A personal appreciation
With the untimely death of Miguel Rodríguez Hernández, Cuban science lost one of Latin America's most influential mycologists and a great expert in the sooty moulds.
After a childhood spent in the declining years of the Batista régime, Miguel grew up in the exciting and heady environment which was revolutionary Havana in the 1960s. His education took him to the Universidad de la Habana, where he graduated from the Biology Faculty in 1972, going on to the Universidad Central de Las Villas as Lecturer in Plant Pathology in the School of Agronomy (1973-1974), before returning to Havana in 1974 to take up a post at the National Botanic Garden where he remained for the rest of his career. Because the National Botanic Garden is part of the Universidad de la Habana, he was also Lecturer in Mycology in the Biology Faculty of the University from 1974 until his death, supervising the production of seven theses during that period.
Only a few years before he joined it, the National Botanic Garden had moved from the urban noise and chaos it previously endured to its present lovely site chosen, it is said, by Fidel himself on the advice of the great German botanist Johannes Bisse, following a hectic day in a jeep together reviewing possible locations. At the garden's 30th birthday celebrations, the story was recounted how Fidel had admitted that even a revolutionary who wanted immediate results had to recognize that trees take time to grow. It is therefore necessary to imagine how Miguel must have arrived at a place unkempt and unprepared, without the lovely stands of palms which grace it today.
As a result of the prevailing political map in the 1970s and 1980s, botany and mycology in Cuba were being shaped largely by scientists from the old East Germany. They made a good job of it too, and the names of Kreisel and Arnold in particular are associated with a school which produced a generation of enthusiastic Cuban mycologists with a gratifyingly meticulous attention for detail. Miguel exemplified that school. As a capable and energetic scientist he rapidly rose, becoming head of the Mycology Laboratory and, by 1982, head of the Botany Department, a position he occupied until 1987. In 1984, he was awarded the degree of Doctor en Ciencias Biológicas and was appointed Profesor Auxiliar in the Universidad de la Habana. In 1987, he moved to the posts of Deputy Director General and Scientific Director in the Botanic Garden, which he occupied until his death.
Much of Miguel's work and scientific contacts during the 1980s were directed towards the old Soviet bloc countries. This was a time when exchanges within that bloc were easily made. Eminent mycologists such as Sasha Kovalenko, Margarita Bondartseva and the late Vera Holubová-Jechová visited and collected in Cuba, and in return, Miguel and his colleagues spent fruitful time in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. In Miguel's case, this took the form of a visit to the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena in 1989.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s signalled the end of the old trade brokered by Che Guevara of Cuban sugar for Soviet oil and that, combined with the USA's tightening blockade of the country, ushered in the so-called "special period", a time of enormous hardship for Cubans. At around this time, Miguel was fulfilling an active professional life as a member of the Scientific Council of the National Botanic Garden, as Secretary of the Editorial Board of the Revista del Jardín Botánico Nacional de Cuba, and as a member of the Latin American Supervisory Board of the Revista Iberoamericana de Micología. Each of these, on their own, might have satisfied the energy of many an ordinary person, but Miguel was not ordinary.
With other far-sighted individuals throughout Latin America, he began to think of a continent-wide mycological society. Following animated debate at the fourth International Mycological Congress in Regensburg (1989) which he was himself unable to attend, this society was established and called the Asociación Latinoamericana de Micología. It fell to him to be the first President (1990-1993), and to organize the first Congreso Latinoamericano de Micología in Havana in 1993 (prudently, he organized two national exhibitions of fungi at the National Botanic Garden in 1991 and 1993 as a practice run for this great event). Deciding to start a society may not be easy, but it's much harder to ensure that the new society then survives and grows. Arguably Miguel's greatest contribution to mycology was to agree to see this through with a second period of office as President (1993-1996), while his greatest achievement was to go on to organize a second congress for the new Association, again in Havana, in 1996. Given the conditions prevailing in Cuba at the time, that must have been really tough.
