Ag Tech and Research News

In memory of Dr. Ronald P. Cantrell, IRRI Director General (1998 – 2004)

12 June 2024, Philippines: It is with sadness that IRRI marks the passing of Dr. Ronald P. Cantrell, IRRI Director General 1998 – 2004, at the age of 81. Ronald is credited with broadening the range of scientific tools and options available to IRRI, and with settling management of the organization after a bumpy period, thereby providing a solid and stable basis for our work and achievements over the past twenty years.

Dr. Cantrell was born in Texas, USA, and graduated with a doctorate in plant genetics and breeding from Purdue University in 1970. He first worked for Cargill Inc. as a plant breeder before returning to Purdue as Associate Professor, then Professor of Agronomy, roles he held until 1982. He then became team leader of Purdue’s Farming Systems Unit in Upper Volta in West Africa for two years, before moving to CIMMYT for six, as director of the maize program. In 1990, he was appointed head of the Department of Agronomy at Iowa State University, where he served until joining IRRI as its eighth Director General in 1998.

At IRRI, Dr. Cantrell was keen to explore and help the institute take advantage of the new technologies available to breeders at the time, including the new science of genomics. He also positioned and promoted IRRI as the unbiased expert ‘broker’ of the rice improvement institutions in the world, enhancing IRRI’s ability to support National Agricultural Research and Extension Services in partner countries that remains at the core of our work today.

“Ronald was very supportive of our research, especially the use of the technologies that were emerging in the 1990’s. He enabled us to apply new genomics methods to understand the potential of IRRI’s germplasm, which is still the basis of our work”, said Dr. Kenneth McNally, Senior Scientist in Molecular Genetics at the time, and now Head of Bioinformatics and Coordinator for the International Rice Informatics Consortium.

“He also took us into the Generation Challenge Program, which helped IRRI contribute to CGIAR’s global efforts to improve food security, and connected us to a range of new partners.”

Unfortunately, Dr. Cantrell had joined IRRI in the midst of a bout of fiscal and administrative challenges, but provided “…the steadying hand, strong leadership, and intelligent management IRRI needed,” according to then board chair, Keijiro Otsuka.

Dr. Cantrell served as president of the Crop Science Society of America in 1998. He was the recipient of awards for both his teaching and research, including Purdue’s Outstanding Teacher in Agriculture award in 1981 and Distinguished Agricultural Alumnus award in 2000. In 1994 he was honored with the American Society of Agronomy’s International Service Award, and in 2004 he received Viet Nam’s Medal for Agriculture and Rural Development, in recognition of his contributions to agricultural development and research.

Dr. Cantrell is survived by his wife, Pamila; a son Charles; a daughter Melissa, and two brothers, Roy and Phil; and several grandchildren and great grandchildren.

We are grateful to Dr. Cantrell’s ex-colleagues at IRRI, Kenneth McNally and Gene Hettel, for their kind contributions to this item.

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