Obituary: Sir Ralph Riley

RALPH RILEY was a leading figure in crop genetics and biotechnology, a champion of UK science, and an advocate of technology transfer and uptake by developing countries.

He was born in 1924. His father was a builder in Oldham, Lancashire, and he probably would never have gone to university had he not been able to take advantage of the Ex-Serviceman's Scheme after serving as an infantry officer in the Second World War. Riley enlisted in 1942 and, after being injured in Germany in 1945, he spent 18 months in Palestine dealing with unrest at the end of the Mandate.

He entered Sheffield University in 1947 and, after his undergraduate degree in Botany, studied for a PhD with John Thoday who whetted the young Ralph's interest in genetics. He was only two years into his PhD when he was recruited by Douglas Bell, then the Director of the Plant Breeding Institute at Cambridge, to study the introduction of useful variation into the wheat crop from its wild relatives, and to take wheat breeding on to the next step. Two years later in 1954 Riley became the founder and first Head of the Cytogenetics Department at the PBI.

Although Riley's was a very fundamental approach to wheat genetics he never lost sight of the goals of plant breeding, which was at that time a fairly empirical science. His initial aim was to widen the gene pool by making the variation in wild relatives available to wheat breeders. In 1957, he discovered the method of doing so by finding the Ph gene which controlled pairing between the chromosomes of wheat and wild relatives of wheat. Soon he was able to devise and demonstrate the cytogenetic ways by which useful genes, such as those that confer novel disease resistances, could be transferred into wheat from a host of wild species.

This discovery of the Ph gene allowed the first "genetic engineering" and his methods have since been used around the world in all major cereal breeding programmes. Many of these applications have produced varieties for use in developing country agricultures, which was also one of Riley's motivating forces. His election to the Royal Society in 1967 and a range of prizes, including the Wolf Foundation Prize in Agriculture in 1986, reflect the importance of the discovery.

In 1972, against his initial inclination, he took the post of Director of the PBI, where he commanded respect for his scientific leadership as well as his achievements in research. His six years as Director were characterised by a drive to improve production in UK arable agriculture, the development of fundamental research programmes in an environment where the discoveries could rapidly be brought to bear on breeding, and the beginning of plant molecular biology in the UK. In short Riley ensured that the PBI was a model for the application of science to plant breeding.

During his directorship wheat yields increased from four tonnes per hectare to 6 t/ha, due in large part to the improved PBI varieties which covered 75 per cent of the crop area of the UK. These increases continued till the record year of 1984 that saw 8.4 t/ha. Output increases were even more impressive rising from 4.8 megatonnes to 13.8 Mt. This was particularly vital at a time when the UK needed to be less reliant on North American imports.

Riley had foreseen the importance of molecular biology and, by skilful lobbying, obtained significant funds to start the first plant molecular biology initiative in the UK. The UK's present position in this key area of plant science is very much due to this beginning in Trumpington in the mid-1970s. His six years in the post saw remarkable advances and were probably the heyday of this world-famous institute that continued until privatisation in 1987. Riley was, of course, depressed to see the mix of fundamental and applied science that he had built destroyed when the PBI was privatised, shortly after his retirement.

In 1978 Ralph Riley left a much- expanded PBI to become Secretary (chief executive) of the Agriculture and Food Research Council (now the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council). As Secretary, under a very difficult financial regime, he provided yet further stimulus for the development of biotechnology in UK universities and institutes. Although Riley oversaw the closure of several institutes, he was adamant that traditional research with the potential to bring new understanding or to lead to new technologies was retained. He was knighted for his services to science in 1984.

After his official retirement from UK agricultural research Riley had more time to devote to overseas agricultures. Although he considered it unwise precipitously to include the new science in the programmes of the international agricultural research institutes, he considered it his duty to ensure that the institutes were aware of the opportunities on offer. While pursuing this aim, Riley sat on the board of trustees of the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. In 1993, after a period on the board of the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas, he became a member of the Technical Advisory Committee to the Consultative Group on International Research, where he could have most impact. He also became Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Committee for the remarkably successful Rockefeller Foundation's Rice Biotechnology Program.

His interest in development was also exemplified by his leading a Food and Agriculture Organisation/UN Development Programme team to increase grain production in Bangladesh in 1989. His great interest in international agriculture continued undiminished until his death.

All of us whose lives and research have been influenced by Ralph Riley will remember a research leader and manager who had time to talk. His question was always "What's new?" He helped with careers by knowing when and how to get to the right people at the right time. He was also a fighter on his own behalf. He was dogged by ill-health and eye problems arising from diabetes for much of his life, but worked prodigiously regardless.

Ralph Riley, plant geneticist: born Scarborough, Yorkshire 23 October 1924; research worker, Plant Breeding Institute, Cambridge 1952-78, Head of Cytogenetics Department 1954-72, Director 1971-78; FRS 1967; Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge 1967-92 (Emeritus); Special Professor of Botany, Nottingham University 1970-78; Secretary, Agriculture and Food Research Council 1978-85, Deputy Chairman 1983-85; Kt 1984; married 1949 Joan Norrington (two daughters); died Cambridge 27 August 1999.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all