Dr Lloyd Evans (1927-2015), plant scientist

Dr Lloyd EvansPresident of the Australian Academy of Science 1978-82

Dr Lloyd Evans is a highly distinguished plant scientist whose research has focused on the physiology of flowering. After completing a DPhil at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, he worked at the California Institute of Technology before becoming a research scientist at the CSIRO Division of Plant Industry. During his time there he was the biologist in charge of the establishment of CERES, the controlled environment research facility known as the phytotron. He was Chief of the Division from 1971 to 1978. Elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1971, he served as its president from 1978 to 1982. He is the author of numerous published papers and reviews, mainly in the field of plant physiology, and has written several books, some of which have become standard textbooks.

Interviewed by Professor Bob Crompton, 2003


British roots in a New Zealand environment

Good morning, Lloyd. Perhaps as a start you would tell us something about your antecedents. With a name like yours, you must have Welsh blood in your veins.

My paternal grandfather went from Wales to New Zealand in about 1867, but my grandmother was actually born in New Zealand, of English parents. My mother's father was born in Scotland, and her mother in Ireland. So I am a British hybrid.

When were you born, and where?

In 1927 – on 6 August, a date which assumed significance later when I was a student and became due to be called up in the Forces for the war (I had done some preliminary military training). It just happened that the first atomic bomb was dropped on the day of my 18th birthday and so after that I didn't have to worry about being called up; I could continue on being a student.

I was born in Wanganui, halfway up the North Island of New Zealand. Wanganui means 'the long river'. From an early pastoral settlement it had grown to about 30,000 people when I was there – the fifth biggest city in New Zealand and much the same size as Canberra was when we first came here, in 1956.

Your father was in the wool business, wasn't he?

Yes. My grandfather became a farmer in his own right and then managed the wool related activities of two refrigerating companies, ending up in charge of the whole New Zealand sector. My father, when he came back from the First War (during which he had been a prisoner), got into the same business in the same company. He eventually succeeded my grandfather as head of all the wool operations for New Zealand, but that was after I had left to go to England.

My father was two metres tall, a very tall man indeed – his father was also well over six feet, and actually my grandmother was almost six feet. I have a photograph of my father the day he signed up for the war. He was studying wool in Bradfordshire, England, and signed up at a camp on Salisbury Plain. All the other volunteers in the photo had been kitted out by then and were in uniform, but there was no uniform big enough for my father so he was still in mufti, sitting there among the others.

Although my mother died very young, my father lived to the ripe old age of 93. He very much enjoyed his old age.

What about your mother's side of the family?

My mother's father came from a family of printers but he had been a schoolteacher in England, as had my maternal grandmother, and in New Zealand he became an accountant. They married late, in their forties, and my mother was their only child. We got to know them when they were very old, and so not for very long, but my grandfather had a big influence on me: he had a great love of poetry and when he died we got all his poetry books. I used to read those quite a lot.

And you yourself write poetry still, I believe.

Well, yes. I don't do so much these days, but I am getting back into it a bit – just for me, just for the pleasure of writing it, not to have it published.

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Early lessons: self-reliance, thrills and poetry

What did you do in early childhood?

Behind our house was the Wanganui River, a big river and often in flood. We had a rowing boat tied up immediately below the house, and from a very young age my brother and I were trusted by our parents to go off rowing.

Actually, my mother was a bit timid about it, but she died when I was only 10 and then my father allowed us a bit more freedom. In fact, he encouraged us to row off and explore the place. On one school holiday he allowed me, with a young friend from school, to row right up the river, as long as we stopped at farms where my father was known and the farmers could let him know that we were okay.

We got quite a long way up the river, camping on the banks at night. And it happened that tremendous rain fell, causing a heavy flood almost immediately. Cattle carcases were coming down, and uprooted trees, and we had to make our way back on a very fast-flowing river! We learnt our seamanship rather early.

Where did you go to school?

I went to a kindergarten first, because my mother was very keen on getting us properly educated, and then Gonville Primary School. It was close enough that we could walk there. I can't really say any of the teachers were outstanding; mainly I remember one who ruled with the ruler. I think everyone in our large class of boys suffered under his ministrations.

In those days you went on to an intermediate school for your last two primary years. We had a very colourful teacher there, Miss Cook, who had been to France – to us in New Zealand that made her seem wicked – and lived not in a house but in a hotel. She was a very exotic creature, but she gave us not only an education in French but a good education in English too.

From there I went on to Wanganui Collegiate School. My father had been very keen for me to get a scholarship, and he had employed a lady that I used to visit once a week to prime me in English and mathematics, particularly. She taught me a tremendous amount of poetry; I had to learn quite a long poem every week for her. I can still recall them – I forget what I learned yesterday, but they stay in my mind. With her coaching I got the scholarship to the Collegiate School, and I was there for four years.

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Collegiate School days

Did you have any inspirational science teachers at the Collegiate School?

There was absolutely no good science teaching: there was no biology at all, physics and chemistry were weak, mathematics was all right. On the other hand, Latin, history, English and even divinity were well taught, as would be typical in a British public school.

The inspirational teacher was my headmaster, a fine man who had a huge influence on me. He was a brother of Arthur Gilligan, who had captained the English cricket team, and was himself a keen and very good cricketer. He was also good at hockey, which he loved so much that he used to play hockey with the boys.

What sports did you do there?

We all had to play Rugby and cricket, though I wasn't very keen on cricket. I was more interested in hockey, which could be done as an extra.

And in the holidays? Did you just continue going up the river?

Yes, often, and quite often I got small jobs to earn a bit of pocketmoney – mostly gardening jobs, because there wasn't much employment for a schoolboy in a place like Wanganui.

Did you get any prizes or scholarships to take you on further?

Well, having gone to the Collegiate School on a scholarship, and having had two years in the sixth form, I think I was expected to get a scholarship on to university. There was a very good system in New Zealand that the top 20 people got scholarships and rather more got bursaries. Both were government awards, but a bursary was not nearly as generous as a scholarship.

Unfortunately, I got hepatitis just a few weeks before the final exams, and I was still yellow and itchy doing the exams. I didn't get a scholarship but I did get a bursary, which allowed me to go on to university.

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Deciding to be an agriculturist

Where did you go to university?

In Christchurch, halfway down the South Island. It was a long way from home (you had to take the ship across Cook Strait and all that) so I lived with my grandparents.

What were your aspirations on leaving school?

Well, my father was very keen for me to do forestry. But I had read a little book written in the early part of the war by Sir John Boyd Orr about the world food situation, in which he stated that one-third of the population was still grossly underfed. This statement so impressed me that I decided I really wanted to be an agriculturist.

The first year of an agricultural degree was chemistry, physics, botany and zoology, the same subjects that medical students and veterinary students also had to take. I happened to get very high marks in that first year and everyone thought I would do medicine, which was much more highly regarded than agriculture. Even Lincoln College, the agricultural college to which I went the next year, said, 'With such good marks, what on earth are you coming here for?' I was not deterred, though.

In those days the University of New Zealand had four colleges – Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin – and Lincoln College was an offshoot of the one at Christchurch, Canterbury College, but about 20 miles away from there. It is now an independent university, Lincoln University.

I must say that my first year at Canterbury was particularly formative. I made a lot of friends there and I got very keen on mountaineering. Two of my climbing companions for those years were Bill Packard and Norman Hardie. Bill Packard went on to reach the highest that anyone had reached on Annapurna, in 1950, before he got polio. He became warden of a college at my old university, Canterbury, and when Bruce Hall was to be opened as the first college of the ANU – and, to some uproar, the first mixed college at an Australian university – I suggested to Bill that he apply. He was subsequently appointed, and now the Evans Building of CSIRO, the phytotron, faces across the street to the Packard Wing of Bruce Hall, which is quite nice.

