Sir Guy Marshall collected beetles as a hobby while working as a sheep and cattle farmer in Africa. He was forced to focus on weevils after the rest of his collection was destroyed while he was travelling home to England. Although he had no formal science education, in 1910 he became scientific secretary to the Entomological Research Committee on the strength of his passion for insects and papers he had written on weevils. The Committee became the Imperial Bureau of Entomology, which, under Marshall’s guidance established a new model for how to handle scientific information about insect pests. Marshall set up the Review of Applied Entomology in 1913, which is still published today. Marshall continued to explore weevils, and discovered 2300 species new to science.
Placid solitary grasshoppers and swarming desert locusts were thought to be different species until Boris Uvarov showed that certain grasshoppers change physically and behaviorally on crowding to form swarms of voracious locusts. Uvarov was born in Uralsk in what is now Kazakhstan, which meant that in 1920, Georgian nationalism threatened his job at the State Museum of Georgia. A British soldier deployed in Georgia, who happened to be an entomologist, suggested that he came to work for the Imperial Bureau of Entomology. Uvarov’s research turned the Bureau into the international centre of locust research. His discoveries gave important clues about how to control plagues of locusts, and he promoted international cooperation and field study as central to combating losses. Nearly 70 years later, CABI would again play a key role in fighting locust plagues through the LUBILOSA project.
The importance of quality ‘peer review’ of scientific papers by experts was championed by Robert Leiper, a director at CABI. Early in his career, the first truly British case of the threadworm disease filiarisis was claimed because the thin worms were spotted in blood samples under the microscope. The paper was published in a distinguished journal. However, when Leiper examined the slides, he found that the ‘worms’ were cotton-wool fibres.“If the editors of medical journals were to submit such papers to experts before accepting them, we should be spared much useless lumber,” he said. In 1932 Leiper founded Helminthological Abstracts to collect scientific research on such diseases while Consultant Director at the Imperial Bureau of Agricultural Parasitology, one of the units that made up CABI. Leiper was also famous for discovering that a snail carried the human blood-fluke that causes the disease bilharzia, rather than the disease going directly from person to person.
A review in 1937 by Isabella Leitch in the CABI journal Nutrition Abstracts and Reviews, A and B showed that the average British schoolboy lagged a year behind a middle-class boy of the same age in skeletal development. She reported levels of osteoporosis were much higher in the poor because of poor calcium intake. Leitch, of CAB’s Imperial Bureau of Animal Nutrition, based at the Rowett Research Institute, worked closely with the Institute’s director, John Boyd Orr (who was Consultant Director of the Bureau). An investigation by Boyd Orr in 1937 further confirmed the link between low income, malnutrition and under-achievement in schools. In 1946, after the war, the UK Parliament passed the School Milk Act, ordering the issue of one-third of a pint of milk free to all pupils under 18 years of age, a practice which continued until the 1970s in British schools. Leitch later became Director of the Commonwealth Bureau of Nutrition, which later formed part of CABI.
An unusual indicator of CABI’s growing impact in the world is found in the detective novel “The Spider Strikes” by Michael Innes (1939), featuring Inspector Appleby. A character called Mr Shoon remarks:“..Have you ever reflected on the extent to which the complicated mechanism of our civilisation depends upon a few such nerve-centres – is controlled, moreover, by a mere handful of experts? Consider the Imperial Institute of Entomology….There we have a scattering of men engaged in the abstruse study of crop and forest pests, of disease-bearing insects. A mere scattering, I say, of unprotected scientists under a single roof! Nothing would be simpler than to eliminate them… There could be nothing simpler in the world. And what would be the consequence? In India, six thousand miles away, the death-roll would increase by at least half a million within a year, while the damage to property would be reckoned in hundreds of millions of pounds.”
One of CABI’s best known books was compiled by two staff on night-time fire-watching duty during the Second World War. They would scour the institutional library at the Commonwealth Mycological Institute at Kew while on the lookout for incendiary bombs. A Dictionary of the Fungi was first published in 1943 following a special wartime allocation of paper. Geoffrey Ainsworth and Guy Bisby’s book is now in its 10th edition. The war years also saw the start of distribution maps of fungal diseases, which have continued from 1942 until today.
