Remembering the world's most famous banana scientist

Anne Vézina Friday, 11 May 2012

I never met Norman Simmonds, on whom I recently did a page in Musapedia. He died six months before I joined INIBAP in July 2002. Prior to doing a page on him I was glad he had shared so much of his vast knowledge of bananas (I keep my copies of Bananas and The Evolution of the Bananas at arm’s length since they are the first things I check whenever I am looking for information on bananas, even though new data have since poked holes in some of his hypotheses, like his account of domestication). But having read what people said about him after his death, at 79, I now regret having narrowly missed the opportunity to pick his brains (he apparently remained active right until his last weeks). I can only imagine how intimidating it would have been. He is said to have refused an entry in Who’s Who because their letter to him was sloppily written.

One thing I would have liked to better understand are his views on banana breeding. In the 1980s, long after he had last worked on bananas, Simmonds expressed great hopes in breeding bananas for the world’s poor. At a 1986 meeting on breeding strategies, he laid out a plan for “the effective exploitation of banana clones for the agricultural good”. The first step consisted in identifying, collecting, disseminating and evaluating existing banana cultivars. Breeding “of an international character” was supposed to follow, with local programmes eventually developing. While he estimated the chance of success as excellent, he also noted that success depended on the “free and unrestricted movement of genetic material”. Fast forward 15 years, when Simmonds expresses his disappointment in what international efforts had produced. He is surprisingly silent about the logistical difficulties of collecting, disseminating and evaluating banana diversity in a world where the movement of genetic material is anything but free and unrestricted. Instead, he mostly blames the emphasis put on plant pathology (“no one ever improved a crop by researching its diseases as a starting point”) and biotechnology, which he called ‘biotechery’. Setting aside developments he didn't agree with, I cannot help but wonder how he would feel today about the roadmap he outlined in 1986.

Many of his commentaries and papers are behind paywalls or not online, but I plan to track down some of them. For example, in 1984 he wrote an article, Duplication of research: A good or a bad thing?, that enquires into the circumstances in which duplication of research might be beneficial. The abstract, which is online, points out that “there is a widespread belief among scientific administrators that ‘duplication’ of research is wasteful of resources and should be stopped. This might be true if research were ever truly duplicated, but it is not: programmes with similar titles and objectives are likely to take different routes and to attack problems in different styles, a fact that is generally recognized by working scientists. Duplication might, indeed, be positively beneficial, not only by developing potentially complementary styles of attack but also in providing some competitive spur.”

Judging from the titles of pieces he wrote (Bandwagons I have known, Pie in the sky, Cocoa confusion) I like to believe that had he lived longer Simmonds would have taken up blogging. I would certainly have followed him, just as I take pleasure rummaging through his writings on bananas. I especially like it when he throws a different light on the plant I have learned to love, in great part thanks to him. Writing about the hazards of banana cultivation in a 1962 New Scientist article, he doesn't single out pests and pathogens as the greatest one, but wind. “Not only do the quite moderate winds that are seasonally common in many parts of the tropics cause great (though more or less insidious) damage, but a cyclone can devastate thousands of acres in a few minutes, laying the broken plants out in neat rows along the line of the first great gusts. No one knows the total losses caused by wind, but they are probably equal to the losses caused by all the pathogens put together. The surprising thing about bananas is not that they are subject to damage by wind but that they ever stand up at all, when one considers the mechanical disadvantage inherent in the bearing of a great mass of fruits at the top of a tall, herbaceous stem.”

To commemorate the 10-year anniversary of Simmonds' death, I invite everyone who knew him personally, or has been influenced by him, to enrich the Musapedia page on this great scientist or to post a comment.