This month in IRRI history: March

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IRRI's history "marches" on during the third month of the year with no shortage of milestones and significant events.

The Forrest F. Hill Laboratory is dedicated

Forrest F. Hill Laboratory was formally dedicated
Dr. Forrest F. Hill at the microphone and his wife Lillian to his right. IRRI Director General Nyle Brady is to his left.

On 12 March 1977, the Forrest F. Hill Laboratory (now housing the director general's and administrative offices) was formally dedicated. The ceremony was graced by Dr. Hill himself and his wife Lillian.F.F. Hill plaque

Forrest Hill, "Frosty," as he was affectionately called by all those who knew him, was head of the Ford Foundation's Overseas Development Program. He is considered IRRI's co-founder along with J. George Harrar of the Rockefeller Foundation and charter and charter member of IRRI's Board of Trustees, being elected Board chairman in 1963, when Harrar found it necessary to resign.

Frosty's enthusiastic and indefatigable support of IRRI's program influenced the Ford Foundation and other foreign assistance agencies to provide substantial grants to the Institute. He served until 1977 when he was named Chairman Emeritus.

The Board of Trustees named the laboratory building, which we all frequent today for administrative things, the Forrest F. Hill Laboratory. As the building plaque reads, he was recognized for his "…wisdom and foresight in helping conceptualize and establish the International Rice Research Institute, of his tireless and selfless devotion to the Institute from its inception in 1960 through 17 years as a member of the Board, including 14 years as board chairman, and of his warm and personal relationships with the Institute staff creating an atmosphere conducive to productive research and training."

Here is where some of the "old timers" still at large at IRRI can help me out. What laboratories were in the building during the 1960s through to early 90s when the structure got a makeover for administrative purposes? I think it was comprised of mostly agronomy laboratories, but were there others?

Dr. Forest F. Hill's daughter Peggy Hill
In an interview with Peggy Hill

Dr. Hill passed away on 20 October 1988 just shy of his 88th birthday. In July 2009, I had the privilege to interview his daughter Peggy Hill at Cornell University. She lovingly reminisced about her father, saying that, "He had a lifetime horror of bureaucracy and what it could do to stop progress."


The legacy of Te-Tzu (T.T.) Chang 

IRRI Geneticist and Principal Scientist Te-Tzu Chang
IRRI Geneticist and Principal Scientist Te-Tzu Chang

On 12 March 1988, T.T. Chang, IRRI's first geneticist (and principal scientist at the time), and Peter Jennings, IRRI's first rice breeder, shared the Rank Prize for Agronomy and Nutrition. In the early days after they were hired by IRRI's first director general, Robert Chandler, they quickly assembled a large collection of rice varieties, including the short-statured cultivars from Taiwan. From this early assemblage of germplasm, Jennings made the crosses that ultimately resulted in IR8.

More on Peter in a future blog; however, exactly 19 years later on the same date, 12 March 2007, IRRI's Genetic Resources Center was named the T.T. Chang Genetic Resources Center in his memory. He had passed away, at age 78, the previous year on 24 March 2006. During a special dedication ceremony that day in 2007, attended by his family (wife Nancy, sons Dean and Jeff, and grandchildren), T.T. was recognized as the founder of IRRI’s International Rice Germplasm Center, the predecessor of the GRC, and a world authority on rice genetics and conservation. Up until his retirement in 1991, T.T. had spent 30 years at IRRI collecting and storing rice varieties from all over Asia and the world.

Dean Chang and family at the International Rice Genebank
Dean, T.T.'s eldest son, showing a rice sample to his children, Nathan and Erica, as his mother, Nancy, looks on.

After the dedication ceremony, family members toured the genebank facility that T.T. had nurtured for so many years.

During my days as a visiting editor at IRRI in 1982-83, I got to know T.T. quite well and I always enjoyed talking to him. I was planning to fly to Taiwan during the summer of 2006 to do one of my pioneer interviews with T.T., but unfortunately he passed away that March. I regret not doing the interview sooner. However, when his sons, Dean and Jeff visited IRRI in April 2010 attend the Institute's 50th anniversary celebration, I was able to interview both of them about the legacy of their father. 

Interview with Dean and Jeff Chang
In an interview with Dean (left) and Jeff Chang

During that interview, Dean stated, "The earliest moment for me to understand in greater context on what my father was doing at IRRI was when the International School Manila (ISM) would annually send kids on field trips to IRRI because the place was such a gem in terms of doing something important. I think I was in the fifth or sixth grade at the time and we took a field trip to IRRI. We were brought to the auditorium and we viewed a film about IRRI and then my father spoke. At that moment, it was a defining moment or epiphany for me that my father was really someone special and doing some really good work."


STRASA launched in Africa and South Asia

Phase 3 STRASA launch
The Phase 3 STRASA launch for South Asia took place on 20-23 May 2014 at the ICAR NASC Complex in New Delhi.

In March 2008, the Stress-tolerant rice for poor farmers in Africa and South Asia (STRASA) was launched in both Africa and South Asia. On 5-7 March, national and international rice specialists held their 3-day meeting at the Africa Rice Center (then still WARDA) in Cotonou, Benin, to kick off the African component. Later, on 16-19 March, the South Asian component was inaugurated at the ICAR NASC Complex in New Delhi, which was attended by 150 senior scientists, researchers, and representatives of NGOs, private companies, and seed producers from Bangladesh, India, and Nepal.

The project, which has since been carried out by IRRI and its partners, was approved for funding by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through an original grant to IRRI that was announced in December 2007. STRASA was originally conceived as a 10-year project with a vision to deliver improved varieties to at least 18 million farmers on the two continents. The project was also anticipated to have significant spillover effects for non-participating countries.

Over two phases, much progress has been made over the last 7 years in both Asia and Africa. Last 4 March 2014, a new 5-year phase 3 was approved, which will take the project into 2019.

At the time of the phase-3 announcement, Abdel Ismail, STRASA project leader, said, "I am sure the next 5 years will be even more exciting with even greater success and impact.

Spinning off from the phase 3 announcement, a 2-day project planning STRASA workshop was held 30-31 March in Bangladesh to map out the strategies and develop the work plans of the project with Bangladeshi partners.

See other notable activities and events in March 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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