Professor Norman Simmonds

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The Independent Online

Norman Willison Simmonds, botanist and plant breeder: born Bedford 15 December 1922; Head, Potato Genetics Department, John Innes Institute 1959-65; Director, Scottish Plant Breeding Station 1965-82; FRSE 1970; Honorary Professor, Department of Botany, Edinburgh University 1975-2002; married; died Edinburgh 4 January 2002.

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. This was a demanding role at a time of increasing pressures for new varieties suited to Scottish conditions. He had little time for personal research. But he did develop teaching initiatives with the Botany Department at Edinburgh University and the staff of the Edinburgh School of Agriculture, then under the dynamic direction of Professor Noel Robertson. Simmonds produced a new textbook on plant breeding, Principles of Crop Improvement (1979). An updated edition (with J. Smartt) appeared in 1999.

Professor Fred Last, sometime Professor of Forestry and Natural Resources at Edinburgh, recalls:

Norman was his own man and fought the corner of the Scottish Plant Breeding Station with conviction. I immediately think of his analytical ability, and in particular, his realisation of the need to radically rethink the long-standing potato breeding programme, by returning to the wild an seeking new germ plasmas. He saved the potato.

Simmonds travelled widely, partly as chairman of the Quinquennial Review of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources and later on behalf of the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Bank. Supported by his energetic wife, Christa, he made valuable contributions in consultancies carried out for Sugar Cane Breeding, in the West Indies, the Rubber Research Institute in Malaysia and Copersucar in Brazil.

He was not only a gifted scientist and stimulating teacher but a real crusader for making the world a less hungry place. His success was recognised in 1975 when he was given one of the very few honorary professorships at Edinburgh University.

Professor Peter Wilson, from 1996 to 2001 General Secretary of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (of which Simmonds was elected a Fellow in 1970), was at school and in the West Indies with Simmonds. He remembers him as

an iconoclast who did not suffer fools gladly, particularly writers who took liberties with the finer parts of the English language. He was similarly scathing of an inexpertly crafted fly or incorrect cast on a trout stream. His maxim was that things should be done exceedingly well or not at all.

He was a bit of a martinet with his students in the West Indies, but they respected him and many of them knew that they owed their careers to his formidable and rigorous teaching. On a matter of principle he did not have a single PhD student because he thought that the PhD currency had been devalued.

Norman Simmonds refused to have any entry in Who's Who or Who's Who in Scotland, on the grounds that their approach to him by letter was sloppily worded.

Tam Dalyell