By then, he had already participated in the third, fourth and fifth Congresos Mexicanos de Micología (1988, 1991, 1994), the fifth Congreso Latinoamericano de Botánica in Havana (1990) and the second Congreso Nacional de Micología in Spain (1994). He had also spent more time in Germany, again at the University of Jena (1992), and in Mexico, in the Instituto de Botánica, University of Guadalajara (1988, 1991, 1994) and the Instituto de Ecología, Xalapa (1994). Furthermore he became a member of the Executive Committee of the International Mycological Association and served for years as Cuba's link scientist with the former International Mycological Institute. As a result, he was growing in confidence, and enjoyed more and more of those international contacts necessary to make the second Congreso Latinoamericano de Micología an even greater success than the first.
At that point, chance took me to Cuba. At short notice, Prof. David Hawksworth was unable to attend the Congress as keynote speaker and, being already in Latin America, I was redirected to deputize for him. I arrived at the old terminal of Havana Airport - it's all now been rebuilt - full of nervous anticipation of what adventures might wait for me in this strange and, so I believed, dangerous country. I was met by a dapper wiry gentleman simply but tidily dressed, with a neat moustache and a friendly face. A first and happy memory of a man who was to become a great friend. If he was surprised that his keynote speaker was dressed in jeans and carrying a rucksack, he was too polite to say at the time.
The Congress was well and widely attended. I only learned many years later how each morning, when the sessions had kicked in, Miguel and Mayra Camino (who was Congress Secretary) would gravitate to the bar, having already put in hours of work, to share a beer and cigarette. On one particularly difficult morning, Miguel had driven out of Havana in his ancient one-time white Moskvich car, known to all as "La Paloma", and scoured the countryside for a couple of pigs because the Congress had run out of meat! To the inexperienced eyes of an outsider, the Congress looked like a swan gliding down stream. Like the vigorous paddling below the waterline, none of this frantic work behind the scenes was evident.
After the Congress, I was privileged to accompany Miguel and the eminent Mexican mycologist Gaston Guzmán on a short excursion to the west of Cuba. During that trip, I mentioned that it might be possible to find funding for collaboration through the UK's Darwin Initiative. In reply, Miguel's face expressed a complex mixture of polite scepticism and willingness to try, and with that a new phase in his career began. From 1997 onwards, along with Julio Mena Portales, he was the Cuban co-ordinator of a series of international projects between Cuba and the UK, together with the national level projects which mirrored this collaboration. These projects sought to provide the material resources lacking for Cuban biodiversity scientists, and to help Cuban mycology to retain its eminent position on the world's scientific stage.
Miguel was the right man for this job. A reliable, predictable, positive, sound but cunning negotiator - I used to tease him that he was a fox - he had the additional attractive feature for me as a foreigner that he always spoke slowly, very clearly, using a basic vocabulary and simple constructions. It was evidence of a profound understanding of how to communicate: a skill which so many otherwise intelligent people too often lack. That ability to communicate was important because, particularly at first, there was a frightening number of ways in which this collaboration with an outsider could be misconstrued. In planning sessions, invariably over a beer somewhere in the centre of Havana, he followed the philosophy that there are many ways to kill a cat, and his solutions were always imaginitive, and always well thought out.
Under his benign supervision, the collaboration throve. Between 1997 and 2003, he successfully negotiated the receipt of over 100 computers plus printers, scanners, microscopes, cameras, books, scientific journals and other equipment, donated for biodiversity work in Cuba, and made sure they were distributed to appropriate destinations. A major objective of the collaboration was computerization of data relating to Caribbean fungi. Miguel understood the value of this, and there was something in his character which was satisfied by the steady methodical work it involved. He was also able to communicate to his colleagues a sense of urgency about this work, with the happy result of large amounts of high quality data being keyboarded. The principal outcome was the monumental volume, Fungi of the Caribbean, an annotated checklist, of which he was one of three editors. He was justifiably enormously proud of this book which rapidly became known among his colleagues as the "ladrillo rojo" or "red brick". Other outcomes were a national strategy for conservation of fungi in Cuba, and a huge website and CD providing electronic distribution maps of Caribbean fungi. The "red brick" won the Universidad de la Habana's award for the best scientific book published in 2002, while the strategy attracted the 2004 prize of the Cuban Academy of Sciences, awarded posthumously.
