Obituary John Caseley (1935-2022)

6 Jan 2023

John Caseley is remembered for his significant contribution to weed science in a career spanning five decades, which earned the former Outlooks on Pest Management board member the respect of his peers around the world. John passed away recently at the age of 87.

John grew up in London against the backdrop of World War Two. He first became interested in the natural world as an evacuee to the Devon countryside. Subsequently, a passion for agriculture began during school holidays working at his grandfather’s friend’s farm in northern France.

After graduating with a degree in Agriculture from Wye College he developed an interest in the effects of herbicides on crops and weeds during his PhD research at Bristol University, with his name appearing in the early 1960s in reports of work on apples and strawberries of the Long Ashton Agricultural and Horticultural Research Station.

After periods working on fungicides in soils at the University of California, Davis, and on effects of herbicides on earthworms while in Gainesville, Florida, John returned to Britain to take up a post at the Weed Research Organisation (WRO) near Oxford. He would go on to lead the Environmental Sciences Group. He brought an innovative plant physiology angle to understanding the effects and limitations of herbicides to enhance the work of the applied scientists around him.

His research at WRO focused on improving the performance of herbicides under different climatic conditions, such as tolerance to rainfall and the use of adjuvants in formulations to enhance efficacy while maintaining crop safety.

His research was aided by an enviable collection of controlled environment cabinets and a rainfall simulator that could produce anything from tropical downpours to a temperate drizzle. These were not only the tools of his trade but also collectively his pride and joy. Seeing his research equipment was always a highlight for visitors to his laboratory.

WRO closed down in 1985 and John was among the scientists who moved to Long Ashton Research Station (LARS) to form the Weed Physiology and Biochemistry Group within the Weed Research Division. John’s work at LARS, reflected in his extensive publication record, continued the theme of physiological and biochemical interactions in plants associated with herbicides. Of course, the rainfall simulator moved with him, along with his yellow waterproofs.

His time at Long Ashton coincided with increasing concerns worldwide about the evolution of herbicide-resistant populations among major weed species, so John set his mind to understanding resistance problems and searching for alternative herbicide-based solutions. In 1989 with colleagues at Long Ashton, he hosted an international symposium that considered the ‘state of the art’ of the incidence of herbicide-resistant weeds and the potential of herbicide-resistant crops, subsequently published as a book co-edited with George Cussans and Roger Atkin.

It was the resistance to herbicides of a major rice crop weed in Central America that led to my research partnership with John. For many years, he generously shared his time, expertise and facilities with many colleagues around the world and he played a central role in understanding the resistance mechanisms in jungle rice (Echinochloa colona) to herbicides that had been the mainstay of farmers’ rice weed management for many years. This led to field trials that validated alternative approaches described in a series of publications over more than a decade, during which the team benefitted from John’s guidance.

John’s extensive publication list demonstrates his capacity for collaboration with scientists in the UK and around the world. His enthusiastic and extroverted character made him not only a welcome colleague, but also a frequent speaker at meetings and conferences.

He was a regular contributor to the annual Brighton Weed control conferences and presented at various international meetings including in the US, Israel, Australia, and in Europe. His international reach was further enhanced by collaboration on publications that to this day remain essential sources of information.

These include the 1994 United Nations-published book, Weed Management for Developing Countries, co-edited with Ricardo Labrada and Chris Parker, and a volume from 2000 on Prevention and Management of Herbicide Resistant Weeds in Rice, co-authored by Bernal Valverde and myself. The book has been downloaded many thousands of times in both English and Spanish.

John was always keen to encourage others and served for many years on the editorial board of the Outlooks on Pest Management journal and on SCI committees. His qualities were especially appreciated by many postdoctoral and postgraduate students from overseas who benefitted from his wise counsel and mentoring and who went on to become distinguished weed scientists in their own countries.

By the time Long Ashton Research Station closed in 2003, 40 years after he started out there as a postgraduate student, John ‘retired’, but ran his own business, working on herbicides, adjuvants and resistance for many international crop protection companies. He must have been one of the last people carrying out research on the LARS site.

Undaunted by the closure of the research station, he moved his operation across the railway line to the new Bristol University building at Fenswood Farm. By 2008, under growing pressure from family to enjoy his retirement John introduced me to his extensive business contacts and taught me how to do trials properly.

I will always be grateful for his patience and continuing eye for detail as I took over his business. He would often visit for a coffee and a chat with the Fenswood Farm team but also, I think, to cast an eye over the trials. He would inevitably spot the one pot out of hundreds on the benches that had not been watered that morning!

Out of the laboratory in bachelor days, colleagues recall visits to John’s rather shambolic house to participate in parties and accompany him to hear jazz concerts in Oxford. Jazz was to be a life-long passion.

A dedicated family man, John with his wife Swee Lee, and children Emma and Charlie, always laid out a warm welcome to visitors. Everyone I speak to who worked with John has fond memories of his kindness, humour and good company.

I always thought he would have made a fascinating subject for the BBC Radio 4 programme, The Life Scientific, on which scientists are interviewed about their life and times. Always fun to be with, so generous with his time and knowledge, John made a difference. He is truly missed.

Written by Charlie Riches

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