Obituary: Professor Norman Simmonds

By Dalyell, Tam | The Independent (London, England), January 1, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Obituary: Professor Norman Simmonds

Dalyell, Tam, The Independent (London, England)

NORMAN SIMMONDS was author of the standard monograph on the banana, Bananas (1959), while his The Evolution of the Bananas (1962) is regarded as the banana researcher's bible. He also conducted vital research into the breeding of the potato.

Few cases which come to an MP can be as difficult as those where a highly qualified, professional constituent brings a grievance against a distinguished institution for which he is working. In 1965 such a case, which had dragged on for three years, brought me into contact with the then incoming director of the Scottish Plant Breeding Station, now the Scottish Crop Research Institute, then at Pentlandfield, outside Edinburgh.

It was characteristic of Norman Simmonds that he won the respect of my aggrieved constituent, and my lifelong friendship and interest in his plant breeding. Simmonds had a huge influence over plant breeders scattered to the ends of the earth who had been his pupils. In 1991 he was the first non-American to be given the Distinguished Economic Botanist Award by the American Society of Economic Botany.

Simmonds was born in 1922 in Bedford, where his father was a civil servant. His mother came from a well-known Scottish farming family, the Willisons. Simmonds went to Whitgift School, Croydon, and from there won an open exhibition to Downing College, Cambridge. At school he was stimulated by a remarkable teacher, Cecil ("Cheese") Prime. He was particularly lucky in his next mentor, David Guthrie Catcheside, Lecturer in Botany at Cambridge, then Reader in Plant Cytogenetics and a Fellow of Trinity.

With a first class degree in part two of the Natural Sciences tripos he was given a Colonial Agricultural Scholarship, which took him to the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture in Trinidad. His experience in the West Indies led to the post of Senior Cytogeneticist of the Banana Research Scheme.

With K.S. Dodds, Simmonds developed a banana breeding strategy through constructed diploids crossed to triploids, thence to tetraploids. He started, too, to develop ideas on genetic resources, conservation and utilisation following two collecting trips to East Africa, in 1948, and Malaysia, Thailand and north India, in 1954- 55. Out of this experience came his two books Bananas (which went into a second edition in 1966, and a third edition, jointly with R.H. Stover, in 1987) and The Evolution of the Bananas, as well as numerous learned papers.

In 1959 Simmonds returned to Britain as head of the Potato Genetics Department at the John Innes Institute at Hertford, brought there by his old colleague in banana research K.S. Dodds, the then Director. He embraced the new subject enthusiastically, publishing papers on tuber dormancy, seed germination, polyploidy, virus transmissions, chimeral and other mutants. Above all, he told me later, he saw disease resistance as the real cause of his professional life. He developed the concept of genetic base broadening, which subsequently turned out to be fundamental and effective for potatoes.

Six years later, he moved to Pentlandfield as director of the Scottish Plant Breeding Station.

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