By T. V. Price
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 eleven, 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 and graduated with a Bachelor of Agricultural Science Degree with Honours in 1951. This was followed by further specialisation 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 he joined the British Colonial Service and was sent 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 (Robinson, 1957). In 1960 he published a list of some 300 diseases on approximately 70 common crops and vegetables in Kenya and their control (Robinson 1960). Raoul also interacted with a number of eminent British mycologists (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 FRS who was also based nearby at the East African Agriculture and Forestry Research Organisation (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 program against late blight and bacterial wilt of potatoes (Robinson and Ramos 1964; 1965, Robinson 1971) and sugar cane smut (Robinson 1959). 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 elsewhere to study for higher degrees during 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 colonies 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 since the 1960’s to fostering internationally the application of system theory to crop pathosystems and pathosystem management by breeding for durable /horizontal resistance. In the mid-1960’s 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 (Robinson 1968, 1971).
Following the Independence of Kenya from the British Government in 1963 the newly independent Government of Kenya embarked on a policy of Africanisation of the Public Service, and as a result many European and Asian staff at the Laboratories were replaced with Kenya Africans. So after 13 years working in Kenya, Raoul also 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 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 brilliant ideas of Van der Plank on horizontal resistance. Van der Plank’s ideas were opposed by many and Raoul was criticised 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 (Robinson 1973). 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 (Robinson 1969; 1970, 1971; 1973), writing extensively on these subjects culminating with the publication of his first book ‘Plant Pathosystems’ (Robinson 1976), and the publication of a major review of the new concepts in breeding for disease resistance (Ann. Rev. of Phytopathol.1980) (Robinson 1980).
Raoul influenced the establishment of the FAO International Programme on Horizontal Resistance (IPHR) with Dr Luigi Chiarappa, the then senior plant pathologist at FAO (Robinson and Chiarappa 1975, 1977; Robinson, 1977), 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 put in charge of one of its first programs on coffee berry disease at the Institute of Agricultural Research in Ethiopia.. He drafted and started off a program of selection of Arabica coffee for horizontal resistance to coffee berry disease (CBD), a disease that had in the early 1970’s been introduced from Kenya into Ethiopia, the centre of diversity for Coffea arabica (Robinson 1973;1974). This program has resulted in resistant varieties that presently are widely grown in that country 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 of course 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 and 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, one 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. One particularly stimulating conversation occurred over coffee at UC Davis in 1977, where Raoul sketched 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 serious diseases 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 1970’s reduced FAO’s ability to maintain this programme. Raoul left FAO/Ethiopia at the end of 1974 and returned to Jersey where he remained as a consultant to FAO and other organisations 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 Programme at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver. He taught one or two graduate courses and managed the whole Graduate Pest Management Programme. Raoul continued to present and publish his theories at an international meeting on durable host resistance sponsored by NATO (Robinson 1983a, b) and he used the feedback from his students in writing his next book ‘Host Management of Plant Pathosystems’ (Robinson 1987).
Raoul left Simon Fraser University at the end of 1984 and took up residence at Fergus, Ontario 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 (Robinson and Chiarappa 1997) and continued being an International consultant in plant pathology and breeding for FAO and other agencies around the globe especially in relation to breeding crops for horizontal resistance to plant diseases.
Raoul developed joint research programs 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 (Garcia Espinosa et al. 2001; 2003). 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 2 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. He did not seek academic popularity or wealth, but he had the wisdom and discipline to publish several books that have become very popular. The world needs clever people who are given the room to breathe freely. 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 democratise seed production and breeding and help prevent monopolisation 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. One scientist 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 by AgAccess (California) (Robinson 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 and 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 (Robinson 2004, 2009). “He has and will always be an inspiration every time I meet with my UNITECH Breeders Club members”.
Apart from his scientific work Raoul obtained a pilot’s licence whilst he was in Kenya, but once he achieved that he never again flew a plane! He also shared and drove a cream coloured Rolls Royce in Nairobi and would take great pleasure in driving some of his fellow house mates, guests and colleagues in this car to the then exclusively segregated Muthaiga Club in Nairobi. In his leisure hours he was also a keen bridge and chess player and when the Dutch grandmaster Max Euwe visited Nairobi and played a number of simultaneous games at the local chess club, Raoul made a name for himself by being the only local winner. .He was also renowned at playing chess in the room next to his opponent without the benefit of a view of the chess board (which would stay with his opponent)!
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 colleagues and friends who shared his enthusiasm for durable resistance in crops, and who were motivated by his energy and wisdom.
I wish to thank the following who kindly provided me with their comments for this obituary: Professor Wallace Cowling, Dr Clive Critchett, Dr Niek Van Der Graaf, Dr John Guthrie, Dr Tom Okpul, Andrew Pinkerton, Professor Helier Robinson, Dr Nona Robinson, Dr Rebecca Robinson, Dr Romero Rosales, Dr Jim Waller and. Professor John Webster.
