredible array of genetic diversity, which is preserved in the International Rice Genebank.

According to IRRI’s first director general, Bob Chandler, Peter wrote 160 letters requesting seed and received samples from about half of those contacts. A large portion of the early accessions came from the sizable collections of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the FAO indica-japonica sets, the substantial collection at Hiratsuka, Japan, and the materials available from Taiwan. By the end of 1962, IRRI’s accessions numbered 6,967, which came from 73 countries or territories. From that humble beginning, the IRC, the largest collection of an incredible array of rice genetic diversity in the world, holds more than 124,000 types of rice, including modern and traditional varieties and wild relatives of rice. Countries from all over the world send their rice to IRRI for safekeeping and for sharing for public good. No more letters of request for samples are needed.

Besides providing the basis for IRRI’s rice breeding program, the germplasm collected was available, on request, to rice breeders everywhere. According to Bob Chandler, requests began coming in as early as late 1962, and IRRI sent out 400 seed lots to 14 countries that year. In 1963, the number of samples, which were shipped to 26 institutions in 17 countries, jumped to 2,296. In 1965, IRRI sent 1,608 varieties to 56 institutions in 26 countries, and, in 1966 the figure was 1,052 varieties to 41 countries. By then, the Institute was able to distribute varieties it had tested thoroughly, as well as progeny from its own crosses that showed great promise.

When Peter left to breed rice in Colombia in 1967, T.T. Chang, IRRI’s first geneticist, assumed full responsibility and headed what was to become the genebank for the next 24 years until he retired in 1991. Read more about T.T. in my March blog and more about the early days of IRRI’s germplasm collection in Bob Chandler’s book, An adventure in applied science.


Rudy Aquino named one of 20 great Asians

Rudy Aquino, named as one of 20 great Asians by Asiaweek

20150601 asia weekOn 2 June 1995, Rudy Aquino, IRRI senior assistant scientist who served the Institute for 35 years (1962-97), was deservedly named one of "20 great Asians" by Asiaweek Magazine. The segment of the story featuring Rudy stated, in part:

"At 57, Aquino (no relation to Ninoy) is the Philippines' foremost rice breeder, who has crouched at the front lines of Asia's war on famine all his life. In 1962, the 25-year-old "Rudy" Aquino joined IRRI as part of a 10-member team headed by American Peter Jennings. Among the Filipino's unsung tasks was a historic one: pollinating IR8, the 1966 strain that was the first of several "miracle rice" varieties that were the seeds of Asia's Green Revolution. Now one of IRRI's most senior scientists, he still spends half of every day in the field. As a child in his barrio of San Jose, south of Manila, Aquino learned to plant, nurture, and harvest the crop, the start of a lifelong passion. For 7,000 years, Asians too have held the swamp grass Oryza sativa as dear as the very life it sustains, savoring it in cuisine, celebrating it in poetry and art, and cultivating it as the center and foundation of civilizations. Aquino also paid the grain homage, devoting his youth to the study of agriculture and plant breeding at the University of the Philippines Los Baños, Asia's leading institute for the art and science of cultivation."

Read what Rudy himself wrote about his time at IRRI


See other notable activities and events in June 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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