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Searching for Erna Bennett

February 11, 2010

Speaking of custodians and guardians of genetic diversity no one fits the bill better than our very own Erna Bennett.

Erna Bennett in the field collecting (without headcover)

Born in Derry and growing up in Belfast, if my calculations are correct, Erna will be 85 years old in this the International Year of Biodiversity. Erna was one of the early pioneers of the genetic conservation movement.  In fact as Pat Mooney and Cary Fowler highlight in their book  Shattering (University of Arizona Press , 1990),

it was the colourful, outspoken Ulster-born Irish revolutionary who first coined the phrase ‘genetic conservation’ and brought substance and strategy to the term for the world community

Erna had a brief spell at the Scottish Plant Breeding Station in the mid-1960s where she wrote two seminal papers, ‘ Historical Perspectives in Genecology’ in 1964 and ‘Plant Introduction and Genetic Conservation: Genecological Aspects of an Urgent World Problem’ in 1965. Both papers are in the Scottish Plant Breeding Station Record and may take a bit of searching to uncover. Erna joined FAO in 1967 where she was instrumental in influencing FAO to become more involved in collecting plant genetic resources. Unfortunately the relationship with FAO turned rather sour as Erna became increasingly concerned about the involvement and control by powerful private interests of plant genetic resources. She was forced out of FAO in 1982 but has certainly kept active since that time.

Over the past year or so I have managed to find some information on Erna but generally information is scarce considering the pivotal role she has played in the early nurturing of the global plant genetic resources movement. I have stumbled across interesting materials on the internet but again not a lot.  If anyone has any information they would like to share about Erna I would be delighted to hear from you, especially people who might have worked with her or know more about her writing. After leaving FAO she focused on journalism so there must be a fair bit of that around.

34 Comments leave one →
  1. Eliseu Bettencourt permalink
    March 4, 2010 12:29 pm

    I had the pleasure and honour to have met Erna Bennet in 1976 and participate in the discussions to start PGR activities in my country. Further, I have seen her at FAO end of 80’s beginning of 90’s.
    The last I have heard of her was that she was living in Australia but had no confirmation of that.
    I will be more than interested to know her whereabouts.

  2. March 4, 2010 12:44 pm

    Thank you for the comments Eliseu. You are correct about Erna having spent some time in Australia but I believe she left Australia towards the end of 1994. She did an interview for an oral history project while she was there and in this indicates she is getting ready to return to Europe. Hard to find any trail after this although there is a series of great fiery YouTube videos easily accessible online, when I believe she might have been living in Scotland but not sure of the date.

    I would be interested to know about the meeting where you met Erna. Was it in Rome? What was Erna’s role and inputs? What were your impressions?

    And many thanks for replying to the message. If I come across anything new I will be posting it here at

    Thanks again, Danny

  3. Eliseu Bettencourt permalink
    March 4, 2010 1:51 pm

    Hi again,
    Erna Bennet visited Portugal in 1976 to discuss a plan of action for the systematic collecting and conservation of pgr. Portugal had just come out (in 1974) of 48 years of fascist regime and the whole country, including agriculture was in the process of very rapid changes. That was my first contact with the pgr world (lasting until today). Don’t remember well but I think her visit lasted for a couple of days. Having the chance to meet Erna Bennet face to face and the chance to participate in that preparatory meetings made in me, at the time a young professional, a deep and lasting impression. Her pragmatic and very decisive approaches were lessons to me. I recall her expressing her appreciation to the Head of Department, Prof. Miguel Mota, saying that, it had been her first time in a country to prepare a pgr programme and finding that was already lined up and it was just a matter of technical and financial support for the activities to take off.
    That visit was the precursor of the collecting that started the following year, 1977, with Dr. Rena Farias, at that time IBPGR consultant, that came to Portugal and started the collecting. I joined the team on the 9th October 1977! collecting maize in central-west of Portugal.

  4. March 4, 2010 2:33 pm

    Nice story Eliseu and I am sure she must have had similar ‘mentoring’ influences on other young scientists whom she came in contact with at that time and later. I am particularly interested in anecdotes of this nature. Unfortunately I believe Erna lost contact with Ireland after leaving at a young age although I could be wrong here. so I don’t think there will be too many domestic stories. I know she did some collecting in other countries around the Mediterranean region and would be greatly interested to learn more about that. In fact, when Jeremy recently posted on their blog calling for nominations for Guardians of Agrobiodiversty in that region Erna Bennett came immediately to mind. As you point out, it was not just collecting she did but putting in place progammes and strategies and capacity building to facilitate and institutionalise conservation. In fact, given Erna’s historical contribution to the global conservation movement I think she is one of the unsung Guardians of Agrobiodiversity.

