About the history of Plant Breeding at SAEES
Rabie Saunders was the first Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture as well as a professor of Genetics. He initiated the Natal breeding programme for the development of maize hybrids in 1947. In 1951, together with Arthur Rayner, he published Statistical Methods with Special Reference to Field Experiments (third and Revised edition), Science Bulletin No. 200. (Available from Antiqbook) This excellent but now out of print text is still an invaluable reference book for plant breeders, agronomists and silviculturists who carry out field trials.


Hans Gevers, a maize breeder in the Department of Agriculture’s Summer Grain Sub-Centre, based in the Rabie Saunders building, famously released the high lysine maize cultivars HL1 in 1979 and HL2 in 1982. The latter provided the maize industry with competitive yielding high lysine cultivars. Subsequent breeding advancements led to the development of opaque-2 hybrids (with high lysine content) that produced yields equal to the best normal commercial cultivars. Gevers was made an Honorary Professor in the then Faculty of Agriculture and after retiring from the Department of Agriculture, continued breeding opaque-2 maize hybrids under the auspices of his private breeding company Quality Seed (cc) which is based at Ukulinga and is still in operation.

Rob Melis initiated the first dry bean breeding programme for small scale farmers in KZN from 1981 to 1990. The programme was sponsored by the De Beers Chairmans’ Fund. The objective was to develop disease-resistant dry bean cultivars. This led to Melis establishing Pro-Seed in 1990, which is a private plant breeding business at Ukulinga research farm. For three decades Melis has released over 27 registered cultivars of dry bean, tomato and pepper. He is also an Associate Professor in the African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI) and plays an active role in supervising the training of PhD students conducting research on the breeding improvement of cassava, sweet potatoand several legume crops.


In 1984 Plant Breeding was first offered by the Department of Genetics as a major subject in the BSc Agric degree. In 1991 the Faculty of Agriculture established a new academic post in Plant Breeding (aligned to the Department of Genetics) to which Paul Shanahan was appointed. In 1993 Shanahan established a guaranteed curriculum in Plant Breeding which has formed the basis for the training of several graduates ever since.






Rob Melis



Mark Laing

Shanahan supervises the training of postgraduate students in a range of crop species including cassava, dry bean, maize, soybean, sugarcane, sunflower and sweet potato. He is also associated with the ACCI in the supervision of students. The ACCI was established at the University in 2001 under the Directorship of Professor Mark Laing. It has significantly boosted the profile of the Discipline of Plant Breeding at UKZN and has an established academic staff of four plant breeders, namely: Pangirayi Tongoona, Rob Melis, John Derera and Githri Mwangi. The disciplines of Genetics, Crop Science and Plant Breeding have made a significant contribution to the training of plant breeders in South Africa and Africa. Many of the graduates have developed illustrious careers as plant breeders, and given the quality of the training offered to current students, the discipline can look forward to continued success.         

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