Dr Greg I Johnson

Interview Recording

Part one – 19 Oct 2023

Part two – 19 Oct 2023

Part three – 1 Feb 2024

Part four – 1 Feb 2024


Interview Transcript

Interview Transcript Greg I Johnson 19 Oct 2023 by Roslyn Burge

Interview Transcript Greg I Johnson 1 Feb 2024 by Roslyn Burge




Dr Greg Johnson was interviewed at his home in Canberra, where he has lived since 1995. Born in Maryborough, Queensland (where earlier generations of his family had lived and worked since the 1850s – his parents and three of four grandparents were born there). He recalled his forebear, John Mann, a Chinese man from Amoy now Xiamen in Fujian province) who arrived in Australia in c. 1853 and worked as an indentured shepherd and bushman in Degilbo (near Biggenden) and later a market gardener and fruit seller in Maryborough. That Chinese heritage was not known by his family until about 2000. In Maryborough his father worked in the engineering shipbuilders, Walkers Limited, until he injured his hand in machinery, retrained and the family moved around Queensland. After completing a Bachelor in Agricultural Science (Hons) at the University of Queensland in 1974.

Greg continued to work in Queensland (vegetable pathology – Brisbane, tobacco and peanut pathologist – Mareeba, postharvest pathologist – Brisbane, and CSIRO Division of Horticulture in Brisbane) before moving in 1995 to Canberra.

Awarded a Queensland government bonded scholarship and his early interest in gardening, Greg completed a B. Agricultural Science (Hons) at the University of Queensland in 1973, and with few jobs for plant breeders, Greg majored in plant pathology. He described the career options for men and women graduates extending beyond agriculture in teaching, farm management – the advantage of doing agriculture is that it is a very broad course and you can specialise in many things. And those that specialised in economics or farm management had opportunities to move into the broader areas of business as well.

He found pleasure in studying and research, in the minutiae of detail. . . and being thoroughly aware of the literature to make sure that what you’re doing hasn’t been done by somebody else.

Greg describes working at Indooroopilly at the science labs of the (then) Queensland Department of Primary Industries (QDPI) where half the plant pathologists in the state were based … and his supervisor who had been among the first generations of plant pathologists in Queensland: you inherit both some of the knowledge and experience of your predecessor, and you carry the story forward. So I guess that’s why it feels like a dynasty. Greg recalled the first Director of Plant Pathology, Jack Simmonds, whose mother, Rose Simmonds, was a photographer and a collection of her works had been shown at the National Gallery of Australia. Greg recalled this group of people with interests in science and natural history.

I suppose that that group of people were … university people, they were people of science. … And that just fitted me … that suited me … The things that most interested me had been when we did some biology and in, in science so growing up looking at vegetation, they were the things that excited me. I had a friend in high school whose parents managed a sugarcane farm that was owned by Vera Scarth-Johnson and Vera Scarth-Johnson was both a botanist and a botanical artist and even though I had very little to do with her, that was the first person I had encountered in my life who had lived a life of science[1].

 Greg moved to Mareeba in 1977, living in Kurunda and back to Mareeba for almost a decade, working as a tobacco and peanut pathologist.

Plant Pathology is the study of plant diseases and diseases are one of the major causes of food loss, forest destruction and damage to the environment and so the study of plant pathology is very important, but perhaps under-recognised. … the era that I lived in at that time was one of change. … Jack Simmonds, who was the first Government Pathologist used to ride a horse when he visited farmers, he would go by train somewhere up into the country then ride by horse … go by horse[2].

Influencing his interest in gardening were magazines of the time … Earth Garden, and later he refers to Your Garden.

The 1970s/80s when Greg was appointed tobacco pathologist in Mareeba, it was the end of one era. He recalled the lack of modern innovations – no air conditioning in cars, no departmental telephone calls unless it was a national emergency, and he recalled his boss would write a memo to say he was visiting Greg rather than telephone. Plant specimens would occasionally be sent in a wicker basket on the train, and the basket had to be sent back.

My immediate boss would ride a bicycle when he was visiting farms (in the 1920s). (no) air conditioning in our cars, and I didn’t get air conditioning in my government vehicle until I made the case to the Director and it was only because of the plant specimens we were collecting that justified having air conditioning in your vehicle. Didn’t matter about the humans who had to drive several hours, but the plant specimens, of course, were more important.

