Raoul A. Robinson Obituary | Sharebooks Publishing

In memoriam: Raoul Arthur Robinson, 1928–2014.

Raoul Robinson was born together with a twin brother on 25 September 1928 at St. Helier on the island of Jersey, UK. When he was age 11, the Nazis swept through France, and they also occupied Jersey for five long years, leading to severe food shortages for the people of the island. This greatly influenced Raoul’s future career in agriculture. Raoul was educated at Victoria College, Jersey and because of his interest and skills in microscopy and photomicrography, he was awarded a scholarship at Reading University, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Agricultural Science degree with Honours in 1951. Following graduation, he joined Her Majesty’s Overseas Civil Service and was awarded scholarships for further specialization in plant pathology with a postgraduate Diploma in Agricultural Science at Cambridge University and a Diploma in Tropical Agriculture in 1953 from the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture (DICTA) Trinidad, which is now part of the University of the West Indies. His dissertation was on the control of Xanthomonas campestris on cabbage and cauliflower under Trinidad conditions Following completion of his studies, Raoul went to work as a plant pathologist at Scott Laboratories, Department of Agriculture, Nairobi, Kenya, where he was responsible for the diagnostic plant disease laboratory and seed testing laboratory, as well as for providing rhizobium inoculum to growers. In 1960, he published a list of some 300 diseases on approximately 70 common crops and vegetables in Kenya and their control. Raoul also interacted with an eminent British mycologist (Dr R. M. Nattrass) and coffee pathologists (Drs F. J. Nutman, F. M. Roberts, and Ken Bock) who were based at Scott Laboratories at this time, as well as the eminent plant virologist Dr H. H. Storey, who was also based nearby at the East African Agriculture and Forestry Research Organization (EAAFRO) at Muguga. Following the appointment of Ernest Hainsworth as Chief Research Officer, Raoul was appointed Senior Plant Pathologist in 1961. During this time, he initiated a screening and breeding programme against late blight and bacterial wilt of potatoes and sugarcane smut. Raoul was a good administrator, who encouraged and stimulated his staff by his sympathetic ear and ready communication. He actively encouraged his junior staff, including this author, who was his laboratory technician trainee at the time, to study further and gain further qualifications and training in relevant fields, including plant pathology and legume bacteriology, sponsoring them for Kenya Government scholarships to British and other overseas universities. Raoul continued identifying, encouraging and motivating young scientists to study for higher degrees throughout his career. Raoul also took an active role in the Specialist Committee on Agricultural Botany (SCAB) which included agronomists, plant breeders, plant pathologists and entomologists from the East African countries of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda and held a scientific meeting every few years. He was always exceedingly enthusiastic about his ideas in crop protection and one colleague commented ‘I remember first meeting him in Kampala about 1966 or 1967 talking about his “phyllosphere hypothesis” on coffee’. The publication of the book Plant Diseases: Epidemics and Control by J. E. Van Der Plank in 1963 had a major impact on Raoul with the concepts of horizontal and vertical resistance, and he then devoted most of his professional life from the 1960s to fostering internationally the application of system theory to crop pathosystems and pathosystem management by breeding for durable /horizontal resistance. In the mid 1960s, he attempted to detect horizontal resistance to bacterial blight in potatoes using a mass screening programme. He would pace up and down smoking an endless supply of cigarettes as he wrestled with the logic of horizontal versus vertical resistance. Following the Independence of Kenya from the British Government in 1963, the newly independent Government of Kenya embarked on a policy of nationalization of the Public Service, and as a consequence many European and Asian staff at the Laboratories were replaced with Kenyan Africans. So after 13 years working in Kenya, Raoul left and took up an appointment as a plant pathologist with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). After a short spell working for the FAO in Nigeria, Raoul returned to Kenya to continue his potato work for another 4 years as potato breeder under FAO funding, developing disease resistance in potatoes and in that undertaking he started applying the ideas of Van der Plank on horizontal resistance. Van der Plank’s ideas were opposed by many and Raoul was criticized for promoting polygenic resistance