Professor Jack Hawkes

Botanist who played an important role in the conservation of plant genetic resources

Thursday 18 October 2007 00:00 BST

John Gregory Hawkes, botanist: born Bristol 27 June 1915; botanist, Potato Research Station, Commonwealth Agricultural Bureaux 1939-48, 1951-52; Director, Potato Research Project, Ministry of Agriculture, Colombia 1948-51; Lecturer and Senior Lecturer in Taxonomic Botany, Birmingham University 1952-61, Professor of Taxonomic Botany 1961-67, Mason Professor of Botany 1967-82 (Emeritus), Head of the Plant Biology Department 1967-82; OBE 1994; married 1941 Ellen Leather (died 2005; two sons, two daughters); died Reading 6 September 2007.

Jack Hawkes was known internationally for his pioneering work on the taxonomy and biodiversity of potatoes. Among many achievements, he produced an evolutionary scheme for 230 wild potato species, employing serology to determine species relationships; developed a novel breeding strategy to introduce new genetic material into potato varieties; and identified a source of genetic resistance to the potato cyst nematode pest. Overall, he was involved in publishing nearly 250 scientific works; his most significant books included The Diversity of Crop Plants (1983), The Potatoes of Bolivia (1989), The Potato – Evolution, Biodiversity and Genetic Resources (1990) and Plant Genetic Conservation (1997).

Perhaps his greatest and long-lasting influence in science is related to the topic covered by the last book in this list, namely in plant genetic conservation. Hawkes first played an important international role in the emerging discipline of plant genetic conservation when he served on a UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) panel in the 1960s. It was recognised at the time only by a small number of scientists that plant genetic resources and their potentially important genes were very rapidly being lost in many parts of the world and that efforts were needed to halt this loss through conservation activities. FAO and other international organisations have been active in this respect ever since.

It was perceived at the time that scientists would need to be trained who could carry out the necessary conservation work, and it was Hawkes who picked up the baton. In 1969 he established at Birmingham University, where he was head of the Plant Biology Department, a postgraduate master's training course in "Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources". Even before his retirement in 1982, he had guided and enthused several hundred students from over 80 different countries worldwide, many of these being from developing countries.

These graduates have since been instrumental in ensuring the safe keeping of crop germplasm in gene-banks across the globe, and nowadays we would refer to this work as contributing to ensuring the sustainability of the world's food supply. It is a remarkable tribute to Jack Hawkes, his foresight and his drive that similar training is still available today in Birmingham.

John Gregory Hawkes was born in Bristol, was educated at Cheltenham Grammar School and graduated from Christ's College, Cambridge, with a first class honours in Natural Sciences in 1937 and then with a PhD in 1942. It was at this time that he first started his research into the genetics and taxonomy of potatoes.

This was initiated when, while working at the Empire Potato Breeding Station in Cambridge, he was able to visit eminent plant geneticists in Leningrad, most notable among them being Nikolai Vavilov. Vavilov made a great contribution to our knowledge of how crop plants were domesticated and how they evolved, and he influenced Hawkes considerably (indeed Hawkes referred to him as a "colossus"), but Vavilov was subsequently executed in 1943, having disagreed with the anti-geneticist and now infamous Trofim Lysenko, then President of the Lenin Academy.

This must have been an incredibly exciting time for Hawkes, because in late 1938 he voyaged to South America via Liverpool and Peru on the start of the British Empire Potato Collecting Expedition. From Lima, the party journeyed 9,000 miles through Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador and Colombia, ending in Panama eight months later. Over 1,000 samples of wild potatoes, as well as landraces or varieties cultivated by indigenous people were collected and taken back to the UK, to form the basis of what is now still referred to as the "Commonwealth Potato Collection", located in the Scottish Crops Research Institute. An early film record of these travels, some on horseback, still exists.

These experiences were undoubtedly memorable, and formed much of the foundation of Hawkes's later university teaching, which began when he joined Birmingham University as a lecturer in the Department of Botany in 1952. He was given a personal chair in 1961 and appointed the Mason Professor of Botany in 1967. He was Head of Department until his retirement in 1982.

Aside from potatoes, Jack Hawkes was instrumental in producing a revolutionary Flora for Warwickshire (A Computer-mapped Flora, 1971), revolutionary in the sense that it used computer mapping of plant distributions for the very first time.

He recounted his memories of visiting Vavilov in Leningrad and collecting potatoes in South America in Hunting the Wild Potato in the South American Andes (2003), and thoughtfully wrote: "Many people have asked me why I became interested in potatoes. The humble spud, as it is often called, holds little interest to most people until it is cooked and on a plate. And so it had been for me, as a student of botany at Cambridge. How did it change my life?"

Hawkes served on many international committees during his career. In 1975 he was awarded the International Botanical Congress medal. He was awarded the Linnean Medal for Botany in 1984 and was President of the Linnean Society of London, 1991-94.

Brian Ford-Lloyd

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