Norman Hardie, my other companion, subsequently was involved in the first ascent of Kanchenjunga. So we were quite a strong group of climbers and trampers, as they were called in New Zealand.

Was it perhaps your mountaineering and tramping, rather than university itself, that led you toward plant sciences?

It's hard to say, but certainly I enjoyed going up in the mountains. And New Zealand has quite varied subalpine plant communities so it is interesting country to walk through, with plenty of botany to do along the way. I got very interested in how they adapt and survive there. At Canterbury University we had very good chemistry teachers, Fred White was our physics professor although away most of the time, and we had brilliant teaching in zoology by Professor Percival, but – as seems to be my fate – botany, my chosen subject, had miserable teaching. I persisted with it in spite of the teaching.

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Moving toward research

On the other hand, I understand, you attended some lectures by Karl Popper which influenced you greatly toward research.

Oh yes. He had been appointed a lecturer in philosophy and he gave wonderful lectures. He should have been made a professor, because he was already distinguished, he had already published some good books and he had incredible references from people like Niels Bohr, Carnap, Susan Stebbing. But as a Viennese Jew he wanted to escape the threat of Nazism and so he came out and accepted this somewhat lowly position in New Zealand. He instituted a series of Friday early evening lectures which welcomed the public as well as the students and were attended by the interested professors (the ones with any intellectual life in them). He was a dynamic natural lecturer, very persuasive and lively, with a very good feel for the whole of modern science and a challenging hypothesis which he kept putting forward to us: you advance in science not by proving something right but by disproving theories. That is what really made me want to do research, because the thought of proceeding in that way appealed to me.

You took some extra courses at Canterbury College while you were at Lincoln, didn't you?

Yes. We had to do 12 subjects for the agricultural degree, and by doing five instead of four in each of the first two years I had only a couple to do in the last year and so I had enough time to do more advanced botany and chemistry at Christchurch. A group of other students were doing similar things, and between us we bought an old car and we used to ride in and take our lectures at Canterbury. But we still lived and did our coursework at Lincoln.

So you completed a double degree, in both agricultural and pure science?

I did. Because I had got a scholarship in one of those subjects, I had a little extra funding and could take a full year at Canterbury College to finish my science degree.

Then I went back to Lincoln College to do my Master's degree, in the area of ecology. It was concerned with a huge lake not far away which is very important for birdlife and for conservation efforts. I was relating the change in the vegetation, as you moved away from the shore of the lake, to the different soil conditions – the amount of salt and things like that in the soil.

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Oxford life as applied mountaineering

I think you must have had an outstanding undergraduate and postgraduate degree, Lloyd, because you were awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. Isn't that awarded on sporting prowess as well as good scholarship?

Well yes. When the Rhodes Scholarship was first established, in 1904, it used to have a very heavy emphasis on sport – almost to the exclusion of brains, I think. But it quickly became for more rounded persons. 'A fondness for manly sports' was the phrase in Rhodes' will, that's all. I've been on Rhodes Scholar selection committees in Australia for quite a few years, and in recent years I think the emphasis on sport has been less enthusiastically interpreted.

What was your 'manly sport'?

Hockey I suppose was my first one, because neither mountaineering nor tramping quite fitted in, and also long distance running. I liked running marathons.

How did you choose which college to go into?

Well, you had to choose very quickly. Because I hadn't expected to get a Rhodes Scholarship I hadn't done any homework on the colleges, but we had to let them know, with a list of three, more or less immediately. I found from a map that Brasenose College was extremely central, right in the middle of the city and next to all the old buildings, so I chose that. And I was accepted.

But in those days Oxford did not formally recognise degrees from New Zealand or Australian universities, so although I had Bachelor's and Master's degrees I was still in statu pupillari, a pupil, and therefore had to be locked up at night for safety. Locking up really meant locking up: the doors were very big and thick, with no way of getting around them, and the walls were high and solid. In fact, if you came in after 10 o'clock at night you either paid a fine or climbed in.

Mountaineering experience would be very profitable!

It was valuable. In earlier times they had mounted revolving spikes and sharply spiked fences. One boy in my college, not many years previously, had been killed on a spike while climbing in. When I was first there, being keen and working late in the lab I came back too late to get in, and paying the fine just wasn't done. So I was told how to climb in. We had first to climb into the garden of the warden of the next college and then up a steep wall, negotiating a fence with revolving spikes on the top of it, and to slide down the slate roof of the bathroom. If we then managed to jump over another set of revolving spikes, we landed in college. It was very risky, and although I did it quite often, I learnt in the end that it really wasn't worth it. Some colleges, however, were much easier to climb into.

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A sojourn in soil science

You had also to choose a supervisor. How did you make that choice?

Between graduating in December and going to Oxford for the beginning of term in August, I had worked for eight months for the DSIR, the New Zealand equivalent of CSIRO. This was a sort of educational roving commission, a way of finding out about the DSIR because they wanted to recruit me. And I happened to go to Palmerston North, to a division called Grasslands Research, just when one of my colleagues there was winding up a fascinating long-term experiment. He had set the whole thing up, but from my thesis I had all the soil analysis skills that were needed to put a cap on his work, so I spent a very intensive period doing a tremendous number of soil analyses – with a lot of sampling in the field – for the paper in the series on that experiment. It turned out to be an extremely productive piece of work; we got some quite strong and startling conclusions from that.

I was very interested in soil science, and the bible of soil science in those days was written by a Vice-President of the Royal Society, Sir John Russell, head of the famous Rothamsted station. His son Walter had taken over the editing and produced the 8th edition of that great work in 1950, just when I was doing this other work. So I read it avidly and corresponded with him, and when I got the scholarship I decided I would go and work with him in Oxford.

What was the actual topic of the thesis with Russell?

He had three students doing work in the lab at that time. One was working on the interaction between clay molecules of various sorts and iron and aluminium oxides, which is a very important aspect of soil formation, another was working on the interaction between clays and known organic molecules, and Walter wanted me to work on the interaction between clay particles and what we call soil organic matter. That topic suited me fine, because I had got interested in it, but in fact it wasn't very productive. It was too difficult to define soil organic matter: there were just a couple of ill-defined fractions and a few individually known compounds which were minor components. I was lucky, I think, to get out with a doctorate – not because I didn't work hard, but because it just wasn't a very tractable subject.

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Plant hormones, a phytotron and a new research focus

The topic of your thesis was more soil science than plant physiology. What eventually took you into plant physiology, beyond a natural interest?

Well, I had been doing a lot of reading around because I knew I wanted to get to work with plants, and I had originally planned to go to Cambridge to work with a famous ecologist, Alex Watt. But when (unexpectedly) I got a Rhodes Scholarship it was more attractive, in a way. I maintained my interest, though. I read a lot of botanical works and plant physiological works, and in 1950 R O Whyte's Crop Production and Environment came out. It is not a particularly good book but it was very exciting for me at the time, partly because it discussed the whole concept of plant hormones.

Also, this was the time of the Cold War yet Whyte was fluent in Russian, he could read Chinese and he was aware of the Indian literature. So besides the American and the European work, this book brought in a lot of Russian work and other work, especially in India. It was the first time I really appreciated the internationalism of science, and that some poor chap in India could actually make an important discovery in those days which was a significant part of the jigsaw puzzle.

Thirdly, the book made me fall in love with the tiny shoot apex, the growing point, of grasses. I locked on to that and most of my own research since has been with grasses.

I believe another influence was a lecture by a man called Frits Went, with whom you eventually went to work. Can you tell us something about that?

Having become interested in the question of plant hormones I was aware that there was really only one known plant hormone, called auxin. It was a growth hormone, it made plants extend. Some Russians proposed in the mid-1930s that flowering was also caused by a hormone that moved from the leaves to the shoot apex, but Frits Went had been the man who discovered – in 1920 – the identity of auxin, the hormone that made plants bend towards light.

