Head Bug | Purdue Entomology Beyond the Borders: The Early Years

I’m sitting in the airport at Chicago O’Hare waiting for a flight to Beijing, China as I put the finishing touches on this article about Purdue Entomology overseas. There is no doubt about our interest and commitment to international cooperation and development as a department. We have been involved in scientific exchanges, engaged in international development, recruited international students and staff, and promoted and led study abroad programs for decades. About a third of our undergraduates get overseas at least once while at Purdue – among the highest rates in the College. We have trained graduate students from most continents and seen waves of representatives from Europe, Africa, Central and South America, and Asia in the past 50 years. Currently a third of our graduate students come from outside the US from such destinations as Brazil (2), China (2), Colombia (2), Ecuador (1), Egypt (2), France (1), Guatemala (1), Honduras (1), India (2), Iran (1), and Ireland (1). Even our staff is cosmopolitan in make-up and origin with representatives from Afghanistan (1), Australia (1), Canada (3), Cuba (1), Egypt (1), Iran (1), and Japan (1).

Since I have more to talk about here than I can fit into a single article, I’ll start with an historical overview of our early activities, and take a look at the relationship between the cold war, the rise in US international development assistance, and our response as a department through the 1970s. I’ll pick-up from the 1980s in my next article.

There is very little information or evidence of international activities in the early years of the department. Not counting alumni who fought overseas with the military, most of our international efforts have relatively recent roots. The first record I could find of any kind of international adventure was a trip JJ Davis made to Europe as president of the Entomological Society of America (and official delegate of President Herbert Hoover) to the Fifth International Congress of Entomology in Paris, France in 1932. JJ spent two months in Europe on that trip and returned in 1958 to attend the Second International Pest Control Conference in Vienna, Austria.

B.E. Montgomery may have been the first staff member to do research overseas and take sabbatical leave when he visited New Zealand in 1949-50 to work on bumblebees and clover seed production. In 1953 Leland Chandler probably hosted the first international group to visit the department for specialized training when a team of 40 European agricultural administrators traveled to West Lafayette for several weeks to learn about modern pest control. Glen Lehker got involved with international extension as a technical advisor for the US government to develop an extension program for the Pakistani government in 1958-60. He also served as a consultant to the governments of Japan, Thailand and India during that same period.

Right after WWII, Purdue like most public universities in the U.S., focused on meeting the new demand placed by returning soldiers seeking an education on the GI Bill. It wasn’t until after this spurt of growth in the 1950s, coupled with the emerging “red menace” characterized by the cold war that the seeds of our modern international efforts took hold. John Osmun was part of a delegation of scientists from Land Grant universities that traveled to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1959 to search for biological control agents. His group was one of the first scientific delegations to visit the Eastern Block following the descent of the Iron Curtain across Europe. Starting from Moscow, his team visited Siberia, and the border of India among other locations before returning to Moscow. As he recalls, they found the fly parasitoids they wanted, and carried live material back to the US to start a colony. He also remembers a very cool and suspicious reception. His entourage was under constant surveillance including an official government escort when they traveled, an undercover tail when they were not accompanied by an escort, and bugged hotel rooms.

John’s delegation was in the Soviet Union the same time vice president Richard Nixon showed up in Moscow to open the American National Exhibition in late July, and witnessed in person the famous Kitchen Debates between Nixon and Khrushchev about the relative strengths and values of each other’s economic systems. John found the Soviets much more receptive and willing to interact after the debates. He returned some years later in the 1960s for a visit to Leningrad (Saint Petersburg today) and Moscow, and found a much more open and receptive Soviet Union.

This visit probably had some scientific merit, but it certainly reflected the global cold war chess game underway around the world at the time. The growing demand for humanitarian, and development assistance around the world during this period spurred a growth in new international opportunities mostly financed by the US government and embraced by many US universities. The Congressional Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 established the US Agency for International Development (AID) as a separate program for non-military development assistance as an outgrowth of the Marshall Plan in the 1940s and the Mutual Security Act in the 1950s. International travel to scientific meetings also expanded greatly with the advent of the jet age which made this kind of travel quicker and more routine, if not less expensive.

Glen Lehker continued as a consultant for AID on international extension projects in Pakistan, Turkey, Iran in 1962-63, but the next staff member to make a big splash in the international arena was J. D. “Don” Paschke who got involved first in foreign exploration for natural enemies of cereal leaf beetle in Europe in 1964-66, then took what may be the second sabbatical leave by anyone in the department when he spent 1968-69 at St. Cross College at Oxford University in England. Don Paschke used these experiences a decade later to get Purdue and the department involved in the new AID Collaborative Research Support Program (CRSP) - more about that in the next column.

Our international activities in the 1970s pushed new boundaries and created new opportunities. In addition to consultancies and travel to scientific meetings, Entomology staff got involved in reviewing international projects, planning new programs, and engaging in long-term development projects. This set the stage for the great expansion in international cooperation that occurred in the 1980s. The work on soybeans in Brazil was a technical assistance project that involved Ag scientists from the private sector, USDA, Purdue University, Ohio State University, University of Wisconsin, and University of Arizona, and spanned more than two decades. In 1973 Purdue received a two year $9 million contract from AID to transfer improved soybean production technology to Brazil working with the Federal University of Viçosa.

Leland Chandler served as a consultant to the project, but later moved to Goiania in Goias, Brazil in 1975 to work on a Purdue/EMBRAPA contract from AID as a bean entomologist at the National Center for Rice and Bean Research (Leland would never return to the department after visiting then moving to Brazil - he was replaced by Mark Deyrup who was on staff from 1977 to 1982). The soybean tech transfer effort would later become controversial because of the perception the US government had effectively created an international competitor to the US soybean market. There is no doubt that US agronomic and genetic assistance helped improve traditional soybean production, and provided a basis for subsequent scientific advancements, but it was Brazilian scientists trained in the US that made the scientific advancements that expanded non-traditional soybean production to the cerrados in Brazil.

A number of faculty hired after WWII took advantage of the international opportunities that emerged during the 1960s and 1970s. This created a culture of acknowledgement and appreciation for overseas activities that we still benefit from today. Subsequent generations of faculty hired since the 1970s have continued this tradition, and significantly expanded our commitment and involvement in international cooperation and development. I’ll pick-up the story about our international activities and accomplishments during the past 30 years in my next article.