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John Innes Celebrates 50 Years in Norwich 2017

2017 is a landmark year for the John Innes Centre- we have now been based in Norwich for 50 years, and as a colleague recently remarked, that is the longest time the institute has been anywhere- making Norwich our true ‘spiritual home’. But when the Director of the ‘John Innes Institute’ (as it was then) announced the planned move to Norwich in 1962, the news was not initially welcomed by the staff – far from it. This blog attempts to explain why and describes some of the consequences of the move.

Undoubtedly one of the factors behind the staff’s opposition to the move was their love of the Bayfordbury site near Hertford. It had a lake for swimming and boating, 372 acres of grounds for botanising and birdwatching, and beautiful landscaped gardens and a pinetum. The Institute’s laboratories, including those in the recently constructed Cell Biology building, were well-equipped, there were extensive glasshouse facilities and plenty of land for plant experiments. Many of the staff had already experienced one move in their working lives- from the John Innes’ original site at Merton in Surrey. There were undoubtedly loved ones and connections they’d left behind in London, and Norwich was even more remote- too far indeed for the old Alumni to be able to visit. In short, the junior and senior staff were strongly against moving again and there was a call to arms. A printing press (secret from the Director) was set up in one of the Institute’s attics to print circulars and petitions for the staff’s opposition campaign. Two small files in our archive preserve their letters of protest to MPs and the media. These also document their appeals to the top people and organisations in plant science, and the support they received from people in power. But the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) had decided that all the research institutes it supported should be located close to a University and this decision could not be overturned. After looking at a couple of options it had been decided that the John Innes Institute should be associated with the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich. Unable to accept this, most of the senior staff left for jobs at more established Universities. In the short term this meant a considerable contraction in the staff: among other losses, JI’s highly successful fungal genetics group was dispersed. Just 22 research staff in total agreed to transfer from the old site at Bayfordbury.

So why was the idea of moving to Norwich so unpalatable to John Innes staff? The ‘newness’ of Norwich’s University was one factor. Planning for the ‘University of East Anglia’ (UEA) had only begun in late September 1961. The basic nucleus of the University, its classrooms, library, laboratories and refectory opened in temporary prefabricated buildings dubbed ‘the Village’, off Earlham Road, in 1963. The first students were enrolled in the autumn of 1963. To keep on schedule the new Vice Chancellor had opted to start the new Schools in temporary accommodation, while permanent buildings were under construction on the golf course nearby – afterwards known as the ‘University Plain’. The School of Biological Sciences (BIO), with which JI was destined to be partnered, was one of the first to launch the University on its teaching career. The new undergraduates and John Innes staff would have found a University on a ‘domestic scale’, but a grand and creative future was planned for the permanent site (Thistlethwaite 2000). By the time the John Innes Institute moved up to Norwich in 1967, the greenfield golf course over the road had an uncompromisingly modern set of buildings (the Ziggurats) and soon after the University library moved over to its permanent building (1968). The initial plan was for the John Innes staff to move into buildings on what is now the Norwich Airport at Horsham St Faiths, and then move on to the University campus when permanent buildings became available.

First John Innes Institute students, Norwich, October 1969

What were the consequences of the Institute’s move to Norwich? The first challenge for the re-launched John Innes Institute in Norwich was to find a new Director. The job was offered to Dr Roy Markham, FRS, Head of the ARC’s Virus Research Unit in Cambridge- whose re-location to Norwich was also engineered by the ARC, introducing plant virology to the Institute’s scientific departments. Having settled the Directorship, the next job was to fill the vacant Head of Department posts. The John Innes Charity Trustees had agreed to fund three professorships in BIO in the new spirit of integration with UEA. New John Innes Professorships of Genetics and Applied Genetics were advertised and Dr David Hopwood and Dr D. Roy Davies appointed. Roy Markham became Professor of Cell Biology as well as Director. In return for lectures and university duties, the Professors enjoyed privileges equal to University teaching staff, and could recruit talented PhD students. But there were also limits placed on the symbiosis between the two institutions. In the early days, Gordon Cox, head of ARC, hoped that JI’s relationship with BIO would be as close as possible, and talked of them occupying the same building. But this arrangement was judged to be a potential threat to the future independence of the John Innes. It also involved a plan to physically separate the ‘pure’ from the ‘applied’ work of the Institute- which again was viewed unfavourably- potentially involving scientists in time-consuming trips to visit their field plots and glasshouses. The John Innes was still partly privately funded and consequently enjoyed much greater freedom to arrange its affairs than other ARC institutes. Roy Markham, with the support of the John Innes Charity (now John Innes Foundation) took the decision that JI would not be physically located with BIO on the University site, but would develop its own site on 29 acres of farmland at the side of Colney Lane, where it is still located today.