Trofim Lysenko was a Soviet agronomist who rejected Mendelian genetics (the cornerstone of animal and plant breeding), which he described as “the whore-child of imperialism”. He gained influence under Stalin, such that scientific dissent against his theories was formally outlawed in Russia in 1948, effectively banning genetics, and those who disagreed were purged from their positions. Because of CABI’s capacity to translate from 50 languages and access material from across the world, it was able to cover the rise of “Lysenkoism”. The tide began to turn against Lysenko when Stalin died in 1953, and dissenting views began to be tolerated. However, in 1959, in a Russian paper abstracted by CABI, Lysenko was still condemning “‘idealist’ studies seeking the discovery of the hereditary substance”, six years after Watson and Crick had published the structure of DNA.
In 1964, physicist Andrei Sakharov wrote of Lysenko: “He is responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular, for the dissemination of pseudo-scientific views, for adventurism, for the degradation of learning, and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists”.
In 1969 a CABI Mechanisation Committee suggested that, despite the risk of “the computer mystique distorting the real usefulness of computers to CAB”, that there was a “prima facie case for considering a plan for computerising CAB’s activities”. At that point, CABI’s journals were produced by its separate bureaus sending manuscripts, often hand-written, to the printers. A report for the committee argued that CABI would not need “to use a computer full-time.” By 1973 CABI was producing a database using magnetic tape. The move to integrate information into a standard format and electronic form was a huge and complex transition, but created the resource that is CAB Abstracts today.
In 1972, CABI achieved major success with the control of a sugarcane pest in Africa, but then had to leave their Ugandan station because of the regime of Idi Amin. David Greathead set up CABI’s first African base near Kampala in 1962, the year Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s book on the hazards of excessive pesticide use was published. Biological control was a powerful alternative to pesticide use, and in 1969, Greathead was alerted to a scale insect that was destroying 25% of a sugarcane crop in Tanzania. CABI introduced the black ladybeetle, Lindorus lophanthae, from Mauritius in 1971 and by 1972 the impact of the scale insect on sugarcane yield was undetectable. By 1973 it was impossible for CABI to work under Amin, but very difficult to leave – but Greathead managed to get a letter personally signed by the Ugandan Minister of Internal Affairs giving permission. It was a tense and uncertain moment when he gave the letter to a soldier at the border. The soldier read it, slowly, and then, clearly awed by the signature, asked reverentially whether he could keep it. When Greathead agreed, they were waved through.
Scientists knew that the fungus Metarhizium anisopliae could attack locusts, but most did not believe it could be used in controlling locusts – one saying results showed that it was impossible that it could have any effect. The fungus needs high humidity – something not found in the dry heat of the Sahara Desert. CABI led a programme, LUBILOSA (LUtte BIologique contre les LOcustes et les SAuteriaux - Biological Control of Locusts and Grasshoppers), which began in 1989, to see if it could be done. They developed a way of drying and packaging the fungal spores that greatly improved their effectiveness. Chemical insecticide killed locusts very rapidly, but within a few days, numbers were rising again. In contrast, the fungal product, known as Green Muscle™, worked more slowly but was more effective and persistent and environmentally very safe. An environmentally friendly biopesticide, Green Muscle™ is being successfully used on a large-scale in a number of African countries and on smaller scales in various Asian countries.
In 1995 CABI began work on the South-East Asia Crop Protection Compendium (CPC), a novel tool that would combine information on pests (text, references, maps and illustrations) and ways to help make decisions about pest control. The idea came from an international workshop on information needs held in 1989. CABI then extended the regional compendium into a truly international CPC, which was made widely available in Africa. Farmers in Lugoba, a village in Tanzania, used the CPC to identify a variety of mealybug that was devastating their cassava fields. They also learned about its natural enemy, a wasp, which could be introduced to control it. The mealybug outbreak is now under control, and cassava growing in the village has been revived. In 1999 the CPC won the Pirelli INTERNETional Award for Environmental Safeguarding.
For those with a fear of flying, fungi are probably not top of the list of worries. However, microbial contamination of fuel can be a real issue – also affecting marine fuel. In 2000, CABI developed a test for the key fungus, Hormoconis resinae, which works like a pregnancy test kit, to indicate whether or not it is present. This means that engineers can make sure that engines will not be blocked up by fungal growth, and that aeroplanes stay in the sky. The test is now being commercialised by Conidia Bioscience Ltd, a CABI spin-out company.
CABI’s historical timeline