Short resume of my career in the Agricultural Institute and the United Nations

An Foras Talúntais – The Agricultural Institute

 Vivian M. Timon

 

Vivian Timon

Born in Roscommon in 1937, I was educated at St. Nathy’s College (Honours Leaving Certificate 1955) and University College Dublin (B. Agr. Sc. 1st Class Honours, 1959). In our final year we were addressed by Dr Tom Walshe, recently appointed Director of An Foras Talúntais which had just been established a year earlier. My first memory of Dr Walshe was that he was a bundle of energy. I was later to find out that he was a highly intelligent man. Perhaps the younger staff in Teagasc don’t realise that Teagasc came into being as a merger of An Foras Talúntais, ACOT (formerly The County Committees of Agriculture) and The Agricultural Schools as operated by The Department of Agriculture.

Based on my final year results and a subsequent interview I was offered a post-graduate scholarship from An Foras Talúntais (The first Agricultural Institute Scholarship) which I accepted and which facilitated me to study Genetics and Statistics at the University of Durham. The stipend in the first year was £7 per week!! Fortunately, it was increased substantially in years 2 and 3. I spent three very productive years at Kings College, Newcastle upon Tyne, under the supervision of Professor Mc Gregor Cooper. I undertook my experimental work at Cockle Park and was awarded a PhD degree in December 1962,  based on a thesis “The measurement and inheritance of lamb carcass quality”. I subsequently published three papers on my thesis work in The British Journal of Animal Production.

I joined An Foras Talúntais in January 1963 as Sheep Research Officer on a salary of £950 per annum; I had earlier turned down a position as chief Geneticist with an English Pig Breeding Company with a salary of £3,000 pa. in addition to a car and house outside London. I never regretted that decision. Working with An Foras Talúntais was exciting at that time as all the staff were young and very enthusiastic. Doc. Walshe added to that excitement and there was no shortage of funds for well thought out research proposals. Initially, the Institute was divided into five Divisions, viz., The Animal Production Division with headquarters at Dunsinea, The Plant Production Division with headquarters at Oakpark, The Soils Division with headquarters at Johnstown Castle, The Rural Economy Division with headquarters at Sandymount Avenue and The Horticultural Division with headquarters at Kinsealy.

I quickly got a Sheep Breeding programme up and running.  It consisted of a large (1000 ewes) sheep selection experiment, An Evaluation of Sheep breeds as sires for fat lamb production, An Evaluation of Crossbred ewes, plus the establishment of a High Fertility Flock based on collecting exceptional high performing ewes (4 or more lambs per ewe) on farms. We also imported Finnish Landrace sheep as a source of fertility genes. This was the beginning of the new Belclare breed which Dr Hanrahan so successfully developed later. Incidentally, it was the first time I heard the term ‘genetic engineering’ and it came from none other than Doc Walshe. On the occasion of a Council visit to the Creagh Sheep Research Station, I was trying to explain the logic behind the High Fertility Flock and our recent importation of Finnish Landrace sheep as a means of achieving greater prolificacy in our national flock. The Doc interrupted me and said, “It’s a question of engineering, isn’t it – engineering the genes into other breeds”. Little did I know that the term ‘genetic engineering’ would become commonplace in genetic conversations years later. Nor was Doc. Walshe ever short of a word – he spoke so fast that all the words couldn’t come out of his mouth but he carried on regardless using the expression “what you may call it” regularly in his speech.

 In addition to undertaking an extensive research programme, working in the Institute was a great privilege. The Director actively encouraged staff to engage in extra-curricular activities so long as it did not interfere with our research programmes. It was easy at that time to become a household name across Ireland as Institute staff were regularly invited to speak at Farmers meetings, to participate in Radio discussion programmes and to contribute articles to the Farmers Journal. I was invited by RTE to script and present a series of eight programmes on Sheep Production in the Telefís Ferme series (most of the work was undertaken at weekends): two of the programmes won European Awards for RTE and three of them were screened by the BBC to show to British sheep farmers. I also taught a course on Genetics at Trinity College, Dublin and later taught a course on Agriculture to science students at University College, Galway. I also acted as External Examiner to final year Agricultural Science students for a three-year period.

