OBITUARY: Professor Hugh Bunting ; Outspoken Agricultural Scientist
Amir Kassam and Jeremy Elston, The Independent (London, England)
ACCORDING TO Alan Wood in The Groundnut Affair (1950), on 30 January 1947, an advance party left London Airport for Tanganyika to begin the implementation of the Groundnut Scheme as recommended by the Wakefield Report. "Amongst them was Dr Hugh Bunting, a young South African who was to head the Scientific Department, of keen mind and outspoken views."
In 1951, along with two senior managers, Bunting was dismissed, because in part at least he had felt obliged to point out to a Minister of the Crown that the minister had departed from the truth and knew it. According to Bunting, the scheme failed for the same sorts of reasons which would prevent a baby who could scarcely crawl from winning the 200 metres hurdles. No one knew how to clear, prepare and conserve the land or how to produce, on a large scale, the groundnuts, sunflowers and other crops which seemed possible in the environments which had been selected. Nor was there enough time to find out.
The clearing began while Bunting was surveying and analysing soils in the first region in Central Tanganyika. The Groundnut Scheme taught him a great deal about groundnuts and rain-fed agriculture in the seasonally arid tropics, an experience which he would recall often throughout the rest of his extraordinarily active career in agricultural education, research and development.
Arthur Hugh Bunting (called after the poet Arthur Hugh Clough; his family always knew him as Arthur) was born in Johannesburg in 1917. His father, Sidney Bunting, was a solicitor from London in whose unremunerative practice in Johannesburg most of the clients were Africans. Both parents devoted the greater part of their life together to the political movement for the advancement of those South Africans who were disadvantaged because of race and colour. In 1933, during his final year at Athlone High School in Johannesburg, Hugh Bunting decided to try to use his life in the same cause.
He decided that the most appropriate way to help lay in the application of the natural sciences to the improvement of the lives, and particularly of the agriculture, of the peoples of Africa. His brother Brian took up politics and became a well-known anti- apartheid campaigner and an MP in the first multi- national parliament in South Africa.
When he entered the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, in 1934, Hugh Bunting chose Chemistry and Botany as major subjects. In 1937 and 1938, he completed an honours course and a Master's course in Botany, specialising in physiology, taxonomy and ecology. In 1938, he entered Oriel College, Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar, and worked in the Botany School under W.O. James on the biochemical pathways of glycolysis in seedling barley. This provided an opportunity to learn something of the outlook of more "fundamental" science. He was awarded a DPhil in 1941. He met his future wife, Muriel Reynard, during these years: she was reading English Literature at Lady Margaret Hall.
In 1941, Bunting was appointed assistant chemist at Rothamsted Experimental Station, where he worked under E.M. Crowther, conducting an extensive series of multi-locational field trials of advanced design, in order to measure and analyse the agronomic effects of bulky organic manures. Thus began his integrated interests in soil science, plant nutrition and fertilisers, crop physiology, the water relations of crops, climatology and statistical methods.
When the Second World War ended, he returned to Africa, initially working for the Medical Research Council on the agricultural aspects of nutrition in the African tropics. Then, from 1947 to 1951, as Chief Scientific Officer, he headed the scientific department of the Groundnut Scheme in Tanganyika. This was followed by five years as Senior Research Officer in the Sudan Ministry of Agriculture, where he established and directed a new research station at Jebel Tozi to explore the potential for mechanised rain-fed agriculture of the eastern clay plains of the Central Sudan. …