One of the main tobacco diseases was downy mildew – Greg did some significant research on controlling the disease and from his previous work in Brisbane he had built up a knowledge- memory of the causes of many crop diseases for the plant disease diagnostic service he was responsible for. He spoke of the trust built up between farmers and departmental staff.

Around this time Greg joined the Society for Growing Australian Plants (now the Australian Plant Society). He had married and living in Kuranda which was a more alternative lifestyle and with his wife had a stall at the markets on Sundays.

Whilst living in Queensland Greg completed his Masters in Agricultural Science and in the late 1980s moved to Brisbane as postharvest pathologist. This was another time of change with the diminution of the tobacco industry and those farmers turning to mango growing, continuing long relationships.

Greg explains the rationale for the reduction in tobacco production, and the need for improved transport systems for postharvest care of produce, particularly mangoes. At the same time high value export markets (such as the Japanese market) had disinfestation technology to eradicate fruit fly yet there were other requirements to improve marketability:

We had quality assurance which was to improve the whole chain from farm to market to try and ensure that the fruit or vegetables were of the best quality when they got to their destination.

The various systems approaches are now worldwide – labour efficiencies, product care, Value Chain Management; and are of keen interest to supermarkets. Greg describes Freshcare (aiming to get produce in the best possible state to the consumer and to minimise losses) and his responsibilities in mangoes and other tropical fruit focussed on the development of disease management approaches.

It is a huge business. … so often people talk about … ‘we need to improve yields, we need to get more production and therefore we need to invest in production research’ … but for many commodities, 30% of the product is lost after harvest … that’s where the profit is. … even today, you will read many accounts of research and they always forget about postharvest.

Plant Pathology collaboration was not only within Australia, but internationally through ACIAR, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (an initiative of the Fraser government). When Greg joined ACIAR in 1995 he commissioned and managed research in postharvest technologies for fruit and vegetables, and for grains, as well as supporting collaborations relating to better management of cocoa and coffee problems postharvest in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and other work in the Pacific.

Your Garden
In his teens Greg had ordered plants by mail and had been reading Your Garden – in the 1980s he responded to an advertisement in the Courier Mail for a new correspondent for the sub- tropics and wrote articles monthly – deepening his interest in gardening. Greg recalled his visit to Myall Park in western Queensland, developed by David Gordon, and writing about Gordon’s passion for collecting and growing Australian plants.

Growing up the magazines in the family were Woman’s Weekly, Sunday Mail – with gardening columns by Alan Seale and Ray Langdon (who was Greg’s lecturer in plant pathology at University) respectively. His father subscribed to Time and Life magazines, and Greg took Look and Learn. At high school, Greg also subscribed to the State Library of Queensland’s Extension service, which sent books of choice by train each week to Bundaberg where he lived 1960-1969.

Collecting early Australian gardening books became a keen interest – starting with Edna Walling, and influenced by Trisha Dixon’s writings; particularly appealing were Walling’s photography and her warm entertaining writing style.

Many of the books in my collection I’ve only ever seen once in thirty years, and they very rarely become available … often even thrown out because they’re not particularly very big, not in particularly good condition … (collecting became) an appendage to my interest in gardening generally, but also just an interest and fascination in what people wrote in those times.

Green is a colour: influenced by Walling’s writings and her cottage style, Greg created random stone paving in the entrance area of his new home and later a circular path in the front garden made with random pieces of sandstone. Green is a colour too and Walling’s successional plantings appealed to Greg.

Victor Crittenden’s collecting and his bibliography provided a reference for Greg’s collecting. Early Australian gardening books are now rare but he would attend university book fairs and now the internet makes it easier to know what book sellers have. Greg set out to purchase the books listed in Victor Crittenden’s Bibliography which lead to him compiling a number of talks about garden history for the AGHS. Richard Aitken’s Oxford Companion to Australian Gardens was also an inspiration and an important reference.