  5. Eliseu Bettencourt permalink
    March 4, 2010 2:49 pm

    No doubt about that. Erna Bennet deserves, in her own right, a place in the hall of fame.
    Besides the collecting, Erna played a leading role in assisting countries in developing strategies and programmes and a pivotal role in helping to implement them. In the scientific side, she was pioneer in developing concepts and theories. Her leadership and co-ordination were fundamental for the boom that pgr activities took during that early years

  6. March 4, 2010 5:54 pm

    Nice comments Eliseu and I am in full agreement. If you know of anyone else who might have crossed paths with Erna do let them know they can share their impressions here. Thanks again for sharing.

  7. Eliseu Bettencourt permalink
    March 4, 2010 8:37 pm

    Already did. I passed on the information to people I know they have crossed paths with Erna and hopefully they’ll share their views

  8. March 6, 2010 8:16 am

    The Genebank at the IPK Gatersleben, Germany has inherited Erna Bennett’s extensive reprint collection. It used to be kept in the Mansfeld library.

    The late Christian Lehmann’s correspondence with Erna was moved together with other files to the basement of the IPK admin building prior to the revamping of his former office around 1999. IPK archives would be worth checking.

    Karl Hammer might be able to tell a tale or two.

  9. March 6, 2010 11:11 am

    Dear Dirk, thank you for this information. Very interesting indeed. I recall a tribute that Erna wrote when Christian passed away. I must look for it today. Yes, if Karl has some stories to share that would be great. Thanks again, Danny

  10. March 6, 2010 11:18 am

    The tribute which Erna wrote about Christian Lehmann – ‘Farewell,Christian’ – is available online at the GRAIN website

  11. March 8, 2010 5:48 pm

    Dear Dirk, I was wondering further about your comments regarding Erna’s reprints and correspondence with Christian in the IPK Gatersleben archives. Do you happen to know who I might contact regarding these. Any help much appreciated. Thanks Danny

  12. Eliseu Bettencourt permalink
    March 8, 2010 8:34 pm

    I would suggest contacting Helmut Knüpffer (IPK) who could be of a good help

  13. March 11, 2010 4:03 pm

    Thanks again Eliseu. I will certainly follow up on this lead for IPK. I also followed up on Dirk’s earlier lead regarding Dr Karl Hammer and that has led to another contact, a good friend of Erna, Dr. P. Hanelt. I will keep you posted regarding any feedback.

  14. March 11, 2010 4:07 pm

    In an earlier comment I mentioned that Erna Bennett appeared to have not done any collecting in Ireland. I have sinced learned that this is not true and in actual fact had been involved in collecting sugar beet here at one stage. I am sure she too the opportunity to collect other materials as well. I am equally sure she would be interested in the current status of the sugar beet industry in the land

  15. Pablo Eyzaguirre permalink
    March 12, 2010 1:50 pm

    Congratulations on the blog. Erna Bennet was the intellectual spark that ignited agricultural biodiversity conservation research for many of my peers. One is Wagdi George Ayad whose work promoting a global system for plant genetic resources and its policy implications had quite an influence on the development of IBPGR and IPGRI; he never failed to acknowledge his intellectual debt to Erna Bennett. I’ll send him the url of your blog.

    Keep blogging.

    ps:Wagdi George and I also worked on your beloved taro at one time.

  16. March 12, 2010 5:21 pm

    Thanks Pablo, would love to hear from George of his impressions and experiences with Erna.

  17. March 12, 2010 5:28 pm

    I had an email from Gregg Borschmann during the week. Gregg is currently working for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and actually did an interview with Erna in 1994, when she happened to be coming to the end of a short period living in Australia I think I mention this earlier somewhere. Gregg wasn’t sure what Erna was doing in Katoomba at the time. He was fairly certain she had been there a few years, on the Great Western Highway on the western side of town (about a 10 minute walk to the town centre). He thought Katoomba seemed like an odd part of the world for someone with her international experience to end up in. Although, that said, he did mention that she was still very much well read and informed and kept newspaper clippings of important or relevant stories, and summarised them, then catalogued them. He wasn’t sure what happened to all those archives. Gregg interviewed Erna as part of the Australian National Library’s Oral History Project but couldn’t honestly remember who told him about her – in fact, the National Library may have even suggested her. Gregg was interested because she put into an international context a lot of the same struggles that were going on in Australia to better manage its environment at the time.

