John Spence (15th Jul 1929-6 Mar 2013)

Trinidad and Tobago Icons Vol 1

John Arnott Spence was born in St. Vincent on 15th July 1929 and migrated to Trinidad at age 11. He attended Queen’s Royal College and later the University of Bristol, where he obtained a Bachelor of Science in Botany (1951). He attained post-graduate diplomas in Agricultural Science (1952) and Tropical Agriculture (1953) from the University of Cambridge and the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture, respectively, and a doctorate from the University of Bristol (1961).

His research showed the role of the polyphenol oxidase enzyme in the resistance of cocoa pods to invasion by Phytophthora palmivora (black pod disease). This demonstrated a resistance mechanism in fruits to fungal attack.

Spence contributed to the development of dwarf pigeon pea varieties that could be harvested mechanically. He showed that rooted sweet potato leaves could produce tubers and received a Guggenheim Fellowship to pursue physiological studies on rooted leaves. His research work is recorded in over 50 scientific publications.

His career spans 44 years of dedicated service to agricultural and scientific bodies. He worked as a Plant Pathologist in the Ministry of Agriculture, Lecturer, Professor of Botany and Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture, the University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine. He headed the Cocoa Research Unit (CRU) after retirement from UWI in 1989. He is credited with restoring the CRU into an internationally recognized centre of excellence, holding the largest collection of cocoa varieties and making important contributions to the world cocoa industry.

As an Independent Senator (1986 – 2000), he lobbied government to address the decline of the agricultural sector and promoted national food security. He advocated increasing capital, knowledge-intensive production systems to develop international competitiveness and new market opportunities. His efforts continue in a weekly column in the local press.

He supported development of the country’s capability in biotechnology, by helping to direct NIHERST-funded research at UWI in plant tissue culture. He served on many bodies including the Caribbean Industrial Research Institute, Association of Professional Agricultural Scientists of Trinidad and Tobago, the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (Rome) and the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (Colombia). He sat on advisory committees to the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture and the Commonwealth Science Council.

Spence received the Chaconia Medal (Gold) in 1980, was elected Fellow of the Caribbean Academy of Science (1990) and received a NIHERST Lifetime Achievement Award (2000) for his contribution to agriculture.

He passed away in 2013.