The first John Innes buildings were prefabs: the administration building 1967-8

The original John Innes Library, 1967-8

 

The building work started in June 1966, and the temporary buildings that were ready were first occupied the following March; the rest were completed in June 1967. In this first phase the staff worked from prefabs (except some of the virus research staff who were accommodated at the nearby Food Research Institute) until the permanent buildings were ready.

 

One member of staff recalls it wasn’t easy to do Electron Microscope work in these makeshift conditions. The prefabs were too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter and the softwood frames didn’t fit very well so that it was very difficult to keep out the dust. In fact, the windows were taped up to keep out the dust so they also suffered from poor ventilation (Wells, 2000). The permanent buildings were built between 1969 and 1971 and were designed by architect Alan Paine. Today the ‘Bateson Building’ and the John Innes ‘Rec Centre’ are the main remnants of this first permanent building phase.

The original front entrance of the John Innes Institute early 1970s.

During the construction phase not everything went according to plan: in 1969 a spectacular failure of the six plant growth cabinets was caused by the pile driving carried out to support the south end of the main building (17 piles over 50 feet deep). This caused the loss of large amounts of experimental material. More fortunately, the financial failure of the main building contractors at the beginning of 1971 happened when most of the main laboratory building was completed. Though not mentioned in the Director’s Annual Reports, the archives suggest there were some teething problems!

‘Monty Paine’s Leaking Institute’. Spoof portrait of Director Roy Markham in front of the new John Innes Institute. John Innes Centre Archives.

Thanks to an excellent collection of memoirs in the John Innes Archives we can begin to imagine what the transition to Norwich had involved for the staff. They had to cope with the considerable upheaval of moving the Institute’s property and plant collections. Fruit trees had to be propagated and sent up to the new experimental fruit farm at Stanfield, near East Dereham. The garden Curator Gavin Brown and Don Smith, the farm manager, had to move trees, shrubs, seed boxes, flower pots, ladders and tractors. They purchased a second-hand McVitie’s biscuit van in Norwich, and hired a driver, and he did three trips a fortnight backwards and forwards from Bayfordbury to Norwich for 18 months to complete the removal. It was a ‘fantastic undertaking’ (Brown, 1981). Each department had its own packing challenges, in the Genetics Department, for example, Rosemary Carpenter had to move the Antirrhinum (Snapdragon) collection- mostly as seed, moving as few plants as possible. The collection had to be re-grown in Norwich, thousands of plants in outdoor plots and indoors, but the upheaval meant that the Antirrhinum work was at first ‘nothing like on the scale of Bayfordbury’. Another colleague remembered the move as ‘chaotic’: ‘things did get mislaid and things did get broken’- though it wasn’t as bad as many anticipated (Harrison 1989). There was an upside for the re-located staff though: ‘the move brought us all closer together’ (Carpenter, 2009).

At Markham’s Virus Research Unit in Cambridge, 1967 was an unsettled year, punctuated with architects’ meetings to plan the new labs. Some of the VRU staff moved in 1967, but the ‘protein group’ remained in Cambridge until the following year, starting work in Norwich in November 1968. Margaret Short remembered: ‘The move to Norwich came as a very unwelcome interruption to research, quite apart from the tedious and dirty job of packing all the chemicals and the apparatus, which [apart from the protein analyser] we had to do ourselves’ (Short, 1989). The plant virus collection had to be left in Cambridge while suitable glasshouse space could be provided in Norwich- to the credit of the Cambridge glasshouse staff none of the cultures were lost. The new Virus Department labs were occupied in February 1971, on decimalisation day.

John Innes tea room (Bateson Common Room) early 1970s. Today lab coats are not allowed in eating areas!