Doc Walshe was very much a people person and was supportive of AFT staff in every sense of the word (farm staff, technician, clerical and research staff). He encouraged staff to take sabbatical leave as appropriate. I spent a very productive year at North Carolina State University in 1967/8 which resulted in three research papers in the Journal of Genetics and the Journal of Theoretical & Applied Genetics as well as being offered a post as Assistant Professor. Shortly after I returned from North Carolina I was informed that I was being promoted to Principal Research Officer. Little did I know that a short time later I would be appointed as Assistant Director of An Foras Talúntais, with responsibility for the recently established Western Research Centre.

As Assistant Directors we met regularly as a group in what was termed The Central Directorate. As Head of the Western Research Centre initially I had responsibility for four Research Stations, viz., Creagh, Glenamoy, Ballinamore, and Maam, together with Field Stations at Blindwell and Drumboylan. It soon became clear that some of the activities had passed their ‘sell by’ date so we closed Glenamoy, Maam and Drumboylan and initiated a new Research Centre at Belclare. Very quickly the new Centre attracted international attention and Open Days attracted farmers in their thousands. Perhaps it’s not widely known that Dr. Ian Wilmut, the principal scientist in the genetic cloning of the sheep Dolly, honed his ovulation and ova manipulation skills at Belclare or that the blood from an exceptional High Fertility ewe (13 ova in one cycle) played a major part in understanding the genetics of ovulation in humans by French scientists. As Assistant Director of An Foras Talúntais I served on many State Boards (NCEA and Min Fhéir Teo, for example) and participated in several national studies (e.g., Thomond College and The University of Limerick). 

 

In 1985, I was offered a post in the Livestock Division in FAO – The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Initially, I accepted the post on a twelve-month basis and took leave of absence from An Foras Talúntais. However, I was then offered a post as Head of The Livestock Production Systems Group in FAO which I accepted and took early retirement from An Foras Talúntais. This post and the Group which I headed up was tasked with the responsibility of advancing animal production research across the developing world. It was an exciting challenge and involved a lot of international travel across all five continents. The work was also rewarding involving close contacts with National Agricultural Research Systems as well as agencies such as The World Bank, IFAD and The World Food Programme.

 

In 1992, I was offered a post in TAC – The Technical Advisory Committee to The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research which was also within the orbit of FAO. At this point, there were 18 International Research Centres. My responsibility was to assist in the evaluation of their research programmes and to advise on research strategies and budget allocations. Again, this involved a lot of international travel. In 1996, I was invited to assist the Director-General in research policy and in the writing of position papers on Research. My new post carried the title,  Senior Advisor (Science & Technology) and my first task was to prepare a Position Paper on Genetic Engineering to be delivered as a Plenary paper by the Director-General at a UN Conference in Stockholm, Sweden. The paper marked a position where for the first time the UN supported genetic engineering as an essential tool in advancing food production across the developing world.

 

In November 1999, I retired from FAO as I had reached the mandated retirement age. Soon afterwards I returned to Ireland and set up home in Co. Galway, close to the site where The Belclare Research Station stood for its 25-year lease.  Initially, I undertook consultancies for FAO essentially on the same theme as I had done in later years. However, I did not find this to satisfy my research interest, so I began to research The Timon Family Tree. I now have come to the end of my curiosity in this regard having researched the family over 10 generations (back to the 1700s) and established a Family Tree with over 1400 entrants. In parallel with my Family Tree endeavours, I went back to University (NUIG) to study Irish. I graduated with an Honours Diploma in Irish but more importantly, I considerably improved my competency in writing Irish – something I had dreamed of for much of my life. I now have a website (Timon.ie) which compliments The Timon Family Tree (also on-line on the MyHeritage website) and which at present has more than 20 publications (posts) of which 10 are in Irish. Apart from these activities I still play golf a couple of times a week and I have a daily walk with my dog Bruce – a black Labrador.