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Founders of Environmental Biophysics Series: John Monteith

We interviewed Gaylon Campbell, Ph.D. about his association with one of the fathers of environmental biophysics, John Monteith.

John Lennox Monteith

John Lennox Monteith,

Who was John Monteith?  

John Monteith was a professor at the University of Nottingham in England and one of the founders of modern environmental biophysics.  He pioneered the application of physical principles in the study of how plants and animals interact with their immediate environment.  He started his career at Rothamsted Experimental Station in Harpenden, England and was hired as professor at Nottingham in the early 1970’s.  He went on to spend time at the International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in India.  He published a textbook that has been a foundation for Environmental Biophysics, called Principles of Environmental Physics.   He was elected a member of the Royal Society of London, which is the highest scientific distinction a person can receive in the UK.   He was also a member of the Royal Meteorological Society and was its president in 1978.  These societies are both sponsored by the crown, and he told me on the occasion that he was installed as the president of the Royal Meteorological Society, the queen attended and he sat by her at dinner.  He is known for the Penman-Monteith equation that has become the basis for guidelines for estimating irrigation water requirements used by the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations).

How did you meet him?

As an undergraduate, I knew of John because I worked for a professor at Utah State University (Sterling Taylor), who was measuring water potential in soil using thermocouple psychrometers. I was keenly interested in the subject, so Dr. Taylor gave me a paper on thermocouple psychrometers to read, published in 1958 by Monteith and Owen, written while John was at Rothamsted.   John’s work there was influential in developing instrumentation which formed the foundation for Wescor, METER, and several other companies.

When Prof. Monteith’s book came out, it was pretty exciting for me, because it had everything in it that I was trying to teach as a professor of Soil Science.  I wrote to John in 1977 inquiring about the possibility of doing a sabbatical there, and he wrote back immediately and arranged for us to come.  Amazingly, he and his technician met our big family at Heathrow airport and loaded up the whole crew, including our many duffel bags, into a university minibus.  A couple of our bags were missing, and John picked them up from the railway station in Nottingham and delivered them to us the next day.  I have often marveled that such a busy and important man would take the time to care for us like that.

Yellow Sunflower

A sunflower field in Karnataka, India

What was he like as a colleague?

He was a humble man in a lot of ways.  After he passed away, one of his colleagues wrote in and told about some of the experiences he’d had with John in India.  India has a pretty hierarchical society, and it’s not uncommon for somebody who is in a position of authority to take advantage of that.  John was in charge of one of the big groups within ICRISAT, and the thing that impressed his colleague was that whoever came into John’s office was treated with great respect, whether it was the cleaning person or the lab technician.  If they had come to see him, they got the same treatment and the same respect that the director of the lab got.

We worked on a lot of projects together, but the proposal we submitted that was funded was one on improving thermocouple psychometry.  I wrote up the paper, but he had written the proposal and provided the funding for the work.  I put him down as an author on the paper, and when I got ready to submit it, he went over the paper just as if he were an author and then crossed his name out.  He said he hadn’t contributed enough.  Well, he contributed way more than most authors do, but he had a set of standards that he expected himself to meet and his contributions to that paper hadn’t met those standards. He was pretty amazing that way.

How did he get to be a part of the Penman-Monteith Equation?

Penman was head of the research group at Rothamsted Experimental Station which Monteith joined, following graduation. Penman was already an established researcher by the time Monteith got there, and the Penman equation was already well known. But, Monteith worked with that equation, and in my opinion, improved it substantially. He never wanted to take credit for that. He always claimed that Penman already understood the things he had added, and he never did call it a Penman-Monteith equation, always referring to it as the Penman equation. But I have never read things of Penman’s that indicated that he had anywhere near the depth of understanding of the equation that Monteith had. To my way of thinking, it’s completely appropriate that his name is associated with it.

What was John’s secret to accomplishing all he did, and how can scientists today emulate his meaningful career?  

His gift was the gift of clear thinking. I gave a talk about him a while ago entitled “Try a Straight Line First.” John hated the complexity of modern computer models for crop growth because he couldn’t easily see the end from the beginning in those models.  He had the ability to look at a problem, no matter how complex, and just reach in and grab the essence of that problem and show it to you.  He used to talk about Occam’s Razor and not multiplying complexity. Einstein was supposed to have said, “Everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler.”  John was always able to find a simple way to look at problems.  It may have been a complex process to get there, but once he was done, you had something that you could manipulate.  I think simplicity and uncluttered thinking would be the thing to emulate.

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One Comment Post a comment
  1. Youngryel Ryu #

    Thanks for this fantastic interview! I love this.

    February 21, 2015

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