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Professor Eric Hywel Roberts OBE (1930 - 2016)

Professor Eric Hywel Roberts OBE

Emeritus Professor Eric Roberts BSc, PhD, D.Sc Manchester, OBE, died at Treliske Hospital on 13th August 2016 following a stroke.

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 year at Cambridge learning more 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 photoperiodism). 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. 

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 TOB 1 Earley Gate. The TOBs may now be considered as architecturally flawed, but they provided the opportunity for Eric to create the Seed Science Laboratory here – 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 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 they drew attention to his 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 Research Assessment Exercise (1996). An international week-long conference, attended by over 350 crop and seed scientists, 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 (Roberts, E.H., 1999. A search for pattern and form. Seed Science Research, 9, 181-208) 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. 

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