Robert Byrde 1922–2010


  • Simon Archer,

  • Keith Brent

The death of Robert Byrde on 8 May 2010 has deprived the Society of one of its Honorary Members, and the profession one of the foremost plant pathologists of the post-war era, a multi-talented scientist whose knowledge covered the entire spectrum of the subject from practical horticulture through to the biochemistry and molecular biology of infection. Although working almost entirely in a commodity-based research environment, with its emphasis on practical measures to assist growers, Robert was far-sighted enough to realise that major advances in disease control were likely to come from a deep-seated understanding of the mechanisms of microbial infection and host resistance. His research on the role of pectolytic enzymes, much of it assisted by Tony Fielding, was a key advance at the time and made a substantial contribution to what became known as physiological plant pathology. These early attempts to understand host-parasite interactions in chemical and structural terms laid the foundations for the current era of molecular plant pathology.

Robert Jocelyn Walter Byrde was born in 1922 in the family home in Bournemouth and spent the early part of his life near Stroud, where he attended school at Wycliffe College. His university education, BSc in Horticulture at Reading 1940–1942 was followed by a period of wartime service in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, seeing action in support of heavy anti-aircraft artillery, attaining the rank of Captain and serving in India, a country he was to revisit towards the end of his career as a scientific consultant. Robert resumed his scientific education in 1947 studying for a PhD, the experimental part of which was split between Reading and Long Ashton, and during which he acquired his passion for scientific horticulture that endured for the rest of his life. In 1950 Robert joined the staff of Long Ashton Research Station, University of Bristol, where he was to remain throughout his career. Working initially with Ralph Marsh, and strongly influenced by him, he built up an encyclopaedic knowledge of fruit diseases and disorders, culminating in the publication of a definitive monograph of the biology and control of brown rot fungi which he co-authored with Haydn Willetts in 1977.

Robert was a man of great vision to whom forward thinking came naturally. Luckily the freedom available in the agricultural research service during the early and middle phases of his career allowed him to follow his instincts and, following a sabbatical period in Cambridge, he began his physiological and biochemical investigations into the involvement of a range of pectolytic enzymes in lesion formation on fruits caused by brown rot fungi (Monilinia spp.), which were ground-breaking at the time. Later these enzyme studies were extended to other plant diseases, for example bean anthracnose caused by Colletotrichum lindemuthianum. Some of these studies were developed through the supervision of research students who benefited greatly from his enthusiasm for the subject and his wise guidance. In 1965 he became Head of the Plant Pathology Section at Long Ashton, a job which he combined with periods of teaching in the University where he was accorded the title of Reader and ultimately awarded an honorary DSc in recognition of his contribution to the advancement of knowledge.

Through much of his career Robert balanced projects on host-parasite interactions with much more applied aspects of plant pathology involving extensive contact with the horticultural and agrochemical industries at national and international levels. His portfolio of activities included the field evaluation of experimental fungicides for the control of apple diseases, studies of fungicide structure-activity relationships (in collaboration with organic chemists led by David Woodcock), blossom blight field surveys and trials with ADAS, membership of the MAFF pesticide compatibility panel, epidemiology of silver leaf disease of plums and pears, control of Armillaria, and considerable involvement with urgent issues of the day such as when first Dutch elm disease and then fireblight reached south west England. In consequence Robert was a man whose knowledge spanned the entire breadth of our discipline in a way that few could equal in his time and is now rare to the point of extinction. Even in retirement Robert maintained an active interest in the subject and continued to work in a part-time role.

His knowledge of horticulture in general, and plant disorders in particular made Robert much sought after for advice by local horticultural societies, neighbours, indeed anyone with an interest in plants. He also very much practised what he preached, being a keen gardener and maintaining a sizeable orchard at his home. Robert was an essentially modest man who never sought the limelight. He worked to the highest standards of integrity and honesty in dealing with others and always accorded the utmost respect to opinions of others even when they differed from his own. He was in all senses of the word, a gentleman, polite, caring and helpful to all, and a cheerful and stimulating companion. His wife Joyce died in 2002 and he is survived by his daughter Rosemary.