John Innes ‘Rec Centre’ Bar, early 1970s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

John Innes Institute Reception in 1983, before it was remodelled.

Fast forward to April 1989, the Colney site was once again occupied by earth-movers, giant cranes, delivery lorries, mud and gravel. The new Sainsbury Laboratory was near completion, and the new Library and Archives building, designed by David Luckhurst, was finished in 1990. The construction of the new ‘Institute of Plant Science Research’ laboratory was well underway. This was the new three-storey ‘Cambridge Lab’ designed to house the 90 non-privatised staff moving up to Norwich from the old Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge and their new colleagues, students and visiting scientists. The money from the PBI privatisation (£38.8M) was used to replicate the suite of special glasshouses and other facilities left behind at Cambridge, and paid for the new Library and archives (which now housed John Innes and PBI collections). It also financed new offices for the Director of IPSR (Harold Woolhouse) at which point the old Institute frontage and Reception was re-modelled and given the familiar curved shape it has today. The Germ Plasm Resources Unit (seed store) was constructed to hold PBI’s nationally important collection of seeds and JI’s Pisum collection. The PBI Trustees funded new containment glasshouses for future GM work and many other facilities- transforming the original John Innes site. And more organisations and buildings have joined the John Innes campus since then: The Nitrogen Fixation Laboratory moved up from the University of Sussex to the purpose-built Joseph Chatt building in 1995, the Conference Centre was built in the same year, and the Genome Building (now the Earlham Institute) opened in 2001. The newest addition to the Campus is the Centrum Building which opened in 2014.

In science, the last 50 years have been eventful. As one researcher recalled (VRU, Cambridge and JI, 1948-1992): ‘Being around in these years when science has changed so much has been extraordinary. My school text books were not so different from my Father’s but things are taught now that were not known when I was given my first pay’. (Plaskitt, 1995). The move to Norwich introduced the relatively new idea that a lab would consist not just of scientists and technicians but groups made up of scientists, technicians, students and post docs. Some of the highlights of their achievements over these years are captured in JI’s centenary timeline and the John Innes Foundation timeline.

There will be a Public Open Day on Saturday 16th September 2017 to celebrate the John Innes Centre’s 50 years in Norwich- do join us. Keep an eye out for news of JIC50 events on the John Innes Centre website

 

Further reading

Frank Thistlethwaite (2000). Origins: a personal reminiscence of UEA’s foundation (Cambridge: Frank Thistlethwaite).

Staff memoirs quoted here from the John Innes Centre Archives include:

Brian Wells, 2000; Gavin Brown, 1981; Brian Harrison, 1989; Rosemary Carpenter 2009; Margaret Short, 1989; and Kitty Plaskitt, 1995.

 

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Our Ancient and Diverse Brassica vegetables

On the 8th and 9th September we welcomed members of the public to join us for our annual Heritage Open Day event in the John Innes Historical Collections. Heritage Open Days represent England’s biggest heritage festival, and like venues all across Norwich and Norfolk we were joining in the celebration of our history and culture. For these special HODs events we like to not only display a new theme using our fantastic rare books and archives, but also bring in one of our John Innes Centre scientists to tell us about their research. This year we were very lucky to have Dr Judith Irwin from JIC’s Crop Genetics Department talking about ‘Our Ancient and Diverse Brassica Vegetables’- a fascinating tour of more than 2000 years of history of cultivation and study, brought up to date with Judith’s research on flowering time in broccoli.

Display of brassica images from our rare books, 17th to 20th century

Our Heritage Open Day Event for 2016. On display, brassica illustrations across four centuries. John Innes Historical Collections.

Judith began her talk with a survey of the brassicas which are part of the mustard family. The mustards are a very large family of more than 300 genera and 3,500 species. In traditional botanical classification the mustards are part of the Crucifer family (having four petals arranged in a cross). Judith told us that a good place to see the wild brassica ancestor of many of our garden brassica vegetables (Brassica oleracea subspecies oleracea) are the chalk cliffs of Dorset where you’ll see their clumps of yellow flowers. We’re not sure whether this species is genuinely native to the UK or a garden escape. Studies of the plant geography suggest an origin in the Irano-Turanian region, possibly centred on Turkey – but this has not yet been confirmed. A flora of Turkey published in 2007 listed 560 species of Brassicaceae in all.

