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GENE NAMKOONG (1934-2002)

Professor Gene Namkoong, our mentor and friend, who died on 3 March 2002, will be remembered and missed by colleagues throughout the world. Gene will live on in our thoughts, his ideas will continue to guide our action, and his work will no doubt influence generations of forest geneticists to come.

Gene Namkoong's death ended four decades of work, which he relentlessly continued throughout his illness. Gene started his career as geneticist, then as Pioneer Research Scientist, with the U.S. Forest Service (1963-1992), during which time he was also professor of forest genetics at the North Carolina State University, USA (1972-1992). From 1992-1998, Gene acted as Professor and Head of the Forest Sciences Department, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, from where he retired in 2001. His sabbaticals included work at i.a. Oxford, UK; GŲttingen, Germany; Uppsala/UmeŚ, Sweden; and the University of S„o Paulo, Piracicaba, Brazil. Gene Namkoong was member of the FAO Panel of Experts on Forest Gene Resources (1989-2002), the Board of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, IPGRI (1997-2002), and the Technical Advisory Board of the Danida Forest Seed Centre (1996-2002).

Gene Namkoong became, over the years, increasingly interested in international and global issues, and he had a sincere and deep wish to contribute to development and to help developing countries. His visit to Korea, country of his ancestors, in 1974, seemed to have had great personal importance and greatly impacted his later work. His brief contacts with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and, later, his involvement, in the work of IGRI, strengthened his cross-sectoral thinking. Gene also, notably, worked with inter-Departmental issues in FAO in 1990, clarifying links and bridges between the management of crop, domestic animal, fish and forest genetic resources. This laid the foundations for his later involvement in the study, "Managing Global Genetic Resources: Forest Trees", published by the National Research Council, U.S. National Academy of Sciences, in 1991.

Many words have been written about the fundamentally important, professional role of Gene Namkoong, who helped lay the theoretical and quantitative foundations for modern forest genetics and tree breeding. For this, he received the prestigious Marcus Wallenberg prize in 1994, "for pathbreaking contributions to quantitative and population genetics, tree breeding and management of forest genetic resources". In parallel with his scientific work, Gene increasingly stressed over the past years the need to further ethical issues in the management of forest genetic resources.

Like his thinking, Gene Namkoong's contribution to forestry and forest genetics extended to more dimensions than can be easily perceived. The complexity and sophistication of Gene's technical and scientific writing were underpinned by a genuine wish to contribute and to advance science. At the same time, Gene was deeply concerned about justice and well-being of less developed countries and less fortunate humans. He was an excellent listener who took to heart issues and problems conceived as important and raised with him; these were frequently followed up and included in his subsequent work programme.

Gene Namkoong noted in his work that forests are, "the epitome of diversity". He stressed the need to think outside strict use of the resources and outside strict conservation of a, ".. mythical, stable, ideal or optimal state of forests and forest ecosystems". In his Retirement Seminar in 20011, Gene strongly re-stressed his earlier stated conviction that breeding was a form of controlled evolution, and that, therefore, there was no qualitative difference between breeding and conservation. He highlighted the evolutionary interdependence between forests and humans, and the need to focus on the issue of how to manage forest ecosystems, rather then whether to manage them. In this regard, Gene noted that humans no any longer had, "the luxury of ignorance of our effects [on nature]". "We cannot withdraw management and assume that, in principle, we are not influencing a particular direction for forest evolution that is any less interventional than any other forest treatment". At the same time, he sounded a warning: "Present efforts at forest conservation often reflect values of dominant economic powers or the counter-culture, preservationist counter forces, neither of which brings any higher level of justice to the people affected by management". He stressed that our obligation was not to abuse a complex system, "neither through management which would simplify forests to [wood] manufacturing factories, nor for restoring or preserving a world that never existed".

Gene Namkoong was over the past years also increasingly worried about what he called, "a mechanical view of the world". "In his Retirement Seminar he noted: "Biological reductionism is sometimes driven to considering forests only as a wood-production system. In extreme reductionism, `selfish genes' are considered to control everything including individual function, and both forestry and genetics are equivalent to engineering." In a message to his fellow Members of the FAO Panel of Experts on Gene Resources which Gene sent in January 2002, less than two months before his death, he noted i.a.: "Problems arise when sophisticated techniques [advanced biotechnologies] are applied to un-developed genotypes and when efforts are focussed on those techniques rather than on developing the basic breeding resource. So while it is important to develop the sophisticated techniques that can put the finishing touches on advanced varieties, at least as much effort should go to ensuring the development of the basic breeding varieties. Almost all national agencies that I have seen, put preference on the sophisticated finishing stages of breeding programs and less on the basic genetic development program, so a part of the audible FAO effort has been to support a balanced development of genetic resources".

Let us value Gene Namkoong's achievements and honour his memory by striving to interpret and implement the many-faceted principles outlined in his work, and in so doing let us attempt to apply the scientific rigour and the honesty, the deep ethics, the readiness to share and cooperate and the genuine concern for fellow humans which characterized his life-long career.

Christel Palmberg-Lerche
Forest Resources Development Service
Forestry Department, FAO, Rome (Italy)
July 2002

1 The presentation given by Dr. Gene Namkoong in his Retirement Seminar, "Forest Genetics: pattern and complexity", frequently quoted above, has been published in Can.J.For.Res. 31:623-632 (2001).

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