Frits built the world's first phytotron, at Caltech. A lot of physicists had done work on cyclotrons and one of them suggested to Frits that his building was a 'phytotron', a plant instrument. A phytotron is quite simple in concept, really, just a place where you can grow substantial numbers of plants under very closely defined conditions. You can vary the important climatic components that influence their growth and their development – light intensity, the spectral quality of light, the temperature (which is usually independently day temperature and night temperature, at which different things go on in the plants), the CO2 level, wind speed and all those other things.

You can make artificial night, can you?

Oh yes. In fact, artificial nights are a big part of the business that I am in now. Anyway, Frits Went gave a lecture at Oxford in 1952 on the work that had been done in that phytotron, and I found that absolutely fascinating. I went up to him after the lecture and asked whether, if I got some support, I would be able to come and work with him, because it was just the sort of thing I wanted to do. He said yes, certainly, and eventually I applied for a Harkness Fellowship, got one, and after a rather memorable interview went off to America with my wife. That was in 1954.

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From Rhodes Scholar to family man

Mention of your wife brings me to your family. Where did you first meet Margaret?

We met as students at Canterbury College, in New Zealand, over the table tennis table. And we still play, with our grandchildren. We still play tennis, too, but Margaret is much better than I am. She plays regularly with Frank Gibson and others, whereas I just play on Sundays.

When were you married?

Very soon after university in New Zealand, Margaret went with her parents to Switzerland and then to England. I came along a few years later. I was very keen to visit Spain and so was she, and we had each been asked by my mountaineering friend Norman Hardie and his wife to go with them. We travelled in the back of the car together – in Spain, in spring – and we decided to get married. But Rhodes Scholars were not allowed to marry in those days, at least not until the last cheque was in the bank. One of my very close friends, a Rhodes Scholar, married the day after that cheque was in the bank, but I was a little more discreet about it and married a month later. We went almost immediately to the US.

And how many children do you have?

Three children. The oldest, Nicholas, was born in America. He studies Aboriginal languages, at the University of Melbourne and is a fellow of the Academy of the Humanities. Then we had twins: John is a plant physiologist, working in Graham Farquhar's group at the ANU, and Catherine is a graphic artist. It is curious, but they have all married children of professors. In fact, my daughter married a son of David Craig, a former President of the Academy, so we have a nice connection there.

From Oxford to Caltech

So you were off to Caltech for a year and a half. What were your first impressions of the United States and particularly of Caltech?

In those days the way you got to America was by ship, and I remember that the chap at the head of the gangplank, letting us off the Queen Elizabeth, asked – even before I had landed – 'You got a gun?' I answered, 'No. Do I need one?' And at Caltech on my first day there I saw the cops all standing around patting their hips, where they had their holsters. Then I noticed that the students had what I thought were holsters. It was a few days before I realised that these were indeed holsters but for slide rules! Slide rules ruled at Caltech.

No pocket calculators yet, of course. Did you notice any difference in scientific atmosphere as between Oxford and Caltech?

Oh yes. What struck me was not only the informality but also the tremendous enthusiasm about research. About the first Monday morning I was there, I heard a seminar at 8 o'clock in the morning with a lively discussion afterwards in which students could say to a professor, 'No, that's not right,' or whatever. In those days, it would never have happened in Oxford.

And at Caltech there was a galaxy of plant physiological stars in the department that I was in, besides Frits Went.

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The attractions of photoperiodism

Was it at this point that you really became deeply interested in plant physiology?

Yes. Whyte's book had interested me in the whole phenomenon of photoperiodism – plants determining when they will flower by responding to the length of the day. That is not high light, it is just the period from dawn till dusk, including quite low intensity light. Some plants respond to long days, some to short days; some need short days and then long days, or the other way round. This governs what time of the year they flower. Also, some of them need their growing point to experience one to four months at low temperatures, before they will flower. And sometimes they need the right daylength as well. So I was keen to work on just how plants respond to the light period.

The distinction between long-day and short-day plants had been discovered in 1920 by Harry Allard, working at Beltsville, near Washington. He and Garner were puzzling over why one particular tobacco variety called Maryland Mammoth just grew and grew. The tobacco growers loved it because it didn't flower and it didn't stop producing leaves.

They experimented with it and with soybeans, but they couldn't work out what controlled flowering. They couldn't relate it to temperature, light intensity, water supply or any of the usual things. As Allard describes it, 'As a last resort, without believing it would work, I built a primitive doghouse and put some plants in it, in short days, and lo and behold! they flowered.' It wasn't a particularly elegant experiment but it was a very fertile one. So daylength became quite a hot topic, although no-one made much real progress.

For me one of the attractions of photoperiodism was the work in Moscow of a marvellous Russian, Mikhail Chailakhyan – a subsequent friend of mine. Despite conflict with Lysenko, Chailakhyan picked up the topic of daylength and made the simple but very original deduction that the leaf of the plant 'sees' the daylength while the growing point that makes the flower is tucked away well below, or in a bud, and so there must be a message. Chailakhyan got the idea that a specific floral hormone was made when the daylength and everything else was right, and it would move down to the growing point and switch the plant on.

Although people agreed that that was a viable hypothesis, no-one could succeed in chasing down and identifying the hormone itself. Most of the work was done with short-day plants, and that was all the rage at Caltech when I got there. One plant, cocklebur, was particularly good because it needed only one short day, i.e. one long night, to switch it on and make it flower. And in order to do timing experiments they could cut the leaf off at various times and see when the hormone was moving down towards the apex. I was so impressed at how much more they could do with a plant that was sensitive to one long night that I spent a lot of my time looking for a plant that needed only one long day. Most of our crops in a country like Australia – wheat, barley, rye – are long-day plants so I was interested in getting a model system for them.

Then you met your own plant, a long-day flowering plant?

That's right, L.T. = Lolium temulentum Evans. I wanted a plant that would respond to one long day in a reasonable time. You can cut this plant back for experimental purposes – you can get by with only a very small amount of leaf given to one long day – and you can track the hormone as it moves out and down to the shoot apex. By the next morning it is ready to go, to get switched on. And we are beginning to think that at last we know the identity of the substance that switches it on.

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An Australian phytotron is conceived

What led to the creation of the Australian phytotron in which your Lolium work would be done? You became convinced that we must have one, I believe.

The person who should get the credit for thinking Australia should have a phytotron was Otto Frankel, who was actually very similar to his great friend Karl Popper.

I had worked with Otto in New Zealand just a little bit; he had been at Lincoln. There was a research institute just over the road from the college, and because he was active in research he brought to his division active researchers who would give seminars, right up to the minute, from England, from America – a sign of real scientific exuberance around the place. In fact, Hamner and Bonner (from Caltech) had come to Christchurch and visited him. Otto had them out to dinner and needed a plant physiologist who could talk to them, so he invited me, as a student who knew something of their work.

Then in 1953 Otto visited me in the phytotron at Caltech. He was telling me about the experiments all over Australia that his CSIRO division had to do, saying he wanted to be able to rationalise it a bit more, and as I showed him around he decided that this was what he needed. I think it was also the challenge of a big project. Taffy Bowen, his rival Chief in Radiophysics, was wanting to build a huge telescope, and Otto thought, 'Well, why not a bit of biological competition?' So he organised the head of CSIRO Engineering Section – Roger Morse, an engineer – to come across and visit me before I left the Earhart Laboratory. I explained what I thought were the weaknesses of the Californian design, because by then I knew them quite well, and we cooked up an alternative approach to a phytotron. Roger came back and worked on that, and Otto decided to recruit me and put me onto working with Roger to realise the concept.

Later on, together you wrote up that work on the birth of the phytotron, didn't you?

