The year was 1950, and a young researcher at the University of Colorado published his first scientific paper, Physaria vitulifera, A Tetraploid Species of Cruciferae (which, incidentally, is still available online).
And so began a 70-year span of almost 300 scientific publications authored by Dr. James Brewbaker, who came to the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa a few years later, stayed with the college for the next six decades, and was active long after retirement.
“Dr. B,” as he was affectionately called by students and colleagues, passed away on March 15th.
An incredibly productive and innovative scientist in plant breeding, Dr. Brewbaker won numerous national and international awards for research excellence. He was instrumental in creating the tropical sweet corn seed industry that did not exist when he began, but is now a major world industry. For example, his “Hawaiian Supersweet #9,” is a standard variety in Thailand, the world’s largest producer of canned corn. Many of his varieties can be found across Hawai‘i and internationally, including the well-known “Kahuku Sweet Corn” – all of them noted for resistance to tropical diseases and insects.
He also mentored 52 Masters and Ph.D. students in his capacity at UH, many of whom would go on to leadership roles throughout industry and academia, notes Michael Kantar of the Dept. of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences. “Dr. Brewbaker’s curiosity and enthusiasm for knowledge was infectious and remained so his entire life. He was a highly inspiring and effective instructor – never deterred despite more than 70 years in research.”
But not solely an academic, his driving ambition was to leverage science as a means to alleviate widespread hunger around the globe. His work always centered on the farmer and people, and how advancements should benefit the lives of the community. In fact, his final publication, a 2020 update of his seminal work Agricultural Genetics, was purposely a digital version, and completely free, in order to facilitate its dissemination in developing countries. Today, Dr. Brewbaker is widely credited for improving the diets of people throughout the tropics and subtropics.
While his pioneering work on tropical maize breeding is his most well-known work, he also had a great interest in tree breeding, also with big impacts far beyond our shores. For example, he bred the tropical legume tree Leucaena. This legume fixes nitrogen, improves the soil, and is a rapidly growing species whose wood can be used for fuel, forage, and as a building material. His improvements to Leucaena have bettered the lives of millions in the developing world.
Dr. Brewbaker’s research programs impacted the people at UH, not only with knowledge and education, but also in how they could live their daily lives and spend their careers. Throughout the global plant breeding community, he was known for being generous to his colleagues and students, helping them reach their professional goals with uncommon support.
He also cared deeply about the institutions of science and higher learning, being committed to his alma mater, Cornell U., as well his professional home. Upon retirement, he donated $1M to the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa to continue work in plant breeding and global food security.
“Dr. Brewbaker’s influence lives on through the students he trained and who made their own mark in other countries like Japan, Taiwan, Korea and China,” says Nick Comerford, CTAHR Dean. “He will be missed, but his influence is eternal.”