  18. March 13, 2010 12:52 pm

    Earlier I mentioned a tribute which Erna had written to mark the passing of Christian Lehmann which appreared in GRAIN. I should have mentioned that there have also been a couple of recent tributes to Erna herself, largely on her birthdays. This one appeared in GRACE in 2005 and another appeared in Geneconserve

  19. george ayad permalink
    April 12, 2010 11:09 pm

    It is of a special honour to me to have been one of the few students and field collector working under Erna Benette in FAO-IBPGR 1975-78. She was then my first boss durng the early years at FAO-IBPGR when she taught me the strategies and tactics of plant expolration and collecting. But in fact my relationship with her goes back earlier to 1974-75 when she lectured to the MSC course PGR course in Birmingham univ. UK where I was a student. I like many other fellow students were magnitized by her charm, carisma and sceintific and technical knowledge of the PGR subject matter. Her direct field experience as a collector in many countries like Afghanistan stand out as one of the best lessons of exploration and collecting for students of PGR copnservation. I can write so many thinngs about Erna but suffice it here to say she was a great woman leader and PGR pioneer who has been subjected to the worst politically motivated attacks and incredible personalised defamation capmaign, none of her those who attcaked her strenuously will ever reach her height as a leader and science pioneer in PGR and in particular as a plant germpalsm collector.

    I am proud to have been her student and will always hold her dear to my mind and heart.

    George ayad

  20. Susan (Suzy) Saint permalink
    June 20, 2010 5:51 pm

    I worked for Erna in FAO and know her well. I’m away at the moment but will contact you again when I return to Rome at the end of June.
    Regards, Susan

    • June 21, 2010 7:11 am

      Dear Susan, many thanks for getting in touch. Yes, please do follow up when you return to Rome. I am also based in Rome, at least for the next 6 months or so and I would be interested in talking to you about Erna and your experiences and memories. Look forward to hearing from you. Danny

  21. Susan permalink
    July 4, 2010 4:05 pm

    Dear Danny,

    I’m not sure if my message was sent so am repeating it.

    Erna’s in Scotland at the moment and her health is not good.
    Perhaps you could contact me by email so I can bring you up-to-date?


    • Roger Croston permalink
      November 16, 2011 2:55 pm

      Dear Susan,
      Any news on Erna?
      I worked with her in Rome in 1980-81.
      I would like to say hello.
      Roger Croston

      • November 21, 2011 11:41 am

        Hi Roger,
        Thanks for getting in touch and revitalising this thread. Not sure if Susan is following the blog any longer but will try to get hold of her and find out. In the meantime, it would be great if you could add a few lines about what work you were doing with Erna during 1980-81.
        Best wishes,

  22. July 5, 2010 7:43 am

    Dear Susan, many thanks for getting in touch, again. Yes indeed, I will contact you directly by email. Sorry to hear that Erna is doing poorly.
    Best wishes, Danny

  23. Marion Lyons permalink
    September 2, 2010 2:26 am

    Would love to hear how dear Earnas is doing. Her state of health. Where she is.

  24. Roy Denton permalink
    September 24, 2010 4:25 am

    Sorry to learn of Erna’s poor health. Once met, never forgotten! Don’t get her started on the exploitation of Irish resources (minerals, peat) by the English. I was on the end of her tirades a few times when I was with IBPGR at FAO HQ in Rome in the late 1970s and 1980s. What a firebrand … ouch! Fond memories nevertheless and a true pioneer of biodiversity conservation. I agree she needs more recognition.

  25. Susan permalink
    November 21, 2011 12:16 pm

    Hi Roger,
    I remember you in the 80’s in FAO. How are you and where are you now?
    Erna’s still in Scotland and in very poor health.

    • Roger Croston permalink
      November 21, 2011 12:20 pm

      As in Suzy Saint-Rossi?

  26. Susan permalink
    November 21, 2011 4:23 pm


  27. January 24, 2012 7:40 pm

    I was saddened by news, sent form a friend, of the passing away of Dr. Erna Bennett. I first met Erna personally in 1976 when she came to Portugal to present the Mediterranean Program of the International Board of Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR) and a proposal of collaboration to collect seeds for the Gene Bank. One month earlier I had completed and sent to my Director a report on that same issue, what I considered important and to be done. After her presentation of the Program, I showed her that report. Erna was delighted and in total agreement, suggesting that we could immediately plan collecting missions for 1977. IBPGR would send a jeep and two persons trained in that type of work, and pay for some of the expenses, such as per diem, fuel, bags for the seeds, etc. and Portugal should provide two or three more persons and all the necessary infrastructures. The collected samples should be divided into two halves, one for IBPGR in Rome, and the other for the Gene Bank in the Department of Genetics (of which I was Chairman), at the National Agricultural Research Station, in Oeiras.

    As these conditions were within my reach and competence, we immediately planned two missions, using a map of Portugal, and for two species I considered more urgent: maize (Zea mays) and rye (Secale cereale). The reason for that choice was the existence of a very rich variability, suffering intense genetic erosion. Portuguese maize varieties were being replaced by foreign hybrids and rye for a reduction of cultivated area. The two missions were carried out and a large number of samples were collected. That was the beginning of a very successful program which lasted several years, a second year also using the same system, and after that on our own, with some financial help from IBPGR.

    Erna and I had another common interest besides genetic resources: flying planes and gliders. When we traveled by train to the North of Portugal, half of our conversation was on genetic resources the other half on planes and gliders.

    Miguel Mota


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