18th century Dutch illustration of cabbage

Cabbage illlustration from J. W. Weinmann’s 4 volume Duidelyke Vertoning … (Amsterdam, 1736-1748). John Innes Historical Collections.

The origins of our cultivated brassicas were probed further by a Korean-Japanese botanist who was working in Japan called Dr U (his name Woo Jang-choon is today known by the Japanized reading of his name ‘Nagaharu  U’) who in 1935 came up with what is now known as ‘U’s triangle’- a diagram of the relationships between the different cultivated brassica species. U showed that oilseed rape and swede (Brassica napus) is a hybrid between two other species: Brassica rapus (turnip, Chinese cabbage, turnip rape) and Brassica oleracea (cabbage, sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower).

Illustrated diagram to show the relationship between cultivated Brassica species after U 1935

Diagram of ‘U’s triangle’ showing the relationship between different cultivated brassica species. Design: Judith Irwin, John Innes Centre after U, 1935.

Judith then moved on to tell us about the ancient history behind brassica vegetables, from descriptions by the Greek philosopher Theophrastus (370-285 BC) to the book on farming by Roman author Cato the Elder (234 BC to 149 BC) who stated ‘Cabbage surpasses all vegetables. Eat it either cooked or raw. If you eat it raw, dress it with vinegar. It aids digestion remarkably’. It has been suggested that our brassica vegetables originate with the Romans bringing cabbage to the British Isles (Gates 1950), and we know that the Anglo-Saxons cultivated brassicas because they actually called the month of February ‘sprout-kale’ (Wright, 1968). Brassica vegetables were cultivated extensively by medieval religious orders for food and medicine. Much of the knowledge they used probably came down to them from classical sources. Pliny the Elder (AD 23 to AD 79), for example, described a list of more than 80 cabbage-related medicines. The oldest herbals in the John Innes Historical Collections date from the 16th and 17th centuries and are full of advice on how to use brassicas for improving health and curing ailments. We displayed, for example, the popular herbal by Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) which listed many Cabbage–based remedies including: Adder bites, hoarseness of the voice, kidney stones, drunkenness, gout and many more.

Portrait of 17th century herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper

Nicolas Culpeper, author of a popular 17th century herbal that went to many editions. Our edition dates from 1819.

Judith went on to discuss which of our brassica vegetables came first. We think the first brassica crops grown here were the more primitive kales, or ‘collards’. The word ‘collard’ is a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon word ‘colewort’ – their word for cabbage plants.  In the Latin species name Brassica oleracea acephala, acephala means ‘without a head’. Kale has been grown for more than 2000 years: the Romans grew several kinds, and the Celts of central and Western Europe also grew them.

Illustrations of coleworts from John Gerard's herbal, 1636. John Innes Historical Collections

Garden ‘Coleworts’ illustrated in John Gerard’s Herbal, 1636. John Innes Historical Collections.

Kale and Cabbage varieties from 17th century herbal

More Kale and Cabbage varieties from John Gerard’s Herbal, 1636

The next brassicas to arrive were the cabbages: the species name Brassica oleracea capitata meaning ‘head’. Our common name ‘Cabbage’ is the anglicised form of the old French word caboce or caboche – also meaning ‘head’. The Celtic word ‘bresic’ for cabbage, is said to have influenced the Latin name brassica.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We know that cabbages were grown in 14th century England because we have a recipe ascribed to the chief cook to King Richard II for “caboches in potage”, this instructs the reader to take caboches and quarter them – see the original recipe here. The commercial cultivation of cabbages in England came later- probably introduced from Holland in the 16th century by Sir Anthony Ashley. By this time cabbages and turnips had also reached North America. French Navigator Jacques Cartier is thought to have brought the seeds with him on his third voyage for use by the settlement he established in Canada.

Colour illustrations of Kohl rabi from a 19th century seed catalogue, Album Benary, 1876-1893

Illustration of Kohl rabi varieties from Ernst Benary’s Album Benary, 1876-1893 – a nineteenth century seed catalogue. John Innes Historical Collections.

