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Erna Bennett has passed away

January 6, 2012

Erna Bennett, one of the early pioneers of plant genetic conservation, has sadly passed away after a long illness at her home in Scotland. Erna was 86 years old. An obituary will be forthcoming in The Guardian.


28 Comments leave one →
  1. George Ayad permalink
    January 6, 2012 1:14 pm

    As one of her students in B’ham university UK and PGR collectors in FAO/IBPGR I believe this is a great loss to the science and practice of PGR in the world. Erna: no one has filled your place and no one will ever do.
    May the lord rest her soul in peace and give her family sustenance and patience
    George Ayad

  2. Roy Denton permalink
    January 6, 2012 2:31 pm

    I am in full sympathy with George’s feelings expressed above. Erna was one of the catalysts of my involvement in pgr since the mid-1970s (also originally through Birmingham University, UK). She was unique in having the foresight to recognise the value and fragilty of pgr and then relentlessly fight for funding and action to address the issue. To hear her speak was inspirational and unforgettable. May her legacy continue to inspire. RIP.

  3. Jan Engels permalink
    January 6, 2012 2:33 pm

    It is since 1974, when we met for the first time, that you as a person as well as your work and your thoughts about plant genetic resources conservation and their sustainable use have facinated me. For you, the farmers were always at the centre of the action and that thought is still very valid and true! Your contributions to plant genetic resources will never leave us!

    Jan Engels
    Citta della Pieve

  4. Roger Croston permalink
    January 6, 2012 3:02 pm

    Erna was a formidable character and someone once encountered, never to be forgotten. She held strong views about plant genetic resources, politics and colleagues. If you were not daunted by her fiery nature it was always possible to have good interesting discussions with her, and she would always listen to well made counter points of view so long as you knew your facts. One rarely had a boring chat!
    I was deeply impressed by her views not only on plant genetic resources, but also on world disarmament and her courage – I believe she once visited someone in the 1970s under close house arrest under the Greek colonels at great personal risk.
    After a gap of more than 25 years, having lost contact, I was so pleased to be able to speak to her once again in the ‘phone only four weeks ago. I had a most friendly reception and despite her own contrary opinion, I thought that she was still fully with it. We spoke for half an hour and spoke of past events, people and certain failings of God the Creator – we live in an imperfect world.
    We shall not see her like again.

    RIP Erna, Requiescat In Pace

  5. ruediger stegemann permalink
    January 6, 2012 4:50 pm

    An Irish rebel of a special kind has left the world who owes so much to her. I met Erna only a few times personally, but the deep impression of her passion for PGR conservation I never forgot. She has given us inspiration and courage and energy to care for this humankind heritage. Old and new threats to PGR are coming up every day – Erna gave us the example how to fight against these deadly forces! – Thank you, Erna!

  6. Eliseu Bettencourt permalink
    January 6, 2012 5:34 pm

    I have the honour of having knowing Erna personally. Although that was back in 1976 that will remain vivid in my memory forever.
    She marked an epoch like no one else. She is an icon and so will remain.
    Long live Erna.

  7. Susan permalink
    January 7, 2012 1:56 pm

    Erna also fought for workers’ rights and let nothing stand in her way! I’ve never known anyone so knowledgeable and passionate about what she believed in and I was privileged to have worked for her for 11 years. I’m glad I had the opportunity to have known her and to have become her friend. She was a unique person who will be sorely missed.

    Suzy Saint

  8. Marianna permalink
    January 7, 2012 9:00 pm

    People who met Erna, who appreciated her ideas, her rigorous work and her solitary fights, know how sad it is that she is no more here. I am a student who was so lucky to meet Erna two years ago and since then in my work I always wonder “what would Erna think about that ? “. I selfishly would have wanted Erna to be here, despite her illness and fatigue, as we always demand from someone we love. Erna was not only a reference in the history of genetic resources but also an example of how to combine scientific and human qualities with an obstinate courage. One of the most beautiful things I found in Erna was that there was no place for rancour or defeat in her, she was too curious about the world to get lost with that. I think she preferred to react or change, Erna was a deeply “alive” person. I will miss you so much Erna.

    Marianna Fenzi

  9. January 9, 2012 10:41 am

    I also met Erna Bennett – and many of the other ‘pioneers’ – when I was an MSc student at Birmingham in 1970-71. The Frankel & Bennett book had only recently been published – essential reading for anyone getting into the PGR field. And then to have the chance of meeting her personally was an honor. She spent a day with the students at Birmingham, talking about her experiences, and encouraging us all to excel. She was a formidable lady!

  10. January 9, 2012 11:22 am

    Just before I retired from IRRI in April 2010, I gave a ‘final’ seminar titled Potatoes, Pulses and Rice: a 40 Year Adventure, in which I talked about the scientific ideas AND the people who had influenced me over my career. One of those was Erna Bennett. But in putting my seminar together, I was surprised that there were so few photos of Erna on the web, and not very clear at that. Surely there must be one good photo of her befitting an obituary to a great leader in the field of PGR.

