This article is about a brilliant scientist who is retiring from CIAT after working as a plant breeder in the tropical forages program for 37 years. On several occasions I begged John Williams Miles to give me an appointment so I could interview him, but his answer was always no.
I met him twice walking through the halls of the Center, but his reaction was shy and reserved. I consider that he is a timid man who has created a barrier of protection from journalists because he does not like to brag about his professional achievements.
Given the necessity of preparing a profile of an “absent” subject who could not be interviewed, his colleagues and friends shared their anecdotes and perspectives of Dr. Miles, thus supporting me with valuable information to construct this biographical sketch which, in the end, is a compendium of data about what remains unknown about him.
Dr. Miles is a person who, rather than come out and say what his accomplishments are, prefers to keep them anonymous, to maintain a “low profile.” He is a gentleman, and injustice touches him deeply. He feels a need to be coherent in his way of thinking, speaking, and acting; and his principles oblige him to do so.Valheria Castiblanco
A scientist and dreamer
John Miles was born in the state of California in the United States of America, and arrived in Colombia to stay in 1973. He worked as a plant breeder at ICA (Instituto Colombiano Agropecuario [Colombian Agricultural Institute]), where he remained for a few years before coming to CIAT.
Like a good researcher, he is studious, rigorous, a great reader and dreamer. Charles Darwin is his main touchstone. His commitment to research was focused on the development of new varieties of grasses of the genus Brachiaria so that they would be more productive, more resistant to pests and diseases, and more adapted to a climate in constant change.
After sorting out problems such as the genetic and reproductive incompatibilities that these grasses present, he managed to construct an appropriate improvement scheme to overcome these barriers and thus help the farmers improve the production of meat and milk, and in that way increase their income.
In Latin America, these grasses have been widely adopted, thus generating great economic benefits for the producers.Luis Miguel Hernández
Likewise, and thanks to the collegial work with other teams in the Program (physiology, entomology, and nutrition), he succeeded in developing varieties that optimize cattle feeding, such as Mulato, Mulato II, Caimán, Cobra, and others. With this it was possible to go from having one cow on every two hectares to grazing up to eight cows on the same area.
“Scientific rigor, integrity, principles, intellectually stimulating, and stubborn are the words that would be used to describe my friendship with John,” added Joe Tohme, director of the agrobiodiversity research area at CIAT.
These hybrids have high resistance to multiple known pests, among which are the spittlebug, drought, and floods. They are also characterized by their high nutritional value, their greater production of biomass, and their adequate adaptation to acid soils.
“Miles achieved, through plant breeding, better grasses for the development of livestock in Latin America by means of small and continuous genetic changes in the grasses to obtain improved varieties for eco-efficient agriculture. All this is supported by the principles of his great teacher, Charles Darwin,” affirmed Guillermo Sotelo, a biologist with an emphasis in entomology from Universidad del Valle.
As boss and teacher
He is a coherent human being with his form of thinking, speaking, and acting, who put his principles into practice in defense of the planet. For example, he stopped using his personal car out of respect for the environment.
“He has been an open mentor and he has passed on to me many of his tricks as a plant breeder. For example, his planning of the experiments, his strategy for the management of the field, which has inspired me to do a closer follow-up of all the materials,” added Valheria Castiblanco.
During the various talks with his students, he kept his watch in his hand to require punctuality, he did not pardon even one second of lateness. This was the cause of much annoyance with his subordinates or with other people of the institution, no matter the hierarchy.
A great planner of his work, demanding in matters of responsibilities, and meticulous. The best coach of all the projects. Present, acting in each project, and with each member of his team.Michael Peters
Since his desire was always to live in Colombia, Miles first thought he would make his retirement home in the beautiful town of Mompox (Bolívar), but it was not possible. Today his retirement home is in Boyacá.
A great driver, he has driven to various cities, enjoying the culture of each site he visited, with his hat on backwards, with which he showed his “relaxed” state of mind. His colleagues called him a “Colombianologist” for his deep knowledge of the history, geography, and economy of Colombia.
His main pleasures
In some talks of a social nature, he declared himself to be an admirer of Jorge Eliecer Gaitán. In spite of the fact that his musical tastes are varied, he has a special place in his heart for Colombian music, including the traditional vallenatos, especially those of Alejo Durán, with “Fidelina” and “la cachucha bacana” being two of his favorites.
Radio is his favorite mode of communication, and during the trips he made in the CIAT bus, he listened to his favorite station, Radio Nacional de Colombia.
Within Colombian literature, he showed a special appreciation for the coastal writer, David Sánchez Juliao. One of the stories he most enjoyed was “El Pachanga.”
Dear John, thanks again on behalf of the entire CIAT community for your great scientific contributions during a long and productive career at the Center. You may be remembered for leading for more than 3 decades a great team of researchers improving Brachiaria to develop apomictic hybrids for the tropics. Which has been one of the most significant CIAT impacts in the tropics. A huge thank you for that. But, you have also shown a very resilient profile since over the years you have become a reference for younger generations which may think that research can be done quickly. So, when one of the fathers of the early CIAT ‘golden’ generation of researchers retires one wonders first what else are you going to do? And second how would CIAT cope with that gap! Please keep in touch and a sincere ‘abrazo’ from me. I am proud that you mentioned recently that in one of our informal ‘meetings’ looking down to brachiarias for more than half hour that perhaps that was the longest meeting you have ever had with a DG during your CIAT tenure…! Mucha suerte. Ruben.Ruben Echeverría
There will always be much more to say about Dr. Miles, but his modesty gets in the way. This is a simple homage for the great work that he carried out during all these years of research at CIAT and, as mentioned by Dr. Idupulapati Rao, former Head of CIAT’s Plant Nutrition and Physiology Laboratory, “John Miles will always be remembered by his friends and colleagues for being a practical researcher, with high rigor in experimental design, and for carrying out a synthesis of the research results.”
10 things you didn’t know about Dr. Miles
• On Tuesdays he makes multi-grain bread for his daily lunch. It is his main food and medicine, which he makes by hand with ingredients of good quality and high nutritional value.
• He does not own a cell phone.
• He works 24/7 looking after his grasses, including weekends and holidays.
• Beans are his favorite food.
• He is a great admirer of the beauty of the Colombian woman.
• For breakfast he enjoyed the rib soup from the “long table” food hall, in the town where he stayed with his work team.
• Coffee and ají (chili peppers) occupy an important place in his cuisine. The first is his companion during working hours and the second at lunch time, considering it as the best condiment. Powdered ají, good and hot, is his favorite.
• He has a great friendship with Alberto Durán, producer, owner of Finca Santana, between Puerto López and Puerto Gaitán. He likes to visit him because he always learns something new.
• His favorite spot to enjoy an Águila or Club Colombia beer is any small town store, sitting on a sack of rice or maize, in the company of the shopkeeper and the local folks who have come in to do their shopping, with whom he engages in pleasant conversations. With many of them he has formed beautiful friendships and they recognize him as the “gringo” or “the blue-eyed monkey.”
Luis Miguel Hernández
José Antonio Arana Salazar