Oh yes. It was well received but I think it became a Citation Classic by default, mainly because whenever people did experiments, and many did use the phytotron, they wrote up their work and instead of describing the conditions in great detail they would just refer to our paper.

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Born in competition: the building of the phytotron

By now we have reached 1956. As you flew in to Canberra to take up the new position to which Otto had recruited you, what were your and Margaret's first impressions?

We liked it right from the beginning. Coming straight from America via England we had to make some adjustment – Canberra had then only 35,000 people, though it has since multiplied 10-fold – but we very quickly got into the bushwalking and other activities here. Otto was trying to enliven the Division of Plant Industry and he had recruited a lot of young people to work in it, good people. It had an old establishment of people who had worked for the previous Chief, and all these young people vying with one another for resources and everything else, and it was a really lively, argumentative place.

The phytotron must have been still on the drawing board when you came. How long did it take you to get it actually built?

Roger had already begun testing mechanisms for shutters and cabinet design, which we had talked about in California. But of course it was a long process. We got backing from the Executive for the first stages and we built a pilot greenhouse where we were able to test all the equipment, find what faults there were and correct those. Also, however, we were able to work out what all the services were that we would need and how the building could be put together, while Otto searched for money. It was a big problem, because initially Clunies-Ross had said, 'Well, you'll have to get most of the money yourself,' and Otto was hopeful of getting it from the Rockefeller Foundation or other bodies like that. But he wasn't doing too well.

I laboured hard to produce a publicity booklet saying what a phytotron would do, so we could hand it out to people, and it seemed to work with the government if not with the private donors. The CSIRO Executive decided to put up the two projects to Cabinet at the same time: the radio telescope, for which Taffy Bowen was asking for a lot of money by Australian standards, and the phytotron. We were told by the Treasury representative on the Executive, 'Well, Otto hasn't got a chance. Taffy Bowen is reaching for the stars!' Otto pressed on and, thanks to Casey [our Minister], who was a great supporter on this, and the Prime Minister, Menzies, the money was provided. Taffy's 'reaching for the stars' rather annoyed Otto, who thought the earth we lived on was more important, so he concocted those words in the entrance to the phytotron: 'Cherish the earth for man will live by it forever'.

Have you any idea of the relative costs of the phytotron and the radio telescope?

They were comparable. In the end, ours ended up a bit more than we had expected. We were budgeting for half a million pounds, which in those days was a huge amount. The radio telescope was, I think, of the same order of magnitude, or a bit more. But if we thought the phytotron was quite a big project we were put in our place. It got a lot of publicity and some Air Force officers came round wanting to see what it was. When they heard we wanted half a million pounds to do it, they said, 'Oh, that's nothing. That's just a fighter.'

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Opened at last, and on display to the world

Eventually Menzies performed the official opening. He did us proud. He had been a great supporter. Fred White spoke for the Executive of CSIRO: the project had appealed to him because he saw it as physics applied to plants. And Otto thanked them. Here we all are in our suits and ties, which we wore in those days.

Otto left the division at the stage when the phytotron was built. We had named it CERES, standing for Controlled Environment Research but also being the name of the goddess of agriculture. Otto was so keen on the phytotron and showed so many visitors around it that we arranged a 'wedding' between Otto and CERES, and when he left I presented him with a memento referring to his words: 'Cherish the earth for man will live by it forever.'

The phytotron had 15 glasshouses, all under natural light extended to a day-length of 16 hours but set at a wide range of day and night temperatures. Within each glasshouse there were shuttered cabinets which could provide a wide range of day-length x day temperature x night temperature combinations. And in the other half of the building there were cabinets in which all these conditions could also be combined with light intensity, relative humidity and other environmental factors for whatever climate you wanted.

In those days we had to keep insects and diseases out of it, the whole aim being to have healthy plants,

but we were bringing in seeds, and sometimes sugarcane plants from Queensland or something like that, so everything that came in was fumigated in one of the two special chambers.

The phytotron seems like a glorious version of Allard's 'doghouse'.

Well, it hasn't been described before like that, but yes!

Some five years down the track, in 1967, the phytotron featured in the first global TV link-up called One World, didn't it?

Yes. People now take TV link-ups round the world for granted, but in those days it was a colossal effort and took months of preparation. It involved the Americans getting together with the Russians, through the early stages at least – the Russians pulled out in the end, which almost destroyed the whole thing. Australia got bits and pieces of the night to deal with because daytime viewing in Europe and America corresponded with our night. There weren't many things going on in Australia at 3 o'clock in the morning.

Radio astronomy was one of them, so the Parkes telescope featured. We featured because I often did injections of plants or treatments, harvests and so on during the night. And the Melbourne tramways was the third element, at 6 o'clock in the morning. I think it was very successful, and for me the nice thing was that while my assistant was helping me in the phytotron segment, her mother in Vienna was enjoying seeing her daughter for the first time in 20 years.

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From leaf growth to flower: daylength and on-off switches

I think now is the time to explain briefly, in layman's terms, your work on the physiology of flowering, one of the two principal lines of research which brought you international recognition and acclaim. Before this interview you wrote to me that 'questions about how plants sense and respond to daylength and the messages sent from the leaves that perceive it to the shoot apex that reacts to it, and how the apex shifts from leaf to flower formation' have dominated your life in science. Could you now tell us a little bit more about that?

Well, I found a suitable test plant, Lolium temulentum, which I am still working on. It is just an ordinary grass, darnel, the 'tares' of the Bible. It is a weed of wheat crops. It flowers at about the same time as the wheat crop and its seeds are about the same size as wheat seeds so it gets propagated along by being sown with the next lot of seed. But they may carry a fungal disease (not ergot) which can cause blindness and madness in people. In biblical times you separated the tares from the grain, and people in the Middle Ages knew that they needed to pick the seeds of tares out of the wheat samples before they made a loaf of bread or something like that. This old plant, well known in biblical times, has been a wonderful experimental plant for me.

For the first five to six weeks we grow our plants in short days, going into darkness at 4 pm, and they remain vegetative. But keeping the light on till midnight tonight, say, is enough to make this plant flower. Chailakhyan's explanation was that the leaf makes a long day floral hormone which goes off down to the shoot apex and switches it on. But there is an alternative explanation, that the leaf, in short days, is making something that stops the plant from flowering, and as soon as you give it a long day, away it can go. Flowering physiologists had not resolved which alternative was correct.

One of my early experiments in Canberra, even before I got set up with the phytotron and had more space, was to test those alternatives. So I would have a plant with one leaf out getting the long day, and at the same time all the other leaves wrapped up for the night in aluminium foil, which involved a lot of labour. Then I could cut off the one leaf, or the other leaves, at various times and see what the result was. The conclusion from the experiment was clearly that both processes operated. There was a message from the long-day leaf to the shoot apex, switching it on, and there was a message from the short-day leaves that reduced the flowering response or would stop it, in the absence of any positive stimulus.

I got into hot water with the high priest of flowering physiology, Anton Lang – a good friend of mine and colleague but we traded punches quite a lot – who 'gave me the works' in his criticism. But subsequently, 15 years later when he had convinced himself that my finding was correct, he was gracious enough in defeat to send me a postcard saying, 'In hindsight I should have done the anti-florigen grafts at the same time as we did the pro-florigen grafts.' His approach was not my kind of experiment but to graft different plants together, grafting the leaves from one plant that had had short days onto a plant that had not, or vice versa.

That was one question. We then were able to consider how fast this message moved. By cutting the sheaths at different heights and so on, we could work out when it arrived at the shoot apex. So that was the time when we should look for changes at the minute shoot apex. That work has been very productive. I have had a lot of colleagues in it – in all my work, really – but particularly all through that.

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Defining the hormone messenger

The next question was what the messenger is, what it is that switches on the shoot apex to make leaves instead of flowers, and as I have said, we are getting towards that now.

