Professor Norman Simmonds

Share this article

NORMAN Simmonds was born in Bedford; his father was a civil servant and his mother came from Scottish farming stock - the Willisons. He went to Whitgift School in Croydon, where he came under the influence of Cecil T Prime, a teacher who was a pioneer in introducing ecology into the Botanical syllabus.

Norman recognised the influ-ence Prime had on his career, and only last year he contributed an article to the school magazine, detailing 18 Old Whitgiftians who had distinguished themselves in some branch or other of biology. Modestly, he gave no indication that he was one of Prime’s prime pupils.

After school, he went to Downing College, Cambridge, with an Open Exhibition, and studied under Professor Catchside, who encouraged his interest in genetics and plant breeding. At that time, Cambridge occupied the top position in the application of genetics to crop improvement; many of the early successes in cereal breeding have been obtained by a succession of Professors of Botany who occupied the Drapers Chair.

His undergraduate days culminated in a First Class degree, which, in turn, led to a two-year Colonial Agricultural Scholarship, first at Cambridge and then the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture at Trinidad, where he obtained AICTA with Honours.

He so impressed the staff in Trinidad that he was invited to join them as a lecturer in Botany in 1945, a posting which was to last for 15 years, ending in 1959 with the position of Senior Cytogeneticist in the Banana Re-search Section.

Norman was a good but exac-ting teacher, who expected hard and diligent work from his students, most of whom, like Simmonds before them, were postgraduates. He was a popular member of staff, and was in much demand at parties for his ability to write clever sketches in Shakespearean modem, to the amusement of the students and the discomfort of certain members of the staff.

During this period, he laid the foundations for his career in tropical plant breeding, specialising in a range of tropical crops, especially bananas and sugar cane.

This work led to the production of two seminal works, Bananas (1959, 1966, 1987) and The Evolution of the Bananas (1962) in addition to 40 papers published in scientific journals.

In 1959, Norman returned to the UK as head of the Potato Genetics Department at the John Innes Institute at Hertford. He relished the challenge of working with a different crop, publishing an array of papers ranging over tuber dormancy, seed germination, virus transmission and disease resistance.

It was during this period that he developed the concept of "genetic base broadening", now regarded as an important tool not only in potato breeding but in work with other crop species.

His work with potatoes did not stop him from continuing and broadening his interest with tropical crops, especially sugar cane and rubber, and with studies into the evolution of cultivated plants more generally. This work culminated in the book, Evolution of Crop Plants (1976), which he not only edited, but also contributed six of the key chapters.

In 1965, he moved north to Edinburgh, when he accepted the directorship of the Scottish Plant Breeding Station at Pentland Field. This position de-manded that a large proportion of his time be spent on administration, a requirement that he found somewhat irksome, as he had to leave the field and bench work to other workers.

It is probably true that he was never really attracted to management matters, but he did manage to re-establish his education links by developing teaching initiatives with the Botany Department of the University of Edinburgh, an initiative which continued into the final phase of his professional career when he joined the staff of the Edinburgh School of Agriculture (SAC) in 1976.

This return to academia allowed him time to write numerous review articles and several more books, and to make many extended overseas consultancy trips abroad at the aegis of international bodies such as FAO and the World Bank.

Norman Simmonds was a unique and stimulating individual with many diverse interests. He was an iconoclast, a gifted scientist, a profound thinker and a stimulating teacher. Above all he was a kind, generous and hospitable man who has been loyally supported in his many undertakings by his wife, Christa.

As a result of his teachings, he has profoundly influenced hundreds of students and research workers and has left his mark on the important subject of applied plant breeding, particularly of crop plants of econ-omic benefit to man.

As a result of his skill as a writer and editor, he has become one of the most respected names in applied plant genetics.

Throughout his active retirement, he had been a keen trout fisherman, who took pride in making his own flies and indeed inventing a few new ones. He even published a book on the subject of early Scottish angling literature to add to his for-midable total of over 250 sole-authored publications.

In his earlier years, Norman was a chain pipe-smoker, and he defended his democratic rights to indulge in the habit against increasing opposition. In the 1990s he changed the habit of a lifetime, and gave up smoking literally overnight, demonstrating his remarkable ability to make difficult decisions and to live with them.

Over the years, he received many accolades. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1970, and Edinburgh University made him a Honorary Professor in 1975.

One international award which gave him considerable pleasure was that of Distinguished Economic Botanist, by the American Society of Economic Botany in 1991, the only non-American at that time to be so honoured.

He is survived by his twin brother, Ralph, his wife having predeceased him.