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Some reflections on the Australian Society of Plant Scientists (nee Physiologists) to mark the 60th anniversary.
John R Evans
I am probably in a unique position from which to write this as I was born in the year that the society was founded and my father was one of those at the first meeting in 1958. A quick check of other significant Australian events in that year revealed that Australia’s first nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights became operational and there was the first televised Australian Federal election in November, which was won by the liberal government led by Menzies. Menzies deserves remembering because his optimistic vision provided massive investments into Science infrastructure through the funding of both the Parkes radio telescope and the Canberra Phytotron (the reason my father came to Canberra).
In those days it was difficult to move between cities and I quote from the recollections of Hal Hatch and Martin Canny: ‘It took two days in trains, overnight from Sydney to Melbourne, with a midnight change at Albury to accommodate a shift in rail gauge from 4 feet 8 1/2 inches (New South Wales) to the Victorian line gauge of 5 feet 3 inches, then another overnight trip to Adelaide, with yet another change in railway gauge down to 3 feet 6 inches for South Australia. I remember that western Victorian line. The train stopped at some minor station where I read the sign: “Passengers wishing to join trains should exhibit the red flag during the hours of daylight, and light the red lantern during the hours of darkness.”
To come together to present and discuss science was special. It is hard now to conceive of those times when telephone calls were expensive so communication relied on exchanging letters in the mail. One learnt of progress elsewhere in the world by reading journals in the library.
I have copied the majority of the names of those that attended the first ASPP meeting in Adelaide into a table below because many of those names will be familiar. The list was dominated by people from CSIRO and the universities of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. What is also striking is that 8 served as President of the society over the coming decades and the three oldest awards of the society are named after three of those attending (see photos). The meeting was almost completely male and it took until our 10th President to elect a woman. The society now has its fourth award, in memory of Jan Anderson, who became the second woman to serve as ASPS President.
I joined the society during my PhD and have attended many society meetings over the years. Before the meetings merged with ASBMB to form ComBio, they were held in university campuses which gave one a chance to discover the facilities around the country. It was a great chance for locals to showcase what their departments had to offer. The program often had time to include a field excursion. One that I remember in particular was in Perth where we travelled out to see a huge plastic cylinder erected around several trees to enable measurement of transpiration by the forest. There was concern that the removal of the forest during bauxite mining would result in incomplete use of the annual rainfall which would percolate into the saline subsoil and salinize the aquifer supplying Perth drinking water. The mining companies had to demonstrate that they could re-establish native vegetation following mining that would transpire all the annual rainfall. It was an impressive experimental setup, but then perhaps I am biased as gas exchange has been central to my career. Another memorable occasion was when a heated exchange occurred between Tom Sharkey and Brian Loveys (the presenter) over the identity of a compound affecting stomatal conductance during water stress – was it ABA or an artefact, phaseic acid? I probably have misremembered the chemical detail, but as a PhD student, I had not witnessed such lively arguments before and it was exciting to witness the debate.
Presenting talks in the 80s meant getting slides made through a time consuming photographic procedure. It was argued that the greatest clarity came from white text on a blue background. To create these slides was a two step process that first had to pass through black and white film, so this of course added to the delay. Alternatively, there were dreadful overhead projectors that were scarcely visible beyond the third row of seats. Then Powerpoint arrived and for several years we suffered horribly garish multicolour slides. Now it is so easy to create wonderful visual presentations and photograph things with your mobile phone. In the 80s, film was expensive and so few images are around to illustrate what is was like.
The formation of ComBio dramatically altered the style of the conference. The larger size and trade display required convention centres and raised to price. With more money, it was possible to invite international speakers and the meetings provided an opportunity to learn about a broader range of topics. The society subsidised students to encourage them to attend and tried to level the costs for those faced with longer journeys. With cheaper international travel and a proliferation of conferences, the role of our annual conference is changing. Next year will see the beginning of a new phase where we revert to a smaller society meeting in the odd years while retaining a combined meeting in even years. I hope this new format will prove to be a useful place to establish networking for younger plant scientists as these connections can last a lifetime and provide wonderful opportunities.
Something that took tremendous effort over many years was the publication of our text book Plants in Action. This was a combined effort with the New Zealand Society of Plant Biologists and the first edition was edited by Brian Atwell, Paul Kriedemann and Colin Turnbull. Over many years at the annual conference, Paul Kriedemann could be seen dragging his trolley laden with folders of pages that were accumulating towards the textbook. It brought together material contributed by many in the society and is now freely available on the web. To break free from the constraints of a hard copy, the financial cost of colour printing (for the first edition at least) and allow continuous updating, the second edition is now growing on the web, edited by Rana Munns, Susanne Schmidt and Christine Beveridge http://plantsinaction.science.uq.edu.au/content/contents-page. While it is idiosyncratic, Plants in Action captures much of the breadth of our science and presents it to the world. Australian plant science has made significant contributions and investigated challenges that face our native flora and agriculture, such as micronutrient deficiencies, water, temperature and light stresses.
After 60 years, the role of ASPS has changed. We are faced with the challenge of a small society with limited income that runs largely on the enthusiasm of volunteers. Together we are still able to have an impact, supporting students to attend conferences, providing awards that recognise excellence and contributing to a network to promote plant science both nationally and internationally. I hope we continue to thrive because ASPS has provided me and my colleagues with many opportunities and benefits.
List of many of the attendees at the first Australian Society of Plant Physiologists meeting in Adelaide, 19 August 1958:
Adamson D U Sydney
Adamson H U Sydney
Appleby C CSIRO
Aspinall D Waite
Boardman NK CSIRO
Brownell PS U Melbourne
Canny MJ ICI ANZ
Carr DJ U Melbourne
Dainty J Edinburgh
Evans LT CSIRO President
Falk JE CSIRO
Gaff DF U Melbourne
Goldacre PL CSIRO Goldacre Medal
Groenewegen H CSIRO
Hatch MD U Sydney President
Hope AB U Sydney
Kefford NP CSIRO
McComb AJ U Melbourne
Neales TF U Melbourne
Paleg L Waite President
Pate JS U Sydney President
Paton DM U Tasmania
Phillips J CSIRO
Robertson RN U Sydney President RN Robertson lecture
Sharwood L U Adelaide
Specht RL U Adelaide
Turner JS CSIRO President
Whitfeld PR CSIRO
Williams RF CSIRO
Wiskich JT U Sydney President
Wood JG U Adelaide President JG Wood lecture
Woolhouse H U Adelaide