Obituary: Thomas Mabbott MBE, scientific officer

Horticulturalist with exciting role in the world of pests. Picture: Contributed
Horticulturalist with exciting role in the world of pests. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 16 May, 1927 in Grangemouth. Died: 18 August, 2015, in Edinburgh, aged 88.

THE life of a civil servant specialising in nematodes may sound rather mundane but some of Tom Mabbott’s exploits had elements worthy of a spy thriller.

During a career that took him around the world he had numerous escapades including: a vanishing briefcase that mysteriously re-appeared minus his controversial notes; an assumed name to shield him from the media; finding himself penniless in the Casablanca hotel where the famous Bogart/Bergman film was shot; sidestepping a compromising situation with two beautiful young women and being sent to Cuba to work under the noses of Communist minders. It was rather more cosmopolitan than his boyhood ambition to become a local adviser to Scottish farmers.

But the international flavour of his working life was just one facet of a man whose deep love of music and horticulture led to him becoming a founder of The Edinburgh Festival Chorus and secretary of the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society.

The eldest of three brothers, he was born in Grangemouth to parents Mary, a teacher and Thomas, an independently-minded member of the Brethren who worked on the railways and at Grangemouth docks, took part in the General Strike and taught himself Greek so he could translate the earliest known Bible.

Educated in Grangemouth, his interest in nature and country life was sparked as a nine-year-old through the BBC’s radio programmes for schools and fostered by a teacher who regularly brought the local agricultural adviser into the classroom to talk about country matters.

He subsequently went to Glasgow University to study agriculture but his BSc course was interrupted when, due to an administrative error, his deferment was cancelled and he was called up for National Service. He joined the RAF in 1945 but the war was over by the time he actually started his service as an orderly room clerk. Later he would acknowledge that the clerical experience gained during his two-and-a-half years’ in the RAF proved invaluable in his civil service and retirement activities.

On being demobbed in 1948 he returned to his studies, this time at the West of Scotland Agricultural College in Glasgow and later spent one of his happiest years completing practical duties on a farm near East Kilbride where he worked with Ayrshire and Clydesdale horses. He went on to study an honours course in agricultural zoology and completed his thesis at the request of Grangemouth Town Council which paid him £50 to investigate control measures for biting flies which were plaguing its tennis courts, parks and gardens. He identified them as a salt marsh mosquito.

Jobs were scarce after graduating in 1952 and he worked briefly as a labourer in a Grangemouth sawmill before being awarded a PhD scholarship to Glasgow University to study new ways of controlling the cabbage white butterfly. However, within a month he was offered a scientific officer post with the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland (DAFS) at Newbattle. He gave up the scholarship and began work – on potato aphids in summer and potato cyst eelworm in winter – which would see him spend 35 years in the scientific civil service, as a specialist in crop pests.

Two years later he won a Kellog Foundation scholarship to study in the United States, having convinced DAFS to let him go by arguing that nematodes were of considerable importance to Scottish agriculture and that the only university in the world with a specialist course in agricultural nematology was at Berkeley in California.

Returning home he cemented his reputation as a plant parasitic nematologist and represented Scotland at many international conferences and symposia. It was during one such event that, having discovered through a delegate that certain countries had ratified EEC regulations, regarding potato pests, which they did not intend to enforce, his conference briefcase disappeared.

“I was issued with a new briefcase and set of papers. Next day it magically reappeared in the conference room but every written note had been removed. It appears the delegate had reported to her seniors that I had been asking awkward questions,” he said. “My notes were removed in case they held incriminating statements. The irony is nothing was written down. All I needed was in my head.”

Having gained a reputation as a problem solver he conducted several investigations overseas where consignments of exported potatoes had been failed for confirmed, or suspected, infestations of pests. In one, where he believed failure was engineered by commercial interests, such was the attendant publicity that on the final night of his visit he was installed in a remote hotel and his return air ticket booked under the assumed name – John Smith – to protect him. In ­Morocco, after an airport strike resulted in him arriving late minus his luggage or local currency, he ended up in the hotel where Casablanca had been filmed, negotiating with reception for cash and bartering for replacement clothes in the local market. Later, a potato importer’s invitation to dinner was accompanied by two beautiful young girls whom he only realised later were not the businessman’s “cousins” – by that time he had made his excuses and left.

And in Cuba, which he visited twice in the 1980s, he worked closely with suspicious Cuban inspectors, watched by Communist minders. But the highlight of his career was a case, in which he was the main technical witness, which focused on European testing procedures following an allegation that DAFS had recklessly issued a false certificate declaring an export consignment of potatoes free of a pest. They lost the case on points of law, then lost an appeal but subsequently won when it went to the House of Lords, ultimately establishing a principle in international quarantine.

He retired in 1987 and became involved in the local community of South Queensferry where he and wife Jessie had lived since 1956. He was active in the Rotary and Probus clubs, supported the parish church and Parent Teacher Associations, helped with the Scouts and was part of a pressure group that campaigned to have a new high school expanded to cover third and fourth year, eventually achieving an upgrade to sixth-year education.

He was also involved in founding and chairing the Queensferry & District Horticultural Society and opened his own garden to the public under Scotland’s Gardens Scheme (SGS). In 1994 he joined the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society, becoming secretary and treasurer. He later developed the Scottish Gardeners Forum and received the MBE in 2003 for services to Scottish horticulture.

A gifted speaker, he gave scores of talks for the SGS, frequently recited Burns poems and gave the Immortal Memory at the Zoological Society in Edinburgh. He adored choral music and, having been a member of the St Andrew’s House Singers and Ledlanet chorus, he gave many solo and quartet performances but said his greatest musical experience of all was as part of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. Once compared to one of the Victorian gentlemen of literature – he could make a speech, recite a poem, sing a madrigal, create a picture, design a garden and make a piece of furniture – he quietly confessed it was a description he rather liked.

Predeceased by wife Jessie, Tom Mabbott is survived by sons Findlay and Alastair, grandson Michael and his brother Gordon.