  11. January 10, 2012 3:57 pm

    I am very sad to hear of Erna’s demise. Like many others here I also had the chance to meet her personally. That was back in 1986 or 87 at a conference on plant genetic resources and biotechnology near Geneva. I was deeply impressed by her personality and her work. Talking to her strengthened my confidence in my work for the conservation of plant genetic resources and against gene technology in the whole area of agriculture.

    Thank you Erna! I’ll never forget you!

    Eva Lachkovics, Vienna, Austria

  12. January 10, 2012 5:19 pm

    Erna was a stalwart and unrelenting fighter for PGRFA and the people who developed, conserved and sustained this vital part of agricultural biodiversity – be they in their fields or the public institutions entrusted to defend it. Her abhorrence of the new enclosures of these priceless resources were vigorously expressed. She was never shy of who she targeted with her perceptive comments, be they corporates, bureaucrats or NGOs. For example, as GRAIN recalled “In the words of Erna Bennett, commenting in an article in Seedling in 2002 on the role of NGOs in intergovernmental negotiations: “playing the game by the enemy’s rules has achieved nothing but to show us how we got to where we are. But it has not shown us how to get out.””

    In 1992, on the eve of the Rio UNCED conference, we organised a seminal event in London “The Gene Traders” at which Erna was an influential keynote speaker. During preparations for our conference in Friends House we lost her. Never to be kept quiet, we found her later in a nearby crowded meeting of London Left heckling Mayor Ken Livingstone.

    A woman to be revered and feared and yet with a warmth and humanity rare to find and unlikely to be matched. It was a privilege to have known her. Erna will be sadly missed in the PGR community and far beyond.

    • January 11, 2012 12:37 am

      Thanks Patrick for the comments and great story about Erna gate-crashing a Ken Livingstone gathering. I’m glad you highlighted GRAIN as it gives me an opportunity to point out that they have just uploaded a short tribute to Erna on their website,, which links to the article you refer to, the summit-to-summit merry-go-round, which appeared in Seedling in 2002, which makes for great reading. Anyone failing to see the relevance of Erna’s writing, might want to read this recent article in the Guardian,

  13. January 11, 2012 12:42 am

    It is hard to believe that Wikipedia doesn’t seem to have an entry about her. Does anyone have time to write one? Especially you folks who knew her personally?

  14. Pablo Eyzaguirre permalink
    January 11, 2012 1:32 pm

    I entered the field of of plant genetic resources and agrobioversity after Erna Bennett retired. I missed the personal contacts and inspiration that she imparted to so many. Over the last 15 years I have worked with many of her former students and colleagues who never fail to credit Erna with providing a sense of purpose and rigour to work on agrobioidversity. The people she motivated and taught form a movement that represents the best of science devoted to the welfare and freedom of people. Erna Bennett’s life showed me and others the value of giving a social purpose to scientific work. The best scientists tend to do this, but it is not always easy to defend revolutionary perspectives while maintaining scientific leadership. Dr. Bennett showed us how it can be done.I thank her life for showing us how to live a worthy life in service of those who need science to reclaim their resources and dignity.
    Rest in peace Dr Bennett, for there are others to carry your ideas and example forward.

    Pablo B. Eyzaguirre
    Rome, Italy
    (Quilpue, San Clemente, Chile)

  15. January 12, 2012 12:45 am

    Professor Vernon Heywood has kindly shared this short tribute to Erna:

    So very sorry to hear about Erna. I first got to know her in Edinburgh in the 1960s when she was working with J W Gregor at the Scottish Plant Breeding Station. Between them they introduced me to genecology and genetic conservation. I still treasure signed copies of her seminal papers Historical perspectives in genecology (1964) and Plant introduction and genetic conservation (1965). Her influence was profound.

    Readers may be interested in an article Vernon wrote recently for Taxon on the early days of biosystematics and genecology in which he mentions Erna

  16. January 13, 2012 3:55 am

    MS Swaminathan would like to use the Agrobiodiversitie blog to convey the following message:

    I am very sorry to learn from your letter the sad news about the demise of Erna Bennett. Her contributions to biodiversity conservation have been truly monumental. We will miss her leadership and enthusiasm. Please convey my sympathies to the bereaved family.

    With warm personal regards,

    Yours sincerely,
    M S Swaminathan
    Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha)
    Chairman, M S Swaminathan Research Foundation

  17. January 13, 2012 4:59 am

    I missed the personal contacts and inspiration of a great friend and a great scientist. Erna provided me and the whole generation the idea and the sense of agrobioidversity , coined for the first time term of genetic resources and paved the movement to keep them alive. She motivated a whole generation , taught , struggled and batteled for what she believed during all her life. Erna inspired me and others the value of giving a social purpose to scientific work. Courage was her principle, Sacrifice for others was her flag. Geneconserve has published for her in many occasions since creation of the journal, the first at this link Later ,published this dedication

    Click to access bio_erna.pdf

    Erna will live always and forever in my mind and my heart.

