by Erna Bennett | 15 May 1993

Erna Bennett

Next month, June 1993, the renowned Gatersleben genebank in the former East Germany will celebrate its 50th anniversary. One man will be missing from the festivities: Christian Lehmann, who devoted his life to genetic resources and the success of the genebank. For next month is also the first anniversary of Lehmann's unexpected death, which came at a time in his life when he was gearing up to work more closely with NGOs and community-based conservation initiatives. The following farewell was written for "Seedling" by Erna Bennett, also one of the greatest geneticists of this century and a revolutionary woman committed to people's control over genetic resources. Erna was a stone setter in the move to get a global genetic conservation scheme set up in the 1960s, but now works actively with NGOs all over the world to secure viable and equitable farmer based approaches. Christian was her personal friend and colleague, so it is only apt that Erna offers him our collective farewell.


Next 9-12 June, the Institute for Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research at Gatersleben in East Germany celebrates fifty years of distinguished scientific work. All those present on that occasion will be painfully conscious of the absence of one man whose work contributed so powerfully to Gatersleben's fame. For who can ever forget Christian Lehmann, leader of the Institute's genebank group, member of the Institute's staff almost from its first days, and who died almost exactly one year ago?

And yet it is most fitting that the first anniversary of his death should coincide in this way with the public celebration of the remarkable success of the Institute has was associated with for the whole of his working life. In a very real sense, Christian Lehmann will be present on this happy occasion, in his work and in his own striking contribution to Gatersleben's collective excellence. He died last 8 June, after a short illness and a life at Gatersleben which saw generations of outstanding and dedicated scientists leave an indelible mark -- as he too did -- on the work of this quite remarkable, if modest, Institute in the shadow of the Harz mountains.

Lehmann's legacy

Born on 13 January, 1926, he was the son of a school teacher in Schirgiswalde in what is now Saxonia. He entered the Martin Luther University in nearby Halle in 1947, studying agriculture, from which he graduated in 1950. He came to work at the Garterslebe Institute for Crop Plant Research, as it was then called, in 1948, while he was still a student in Halle. Christian first came to the staff of the Institute as a research assistant in 1950, working with the distinguished taxonomist Rudolf Mansfeld. Eventually, with Mansfeld, he published one of the first papers on the management of genebanks, which is still a model for those working with ex situ germplasm collections. It gradually assumed the characteristics of a "bible" for Gatersleben genebank staff and is still referred to by them as such.

While he was in charge of the germplasm collection -- which was a small one, by modern standards, of 10,000 accessions at the end of World War II -- it increased from 17,000 samples in 1956 to almost 69,000 when he retired in January 1991. Though not the world's largest, its excellence is world-renowned.

There is no doubt that the Institute at Gatersleben owes its survival of German reunification to the excellence which has always been a characteristic of its work. It has not only survived reunification. It has also won responsibility for plant genetic resources for all of Germany, probably a unique achievement for any East German institution.

In 1991 the Institute was at the verge of being scrapped as the reunification left it without political and financial support. The Bonn government's decision to classify the Institute for Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research at Gatersleben as a "blue list" institute -- financed jointly by the provincial government of Saxony and the federal government -- is certainly due to Bonn's recognition of the quite remarkable dedication of the Institute's staff, and the exceptional quality of the work that is done there, including that of the genebank under Christian Lehmann's leadership.

Many also believe that the federal government's decision was a result of the "Gatersleben Appeal" directed to it by many NGOs throughout the world who knew that no other research institute or genebank could adequately replace that at Gatersleben. It must be said that this is probably a good example of just much can be achieved when people's voices are raised to defend a just cause.

A loss for the NGO community

Christian Lehmann was deeply and personally concerned about the fate of the Gatersleben institute, and lived long enough to learn with immense relief that it had avoided the eclipse suffered by so many others in the German Democratic Republic in that long and traumatic period of reunification that seemed more like a conquest.

He was full of plans for continuing his work, and was genuinely enthused by the hope that he might be able to collaborate with the NGOs he had come to admire and respect. Those in the NGO community concerned with problems of conserving genetic diversity at the grassroots level were, for their part, looking forward to the exciting prospect of working with Christian Lehmann.

Certainly, he would have brought to such collaboration those same qualities of excellence that he had given to Gatersleben its almost legendary reputation. It was a reputation that rested firmly on the painstaking study of many interdependent though diverse disciplines -- genetics, taxonomy and plant breeding, and biochemistry and molecular biology in later years -- so as to reveal, in a remarkably coherent way, the extent and nature of taxonomic and genetic variability in cultivated plants. And most importantly, how this variability may be effectively utilised for the social good.

But Gatersleben's reputation rested also in the superb and near-optimal relationships that existed between breeders and farmers in the German Democratic Republic, which generated an almost ideal interaction between custodians and users of plant genetic diversity.

Christian Lehmann's death robs us of one of our generation's outstanding figures in the field of genetic conservation. We were looking forward to a new period of collaboration with him, which we know would have borne rich fruits.

In spite of his retirement, Christian still planned to continue his work and was engaged in an active correspondence with GRAIN and other NGOs, exploring the possibilities of our working together. Now, robbed of that possibility, we are the losers. So also is he, who took such immense pleasure from living. And so too are his family and friends who must face the difficult and lonely task of living without him.

He gave much to the world, but he still had much to offer. We mourn him.

Ave, Christian -- friend, comrade, brother. Hail and farewell.

Author: Erna Bennett