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Jack Rodney Harlan had a passion for understanding crop plants, their origins, the people who created them, and their use in sustaining the global human population. His career directions were signaled early as he followed the work of his father, Harry V. Harlan, whose research on barley breeding methodologies and plant collection expeditions had a great impact on Jack, and, for that matter, plant breeders throughout the world.
Jack began his professional career as forage and rangeland grass breeder for the US Department of Agriculture in 1942 at Woodward, Oklahoma and in 1951 he transferred to Oklahoma State University, Stillwater. While holding a joint appointment as Professor of Genetics at the University, he began to teach courses and supervised graduate students. He left the USDA in 1961 and joined the faculty of Oklahoma State University as a full-time Professor. In 1966 he moved to the University of Illinois as Professor of Plant Genetics in the Department of Agronomy. A year later, with J.M.J. de Wet, he founded the Crop Evolution Laboratory. In 1984 he became Professor Emeritus as he ended his formal professional career. However, after retirement he continued to write and lecture at many institutions, including two extended periods at the University of California, Davis, where he completed the revision of Crops and Man and formulated the basic outline of The Living Fields: Our Agricultural Heritage.
His plant exploration work is legendary for the large number and diversity of species that he collected. Those collections remain his legacy in genebanks throughout the world, and especially in the USA, from where samples of many of the accessions he collected were returned to their home country after being lost from local genebanks. A fitting tribute to his plant explorations was made at the Harlan Symposium in Aleppo, Syria in May 1997. He was presented in absentia with a mosaic made from seeds of barley, sorghum, rice and other crops derived from his original collections. The design was done by a local artist at ICARDA in the form of a map of Africa and Asia where he had done so much field work. Jack treasured this token of respect because it symbolized his great interest in crop geography and diversity. This art piece will be placed on display at the University of Illinois and later will be returned to ICARDA for permanent curation.
Jack Harlan was completely committed to the concept that ex situ conservation of crops was necessary to capture the products of millennia of crop evolution. These genetic resources may not be used for a long time to come in plant breeding or other studies, but the use of even one of the thousands of accessions he collected justified the whole effort. Jack enjoyed telling of a nondescript wheat he collected in eastern TurkeyH.e readily recognized the great value of wild relatives of crop plants as gene resources for plant breeding. While this concept was not new, he and his colleague, J.M.J. deWet, formalized the concept of genepools for use in plant breeding in Towards a Rational Classification of Cultivated Plants (1971) as primary (for hybridization of cultigens within the same species), secondary (for hybridization of cultigens with closely related compatible species), and tertiary (for hybridization of cultigens with more distantly related species, often requiring unusual steps, such as embryo rescue with artificial media). This classification has been useful in setting priorities for collecting plant genetic resources and as a reference point for use in designing breeding strategies. (Source: www.bioversityinternational.org)