  18. January 23, 2012 9:45 pm

    Like my colleagues (1974-75) and alumni of the University of Birmingham’s MSc course initiated by Prof. Jack Hawkes, I too first met Erna Bennett at the University where she had come to give her annual talk. She had driven up all the way from Rome in her grey Lancia Fulvia Coupe. I had already read the Frankel & Bennett ‘bible’ from cover to cover and was impressed to meet Erna in person and later also had the pleasure of meeting Sir Otto. I once again met Erna Bennett in FAO, Rome in August of 1976 since Trevor Williams and she had recruited me as one of the members of the FAO team for collecting early millets in northern Nigeria in 1976. She also recruited me to go to Spain, Portugal, and the Sudan in 1977. She would often join our table on the top floor of the C Bldg at FAO where there was never a dull moment. One day she was chastising Trevor on the evils of smoking. I said something in favor of smoking and my own breathlessness when trying to catch a bus in Bari, she retorted “Soon you will have no breath at all”. She had a very sharp mind and an unusually clear grasp of issue when it came to conserving crop plant genetic resources. Her missions to Afghanistan and Greece in the early days of genetic resources conservation movement in 1966-67 have now become legend. Unfortunately her politics got ahead of her profession otherwise we may have seen many more brilliant writings from her pen. May her soul R.I.P.

  19. January 24, 2012 11:16 pm

    I am copying this message from Miguel Mota here. Miguel had posted these comments on a different part of the blog

    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

  20. January 25, 2012 12:06 pm

    Readers may be interested in reading the comments by Vivien Wood, a one time neighbour of Erna’s in Montrose, Scotland, over at the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog

  21. Eliseu Bettencourt permalink
    February 10, 2012 9:36 am

    A fine homage to Erna, recently published in The Guardian:

  22. Henk Hobbelink permalink
    February 25, 2012 8:28 am

    We located the Canadian 1986 documentary ‘Fragile Harvest’, in which Erna appears at 6:20, 12:30 and 45:00 minutes. Other, familiar (and young!) faces such as those of Malaku Worede and Pat Mooney appear as well. The message of this 25 year old documentary hasn’t lost any of its relevance.

    We uploaded it to youtube, and embedded it on our site:

  23. Diana Shelley permalink
    February 28, 2012 8:30 pm

    Erna and Pru were dear friends of my late parents, Isobel and Gene Shelley, sharing a commitment to peace, justice and socialism, and visiting each other in London and Italy over the decades. I remember her with fondness and awe: passionate, generous and amazing company. If anyone is in touch with Pru, please give her my deepest condolences for her loss.
    Diana Shelley, London

  24. Susan permalink
    March 9, 2012 5:44 pm

    A memorial service was held for Erna today in Rome. The following eulogy was read:
    We are here today to remember Erna Bennett, a unique Irish woman from Derry brought up in Belfast. The hard thing is to know where to start, her life was so rich and colourful, so varied and so meaningful. Erna made an impact whatever she did and on whomever she met, such was the force of her charismatic character, the strength of her beliefs and her innate sense of justice. She did not suffer fools lightly and her words contained no euphemisms that disguised the truth. Yet behind her forceful character was the gentlest of natures and the kindest of hearts as the people she taught, the people she fought for and cared for and the people she loved can testify.
    Erna was a woman of great courage. During the second World War she served in the Middle East and Greece in the intelligence service and was an accomplished pilot. She was not afraid to confront danger. Her experience fighting the fascist enemy strengthened her passionate belief in an egalitarian society.

    Although Erna began her career as a genetic scientist, her work led her to become an outspoken advocate of the rights of farmers to maintain traditional seed varieties. She was one of the early pioneers of the genetic conservation movement and warned the world about the tragedies of plant erosion. Her missions to Afghanistan and Greece in the early days of the movement in 1966-67 have become legend.

    Erna joined the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in 1967 and was awarded the Meyer memorial medal in 1971. Her work influenced the 1972 UN Stockholm Conference on the Environment and led to its call for a global programme on the conservation of plant genetic resources. She resigned from the FAO in 1982 because of her concerns that the work she had helped to initiate, to conserve the genetic diversity of the world’s agriculture, was being hijacked by private companies.

    Erna was indeed a controversial and revolutionary figure in FAO. She had also played a leading role in joining the general service and professional staff organizations to form a Joint Action Committee to establish dialogue on an equal footing with Management. It led to a three-day strike with support coming in from several UN and other international organizations and resulted in establishing a new and constructive relationship between the Staff and Administration. She was elected by the staff to be on the FAO Appeals Committee and I had the benefit of her sound guidance and advice when I too became a member.

    Some staff representatives and supervisors do not always practise what they preach. Erna did. Her secretary of many years, Suzy Saint, confirms that she was the most caring and considerate person to work with. She always remained in close contact with Suzy and became a good friend.
    Erna continued to be active on public issues, journalism, lecturing, advising and writing poetry. She changed homes frequently living in Italy, Australia, Greece and finally in Scotland.
    Many people have left moving dedications to Erna, reflecting her incredible and admirable life.
    Our hearts go out to her partner of 42 years, Pru Rigby, to whom one of Erna’s moving poems to be read out today is dedicated.


  1. Erna Bennett RIP
  2. Erna Bennett: more on this unique person
  3. Fragile Harvest available for viewing «

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