against the prevailing dogma, which was based on major gene (vertical) resistance breeding. However, he developed a white flowered potato variety ‘Kenya Baraka’ with horizontal resistance to both potato blight and bacterial wilt which has since been used widely throughout Kenya. These potatoes were the most successful varieties for decades and allowed production in Kenya to increase from 10,000 tonnes in 1974 to 1 million tonnes by 2004. Raoul continued to expand the concepts of Van der Plank, by defining more precisely the terminology of vertical and horizontal resistance, writing extensively on these subjects and culminating with the publication of his first book Plant Pathosystems in 1976 and the publication of a major review of the new concepts in breeding for disease resistance. Raoul influenced the establishment of the FAO International Programme on Horizontal Resistance (IPHR) with Dr Luigi Chiarappa, senior plant pathologist at FAO at the time, which aimed at demonstrating the applicability of the principles of horizontal resistance in a number of crops. Luigi consulted many plant pathologists and disease resistance breeders on the chances of success of such a programme and he found sufficient support to start the programme. The principle was to provide a young plant pathologist or plant breeder to breeding programmes in developing countries that were associated with or assisted by FAO, with the aim to test methodologies. Raoul would provide oversight through site visits. Raoul was placed in charge of one of its first programmes on coffee berry disease at the Institute of Agricultural Research in Ethiopia. He drafted and started off a programme of selection of Arabica coffee for horizontal resistance to coffee berry disease (CBD), a disease that had in the early 1970s been introduced from Kenya into Ethiopia, a centre of diversity for Coffea arabica. He left Ethiopia at the end of 1974, to take a more pronounced role in IPHR. IPHR made use of the associate expert programme of the Netherlands and Belgium. Young professionals were placed in Ethiopia (coffee, beans), Brazil (coffee, wheat), Zambia (wheat), Morocco (wheat, chickpeas and broadbeans) and Tunisia (vegetables). As was to be expected, results and interest varied and controversy remained and there were great differences in opinions between conventional plant breeders who concentrated on single gene resistance and were not at ease with the concepts of horizontal resistance. This spilled over into huge public debates between Raoul and other scientists at forums at International Conferences and Congresses. Nevertheless, there were some notable practical results and scientific publications and outputs (including four PhD theses at Wageningen University). Raoul’s book on ‘Plant Pathosystems’ inspired many as it pointed towards a breeding solution to achieve durable disease resistance – and almost 40 years on, Professor Cowling, a plant breeder in Western Australia, still inspired by the concepts of Raoul Robinson, is developing F1 recurrent selection methods in selfing crops for improved polygenic disease resistance. He recalls one particularly stimulating conversation that occurred over coffee at UC Davis in 1977, where Raoul sketched a theoretical response to selection for polygenic resistance over several cycles of recurrent selection, in response to questions from PhD students. Raoul built that diagram from an understanding of horizontal resistance systems, but it exactly matched the outcome modelled by quantitative geneticists for complex traits with low heritability, including migration events which stimulate higher resistance over time. Raoul’s ideas were borne out completely by the recurrent selection for and durability of horizontal resistance to both vascular streak dieback and Phytophthora pod rot of cocoa in Papua New Guinea and South East Asia. However, rapid changes in the system of International Agricultural Research and International Development Assistance in the 1970s reduced the FAO’s ability to maintain this programme. Raoul left the FAO/Ethiopia at the end of 1974 and returned to Jersey where he remained as a consultant to the FAO and other organizations on various projects including one in Barbados, and also spent time writing as well as caring for his ageing step-mother. Raoul was a great theoretician and admitted privately that he would probably have made a better lawyer. At heart he was an academic and in 1981, he took up an appointment as Associate Professor of plant pathology in the Department of Biological Sciences and Director of the Pest Management Program at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia. He taught one or two graduate courses and managed the graduate Pest Management Program. Raoul continued to present and publish his theories at an international meeting on durable host resistance sponsored by NATO and he used the feedback