in memoriam - Professor Dennis J Greenland FRS (1930 - 2012)

Professor Dennis J Greenland FRS

With the death of Professor Dennis James Greenland on 23rd December 2012 at the age of 82, the international soil science community lost an illustrious scientist who was committed throughout his career to the advancement of soil science through high quality research, teaching and the implementation of research findings. Along with Walter Russell, Jack Bremner, Peter Nye, Duncan Greenwood, David Jenkinson, Bernard Tinker and others, he was one of an outstanding group of British soil scientist who made seminal contributions to soil science nationally and internationally throughout the second half of the 20th Century. 

Dennis Greenland was born 13th June, 1930 in Portsmouth, England. His family had a strong naval tradition and his Father was the third generation to serve in the Royal Navy.  Initially, Dennis was headed in the same direction when he passed the entrance examination to Dartmouth College but he was unable to enter due to his poor eyesight.  However, Dennis subsequently won a scholarship to study at Portsmouth Grammar School (1941-48) which, because of the war and the targeting of the Naval Base at Portsmouth, was temporarily relocated to Bournemouth (1941-44). This was typical of many ad hoc arrangements that had to be made to keep education functioning during World War II.

Dennis won a State Scholarship to study at Christ Church, Oxford University from where he graduated with 1st Class Honours in chemistry in 1952.  During the latter part of his chemistry degree he asked his College Tutor whether there was something he could do in his final year which was allied to chemistry but which would allow him to work outside as well as inside a laboratory. His Tutor suggested that he should talk to Dr E W (Walter) Russell at the Soil Science Laboratory in the Faculty of Agriculture. This proved to be a fateful moment because Dennis took Russell's soil science course and developed a strong interest in the subject.

Stimulated by the opportunity to apply his chemical and other scientific knowledge to soils, he embarked on D. Phil studies under the supervision of Walter Russell investigating the interaction of simple organic compounds, organic polymers and soil organic matter with clay mineral surfaces; areas of research that were to continue as a theme through much of his career. Part of his post graduate research was untaken at the Macaulay Institute which had the equipment necessary to study clay minerals and surfaces. In 1954, during his post-grad studies, Dennis was invited to join a four-month University expedition to the West Nile Region of Uganda. This experience stimulated his interest not only in the relationship between soil and agricultural productivity but also in tropical regions of Africa and Asia.  He graduated with MA and D.Phil in 1955.

After graduation he took up a position as Research Fellow and Lecturer at the (now) University of Ghana in Accra (1955-59). He worked closely with Peter Nye and together they published the seminal work The Soil under Shifting Cultivation (1960). The book treats the interaction between vegetation and soils in a systematic and quantitative way and has also been very influential in ecology and forest management.  After establishing the foundations of teaching and research activities there, he took up the position of Lecturer then Reader at the Waite Agricultural Research Institute, University of Adelaide, South Australia (1959-70). There he resumed his studies on the effects of organic matter on soil fertility and soil structure and also experienced the benefits of interacting with the fine group of scientists at the CSIRO Division of Soils located on the same Campus and through these activities he had a substantial impact on Australian soil science. He was also actively involved in the organisation of the 1968 World Congress of Soil Science in Adelaide.

Whilst he was at the Waite Institute, Walter Russell, his D.Phil supervisor, had been appointed Professor of Soil Science at Reading University and when Russell retired in 1970, Greenland was selected to succeed him and occupied the Chair there from 1970 to '78.  During this period he was invited to visit Nigeria to assist in the planning and development of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) at Ibadan, Nigeria and become a member of the Board of Trustees.  Subsequently he was asked to take up the position of Director of Research at IITA (1974-76) and was given leave by the University of Reading to undertake this work. 

Sometime after returning to Reading, he was offered the position of Deputy Director responsible for Research at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines which he occupied from 1978 to '87. At the beginning of this period, Nyle Brady was the Director General of IRRI and when he left in 1981 MS Swaminathan FRS took on the position of Director of General.  Dennis had a high regard for Swaminathan and together they made a formidable partnership and established a very effective group of scientists and an innovative research program with an end-user focus. Towards the end of his service at IRRI the substantial managerial demands and increasing travel requirements began to take a toll on his health. Consequently, in 1987 he returned to Britain to take the position of Director of Research Services at CAB International (1987-92) where he initiated the reorganisation and relocation of the four CABI Research Institutes. He retired from this position in 1992 and thereafter undertook many consultancies for industry, universities, government departments and various United Nations Agencies and served as chair for the advisory board of the International Board for Soil Research and Management (IBSRAM). 

In addition to these many positions, Dennis also spent some time in the USA as visiting Professor at the Universities of Minnesota and Iowa. He also contributed significantly to the work of learned societies serving as; a member of the Committee on International Programs and the Committee on Statutes and Structures of the International Society of Soil Science, President of the British Society of Soil Science and Chair of the Scientific Advisory Panel of the Commonwealth Development Corporation, U.K.

Dennis Greenland published more than 180 papers plus a number of influential authored, co-authored or edited book including: The Soil Under Shifting Cultivation with Peter Nye (1960), Soil Conservation and Management in the Humid Tropics with Rattan Lal (1977), The Chemistry of Soil Constituents (1978) plus The Chemistry of Soil Processes (1981) both co-edited with Michael Hayes, Characterization of soils in relation to their classification and management for crop production (1981), Cherish the Earth (1994), Sustainability of Rice Farming (1997) and Land Resources: On the edge of the Malthusian precipice? (1998) edited with Peter Gregory and Peter Nye.

In recognition of his outstanding record and service Greenland was awarded the Honorary degrees of Doctor of Agricultural Science by the University of Ghent, Belgium (1981) and Doctor of Science by Ohio State University, USA (2003).  He was made a Fellow of both the American Society of Agronomy and the Soil Science Society of America (1993), the World Academy of Arts and Science, and the Institute of Biology, U.K.  He received the most highly esteemed recognition for his contributions when he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society, London in 1994.

Impressive though this record is it does not fully capture the essence of Dennis Greenland. He was a strong mentor to many talented young scientists who he helped to nurture and develop and support throughout their careers. In addition, those who knew him would be aware of his keen intellect, clarity of thought in the identification of purpose and direction and the leadership qualities to achieve the required objectives. He always insisted on high quality of research work which was underpinned by sound scientific principles. At the same time he had a strong commitment to the implementation of research findings but always with an end-user or client focus. It was through the application of these qualities and skills that he was able to make such a substantial contribution to soil science and agriculture particularly through his extensive work in the tropics. Dennis had an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of soils and was both a specialist in several areas, and a generalist that allowed him to make a crisp synthesis of several complex matters. Through the sum of these activities he made a large impact on soil science and leaves a substantial legacy which will continue to resonate, inspire and inform for many years.  

It would be remiss not to mention his family which was a cornerstone of his life.  Whilst in Oxford Dennis Greenland met Mary Johnston from Tauranga, New Zealand who was to be his constant companion and support in the many and varied locations where they lived around the world throughout the remainder of his life. They married in 1955 shortly before moving to Ghana and had three children. Dennis is survived by his wife, three children and seven grandchildren.

Roger S Swift

Past-President of the International Union of Soil Sciences

Alfred E Hartemink,

Secretary General of the International Union of Soil Sciences

January, 2013


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Page created: 13.02.2015 | Page updated: 13.02.2015

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