Obituary Prof. Eric Roberts
Professor Eric Hywel Roberts OBE (1930 – 2016)
Emeritus Professor Eric Roberts BSc, PhD, D.Sc Manchester, OBE, died at Treliske Hospital on 13th August 2016 following a stroke.
Eric Roberts OBE was an excellent and innovative seed and crop scientist – who was also great fun to be around. His legacy is not only his lasting published work, but also the many high quality researchers he trained and who in turn have expanded our understanding of seed science and technology – and in crop science, plant breeding and plant genetic resources conservation more widely.
Eric’s father died when he was quite young and subsequently attended Lucton School in Herefordshire as a boarder during the Second World War. On leaving school, and with the help of his elder sister but particularly due to his skills in art (in those days drawing was a key botanical skill), he took up employment as a laboratory technician in Botany in the University of Manchester. Within the first year there his high ability was discovered and he was awarded a place as an undergraduate student.
After reading Botany at Manchester, followed by a PhD in tissue culture there under Herbert Street, Eric was appointed as a rice breeder (and subsequently as a crop physiologist) at the West African Rice Research Station at Rokupr, Sierra Leone, by the (then) Colonial Service. This followed a preparatory period of six months or so at Cambridge where he learnt about agriculture, plant breeding and genetics. He and Dorothy, who met in Manchester, adapted well to married life at the Station – and he would often regale his colleagues with stories from the period where the non-scientific responsibilities were wide-reaching and first aid had a very broad definition.
Despite being “up country”, Eric made the most of the opportunities available in Rokupr combining his considerable intellect with skills of ingenuity and self-reliance to not only develop new varieties of rice but also to research those factors constraining progress in plant breeding (particularly seed physiology and plant photoperiodism).
The seed research in rice he carried out there, and published over 50 years ago, to make his life as a plant breeder less onerous and more effective provided a strong foundation for his later research – and that of his many students. A selection of his single author publications from that period is appended here – as it provides clear evidence of his innovation, initiative, high standards, and sheer hard work. Re-examination of those papers also shows his high skills in not merely drawing, but in the identifications of patterns (represented graphically but also algebraically). The research covered seed storage longevity in relation to environment (references 1-3) and the control of seed dormancy (references 4-12). It was this research, and the research that followed on his return to the UK, that led to his subsequent recognition globally as not only a rice scientist of repute but also as an expert in crop and weed seed science and in global crop adaptation more widely.
After 8 years in Sierra Leone, and as the “winds of change” leading to independence swept through Africa, Eric returned to a Lectureship in Horticulture at Manchester for 5 years, during which period he received his DSc.
Eric joined the University of Reading in July 1968 on his appointment as Professor of Crop Production in the Department of Agriculture, coinciding with the move of Agriculture from London Road to re-purposed, “temporary” war-time buildings (the “TOBs”) at Earley Gate. The TOBs may now be considered as architecturally flawed, but they provided the opportunity for Eric to create the Seed Science Laboratory at Reading – one of the few such labs worldwide with an applied, direct focus on the problems of agriculture (crop production including weed control). Soon thereafter came the book for which he is perhaps best known – Seed Viability (London: Chapman and Hall, 1972) which he edited but also authored many of the chapters and which included several contributions with Dorothy. A reviewer at the time, the late Walter Heydecker, suggested that Seed Viability was
“brim full of thoughtfully digested and lucidly, concisely and stimulatingly presented information, [and] will hold its own”
– and so it proved over many years.
At around this time, Eric was invited by Professor JG Hawkes to contribute his skills in seed physiology to the International Biological Programme (IBP) on the Biological Basis of Productivity and Human Welfare that ran from 1964-74. His paper, given to the 1973 joint IBP/FAO Technical Conference on this subject, was published in 1975 in Crop Genetic Resources for Today and Tomorrow, the synthesis volume for this programme edited by OH Frankel and JG Hawkes.
In their introduction, Frankel and Hawkes drew attention to Eric’s chapter, making clear their view that his contribution was a “review of current knowledge of the principles and methods of storage of seed and pollen. It shows how far we have progressed in the six years since the previous book” – in the main due to Eric’s own work- “ Its lesson is that long-term seed storage… is not only feasible but a relatively simple and inexpensive operation in terms of technology, staff and operating expenses. On this basis seeds of most crop plants can be stored over long periods with the minimum risk of genetic damage and regeneration should be a rare event.”
