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Prof Spence: An outstanding Caribbean citizen
Prof John Arnott Spence, who died on Wednesday night at 83, will be remembered for his sterling service to T&T and the region as a scientist, academician and spokesman for agriculture. As a UWI lecturer, public servant and independent senator, even in his retirement years his vast knowledge added value and inspired positive developments, not only in his area of expertise—agriculture—but in many other matters of national importance.
Prof Spence was well known for his contributions to agricultural and scientific bodies, including Niherst and Cariri. What was not as widely known was that his vast knowledge and expertise were bolstered by many years of practical experience as a farmer. This dedicated son of the Caribbean was born in St Vincent in July 1929 and migrated to T&T when he was 11. He attended Queen’s Royal College and 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, as well as a doctorate from the University of Bristol (1961).
His career path took him through a four-year stint as a plant pathologist in the Ministry of Agriculture, 26 years as a lecturer and professor of botany at UWI, St Augustine, including a tenure as Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture for six years, followed by eight years as head of UWI’s Cocoa Research Unit after his retirement from the university in 1989. Prof Spence’s numerous contributions included valuable research on cocoa and root crops. He was able to demonstrate the role of the polyphenol oxidase enzyme system in the resistance of cocoa pods to invasion by Phytophthora palmirova. This led to breeding programmes which increased the resistance of cocoa cultivars to the disease. He also contributed to the development of the dwarf variety of pigeon peas which can be grown twice a year and harvested mechanically.
Prof Spence published more than 50 articles in international and local journals and was responsible for the establishment of the Cocoa Research Unit which is recognised internationally for housing the largest collection of varieties of cocoa. During several terms as an independent senator from 1986 to 2000, Prof Spence was unrelenting in his appeals to successive governments to stem the decline of the agriculture sector and promote food security by using modern practices to revitalise food production and achieve international competitiveness. He will also be remembered for his work on rationalisation of the sugar industry as chairman of a Cabinet-appointed committee set up in 1979 to investigate and advise the government. For his outstanding service to the public and academia, Prof Spence received the Chaconia Medal (Gold) in 1980 and was elected a fellow of the Caribbean Academy of Science in 1990. His death is a profound loss, not only to his widow, children and other members of his immediate family but his vast circle of friends and colleagues in academia and agriculture. T&T and the region have lost a treasure.
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