Erna Bennett: more on this unique person

Erna Bennett was unique. Well, not quite. There have been other Erna Bennetts, one of whom died almost exactly a year ago. Although I never met “our” Erna Bennett, I like to think that she would actually be tickled to have been confused with Erna Bennett of Richmond, VA in the United States. I say this because Erna seems to have taken some trouble not to be easily found, and a decoy would have been an appropriate ploy.

In the wake of her death last week, different people have drawn attention to her importance to the field of agricultural biodiversity and to the dearth of good biographical material. Although we were early pioneers in recent years, with the briefest possible post the day after her 83rd birthday, the hunt was taken up by our friend and colleague Danny Hunter, who also broke the news of her passing, at least to us.

Danny’s previous forays, like ours, drew forth some comments from people who had known Erna professionally and privately. Reading some of them, one longs to know more, and yet it would be sad also to think that only with her death will these things become known.

Hunting for more about Erna the person, I found a piece that The Ecologist magazine reprinted in 2010, 40 years after it first appeared. (Danny had found it first.) Two things are absolutely remarkable about this. First, it was reprinted from the FAO’s old journal CERES, which seems to have no recollection of it, and that alone encourages me to make it more widely available. Secondly, the arguments, not only from Erna but also from Otto Frankel and Jack Harlan Jr (and WK Agble), remain absolutely current. Apart from a slight quirkiness of language, you could read their answers to a modern audience and have them nodding sagely along. And you would be able to add a few more examples.

Bits of biography do exist, with tantalising hints that she may have been a pilot delivering planes in World War II, among other things. There is, however, so much more one could say, not least about the politics within FAO, and I hope that in time Danny is going to say it.

I haven’t been able to find either the Canadian film Fragile Harvest or the Youtube videos that people have mentioned, although I am sure I remember seeing some of that footage. If the material exists still, it should end up in Web of Stories, that’s for sure. Anyone know where those recordings might be?

Gregg Borschmann interviewed Erna on 21 November 1994 for an oral history project focusing on environmental awareness in Australia. The recordings and a corrected typescript of 89 pages are available from the National Library of Australia. While in Australia, Erna seems also to have been active in the Socialist Party of Australia, reporting on a meeting of the Central Committee (of which she was a member) that took place a month before the oral history interview. She wrote for organs of the Communist Party of Australia and served on the Editorial Board of the Australian Marxist Review. I wonder what she thought of Stalin’s persecution of the “bourgeois” science of genetics, and especially of the fate of NI Vavilov?

For her 83rd birthday, MS Swaminathan, another early pioneer of agrobiodiversity conservation, wrote:

Erna’s untiring efforts helped to create global awareness of the need for accelerated efforts in the area of genetic resources conservation and sustainable use. Her life and work will always remain a source of inspiration and guidance to all young scholars who wish to save plants for saving lives and livelihoods.

But Erna was having nothing of it:

I did what I had to do because I believed in it, just as you too believe in what you are doing. Your own work is as important as anything I have done, and students and workers trained and inspired by you are the army of the future, who will have to face battles even more difficult than those we faced in the past. I hope you agree, so let’s quietly drop ideas of pouring praise in my direction. The future will need not only the inspiration of past battles but also the toil and sweat of future struggles, greater — from the way things now seem to be developing — than any of our generation ever faced.

9 Replies to “Erna Bennett: more on this unique person”

  1. Enjoyed this post Jeremy, you have pulled together many pieces on Erna really nicely. The film Fragile Harvest is indeed available to order at Bullfrog Films and their website contains some additional interesting information. Another film I came across more recently was The Neglected Miracle which Erna collaborated with NZ director Barry Barclay on, who has also sadly passed away. It is also hard to track down though I am waiting to hear back from the NZ Film Archives to see if they can help. I tried many times over the last few months to find the Youtube videos you refer to above with no luck. I do recall they were made for the Scottish Communist Party and involved Erna giving a series of talks for about an hour each only aided by the occasional newspaper cutting pulled from under a pile of books, a folder, the floor, a drawer, or on a bookcase behind her. It was all really great stuff and I think there was about 4 or 5 of these. I only hope that somehow the owner will come across one of these messages and upload again. As you say, various bits and pieces do exist but full copies are often hard to find. There is an obituary Erna wrote for Evgeniya Nikolaevna Sinskaya in Nature 1966 which I would like to read. And of course there are her pivotal 60s papers, Historical Perspectives in Genecology (1964) and Plant Introduction and Genetic Conservation (1965) which however are not accessible online.

  2. More biographical information on Erna Bennett can be found in:

    I.S. Cunningham. 1989. Erna Bennett: Her Career and Convictions and An Interview with Erna Bennett. Diversity 5(2 & 3), 60-63.

    Award of Meyer Memorial Medal to Erna Bennett of FAO, including Presentation by Dr. Ralph W. Phillips, Miss Erna Bennett’s Acceptance, and Statement by Dr. A. H. Boerma. 1971. J. Heredity 62(5), 277-279.

    Both publications also contribute to the few pictures of Erna Bennett that are available online.

  3. As a neighbour, I had the good fortune to make the aquaintance of Erna, and her partner of some 40 years, Pru, here in Montrose. Little did I know the impact knowing of such a person, would lead to the realisation, of just how sheltered a life we often lead. Erna’s intellectual capacity and hunger for truth and knowledge, not only in her lifelong passion for pioneering PGR, but also in the pursuits of human rights and justice, washed over me like a learning ” comfort blanket”.
    I felt privilaged to indulge her compassion for poetry, often sitting in wonder, awe, and profound respect of someone who truly took part in life. The poem Bandi Amir was one of her favourites.

    1. “Erna’s intellectual capacity and hunger for truth and knowledge”

      You may be right about “Erna’s” intellectual capacity, but I’m afraid you are wrong about “Erna’s” hunger for truth. Hunger for lies would be more appropriate. Not to pass judgement on the fate of a dead person, and I sincerely hope in “Erna’s” salvation but “Erna” coldy deceived many people for many years. With fraud and deceit, and neglect of duties and responsibilities and breaking of vows, “Erna” was not someone who liked truth.
      Having said that, we all make mistakes and we have all fallen short of the glory of God, and hopefully “Erna” repented before death and make peace with God

  4. It was recognised as Afganistans’ first National Park, in the ’60s , but was not truly acknowledged as such untill 2009. Erna’s intimate empathy of this special place triggered my interest to know just where and what inspired her. I Googled the area, and together with reading the poem , found myself transported into her time , space and understanding.
    I would like to think she will now meet with her dear, respected commrade Kristian, comparing notes ………………these two very resilient human beings.

  5. I met Erna in Athens in 1998 at a world meeting of communist and workers’ parties (she represented the CPA). She told me about flying unarmed bombers from the U.S. to Britain, how her facility with languages led to her recruitment to the intelligence services, how she was parachuted into Greece, about her capture and liberation from Gestapo custody, how the British took Greece over after the war (the bullet holes are still visible) and about her career in the FAO. I joined her on a giant march that filled the streets – a strike. Meeting Erna was a very fortunate experience for me. I recall her as an equal to all contemporary Marxists on the topic of the environment and deeply concerned about all questions affecting humanity. She was aware of the importance of Fidel Castro’s 1984 study The World Economic and Social Crisis. She was “up there” with John Bellamy Foster who writes on Marxism and the Environment.

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