Next came the Kohl rabi from the German Kohl for ‘cabbage’ and Rabi for ‘turnip’ with the species name Brassica oleracea gongloydes – the ‘gongloydes’ meaning roundish or swollen, these are thought to have appeared in the 16th century. Other 16th century novelties included the cauliflowers and broccolis. Cauliflower from the Latin ‘caulis’ (cabbage) and floris (flower) – the species name Brassica oleracea botrytis is taken from the Greek meaning like a bunch of grapes. The ‘broccoli’ name refers to its branching character (‘brachium’- an arm or branch). In 1586 broccoli’s were referred to as the ‘Cyprus coleworts’, while the Latin name for them is Brassica oleracea italica (from Italy).

Kales and Brussels sprouts illustrated in Album Benary, 1876-1893

Kales and Brussels sprouts from Album Benary, 1876-1893. John Innes Historical Collections.

Finally, the Brussels sprouts arrived (Brassica oleracea gemmifera) – ‘gemmifera’ meaning ‘diamond maker’ (giving the idea perhaps that eating them made you mentally alert!). These are generally believed to have evolved in the seventeenth or eighteenth century and originated, as the name suggests, from Brussels. Judith rounded off this discussion with some slides taken from the John Innes’s collection of seed catalogues which cover the 19th and early 20th centuries.

A sample of early 20th century seed catalogues in the John Innes Historical Collections

A selection of early 20th century seed catalogues from the John Innes Historical Collections.

These show that seed firms recommended kale to growers as a frost hardy crop that could be relied on when other greens were scarce or destroyed. Cauliflower was ‘rather tender’ and so was sown in spring for autumnal use, whereas broccoli was hardier and suitable for growing through winter for use in spring and summer. Judith drew attention to some of the varietal names for ‘Broccoli’ in the catalogues. For example, ‘Bunyard’s Early White’, ‘Bunyard’s April White’, and ‘Snow’s Winter White’ – showing that at this time (aside from the Purple Sprouting Broccoli) the headed ‘broccoli’ known to the English grower at that time was white not green. To re-inforce the point Judith showed a clip from a 1950s film showing the Spring ‘broccoli harvest’ in West Cornwall- the vegetables in the field clearly looking like cauliflowers (and on the day this was filmed 12 special trains were laid on to transport the ‘broccoli’ to London). Calabrese (what we now call the green headed broccoli in our greengrocers) appeared in our 1935 and 1949 English and American seed catalogues as a novel Italian import.

Illustration of Calabrese Broccoli from a Carter's Seeds 1939 seed catalogue

Our now familiar calabrese broccoli was considered a novelty in 1930s Britain. This illustration from Carter’s Blue Book of Gardening, 1939. John Innes Historical Collections.

The second part of Judith’s talk focused on modern brassica research. Research on brassica is first mentioned in the John Innes archives in the papers of A J Bateman who used them as part of his experiments to work out the isolation distances for seed crops (working out how far apart you needed to grow crops to keep them from intercrossing – to keep the seed ‘pure’). This research helped the seed growers reduce the land area they needed to raise crops for seed. In 1948 Bateman was also studying hybrids between different brassica species, and his records include one of the old ‘crossing tags’ that were used to mark up the experimental plants.

Illustration of archives on Brassica experiments in the John Innes Archives, from the 1940s

Items documenting brassica experiments in the 1940s from the A J Bateman archives, John Innes Historical Collections.

After that era brassicas only become a major part of JIC’s research in the late 1980s when a Brassica and Oilseeds Department was set up shortly before the closure of the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge. A lot of the work introduced by the arrival of the ex-PBI staff centred on the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana – with its simpler genome and fast life-cycle, and compact form, it is a more convenient plant to work with to study genetics than the brassica species, to which the findings can later be applied. The more complex cabbages and cauliflowers have 3 times more genes and oilseed rape 6 times more to study.

Illustration of the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana from William Curtis, Flora Londiniensis, 1835.

Arabidopsis thaliana, the ‘lab rat’ or ‘rosetta stone’ of plant genetics. Illustration from William Curtis, Flora Londiniensis, 1835. John Innes Historical Collections. Clues from this plant are helping scientists unlock the secrets of flowering time in brassicas.

