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Dr Thomas Walsh (1914-1988) MAgrSc, DSc, PhD, ScD, MRIA

Remarks of Professor Gerry Boyle, Teagasc Director, at the unveiling of a plaque in remembrance of Dr Tom Walsh, Founding Director of An Foras Taluntais, Piercetown National School, County Wexford, 05 October 2018

I would like to extend a warm welcome to the unveiling of a plaque in honour of the late     Dr Tom Walsh to the Mayor of Wexford, members of Wexford County Council and the CEO, Teagasc colleagues and former colleagues, ladies and gentlemen. A really special welcome to Dr Walsh’s daughter, Rosemary and to the members of the extended Walsh family. I’ve received several communications from former An Foras Taluntais staff who for a variety of reasons would  loved to have been present today but couldn’t join us. We wish them all well.

It has been rightly said that research advances because we’re able to stand on the shoulders of giants. Dr Tom Walsh, or ‘the Doc’, as he was affectionately known by his colleagues certainly was a ‘giant’.

Dr Tom Walsh was born here in Piercestown, Co Wexford and graduated from UCD with an honours BAgrSc degree in 1937. He received the MAgrSc the following year and his PhD  just years later. Even by today’s standards that is a remarkable completion time. In 1947 he was awarded the DSc for his published work. This in itself underlines ‘the Doc’s’ academic achievements as it’s a rare scientist that has both a PhD and a DSc. He was elected to the RIA in 1955 and he maintained a strong association with the RIA throughout his career. Dr Walsh was awarded honorary doctorates by the NUI  in 1972 and by TCD in 1980.

On graduation, Dr Walsh worked with Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd., and later as an agricultural instructor in North Tipperary. (Shortly after I became Director of Teagasc I was presented with a photograph of Tom in the company of local farmers that were attending a nightclass led by him in my local Parish of Rearcross.) He then joined the staff of UCD, where he lectured in soil science from 1938 to 1945, and from 1945 to 1958 he worked as a Soils Advisory Officer and subsequently as Senior Inspector with responsibility for soils and grassland research. When AFT was established in 1958, he was appointed by the Government as its first Director. In 1980, he was appointed first Director of ACOT and retired from public service in 1983.

During his life, Dr Walsh actively participated in a large number of scientific organisations. He was founder member and President of the Agricultural Science Association and the Fertilizer Association of Ireland, and President of the Soil Society of Ireland and the Irish Grassland Association.  He was Chairman of the National Council for Educational Awards and the State Agency Development Co-operation Organisation.

His interests and expertise stretched well beyond agricultural science. He was a member of the Commission on Higher Education and Chairman of the Garda Training Review Body. He was also a member of the Council of the ESRI, the Nuclear Energy Board, the School of Ecumenics and the Commission for Justice and Peace.

In the international sphere, Dr Walsh contributed to a wide range of organisations, including: Chairman of the FAO Sub-Committee for Agricultural Research, Vice-President of the International Institute for Co-operation on Agricultural Research, Consulting Editor of “Soil Science”, member of the American Institute of Biological Sciences and the British Society of Soil Science.

Among the many distinguished national and international awards won by Dr Walsh are: Fellowship of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the first Honorary Fellowship of the Food Science and Technology Society of Ireland, the Medal of the French Society of Soil Science, the Royal Dublin Society’s Boyle Medal and his nomination as Soil Scientist of the Year by the Soil Society of America.

Two further honours which came from Dr Walsh’s own county, and of which he was very proud, were the Freedom of Wexford Town which he received in 1979 and the dedication to him by An Foras Taluntais of the Soil Laboratory at Johnstown Castle in 1987 “in recognition of his contribution to agricultural science and to the nation.” In 1993 the newly established organisation Teagasc inaugurated the Walsh Fellowships’ Scheme in his honour. This Scheme provides funding for the training of agricultural and food scientists at PhD and masters level. 

As the foregoing summary of the ‘Doc’s’ career and achievements show, he was a highly accomplished scientist and established a huge national and international profile and reputation. His research on soil fertility and trace elements, first in UCD with Professors Paddy Gallagher and Eamon Clarke and later in Johnstown Castle, was central in establishing a scientific foundation under Irish agriculture.  He had an enviable scientific publications record, publishing almost 60 scientific papers between 1941 and 1958 together while at the same time with managing a large research programme during much of this period.

Shortly after Tom’s passing, led by Dr Pierce Ryan, first Director of Teagasc, a collection of all of ‘the Doc’s’ scientific papers was published as a tribute to him. (It’s important that today we also remember the huge contribution of Pierce Ryan, first as Deputy Director of An Foras Taluntais and later as the founding Director of Teagasc.)

