|Trumpington Local History Group
Notes on the History of the Plant
Breeding Institute, Trumpington
|Copyright © Trumpington Local History Group, 2020. Updated 11 June 2020.
|A light hearted appreciation of the
work of Sir Roland Biffen, Director
the Plant Breeding Institute, depicted
in the CUAS Magazine, 1926.
|The Plant Breeding Institute (PBI) was established in 1912 as
part of the Department of Agriculture in the University of
Cambridge. The justification was the rediscovery of the
Mendelian laws of inheritance and that these laws could be
applied to crops of economic importance as shown by Sir
Roland Biffen in 1906. Sir Roland had used this knowledge to
produce the wheat variety Little Joss, released in 1910, that
contained resistance to yellow rust derived from a Russian
wheat. In fact Mendel's work, released in 1865, describing his
laws of inheritance, had not been lost and it may be the
proponents of the PBI needed a "scientific" argument for its
Sir Roland became the first director of the PBI. Work was
initially devoted entirely to the breeding of improved varieties
of wheat, particularly improved grain quality; resulting in the
release of Yeoman in 1916 that set a standard for yield and
quality until 1957.
|Sir Roland insisted that the breeding work should be based on sound scientific principles. This
was borne out when the PBI was expanded after the First World War by the appointment of
F.L. Engledow (later Sir Frank) as an additional wheat breeder, H. Hunter to work on oats and
sanfoin and A.E. Watkins to study the genetics of wheat. Soon after this, the work expanded to
include peas and barley. Although the work on peas did not make much impact, that on barley
by G.D.H. Bell, although curtailed by the Second World War, led to the variety Proctor that was
instrumental in tripling barley production between the 1950s and 1960s. Potato breeding
commenced in 1939 and sugar beet in the 1940s; the latter because supply of seed from the
continent had been curtailed by the Second World War.
|Dr G.D.H. Bell, Plant Breeding Institute.
Source: Plant Breeding Institute.
|After the Second World War, the national policy was to
urgently increase agricultural and horticultural food production.
It involved large increases in research at several institutes and
research centres in Great Britain. The PBI with its history of
practical breeding and applied research was well placed for
expansion. In 1948 it was announced that the PBI was to be
considerably expanded and it would be set up as a Research
Institute within the Agricultural Research Council thus severing
its link with the University. G.D.H. Bell was appointed its first
director with a remit to research into the breeding of varieties of
arable and herbage crops. In practice it meant that research
findings and genetic material was freely available to anyone
with the result that commercial breeding companies ultimately
benefitted enormously and eventually competed with the
practical work of the PBI.
|The Plant Breeding
Station, Cage Field,
Cambridge, c. 1952.
|The front entrance to
the Plant Breeding
Plant Breeding Institute.
|At that time the total complement of staff was 35 working on cereals, forage crops, potatoes,
sugar beet and cytogenetics. Staff numbers and facilities thereafter rapidly increased such that
by 1976, 32 varieties of 14 different crops were on the Recommended List of the National
Institute for Agricultural Botany for growing in the UK. In addition, 16 crops were being grown
in 12 other countries, mostly in Europe but including New Zealand, USA, Canada and Iceland.
Eighty one scientific papers were published in the previous year. By 1984 staff numbers had
|The Plant Breeding Institute staff in 1954, taken at the entrance to the
University Department of Agriculture, Downing Street, Cambridge. Source:
Plant Breeding Institute.
|The Plant Breeding Institute staff in 1984. Photo: Edward Leigh.
|A full account of the benefits to the UK and
successes of the PBI are far beyond the scope
of these notes. However, one profound
development was the production of semi-dwarf
wheat, initiated by Dr F.C. Lupton and further
developed by J. Bingham. Another was the
introduction of a series of bread-making wheats
suitable for growing in the UK that reduced
imports from ca. 3 million tons to ca. 0.5
million tons per annum. Yet another was the
release of the potato Maris Piper by H.
Howard and colleagues in 1966. Maris Piper
has resistance to the soil borne cyst nematode
species Globodera rostochiensis, an important
pest of potatoes, particularly in the Fens. Maris
Piper continues to be a great success on the
domestic market and is probably the most
widely known of any vegetable variety to date.
Four Queen's Awards to industry were
achieved: in 1973 for new, improved varieties
of wheat; in 1975 for marrow stem kale; in
1982 for Maris Piper potatoes; and in 1987 for
bread-making wheats. The last was presented
by Princess Ann as part of the 75 years
The National Seed Development Organisation
(NSDO) at Newton was set up to sell the plant
based products of the research units in the UK.
After prolonged negotiations the NSDO and
PBI were 'privatised' in 1987; being purchased
by Unilever plc. The sale excluded the basic
research on cytogenetics, molecular genetics
and plant pathology that was later transferred
to the John Innes Centre at Norwich.
Thus the PBI no longer existed in name but
Unilever developed the remaining commercially
viable unit as 'Plant Breeding International
Cambridge' (PBIC). Breeding successes
continued; one notable example being the
production of the wheat variety Consort.
Initially aimed at the export market it also
became the preferred soft milling wheat for the
UK and is still grown for specialist markets
such as breakfast cereals and health snack bars.
Consort made a major contribution to the UK
becoming a substantial exporter of wheat worth
several billions of pounds sterling.
|Dr Francis Lupton with semi-dwarf wheats,
Plant Breeding Institute, Trumpington. Source:
Plant Breeding Institute.
|John Bingham with farmers celebrating 18
years of production of Hereward wheat, 2009.
Photo: Stephen Brown.
|Advertisement for Consort wheat. Source:
Plant Breeding International Cambridge.
|In 1998 Unilever sold PBIC to Monsanto, who gradually reduced the work and finally sold the
last remaining crop to a French co-operative and the site to developers. Work started in early
2011 on building ca. 1200 dwellings on the land.
|Demolition of the main
building of the former
Plant Breeding Institute
2009. Photo: Stephen
|The last pieces of the
former Plant Breeding
being removed from
the site, 2009. Photo:
|Sir Roland Biffen, Director of
the Plant Breeding Institute,
|Until 1948 the work of the PBI had been undertaken on the University farm, off Huntingdon
Road, principally on Cage Field. Facilities at Cage Field were somewhat crude by modern
standards and the opportunity would be taken to form a "state of the art" institute.
|A new site in Trumpington was acquired in 1950 and work started in temporary buildings in
1952. There were delays in construction due to post-war shortages but by 1954 the main
building was occupied and the new PBI was formally opened in 1955.
|However, in the 1980s rationalization of the work at the UK agricultural and horticultural
research centres (there were 23 'Institutes' and 18 research units) was necessary and work on
crops such as Lucerne, grasses, kale, clover and forage maize at the PBI was either stopped or
transferred to other locations. Basic research continued with strong cytogenetics and molecular
genetics departments that drew in the most capable staff and visiting research students from
both the UK and overseas.