Judith’s research focuses on how temperature influences flowering. Why do we want to do this? Judith explained that climate change will affect when plants flower, and it is also important for crop scheduling (having crop plants ready to harvest across the season to provide efficient harvesting and reduce waste). Judith showed some examples of how spells of extreme cold had wrecked brassica harvests in the recent past. Judith is interested in winter temperature and how plants tell the seasonal day length. Broccoli plants count the number of cold days they’re exposed to because they have a ‘vernalization requirement’ meaning they need a period of prolonged cold in order to flower. Temperature is central to any brassica you grow. The fundamental research on what controls flowering time here at JIC centres on the work of Dame Professor Caroline Dean, FRS whose work on Arabidopsis has produced so much of the ‘road map’ to understanding how flowering time in brassicas works.

Judith’s work, in collaboration with Professor Dean, plant breeders and growers, involves crossing different broccoli lines together to find the gene controlling the trait for how many days of cold (and how cold) the plant needs before it can flower. Their objective is to breed different varieties of broccoli that will be ready to harvest at different times.

Illustration of different varieties of Broccoli coming into flower at different times.

Different combinations of alleles allow us to schedule flowering across the season. New brassica varieties will need changed responses to cold as our climate changes.

The difficulty comes in the fact that the genes controlling flowering are also involved in many other plant characters (including the seeds and pods) – it is important not to adversely affect these commercial traits when producing new brassica varieties with changed responses to cold. The future challenge is to ‘climate-proof’ our crops: to produce crops with defined, predictable flowering times; uniform and shortened flowering period; more determinate flowering habit; and uniform harvest with reduced losses (by breeding for reduced cold sensitivity) for agricultural and horticultural crops and for seed and commercial production. Achieving this goal will require an integrated view across plant development as a whole, and how this is affected by the environment. Judith gave the audience an insight into some of the equipment required to take this research forward, from the state of the art controlled environment rooms at JIC (taking the weather to the plant rather than the plant to the weather) to photo-booths (at the University of Aberystwyth) used to document an individual plant’s growth and development from the start to the end of their life-cycle, a process that can then be digitally modelled.  I’m sure everyone enjoyed the talk and its fascinating insights into 2000 years of brassica history.

 

Further references:

Garden catalogues on display from the John Innes Centre Archives:

George Bunyard and Co. Ltd., Vegetables for Epicures n.d. [c. 1939-1945] (Maidstone, Kent)

Carter’s Tested Seeds Ltd, The Blue Book of Gardening, Catalogues 1939 and 1949 (Raynes Park, London).

S. Daniel’s & Son, Ltd. Catalogue, Spring, 1931 (Wymondham, Norfolk)

Henry A. Dreer, Dreer’s Garden Book 1935 (Philadelphia, PA, USA)

Edmunds (Milton) Ltd, Edmunds Bulbs, Seeds, and Plants Catalogue 1931 (Milton, Cambridgeshire)

Elsoms (Spalding) Ltd, Seeds of Quality Catalogue, December 1943 (Spalding, Lincolnshire)

For a brief history of cabbages:

R. Gates, ‘Wild cabbages and the effects of cultivation’, Journal of Genetics (1950) 51: 363-372

D. Mitchell, ‘The status of Brassica oleracea L. Subsp. Oleracea’ (wild cabbage) in the British Isles’, Watsonia (1976) 11: 97-103.

Jonathan Roberts, Cabbages and Kings: the Origins of Fruit and Vegetables (London: HarperCollins, 2001).

Lawrence Wright (1968). Clockwork Man London: Elek Books Ltd., p. 43. See more here

For more information about Judith Irwin’s lab and their work on brassicas at JIC follow the link.

For U’s classic paper and the now famous ‘U’s triangle’, See Nagaharu U (1935): “Genome analysis in Brassica with special reference to the experimental formation of B. napus and peculiar mode of fertilization”. Japan. Journal of Botany, 7: 389–452.

 

 

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Introducing our new archivist Mark Pitchforth

_DSC8893Mark portrait

Mark Pitchforth pictured in the John Innes Archives

My name is Mark Pitchforth and I have just taken up the post of John Innes Centre Project Archivist, funded by the Welcome Trust, based in the JIC Library and working with the wonderful historical archive collections held there.