Garcia Espinosa R, Robinson RA., Ramirez Vallejo P, Castillo Gonzalez F, Romero Rosales F. 2000. A Mexican bean breeding programme for comprehensive horizontal resistance to all locally important pests and diseases. In:Broadening the genetic base of crop production Eds H Cooper, T. Hodgkin and C.Spillane CABI, Wallingford, UK, pp 399-406.
Garcia-ER, Robinson RA, Aguilar- JA, Sandoval-IS, Guzman-PR. 2003. Recurrent selection for quantitative resistance to soil-borne diseases in beans in the Mixteca region, Mexico. Euphytica 130: 241-247.
Robinson RA. 1957. Legume inoculation-a method of testing Rhizobium cultures. East African Agricultural Journal; 22:130-2.
Robinson RA. 1959. Sugar cane smut. East African Agricultural Journal; 24:240-243.
Robinson RA. 1960. Notes on Kenya agriculture VIII: important plant diseases. East African Agricultural and Forestry Journal 25:131-146.
Robinson RA, Ramos AH. 1964. Bacterial wilt of potatoes in Kenya. East African Agricultural and Forestry Journal; 30:59-64.
Robinson RA, Ramos AH. 1965. Bacterial wilt studies in Kenya. American Potato Journal; 42:297 .
Robinson R.A. 1968 The concept of vertical and horizontal resistance as illustrated by bacterial wilt of potatoes. Phytopathological Papers 10:37 pp
Robinson RA. 1969. Disease resistance terminology. Review of Applied Mycology. 48:593-606.
Robinson R.A. 1970. The value of vertical resistance in agriculture. Proceedings of a panel on mutation breeding for disease resistance, Vienna, Austria, 12-16 October; 1971.pp 39-44.
Robinson RA. 1971. Vertical resistance. Review of Plant Pathology 50:233-239.
Robinson RA 1971. Potato breeding for resistance to Phytophthora infestans and Pseudomonas solanacearum .In:”Mutation breeding for disease resistance” International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna. pp 197-200.
Robinson RA. 1973.Annual Report to the National Coffee Board of Ethiopia. 15pp
Robinson RA. 1973. Horizontal resistance. Review of Plant Pathology;. 52:483-501.
Robinson RA.1973. Potato development. Rept. to the Govt. of Kenya. TA3208, FAO, Rome. 30pp.
Robinson RA. 1974. Terminal report of the FAO Coffee Pathologist to the Government of Ethiopia". FAO, Rome, AGO/74/443". 16pp.
Robinson RA. 1976. Plant Pathosystems. Springer-Verlag, Berlin,New York. 184pp
Robinson RA. 1977 The Food and Agriculture Organization international program on horizontal resistance. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 287:327-331.
Robinson RA, Chiarappa L. 1975.The proposed FAO International Programme on Horizontal Resistance to Crop Pests and Diseases. Plant Protection Bulletin, FAO 23:125-129.
Robinson RA, Chiarappa L. 1977. The international programme on horizontal resistance. Plant Protection Bulletin, FAO 25:197-203.
Robinson RA. 1980. New concepts in breeding for disease resistance. Annual Review of Phytopathology 18:189-210
Robinson RA.1983a. Theoretical resistance models. In: Lamberti F, Waller JM and Van der Graaf, N.A. editors. Durable resistance in crops. Nato Advanced Science Institute Series Plenum, New York pp 45-55.
Robinson RA. 1983b. Pathosystem management. .In: Lamberti F, Waller JM and Van der Graaf, NA. editors. Durable resistance in crops. Nato Advanced Science Institute Series Plenum, New Yotk pp 237-247.
Robinson RA. 1987. Host management in crop pathosystems. Macmillan, New York, London.
Robinson RA.1996..Return to Resistance: Breeding Crops to Reduce Pesticide Dependency .AgAccess, Davis California. Sharebooks. ISBN 0-9731816-0-5
Robinson RA, Chiarappa L. 1997. Host resistance to crop parasites. Integrated Pest Management Reviews 2: 103–107.doi:10.1023/A:1018492732432.
Robinson, R. A. 2004.Amateur Plant Breeder's Handbook. Sharebooks.ISBN
Robinson RA.2009. Breeding for quantitative variables. Part 2: Breeding for durable resistance to crop pests and diseases. In: Plant breeding and farmer participation. Editors Ciccarelli S, Guimare, EP and Welltzien E. FAO Rome, pp 367-390.
The full article was published online on 9 Jan 2015
(2015): In memoriam/A la memoire de, Canadian Journal of Plant Pathology, DOI: 10.1080/07060661.2014.1001109
Link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07060661.2014.1001109
A more personal video, depicting major events in his life, not long before Raoul died, can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h1zwdBWHZ1I.