This collection of papers signposts the development of the ‘Doc’s’ remarkable career, it underlines his progression from pioneering work  in basic soil science and plant nutrition to more applied research and then to a sequence of key positions in administration and service on numerous national and international organisations.

 These papers reflect the Doc’s realisation that research had an essential part to play in the solution of problems besetting Irish agriculture.  But he also realised the importance of adapting research findings for application under different conditions.  And as he himself said many times, research was not finished until the results were applied. That basic philosophy continues to drive the vision and work of Teagasc today and is the most important single feature that distinguishes Teagasc from so many other research organisations around the world.

Another part of the Doc’s legacy that continues to today in Teagasc stemmed from his understanding that the key to producing more food was to optimise soil conditions. Recognising the diversity of Irish soils, he initiated the National Soil Survey, which published the First Edition Soil Map of Ireland in 1969. While this critically important work was suspended in the 1980s when, to paraphrase Henry Kissinger, urgent considerations dominated important ones, Teagasc in 2014, with the financial support of the EPA, managed to produce a comprehensive Third Edition.

So much about ‘the Doc’ the scientist but what about the man? The ‘Doc’ was a man of extraordinary energy, vision and humility.

In 2008, in a publication to mark 50 years of AFT research[1], Dr Tom O’Dwyer, a former Teagasc chairman and a colleague of ‘the Doc’ in AFT, quoted Paddy O’Keeffe remembering ‘the Doc’ as having energy way beyond normal and having a capacity to manipulate the political system everywhere he could. I am sure that both of these characteristics were fully employed as ‘the Doc’ built up AFT from scratch, involving, as Michael Miley stated in the same publication, recruiting staff at “whirlwind speed” and acquiring land and buildings and developing state-of-the-art research facilities “at break-neck speed”. In the same publication T.K. Whittaker remarked of ‘the Doc’ that he was a shining light in an otherwise rather staid public service. It is said that ‘the Doc’ had a big influence on Whittaker’s Programme for Economic Expansion where there are umpteen references to the nutrient deficiency of Irish soils and to the potential of Irish agriculture once these deficiencies were overcome.

‘The Doc’ brought unique vision to the development of AFT’s research programme. He ensured, for example, that the disciplines of rural sociology and economics were included from the beginning. This vision drew extensively on international experience, especially in France and the US. The AFT structures set up by ‘the Doc’ were closely modelled on INRA in France and the Land Grant Universities in the US.

From the earliest he encouraged young Irish graduates to travel to the US and New Zealand for postgraduate training. The experience and knowledge they gained played an important part in building world-class scientific expertise in AFT. He also encouraged staff in later years to help in the development of research services in Africa, Asia and the Mediterranean region. Teagasc continues to send many of its PhD students abroad for training and overseas agricultural development work continues to be viewed as an important part of our activities.

The final phase of ‘the Doc’s career was as Director of ACOT. Here at the age of 65, he displayed the same level of enthusiasm, energy and innovation to developing a national structure for advisory and training services as he had over 20 years earlier in setting up AFT.

In conclusion, I’d like to again quote Dr Tom O’Dwyer’s assessment that “Tom Walsh was indeed a giant figure in Irish agriculture for almost half a century and he did the State extraordinary service”. Today’s ceremony is a well-deserved recognition of Dr Tom Walsh’s contribution to Irish farming, Irish public life and the wider public good during a life  dedicated to public service. We shall not see his like again.

Before I finish, I wish to again acknowledge the presence here today of some of the extraordinary people who worked with ‘the Doc’ in those pioneering years in AFT and ACOT and to record my thanks also to the wonderful heritage of scholarship and innovation they have bequeathed to their successors in Teagasc.

I also want to recognise again the presence of members of Dr Walsh’s family and especially his daughter Rosemary. To them, he was a father and grandfather, the private man who delighted in the lives and achievements of his children and grandchildren. I am sure today that while being proud of him and his public achievements reflected in this plaque unveiling ceremony, you will also recall your own life with Tom Walsh, the family man; the man who came from humble beginnings not far from here, but went on to making a difference in not just your lives, but in the lives of generations of Irish farmers and rural people. That legacy continues today. And as ‘the Doc’ would have said on frequent occasions we still have ‘a job of work’ to do.

I would like finally to thank all of the following who made this occasion possible:

Mayor of Wexford, Councillor Tony Dempsey

John Carley, Director of Services, and his staff in Wexford Co Co

Dr Norman McMillan and Dr Con O’Rourke from the National Committee for Science & Engineering Commemorative Plaques

Teagasc colleagues in Johnstown Castle and Head Office, especially Dr Lance O’Brien.

[1] Growing Knowledge, edited by Michael Miley.