When, in the mid-1970s the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) established IBPGR (International Board for Plant Genetic Resources) to conserve, worldwide, crop diversity in support of plant breeding, Eric chaired its Expert Group on Seed Storage and contributed substantially to setting the standards for the conservation of the global crop germplasm for future generations. There are now in excess of 1,400 seed banks worldwide.
Eric showed considerable and astute leadership, combining kindliness and pure common sense with high expectations, and commitment to the University, becoming Head of the Department of Agriculture in 1971, and Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture and Horticulture for three years in 1977 and again in 1989. Moreover, Eric was appointed as the University’s first (and then only) Pro-Vice-Chancellor in October 1982.
As an academic, he ran the Seed Science Laboratory at Earley Gate and was Director of the Plant Environment Laboratory at Shinfield Grange. In both cases he was successful in recruiting many PhD students from around the world and in also securing substantial external research funding for international agricultural research in a wide variety of crops. Much of that research was collaborative with the international agricultural research centres of the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research), including for example the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).
He also played his considerable part in contributing to the governance and research leadership in CGIAR institutes, including a substantial role on the Board of ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, headquartered in India) in the 1990s, where he stepped in to manage research during a most difficult period for the institute.
Eric retired in 1995, but generously agreed to be re-appointed part-time in 1995-96 in order to contribute (greatly) to the development of Agriculture’s submission to the UK Research Assessment Exercise (1996). An international week-long conference, attended by over 350 seed scientists, in what became the ISSS series was held at Reading in 1995 to honour his contributions to research.
Eric was awarded an OBE in June 2000 for his services to agricultural research.
Thereafter Eric and Dorothy moved permanently to Falmouth in Cornwall where Eric pursued vigorously his passions for sailing and for art. In an invited paper (reference 12) to mark his retirement, he had noted that many scientists approach problems in biology by searching for patterns or forms – as indeed he had. Such patterns were also evident in his art and he engaged fully in life classes in the busy Falmouth art scene.
His enthusiasm for and skills in what he described as the “plastic arts” were considerable; he nurtured them throughout his life. As a young man in Manchester, he had drawn illustrations and other diagrams for himself and colleagues in Botany and also attended life-drawing sessions at the Mid-day Studio in Manchester, exhibiting a small sculpture at the Manchester Academy of Fine Art and a couple of oil paintings at the annual show at Salford City Art Gallery. And in retirement more time was available to pursue that passion, with his major recent exhibition entitled “Eric Roberts: A Search For Pattern and Form” at the Heseltine Gallery in Truro providing a clear link between his science and his art. As he said then
“Given these experiences, it is almost inevitable that some comparisons of science and art should occur to me. I believe that the two cultures are not quite so distinct as it is sometimes thought: to be done well, both involve imagination and, I believe, a concern for pattern and form.”
Eric is survived by his wife Dorothy, sons Peter and Ian, and their flourishing families.
- Roberts, E.H., 1960. The viability of cereal seed in relation to temperature and moisture. Annals of Botany, 24, 12-31.
- Roberts, E.H., 1961. The viability of rice seed in relation to temperature, moisture content, and gaseous environment. Annals of Botany, 25, 381-390.
- Roberts, E.H., 1961. Viability of cereal seed for brief and extended periods. Annals of Botany, 25, 373-380.
- Roberts, E.H., 1961. Dormancy of rice seed I. The distribution of dormancy periods. Journal of Experimental Botany, 12, 319-329.
- Roberts, E.H., 1961. Dormancy in rice seed II: The influence of covering structures. Journal of Experimental Botany, 12, 430-445.
- Roberts, E.H., 1962. Dormancy in rice seed: III. The influence of temperature, moisture, and gaseous environment. Journal of Experimental Botany, 13, 75-94.
- Roberts, E.H., 1963. The effects of inorganic ions on dormancy in rice seed. Physiologia Plantarum, 16, 732-744.
- Roberts, E.H., 1963. The effects of some organic growth substances and organic nutrients on dormancy in rice seed. Physiologia Plantarum, 16, 745-755.
- Roberts, E.H., 1964. The distribution of oxidation‐reduction enzymes and the effects of respiratory inhibitors and oxidising agents on dormancy in rice seed. Physiologia Plantarum, 17, 14-29.
- Roberts, E.H., 1964. A survey of the effects of chemical treatments on dormancy in rice seed. Physiologia Plantarum, 17, 30-43.
- Roberts, E.H., 1965. Dormancy in rice seed IV. Varietal responses to storage and germination temperatures. Journal of Experimental Botany, 16, 341-349.
- Roberts, E.H., 1999. A search for pattern and form. Seed Science Research, 9, 181-208.