In fact, Anton Lang was the person who set me on that trail. In 1956, just before I left America, he did an experiment with a small sample of a newly available plant hormone, gibberellic acid, which he put on his favourite experimental plant. The plants flowered in short days, and he was so excited that he called me over to see them in the glasshouse. I got so excited that on my way to Australia I visited ICI in England and they gave me a small sample – it was unobtainable otherwise. As soon as I could I tried it out on my Lolium, and it made them flower in short days. But there are now 150 different gibberellins and only a few of them cause the plant to flower. That is partly what we are working on at the moment, and that is where in recent years I have had a lot of very fruitful collaboration with Lew Mander, who is the world's authority on running up different gibberellins.

Does he make them, or just isolate them?

He makes them. If you want an exotic one he'll think hard – he's still thinking about some of the ones we have asked him for – but mostly after a while he's been able to supply us with all sorts of them, including some artificial ones.

So you have some idea of which ones work and which don't?

Well, around 1990, about the time I retired, we were concentrating on defining which parts of the molecule are important. It is quite a complex molecule, with four rings and various hydroxyl groups attached here and there. It depends very much on where the hydroxyl groups are. For example, if it is a hydroxyl group on carbon 2, no flowering. On carbon 3 and not on carbon 2, very good flowering. So Lew has been able to present us with all sorts of opportunities for defining the important elements of the structure.

There are various things we couldn't explain. For example, the two gibberellins that are most effective for making the plant elongate, GA1 and GA4, are not effective for making it flower. That is what we have been working on recently. We think a paper by a Japanese group has given us a key to why some of these gibberellins work, when some that we would expect to work don't work. That is just the way it often happens in science: there was an incidental observation to which the Japanese did not attach any significance in their paper because they were looking at other things. As Rod King, my colleague in all this work, and I read the paper – independently – we each thought immediately, 'Ah! That would be very helpful for us if the same thing applies in Lolium.'

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Daylength, geographic zones and crop yield

You did some work on the adaptation of grasses to the environment, too, didn't you?

Well, it was just that when I first came to Australia I didn't really feel I knew what selective forces were at work in making plants grow in one place but not another. I had been very impressed by a piece of work in America with one grass species which showed that the various strains were beautifully adapted to the different latitudes in the USA and Canada through their daylength responses. So when I got here, quite soon I asked Nancy Burbidge, our taxonomist, if there was a grass that occurred over all of Australia. She said, 'Oh yes, kangaroo grass, Themeda australis.' So I wrote to people all over Australia and built up a collection of a lot of strains from New Guinea to Hobart and from Perth to Sydney – inland, coastal, mountainous, et cetera – and I started exposing them to different daylengths to see what sort of patterns emerged.

I found that the strains up north – where you get summer rain and the optimum time to flower is at the end of the summer, at the end of the wet season – needed the short days of early autumn to make them flower. They were strict short-day plants, down to Brisbane. By the time you had got to Brisbane they were intermediate-day plants: they flowered not in long days, not in short days, but in 12-hour or 13-hour days. From Sydney south, they needed long days, and the mountainous strains needed cold as well, which they got. As you moved towards the desert they didn't need anything: they flowered when they got rain. So daylength is very important. In wheat, rice and crops like that, the timing of flowering is absolutely crucial to crop yield.

William Farrer realised this. Australia was not doing well at growing wheat because mostly it was using old English varieties. Sydney's first bit of wheat crop, grew magnificently before it flowered – but it flowered at Christmas, which was too late. It didn't have a chance. That magnificent crop dried off without setting any decent grain, and the people were almost starving. It was Farrer who brought in the Indian and South African strains adapted to shorter days, hotter temperatures and lower rainfall receipt. By introducing those genes he brought the flowering time forward.

Farrer's days required entirely empirical research. You just had to be very observant.

Yes, and he was.

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Crop physiology: How can yield potential be increased?

If one major strand of your research interests is the physiology of flowering, the second would be crop physiology. Would you tell us about that?

Well, I suppose people would say we are being paid to do something useful, but in the short term the Lolium temulentum work is giving us understanding rather than practical results. So I did a lot of work with crop plants, but particularly with wheat because Lolium is a good model for wheat and barley. The question was, what limits crop yields, which in the 1950s and '60s was a hot topic. Mostly people were interested because they felt it was photosynthesis that limited crop yields: more photosynthesis led to more crop yield. There was lots of work on such things as crop photosynthetic rates, which varieties were better than others, and models of how light penetrated plant communities. And yes, photosynthesis is of course a major driving force for yields.

But I was arguing, 'That's all very well, but the other half of the equation is that the wheat ear has to have the capacity to store the starch in the grain, and the demand from the wheat ear for sugars to build its starches could also be an important component in yield development.' That may also limit the yield potential: how much grain can you squeeze out of this plant if you provide the perfect conditions for it?

So I was very much involved in trying to define yield potential. I went to the Plant Breeding Institute at Cambridge, and with John Bingham did a quite major trial on finding out how yield potential had increased, by comparing varieties under standard conditions out in the field – varieties introduced in the 1880s compared with varieties introduced in the 1970s, for example. What we were wanting to see is how much, under ideal conditions, can this variety and that variety produce?

Also I spent a lot of time trying to define what was involved in yield potential, in the characteristics of the grain. The early models focused on producing sugar by photosynthesis and they just assumed that yield would reflect that, but it doesn't always because other things might be limiting. The sugars have to be moved from the leaves to the ear, so the translocation system can be a limitation, as we showed. And then what characteristics of the ear attract all these sugars to it instead of to the competing roots, tillers, leaves or whatever? I did a lot of work on what makes an effective sink for these compounds.

These were quite complicated experiments with wheat which I did with Mary Cook. In essence what we found is what you would find in a human community: you have got to be big, you have got to be close to the source and you have got to have good connections!

In one interesting experiment I was trying to get the plants to set more grains than they normally would. Each spikelet of the wheat ear has up to seven or nine florets, and they could each set a grain. The question was what would happen if we bred wheats with the capacity to set more grains. So I sterilised the bottom two flowers by putting little hats over them so the third, fourth, fifth flowers could set grains. Then I came back, took the hats off and pollinated the two bottom ones, which were still receptive, so that now they suddenly had five or six grains to support. What would happen in a situation like that? And yes, we could increase the grain yield, showing that demand was as important as supply.

It would be very tedious for farmers to be putting those hats on! Don't advocate that.

I have seen a lot of research as tedious as that, but also informative.

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A CSIRO Chief: changes, collaboration and opportunities

In 1971 you were appointed Chief of your division. Who were your predecessors?

The first, B T Dickson, was Chief for 23 years. Otto Frankel succeeded him, completely revamping the division, for 10 years. John Falk, a Fellow of the Academy, succeeded Otto for 11 years. And then I was asked to become Chief.

Did you go willingly to do this job?

I didn't apply for the job and I didn't want it. I wanted to get on with my research, but I was under some pressure from Otto and the Executive actually invited me to become Chief. So I said I would do it, but on two conditions. One was that it would be for seven years only, because I really believed that you should get in, do a job and move on, let someone else have a go, and that it is not good for a division to have the one Chief for too long. And I was still quite young, in fact at that stage the youngest Chief there had been. Jim Peacock was subsequently even younger. The second condition was that I could return to full-time research within the division, because that is where all the facilities and my colleagues were.

They agreed to the first one, although they would rather have had me stay for a full term – until I was 65, essentially. Some of the other Chiefs were very annoyed, saying that I was spoiling the game, because up to then all Chiefs had been appointed till retirement. But I felt it was important and I said I'd do it that way, and I had to sit out the criticism.

As to the return to research, in America that is a perfectly common thing but in those days in CSIRO it was unheard of. You went on to higher flights of administration.