My career working with archives has been quite varied to date. Before qualifying as an archivist I completed a year’s traineeship at Royal Holloway, University of London and subsequently gained a place at Liverpool University, completing my Masters in Archives and Records Management in 2004. Since then I have worked as an archivist at Cheshire Record Office, West Yorkshire Archives Service and most recently Hampshire Record Office based in Winchester. During my time there I was seconded to work on a part-time basis at the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu on their motoring archives. This new position at JIC offers further variety and I’m very much enjoying the process of familiarising myself with the collections and the rich history attached to them. The wealth of material held is fantastic and I am excited at the prospect of making strides towards it becoming a more secure and accessible resource.

One of the most prominent collections among our archive holdings is the William Bateson papers documenting the life and work of Britain’s founding father of genetics. The collection comprises around 10,000 items dating from around 1869 to 1926, including two boxes of notebooks and small diaries. One of these notebooks I have found particularly interesting as it contains information on the setting up of the John Innes Horticultural Institution at Merton Park with hand-drawn pencil sketches of potential room layouts as well as research notes on rogue peas and lists of plants. The notebook also demonstrates some of the good archive conservation work which has been achieved. It had previously been exposed to water damage and was in extremely poor condition but with funding from the Welcome Trust and help from conservation staff at Norfolk Record Office, the notebook has now been cleaned and repaired and placed in custom archival packaging which will help protect it from any further damage in the future.

Bateson notebook with bespoke packaging and repaired cover after conservation at Norfolk Record Office

William Bateson notebook with bespoke packaging and repaired cover after conservation at Norfolk Record Office. It was formerly known only as ‘the mouldy notebook’ and could not be handled or read.

 

William Bateson's notebook contains room plans for the new Institute, plant lists and details of experiments on garden peas

William Bateson’s notebook contains room plans for the new Institute, plant lists, and details of his experiments on garden peas

We also hold collections relating to a number of other former Directors of John Innes including Cyril Darlington, who oversaw the move to Bayfordbury in Hertfordshire after the Second World War and whose papers have been catalogued in detail, and Harold W Woolhouse, who was instrumental in the development of the John Innes Centre during the 1980s as it grew from around 200 staff to over 800, incorporating the Sainsbury Laboratory, the Cambridge Laboratory and the Nitrogen Fixation Laboratory. The Woolhouse family have just passed on additional documents to add to the material already held relating to, amongst other things, his involvement with the Scientific Exploration Society, specifically projects based in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) and Colombia in the 1970s. We’ve also recently received a substantial number of documents from Prof David Hopwood, Emeritus Fellow in the Department of Molecular Microbiology at JIC and a pioneer in the field of the genetics of Streptomyces coelicolor. This demonstrates that the collection of archives is a continuous process and it is important that material of potential historical significance is preserved now for future generations of researchers.

I have begun developing a collections policy and staff manual encompassing all aspects of archive care. This will include improving the condition and security of the historic material through the introduction of further archive standard packaging, identifying items within the collections like the Bateson notebook in need of professional conservation work and revisiting our procedures and provisions surrounding access and disaster planning. Also important is to encourage greater awareness of the unique and valuable collections we hold and encourage as many people as possible to make use of them. This will be achieved by improving the level of archive cataloguing, ensuring that documents can be located and produced efficiently, making greater use of the searchable Calm archive database and generally promoting the work that we are doing.

For more information about the JIC historical collections go to http://collections.jic.ac.uk. If you have relevant material which you think should be preserved, either now or in the future, or any other questions regarding the archives then feel free to get in touch to discuss things further. My personal e-mail is Mark.Pitchforth@jic.ac.uk.

Mark’s post, and conservation and cataloguing work on the Bateson and Darlington collections was funded by a Wellcome Trust Research Resources Grant in Medical History (Grant no. GR093741)

 

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Harvest Moon and the Wheat Wizard

 

Harvest Moon 05

Statue of Sir Rowland Biffen with some historic wheat varieties from the Germ Plasm Resources Unit, John Innes Centre

In September the John Innes Centre celebrated the life and work of plant breeder Rowland Biffen, one of the key figures documented in the Plant Breeding Institute archives which were transferred to JIC archives after the Institute was privatised in 1987. The celebration was planned around a huge wooden desk ‘Biffen’s Desk’ which has stood in our Conference Centre at Norwich since its transfer from the old Plant Breeding Institute site in Trumpington, Cambridge. We recruited an intern to design an innovative exhibition around this artefact, tapping into the University of East Anglia’s internship scheme (a scheme to give paid work experience opportunities to recent UEA graduates). This blog is based on our intern Megan Penney’s work.