Collaboration also brought new opportunities for travel. His prudent advice about use of collaborative funds meant he and 11 other Cuban mycologists were able to participate in the third Congreso Latinoamericano de Micología in Caracas (1999), and he and four other Cuban mycologists were able to participate in the fourth Congreso Latinoamericano de Micología in Xalapa (2002). During that visit to Mexico he was honoured with Freedom of the City of Xalapa in recognition of his contributions to science: an award which gave him the greatest pleasure. Miguel also visited the UK three times. In March 1998 he came to work in the IMI herbarium. During that visit I organized a short excursion to the Northumberland coast and Lindisfarne, so that he could enjoy bracing and snow-laden north-easterly winds on the questionable basis that people like to experience things unavailable in their own country. He returned to the UK in 2000 to speak at the Tropical Mycology Symposium organized by the British Mycological Society in Liverpool. As a lifelong Beatles fan, he was thrilled to be in their home city, especially when he found himself billeted opposite "Penny Lane". During that visit he escaped briefly to enjoy a Guinness in the Cavern Club where the Beatles first played, commenting that this was something he could never have imagined himself achieving.
His final visit to the UK in 2002 was something of an adventure. Realizing that the only way to ensure a Cuban presence at the seventh International Mycological Congress in Oslo was by cutting every possible cost, he and Julio Mena Portales managed to get as far as London where they joined me and Tania Andrianova from Ukraine in an old land-rover to drive to the Norwegian capital via the Newcastle-Kristiansand ferry. Never having been on a large ship before, Miguel explored the various decks and facilities with the delight of a little boy. He took in the midnight vista of passing North Sea oil production platforms with a smile on his face and a glass of wine in his hand, and he endured the rigours of camping knowing that the payoff in terms of mountains and fjords and, in particular, the breathtaking views from Preikistolen more than compensated for any discomforts. His scientific presentations in Oslo were a triumph.
Returning through Britain, he spent another week helping to decommission, dismantle and pack a scanning electron microscope generously donated for Cuban biodiversity science. Again, it was necessary to keep costs to a minimum, and Miguel displayed another unexpected talent in his ability to scavenge pieces of expanded polystyrene from supermarkets, and wood from building sites. Two large if ramshackle cases were duly constructed, one to house the console, the other the unit producing the electron beam. These were promptly named "King" and "Kong". We were busy writing in large letters a description of the contents of each on their sides when a colleague pointed out (and this was around the time of the "Iraq supergun" scandal in Britain) that "electron gun for Cuba" in large letters might be misconstrued by some over-zealous investigating customs officer. Those words were rapidly replaced with a more bland description! The visit ended characteristically in a restaurant, celebrating the arrival of his first grandchild, a source of great joy to him. He returned to Cuba and, shortly after, during a routine check, the first evidence of the illness which was to kill him was found.
It's always the case that the energetic are also complex, and their initiative can be expressed in many ways. Miguel was gentlemanly, able and energetic, and all this combined to make him a singularly attractive character: certainly there were enough women who thought so. Since he also held the genes for initiative in trumps, this cocktail sometimes led him into dangerous waters. He was undoubtedly popular, widely respected, a ready source of good advice, and a man to whom the exigencies of life under blockade had taught the values of patience and humour: considerable patience was needed to keep the old Moskvich on the road, and humour could be expressed at any moment, but for me most notably on the occasion when to his astonishment his ancient car earned him a speeding ticket. We may lament his too early passing, but there is much joy in his memory. [Dave Minter]
Biographies & obituaries. Inoculum 55 (4): 43, 2004 Lists. Publications. Taxa. Kirk & Ansell form of name: Mig. Rodr.