He also discusses the ambition of the Australian Garden History Society to meet the broad interests of members through its talks and garden visits, and the ACT Monaro Riverina Branch’s project for the AGHS 40th Anniversary to digitise early garden publications held by the National Library. Greg discussed his interest in The Handbook of Australian Horticulture by James (1892) and the Flora Australasica, by Sweet (1827); not only are the illustrations beautiful but the writing about the methodology of growing Australian plants is clear and simple.

Greg was also involved in the photographic competition during Covid as a means of engaging members. In 2016 the Branch had also organised and presented the national conference and though Greg was part of the committee organising the scientific program, he missed the first day because of other commitments. The Branch commissioned an interview with Cedric Bryant and Greg was very helpful in fostering that process. Asked about his four PowerPoint presentations to the Society (and other entities) the presentations may become a publication.

Greg has had a long involvement with the International Society for Plant Pathology … 17 years on the Executive and he discussed the most recent Congress in Lyon in France.

As a member of the Executive, I had lots of roles including providing advice about the scientific program and I, with some colleagues in Italy, organised the session on social media. We conducted a survey through our membership, because the International Society involves sixty national and regional societies, representing about 26,000 plant pathologists worldwide. We had about 800 people respond to our survey, we reported on the use of social media by plant pathologists and we had some talks relating to other aspects of social media as well.

He also discusses his own social media engagement and his Instagram account which is for him a visual diary.

Through the engagement of Greg and others, the International Society for Plant Pathology established the ISPP Resilience Bursary to help plant pathologists initially as a result of the war in Ukraine, but that has expanded to other countries, and has the support of the Polish Phytopathological Society and the Society of Turkish Phytopathology in implementation.[3] Speakers at the Lyon congress spoke about the challenges of saving seed collections and the destruction of germ plasm collections. Though urgent and important, the issue of plant pathology is rarely mentioned in the general media.

War … affects the research progress but it also can cause things such as damage to stored grain and, of course, you then have problems with fungal decay of the grain and also contamination of the grain by the mycotoxins, which are toxins produced by some fungi. But of course historically both plant pathologist and entomologists have been involved in past conflicts. For example, during the Second World War plant pathologists, entomologists from Australia served in Papua New Guinea and they were mainly involved in the malaria management campaign. And the first Director of Plant Pathology, Jack Simmonds, was the head of that group and my former boss was also involved in the malaria control campaign in Papua New Guinea.

At the Lyon Congress Greg was appointed a Fellow of the Society and he describes his response and the importance of the friendships made and the mentoring possible – and how inspiring it is to continue that role:

an honour and a privilege, because it’s recognising your contributions to the science of that discipline, but also the functioning of the Society. But I believe it’s also a responsibility because as a Fellow you should try to continue to serve that profession in ways that you can. I remember I went to a conference once and someone, one of the keynote speakers, said he used to be a plant pathologist and I thought a medical doctor would never say they used to be a doctor, you know, they’re a doctor for life. And I think in many professions we retain that interest and responsibility for our entire lives. I’m not going to stop looking at powdery mildew and knowing what it is or whatever.

He describes the ethos of working in international development: you’re there to do a job and you’ve always got to keep the focus on that. ACIAR was established in 1982 with a 10 year sunset clause, but it continued with bipartisan government support to foster and support international agricultural research.

In conclusion Greg describes his travels to explore gardens and the background to writing his article in Australian Garden History about the Danish garden, Sanderumgaard, and his visit to the garden of Gertrude Jekyll.

Through Greg’s interview the end of an era and collaboration are two recurring topics. In the 1970s when he worked in North Queensland it was the end of an era in the ways government departments functioned and engaged with technology in their day to day practice (rather than scientific practices). He also refers to the changing era when he undertook his PhD – working in the field and continuing to do his PhD about the topic without the requirement to travel overseas to study.

Collaboration locally as well as extensive international collaboration through ACIAR and ISPP, the International Society for Plant Pathology, which Greg helped guide from 1998 as Secretary of the Postharvest Pathology Committee to 2023 when he concluded his term as Past President; as well as the work of the Australian Garden History Society.

[1] cooktownandcapeyork.com/do/museums/natures-powerhouse


[2] appsnet.org/Awards/Simmonds.pdf

[3] Nine Plant Pathology Societies and numerous individuals have donated to the fund.