Did you make any major changes to the division, in emphasis and so on?

Yes. Some were wished on me by circumstance. When Clunies-Ross was Chairman of CSIRO he had put great emphasis on the pastoral industries, because that was what he was interested in. There was a great deal of work on pastures and not much on crops, and our division reflected that. We had a huge effort on various aspects of pasture growth, productivity and breeding, but very little on crops.

One reason was that when CSIRO was set up, the State Departments of Agriculture were very chary about this new body and didn't want it horning in on their crop research – wheat, barley, et cetera – which brought them a lot of support from farmers. If we were going to change that, I would have to take the heads of the various state departments in plant matters along with me. So I suggested we should form a committee for plant production which included, with me, the heads of plant research of all the state departments, so we could iron these things out. I think it worked well in the early years, freeing us to develop our crop research – which we did very heavily. Cotton work came into our division with a bang while I was Chief, and we did a lot more research on wheat and other major crops. Up to that time we had only been authorised to work on pastures, oranges, apples and tobacco.

I suppose another driver was the decrease in funds from the wool levy.

Yes. In my first week as Chief I was told I had to reduce our staff by 40. In the end that figure was reduced quite a lot, by negotiation, provided they went into other areas of research. One lucky thing was that Gough Whitlam's government put great emphasis on the 'National Estate', allowing us to divert people into work on such things as Australian vegetation, burning and so on, mining and revegetation, and forestry. That created opportunities for people to move from working on the grazed pastures to working on natural vegetation.

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An Academy President: more links and a celebration

With your change in role from, in effect, bench science to administrative responsibilities came a lot of national responsibilities. One was the presidency of the Australian Academy of Science during the celebration of its first 25 years. What other major things occurred while you were President?

I hadn't expected or even particularly wanted to be President, so when I was nominated by the Council I had not thought through what I would do, but even before my election I knew I wanted to improve our relations with the scientific societies and the scientific community in Australia. It seemed to me we were getting a bit elitist and separate from them, and that the best approach would be to look at our national committee structure – quite a lot of scientific areas were not even covered by it – and to bring the various relevant scientific societies into the fold through representation on the relevant national committees. Bob Porter and Neville Fletcher did a terrific job, and a lot of work, restructuring our national committees so that we had more intimate, effective relations with the various scientific societies.

Then in 1980, after I had been President two years, we had a one-and-a-half-day meeting here with all the national committee chairmen and all the presidents of the scientific societies to discuss any issues of common concern. Beyond those discussions, though, I think the really important things were the getting together, the fact that we were recognising them and encouraging them to interact with the Academy. And also the national committees saw that one of their jobs was to foster the relevant scientific societies – which are often quite powerful and senior in their own right, but it seemed to me there was a gap which we needed to bridge. Previously the main focus had been on links with international scientific committees and we had rather neglected the national ones.

For this interview we are sitting in the elegant building which used to be called Beauchamp House, next to the Shine Dome. Didn't you have something to do with its acquisition by the Academy?

Yes. I was looking one day at an aerial photograph that a colleague of mine had taken, showing both buildings. There was a lot of talk about our needing a second building, and it occurred to me that this building and the Dome belong together. From the air that is very striking. And so, after discussing it with Council, I started negotiations with Sir Peter Lawler, Secretary to the Department of Administrative Services, because the government was wanting to unload Beauchamp House.

The building had been a boarding house and when we came to Canberra it was a place where people stayed when they came for a few nights; by the 1970's it was used as offices by various local societies and groups. But it just seemed to me to belong with us. Rudi Kohlhauser, a senior bureaucrat, helped enormously, and a letter of agreement from Sir Peter Lawler arrived in my last week as President, so Arthur Birch then had to pick up the business of funding the project!

And what about the celebrations for the Academy's 25th Jubilee? That was in 1979, right in the middle of your presidency.

Well, we had all the Fellows and their wives we could fit in, and a lot of friends of the Academy – friends from the Science and Industry Forum, for example – and of course public figures. Malcolm Fraser spoke as Prime Minister, and Mark Oliphant opened the speeches as the first President.

Prince Charles was admitted as a Royal Fellow and made quite a nice speech in which he quoted Solzhenitsyn. One group of guests were presidents or vice-presidents of overseas academies – China, France, the Royal Society and so on. We had Tom Malone from the USA, and we had Ovchinnikov, Vice-President of the Russian Academy. And afterwards, when I had to introduce these other presidents to Prince Charles, he said to Ovchinnikov, 'Oh dear, I hope you didn't mind my quoting Solzhenitsyn,' and the reply was, 'Oh, not at all. I never get a chance to read him.'

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An ANZAAS President too: Is science divorced from the community?

You were responsible for the beginning of the Australian Journal of Plant Physiology, and you were President of the Australian Society of Plant Physiologists and Chairman of the board of the CSIRO Australian journals of scientific research. You were also President of ANZAAS. Perhaps you could say something now about that.

I had been a supporter of ANZAAS but at the same time I was also a supporter of the specialised Australian societies. Mine, Plant Physiology, had always met within ANZAAS but after the biochemists left it, I felt that annual meetings in the same city as the biochemists were more important, so we eventually split from ANZAAS ,much to John Turner's disappointment. But I actively supported ANZAAS as well, and I used to go to its meetings. I was President of ANZAAS one year, and President of its Botany Section the next year. And of course as President you have to be around with your wife at the Congress each year, to play a major role in it and give a major address.

My address in Melbourne was entitled 'The Divorce of Science', and I took seven or eight causes of public disaffection with science, or doubts about science, and tried to examine them, aspects like – the scale of science, the ethos of science, etc. I just tried to analyse what the antagonism to science in the ordinary community was, what the elements were and what we might do about it. Is the huge growth rate of science, for example, a sustainable one and is it in proportion to the way the economy is growing, or not?

They are very real questions. Also, the more science becomes specialised, the more difficult it is to interpret to the public.

And for something like a Presidential Address at ANZAAS you've got people from many disciplines present, and the public. You must take a rather broad sweep.

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Public musings on science and agriculture

You have been asked to prepare and deliver orations for a number of other occasions also. They include the Meredith Memorial Lecture in Armidale in 1976 – 'The Two Agricultures: Renewable or Resourceful' – a memorial lecture for Professor J G Wood, the Adelaide botanist, and a memorial lecture for Walter Murdoch. What was your theme in the Meredith Memorial Lecture?

It was about whether the 'two agricultures' – the renewable, traditional one that went on with low inputs but was self-sufficient, and the resourceful one that required a lot of resources, including fertilisers – could learn from one another, because the two had gone their separate ways. It was a question of to what extent we could learn from the traditional agricultures (I gave a few instances of things I thought we might learn) but equally to what extent we could have halfway systems improving the local ones, because the big problem is that the developing country farmers can't really afford inputs and often they can't get them. The most scandalous thing is that they have to pay more for them than we do. Nitrogenous fertiliser at Mombasa, in Africa, costs something like eight times more to put on than it would cost an American farmer. The reason is partly subsidies, but it is also shipping costs and excessive handling costs all the way along the line. It is too easy to say, 'Well, let them put fertiliser on.'

It is not an artificial loading of any description on the expenses?

On the whole, no, but of course everybody is getting their cut along the way. It makes things extremely difficult for developing country farmers.

The memorial lecture for J G Wood appealed to me a bit, because in it you describe an imaginary interview with Frits Went, who had influenced you so long ago.

I called it 'The Plant Physiologist as Midwife', meaning the midwife as a way of finding insights that would help in a practical sense with agriculture and horticulture. I used Frits Went as an example at one point, because he had done the very informative piece of work which has shaped physiology for a long while: identifying the plant growth hormone. That had an enormous influence, for example on the design of herbicides. All the early weed-killers were outgrowths of modifications of that hormone.