_DSC9288 Rowland Biffen Lantern slide: wheat ears

Wheat ears from Rowland Biffen’s collection of glass lantern slides, John Innes Archives

 

Megan began by exploring the archive which included exploiting some uncatalogued glass lantern slides that belonged to Biffen for projection onto walls and poster displays. These images were combined with examples of historic wheat plants sourced from JIC’s Germ Plasm Resource Unit, and Biffen artefacts from the archives, to bring Biffen’s history alive. Megan was also able to cleverly integrate JIC’s modern time-lapse photography of a growing wheat field into the exhibition. By up-ending a couple of the old and stained desk drawers and projecting the film into them she cleverly ‘antiqued’ the moving images.

Harvest Moon 42 Nikolai Adamski talks about wheat

JIC crop scientist Nikolai Adamski explaining how today’s wheat geneticists are unlocking wheat’s natural diversity

 

 

 

 

The exhibition was presented to the Friends of John Innes on the 8th September in an event titled ‘Harvest Moon and the Wheat Wizard’ and the evening also featured informal talks from our present and future wheat wizards, Philippa Borrill and Nikolai Adamski. Christine and David Hill gave the farmers’ perspective on the challenges of wheat farming today.

 

 

Rowland Biffen at his desk with giant wheat ear

Rowland Biffen examines a giant ear of wheat staged by Cambridge University Agriculture students to playfully convey aspirations for the future of wheat breeding

So why celebrate Biffen? Biffen more than anyone else is associated with the establishment of modern plant breeding in Britain. Some of the principal organisations for crop improvement, especially the Plant Breeding Institute and the National Institute for Agricultural Botany at Cambridge, were established to accommodate his plant breeding and genetics. His two wheat varieties Little Joss (1910) and Yeoman (1916) were popular with farmers and his work on yellow rust resistance opened up the exciting prospect of uniting genetics with plant pathology. Though at the beginning Biffen had to contend with some teasing about his introduction of ‘bread studies’ to an ancient University, he ended up being dubbed the ‘wheat wizard’ and his standing with contemporaries secured him a knighthood. His Institute afterwards went on to establish the genetic basis of key traits and identify sources of variation to breed better crops, while also contributing to advances in crop science and plant breeding methods. His legacy continues in JIC’s Biffen Building today.

 

_DSC9279 Lab interior, where bread making qualities were studied

‘Bread studies’: bread making qualities were studied in the lab

 

More info:

For a brief sketch of Rowland Biffen and Plant Breeding Institute history, see http://www.trumpingtonlocalhistorygroup.org/subjects_PBIhistory.html

And the JIC Centenary timeline: https://www.jic.ac.uk/centenary/history-timeline.htm (entries for 1912, 1967, 1987, 1990, 1994).

Harvest Moon 21

Two recent University of Leeds PhD theses take a deeper look at the development of plant breeding in Britain, including Biffen’s role:

Berris Charnley PhD (2011)

http://ipbio.org/pdfs/papers/charnley-berris-agricultural-science-and-the-emergence-of-a-mendelian-system-in-britain-1880-1930.pdf

Dominic Berry PhD (2014)

https://www.academia.edu/7608288/WHOLE_THESIS_Genetics_Statistics_and_Regulation_at_the_National_Institute_of_Agricultural_Botany_1919-1969

 

For more information about the JIC seed bank (Germ Plasm Resources Unit) from which Megan sourced her historic wheat samples, see https://www.jic.ac.uk/research/germplasm-resources-unit/

 

For more information on today’s Wheat Improvement programme (a collaboration between five UK research institutes), see https://www.jic.ac.uk/research/wheat-improvement/our-science/

The John Innes Centre is responsible for the Landrace pillar of research.

 

A selection of the exhibition materials Megan designed can be seen permanently on display around Biffen’s desk in the JIC Conference Centre. We plan to re-use the portable elements in this exhibit in future JIC events.

 

 

 

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