• Janet I. Sprent


Photograph courtesy of Susan Vincent.

Dr H. D. L. (Tom) Corby, 1913–2013

Tom Corby died on 6 January 2013, shortly before his 100th birthday. The timing seems particularly poignant: that such a great contributor to legume research should die on the first day of the 6th International Legume Conference, which this year was held in Johannesburg, an area of the world where Tom had extensively worked. He was born near Oxford and went to a local school, where he seems to have been rather mischievous and more interested in making things than in academic subjects, although he was an avid reader of books such as The Swiss Family Robinson. With a friend he built a weatherproof tree-house, which they rented out to a labourer, using the proceeds to buy cinema tickets. The one school subject he was good at was chemistry and he was apprenticed to a local pharmacy – however, one look at the room in which he was supposed to work helped him to decide to go to Canada on an ‘assisted career’ scheme to learn about agriculture! In Canada he was placed with a welcoming family, learned skills such as ploughing, and he then decided to take some technical training. Tom was top of his class for 5 years, which allowed him to progress to Guelph University to complete a degree in agriculture. After completing his degree, he joined the colonial service and enjoyed a long and varied career, most of it spent in Africa. Apart from his scientific work, he had to turn his hand to many other activities, such as air traffic control, when he found himself in charge of an airstrip as well as a laboratory.

Tom made two very important contributions to legume biology. Readers of New Phytologist are most likely to know him from his work putting legume nodule morphology into a taxonomic framework. His best-known paper on this, Corby (1988), gave details of the morphology of nodules from many different legume genera, mostly from his own observations. This work was also the basis for his PhD thesis (University of Harare, Zimbabwe). Although he did not publish in New Phytologist, his work underpins many papers in this journal, including de Faria et al. (1989) and Sprent (2007). His careful observations also preempted some major changes in plant taxonomy. For example, he noted that aeschynomenoid nodules (see Sprent, 2007) occurred in Brya, which was then placed in the tribe Desmodieae, where the typical nodule is desmodiod. This genus has now been transferred to the Dalbergioid clade, a unique feature of which is possession of aeschynomenoid nodules (Lavin et al., 2001). Corby also described nodules of the crotalarioid genus Lotononis as being generally indeterminate, except for the section Listia where they are lupinoid, girdling the subtending root. Listia has now been reinstated as a separate genus (Boatwright et al., 2011).

Tom's other contribution was in the formulation of rhizobial inoculants, using local ingredients rather than peat as a carrier, for legumes including soybean, which was then being developed as a crop in Southern Rhodesia.

It is a credit to all concerned that Tom was invited back to Zimbabwe to continue his work long after he retired. Recently, I put him in touch with a young Zimbabwean PhD student, Mazvita Chiduwa, at Murdoch University, Western Australia. Funded by N2 Africa (, Mazvita will return to her home country to work in the same place where Tom set up his inoculant programme. Tom invited Mazvita to his centenary party, which had been scheduled for 17 May 2013, but sadly they will not now meet.

I had lunch with Tom, his daughter Susan and my husband Peter in Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, Cape Town, in November 2012 and, although physically frail, he was mentally as sharp as ever. He had a long discussion with Peter about experimental design and the statistical analysis of field data. I was also able to tell him of our planned interactive database on legume nodule characters ( which was launched at the aforementioned 6th International Legume Conference in Johannesburg.

Tom will be greatly missed by his friends, not only for his excellent science, but also for his great sense of humour and resolve; his reaction to the sanctions of the UK government against Ian Smith's white-minority administration in Rhodesia was to say, ‘We'll just have to drink brandy instead of whisky.’

Tom's final refereed paper was published in 2011 (Corby et al., 2011) and his collection of fixed legume nodules resides in my home conservatory. It is an enduring reminder of his work and it remains a valuable source of material for studies of nodule structure.