I wanted to highlight the fact that seemingly absolutely pure research could result very quickly in big practical applications, so I had Frits being interviewed by a research panel about his work. They kept plugging away at, 'What uses will there be when you find this hormone?' et cetera, and they overwhelmed him, because really the case seemed closed: there wouldn't be any uses from it – you couldn't predict any at all. Before I gave the paper I sent it to Frits, asking, 'Is this all right by you?' and he said, 'I'm delighted. Present-day scientists are under too much pressure to be useful.'

A physicist once said he was absolutely delighted because he couldn't think of any possible application for the work he was doing! It did turn out to be useful, though.

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The 'suburban spirit' in science

We come now to the memorial lecture for Walter Murdoch. I found an interesting disconnect there. I well remember his wonderful essays which appeared weekly in the Saturday morning papers, but how did you come to be giving a lecture for him?

It was given at Murdoch University, which has an annual lecture in his honour. His wife and daughter came to the one I gave, and I think they go every year. I suspect it was as President of the Academy that I was invited to talk, and I didn't really know much about Murdoch. Zelman Cowan had given the lecture before mine, and they'd had quite a lot of very good lecturers. I wasn't quite sure what to do. But in reading Murdoch's writings I loved the way he demonised what he called the 'suburban spirit' of conformity. He was all for nonconformity, for sitting about and thinking.

So I built my talk around the suburban spirit in science, the drive to make it seem useful before you funded it, and I took a lot of examples not only from Frits Went but from Charles Darwin. For example, Darwin, in the last year before he died in 1882, did a wonderful, simple experiment with his son, in which he had oat plants growing inside a box which had a tiny pinhole of light, and one in a box with no pinhole. Darwin found that the plants bent and grew towards the pinhole, and he concluded even then, before there was any talk of plant hormones that – in something like his words – 'a substance must be produced at the tip which migrates down the leaf away from the light, causing the plant to bend towards the light', a remarkable deduction.

Was that the lecture in which you quoted from Francis Bacon?

Yes. I have often quoted his 'experiments of fruit and experiments of light', light being the light of understanding and fruit the useful research.

Actually, that's a quotation from the History of the Royal Society, written by Thomas Spratt. Perhaps you could read the whole piece here, because I think it's lovely.

It is, I agree. It reads:

It is strange that we are not able to inculcate into the minds of many men the necessity of the distinction of my Lord Bacon's, that there ought to be experiments of light as well as of fruit. It is their usual word: what solid good will come from hence? They are indeed to be commended for being so severe exactors of goodness, and it were to be wished that they would not only exercise this vigour about experiments but on their own lives and actions, that they would still question with themselves in all they do: what solid good will come from hence? But they are to know that in so large and so various an art as this, of experiments, there are many degrees of usefulness. Some may serve for real and plain benefit, without much delight; some for teaching, without apparent profit; some for light now, for use hereafter; and some only for ornament and curiosity. If they will still persist in condemning all experiments except those which bring them immediate gain and a present harvest, they may as well cavil at the providence of God, that He has not made all seasons of the year to be times of mowing, reaping and vintage.

Thomas Spratt, History of the Royal Society London, 1722

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The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research

You have played an enormously influential role in international scientific affairs. One example is provided by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, an umbrella body for a lot of institutes with which you had direct interaction. Could you talk about that, and also some of those institutes with which you have been closely associated?

It's called CGIAR [pronounced 'cigar'], for short. One of the architects of the whole concept was Sir John Crawford, who was very active through early meetings with the Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation and others. I had been backing this, and some of the centres that ultimately belonged in it, for some time. When I gave the memorial lecture in honour of John Falk in 1975, I made quite a point about its being time Australia made a financial contribution to CGIAR and its centres. That was picked up by Sir John, and in fact the next year Australia did make a contribution. It still makes a significant financial contribution, but it has made an even bigger contribution in the Australian scientists who have been on the staffs of its centres.

It had started much earlier, really, in 1960. The Rockefeller and Ford Foundations got together to try and do something for the undernourished peoples of the world. They agreed to establish a centre in the Philippines to work on rice (it was called the International Rice Research Institute, IRRI) and then they turned a Rockefeller group in Mexico working on wheat and maize into a centre, and it grew well. That is where Borlaug did all his Nobel Prize-winning wheat breeding work, but the rice people had effected just as big a transformation of the world food supply for South-East Asia by improving rice through crop physiology and breeding.

These were so successful that people started thinking about other crops. Eventually they had a network of centres around the world, covering all the main crops and cropping systems. One in India, for example, worked on the crops of the semi-arid tropics; one in Lebanon worked on the cooler semi-arid areas. Australia could contribute a lot of nous to them. The network started off with one centre, and had six centres when the consultative group was established. It is now 17 centres, specialising in different crops or regional problems.

I was impressed by how effective they were, but particularly that they did their thing and yet they did it very much in collaboration with scientists from the developing countries. Those scientists couldn't afford to come together in the usual way, but the international centre would pay for their fares and bring them together once a year or so to talk about getting their new materials out into the field and properly tested locally, and how they might have to be varied to perform, say, in this part of Vietnam or that part of Thailand or whatever. The whole focus is on the developing countries, not the developed ones. But developed countries like Australia have profited enormously from the work. Although we ourselves don't host one of these centres, a lot of our modern wheats derive from dwarf wheats bred at CIMMYT, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.

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When kangaroos plant rice: linking photoperiodism to crop research

You have had several prestigious appointments overseas. What were some of them?

They were CSIRO sabbaticals, mostly. On the first one I went to Beltsville, where the original discovery of photoperiodism was made by Allard – that is, daylength was recognised as a major controlling factor. There I worked with Sterling Hendricks.

Sterling Hendricks is, I think, the cleverest man I have ever worked with, quite outstanding. He was Linus Pauling's first student as a physical chemist. Sterling and I became great buddies because he had built a spectrograph using large prisms from the Smithsonian Institution and borrowing equipment here and there, including a high-powered projector from a local cinema, with which he could project a spectrum large enough that we could position plants at various wavelengths. It is crude in the sense that it is hard to get equal quanta all the way along, and you had to adopt various tricks to allow for that. But he and I worked on that. Because my plant is a long-day plant, we had to work through the night on it, changing the carbon arcs and having valuable discussions in between.

By the next time I took leave I had got heavily into crop research, so I went to Cambridge, to the Plant Breeding Institute, and worked with several people there but particularly with John Bingham, a very successful wheat breeder who had bred many very productive wheat varieties.

I spent two sabbaticals there, doing a lot of experiments, but on the first visit we decided that although we were keen to compare the yield potential of a historical series of wheat varieties, we couldn't control diseases in the field well enough to do it meaningfully. When I went back seven years later, crop protection had become much more efficient, so we could really test the potential under semi-ideal conditions.

Actually, I spent half of that second sabbatical at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), at Los Banos in the Philippines, and then the second half on this experiment in England. I went to the Philippines in January, and by June I had two crops of rice pass through our hands. When I got to England I found that although my experiment there had been sown before I left Australia, the crop was just coming into flower – after two crops of rice in the Philippines. That indicates the potential productivity of tropical agriculture.

IRRI was the first international crop research institute I had contact with, and the one with which I had my longest association. I went there on my way back from sabbatical in 1970, to see what they were doing, and I was very impressed. I was asked back the next year, and then they wanted to get a phytotron for their rice work. Australia eventually provided one for them, and Otto and I were there for the opening. The finance for it was multilateral, but a lot of the ideas and equipment and design came from Australia.

Over many years but particularly through that phase I had a lot of input at IRRI, and when I went to the phytotron opening I was surprised to see that they had represented my input with a beautifully carved wooden panel depicting a kangaroo leaping over the rice paddies.