from his students in writing his next book, Host Management of Plant Pathosystems (1987). Raoul left Simon Fraser University at the end of 1984 and took up residence at Fergus, ON with his twin brother, Helier, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Guelph. From this base, he continued to write further papers on host resistance to crop parasites and continued being an international consultant in plant pathology and breeding for the FAO and other agencies around the globe especially in relation to breeding crops for horizontal resistance to plant diseases. Raoul developed joint research programmes with Dr Roberto Garcia Espinosa and Dr F. Romero Rosales on horizontal resistance for pests and diseases in beans of the Mixteca Poblana in Mexico. The new resistant varieties were in the registration process when Roberto died. Raoul was honoured by being awarded an Honorary degree of Doctor (Honoris Causa) in 1995 by the Colegio de Postgraduados Montecillo, Mexico ‘in recognition of his distinguished and productive research about the benefits of breeding genetically improved crops resistant to diseases and insects (pests) and strategies to reduce or eliminate pesticide use in favour of sustainable agriculture’. Raoul was a rare genius who had confidence enough in his own ideas to write books independently and without approval from his peers. He had an immense wealth of knowledge of world agriculture and the history of crops. He refused to be pigeon-holed into any one category of science. He was a teacher, philosopher, historian, anthropologist, systems ecologist, plant pathologist and breeder, in addition to his many other talents. He rebelled against the authoritarianism of post-World War II academic institutions in the UK, and set off to Kenya where he delved into practical agricultural problems. He infrequently published in peer-review journals and infrequently cited others, and he upset the establishment plenty of times with his forthright expression of controversial ideas. Nevertheless, his theories were inspired by his successful plant breeding experiences. Raoul was a free thinker who was not afraid to express his views on a systems approach to disease resistance breeding, even though these were not always in alignment with the established views of the time. Raoul’s legacy is his validation of population breeding methods for durable disease resistance, and for his great contribution to agriculture in developing countries. The new techniques are so easy to use that Raoul developed the idea of plant breeding clubs operated by amateurs. He considered that such clubs would help democratize seed production and breeding and help prevent monopolization by the few large chemical corporations, which own most of the seed production firms, and control the direction of crop breeding. The first breeding club was formed in the University of Chapingo, in Mexico, in 1995 and a number of breeding clubs, mainly in North America, have already adopted Raoul’s techniques. Raoul was truly a role model to many. Dr Okpul from Papua New Guinea wrote ‘I first met him around 2000 during a taro breeding workshop in Fiji. He showed great interest in our breeding taro work in PNG – i.e. using the population improvement approach to develop taro lines with horizontal resistance to the leaf blight pathogen, Phytophthora colocasiae. Unbeknownst to me then, he published a book on the application of system theory to crop pathosystems, only to learn about it during his seminar presentation. His book Return to Resistance: Breeding Crops to Reduce Pesticide Dependency was published as a Share book (AgAccess California 1996). It has inspired so many around the globe, like me, and my students of course’. A 3rd revised edition was published in 2006 and a Spanish edition of this book was translated by Dr Romero Rosales. Raoul promoted the idea of ‘University Breeder’s Clubs’ globally to involved students and their lecturers and even communities to participate in hands-on breeding activities using the population improvement approach. He recognized the need for his books to be freely available especially to those in developing countries and he subsequently published five more Share books including Amateur Plant Breeder’s Handbook ( www.sharebooks.com 2004). Raoul was an active member of Heritage Fergus for many years, working to preserve local architecture in Fergus and Wellington County, Ontario. He was unfailingly kind and always an elegantly gracious host. His interests were wide-ranging and he was a witty and erudite conversationalist. He died of abdominal cancer on 25 July 2014. Raoul never married and he is survived by his twin brother Helier, younger sister Heather, nieces and nephews. He will be greatly missed by many.

Written by Terry Price.
© 2015 The Canadian Phytopathological Society
Reprinted from the Canadian Journal of Phytopathology, by permission.