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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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)
Dominic Berry PhD (2014)
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.