As well as advising IRRI on the phytotron, I was in a team which did a five-yearly review of them, I represented them on TAC, the technical advisory committee for the whole group of centres, and then I was on their board of governors. I had a lot of friends there, and quite often Margaret came with me, as shown here with their librarian, Lina Vergara.

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Toward food production for everyone

You mentioned the International Wheat and Maize Research Center, CIMMYT. Whereabouts is it located?

That is in Mexico, at Texcoco. Although wheat was my main crop, I didn't have such early relations with CIMMYT as I had with IRRI. But after a while I had a lot to do with them, and interacted with their people. I was on their board for six years or so.

And then there is the institute in India, which I had to review in 1978. The most recent review I did, which was very educational for me, was of the IFPRI, the International Food Policy Research Institute, in 1984. It is based in Washington and does a wonderful job, keeping tabs on undernutrition throughout the world.

You also had dealings with ACIAR, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, didn't you?

Oh yes. Sir John Crawford had a small group discussing its establishment and pushing for it for a long while, and Malcolm Fraser announced government support for it at the meeting in Australian of the Commonwealth Heads of State. The centre was modelled by Sir John on a Canadian institution, which supports research by Canadians – or in our case Australians – in collaboration with scientists from the developing countries. So it provides the developing country scientists with resources, with connections and with access to expertise. It is also a very effective way of harnessing Australian expertise to help them. The whole emphasis is on collaborative research in agriculture: anything to do with food production, mostly. I was quite heavily involved, with Sir John Crawford and Jim Ingram, who was the first director. That was in the 1980s.

A list of your activities would fill pages. Of the international ones, which would you say means most to you?

The CGIAR centres are very close to my heart, because the people there have made a colossal difference to the world food situation. The important question is whether they can continue to do it fast enough. Boyd Orr, in the early 1940s, had written that one-third of the world's population was chronically undernourished. That figure is now one-eighth, and a lot of the reduction has come from the work of the international centres. Admittedly, in that time the population has increased from two and a half billion to over six billion, and FAO [Food and Agriculture Organisation] figures over the last 40 or 50 years show that the absolute number of people chronically undernourished has not actually diminished much, but certainly the proportion has diminished a great deal. It is still too high, whatever it is. The interesting thing is that even the USA has a small proportion of its people chronically undernourished. So it is not just in the poor countries.

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Indispensable colleagues

Let's turn to your scientific writings. With co-authors, you have a couple of hundred papers.

I would like to emphasise the co-authors, Bob. People have wondered why I am always reluctant to have an interview like this, but I have always felt strongly that, as Claude Bernard put it, 'Art is I; science is we.' I have been lucky to have a huge number of collaborators, some for a long time, some for a short time, and they have brought skills, techniques, problems of their own.

For example, Ola Heide was a Norwegian colleague from the days when we were both on a review team for the whole CGIAR system. At that time, I had already stepped down as Chief of the division and gone back to research, he was in the throes of contemplating returning to research. He wasn't sure how it would go for him, so he said, 'Well, you've been through it. Why don't I come and join you?' That's the way collaborations spring up.

So we worked together, he and I and my colleague Rod King, on Pharbitis, the Japanese morning glory, which needs only one short day – one dark period of more than 13¼ hours – and it will go ahead and flower. And it is a wonderful tool, a very manageable system: within a week of sowing, the plants can be induced to flower. Ola, being from Norway, was the perfect colleague for work where you stay up all night – we do intensive work through two nights running. We had to take breaks, and Ola always took the dogwatch, the worst bit, midnight to 4 a.m. Remember: 'Art is I; science is we.' Just about everything was really done with colleagues.

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Books to serve many purposes

As I understand it, you have written three books and edited a number of others. You were a major contributor to The Induction of Flowering, in 1969, and you edited the volume.

Yes. I had edited a book on a symposium that we had at the opening of the phytotron, in 1963, and I had had to think about an introduction and conclusion for that. I decided I would quite like to do a book containing a series of case histories in flowering, with the expert authors writing about their favourite plant and photoperiodism. I would do a historical introduction and a concluding chapter, and one of the case histories along the way, which actually worked extremely well. The book has been quite a lot referred to and is still used.

After some years, sales of the book slowed down and it was remaindered, so every now and then I would buy a couple of copies from Academic Remainders to give to people. But one day I found there were no copies left. There had been a rush on them. Every chapter had a beautiful photograph of the plants and described how to grow them, and people had discovered the chapter on Indian hemp, cannabis! So books may serve purposes that you don't altogether expect.

I applied the same structure to Crop Physiology, writing a central chapter and a beginning and an end to it.

Is that the book that got translated into Chinese?

Yes – and into Arabic and Spanish and I've forgotten what else. Those other translations were with the agreement of Cambridge University Press, who published it. But when I went to China on one occasion, I was confronted by people asking me to autograph copies of a Chinese translation of my book about which the publisher and I had known nothing at all. I think my book had sold a few thousand copies through Cambridge University Press, but estimates of copies that had been sold in China ranged between 35 and 50 thousand, with no royalties to Cambridge Press. I was just happy that it was being read.

And what about the others you edited?

When Sir John Crawford was about to step down as Chancellor of the ANU and I realised the ANU did not have a celebration of his life in mind, I suggested to Bruce Miller that we might have a meeting of people to discuss Sir John's contributions in various areas. Bruce agreed, so we tackled Sir John about it. He said 'No', most definitely, but when we said, 'Well, here are the topics and these are the speakers we thought of having,' he got straight into it and said, 'Oh no, you should have So-and-so doing that topic. And I'll be there to check on you at the meeting!'

Sadly, he died just before we held the meeting. But Policy and Practice: Essays in Honour of Sir John Crawford is a wonderful little book in celebration, a very good picture of his contribution to Australia. Before the book could be published, however, the ANU Press was taken over by Pergamon, who obviously weren't interested in the book and pulped it after only 200 copies were sold. It is quite a rare book now.

Similarly, I edited a book of papers given at a symposium that we designed for Otto Frankel's 80th birthday – which was expected to be his retirement but it wasn't.

Of the three books that I wrote by myself, one was a little book on daylength and flowering for American university students, looking at the whole flowering process and the history of it, at a more elementary level. That seemed to sell quite well. Another was my big book on crop physiology, Crop Evolution, Adaptation and Yield – it was a 10-year effort to write that. Then, in honour of the 200th anniversary of Malthus's 'Essay on Population' I published a book in 1998 called Feeding the Ten Billion, looking at the problem from a Malthusian perspective and from a crop production/physiology perspective.

Did that take 10 years also?

No, that was a delight to write.

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Induction into the Royal Society but not yet quite into retirement

In 1976 you were elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. No doubt you had to go to London, like every other Fellow who is inducted, for the ceremony. It must have been a great occasion.

Yes. When the President inducts you it's a bit like being confirmed by the bishop, but I think the most impressive part is signing the old manuscript book. And you have to fiddle with the pen because it is a very old nib that sprays ink all over the place.

Well, Lloyd, as we wrap this interview up, I wonder if you would say a few words about what you do in your retirement. Your research still goes on, doesn't it?

Oh yes. Lolium has been my life. That is why it is Lolium temulentum Evans.

There are now nine grandchildren to look after, and you play tennis and table tennis. Are there any other things in your retirement that you would like to comment on?

Well no, because I keep thinking I am not retired yet: there is always another experiment that you want to do, to find out just what is going on. I have been very lucky indeed to be able to stay on in CSIRO, and to have a long-standing colleague like Rod King to work with. I have said to myself – as I have said at times before – that this is the last experiment and after this I will quit. But if this hunch about the Japanese work comes off, I probably will call it quits. I'll be 77 then, and that's probably a good time.

I'll predict that something else will crop up as a result of that experiment, positive or negative, and you will still go on. Thanks very much indeed for sharing your life with us, Lloyd.

Thank you, Bob, for giving me the chance.

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