Personal tools
You are here: Home » Topics » History of Agrometeorology » John Monteith – obituary for INSAM (International Society for Agricultural Meteorology)
INSAM Navigation

John Monteith – obituary for INSAM (International Society for Agricultural Meteorology)

Last modified September 07, 2012 11:19

It was with great sadness that we learned that Professor John Lennox Monteith FRS, FRSE (JLM as he was fondly known to everyone who worked with him) passed away peacefully on 20 July 2012 at the age of 82.

John Monteith – obituary for INSAM (International Society for Agricultural Meteorology)

Professor John Lennox Monteith

It was with great sadness that we learned that Professor John Lennox Monteith FRS, FRSE (JLM as he was fondly known to everyone who worked with him) passed away peacefully on 20 July 2012 at the age of 82. JLM led the Environmental Science section of the former Division of Plant and Environmental Science at the University of Nottingham between 1967-1986. In 1987 he became Director of the Resource Management Program at the International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Hyderabad, India, where he served until 1991. On his return to Edinburgh, he was invited to become Senior Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology at Penicuik, Scotland.


Everyone who worked directly with John or in association with his research groups appreciated his immense intellect, humanity, humility, humour and people management skills. There was always the entirely critically fair and non-aggressive “carrot and stick” approach that “you are doing well but here is how to do even better”. His encouragement and motivational skills ensured that many of those who experienced his extraordinary aura achieved international recognition for their research and teaching skills.


It was an enormous privilege and learning experience to work with John and see how he led his group at Nottingham and ICRISAT.  John and Elsa’s hospitality and support for visiting staff and students at both Sutton Bonington and ICRISAT campuses were renowned and created a highly effective research and social environment for the multinational members of his research communities. We remember well the sumptuous, relaxed and extremely humorous parties in the gardens of John and Elsa’s homes in Sutton Bonington and Hyderabad.


John pioneered the application of physical principles in the study of how plants and animals interact with their immediate environment, or microclimate. In a career spanning over half a century, he is perhaps best known for the Penman-Monteith equation that has become the basis for guidelines for estimating irrigation water requirements used by FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1971 and of Edinburgh in 1972. In addition, he was a Fellow (1951) and Honorary Fellow (1997) of the Royal Meteorological Society, Fellow (1966) of the Institute of Physics, Fellow (1976) of the Institute of Biology, and served as president of the Royal Meteorological Society between 1978-1980. He was awarded the honour of Doctorate of Science by the University of Edinburgh in 1989. During his career he served on many national and international scientific committees and on the editorial boards of prominent scientific publications.


Born in September 1929 in Fairlie, Ayrshire, John was the only child of the Reverend John and Margaret Lennox Monteith and began his schooling at Paisley Grammar School before the family moved to Edinburgh when he was eleven. His father, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, died shortly afterwards. From a very early age, John showed innate scientific curiosity, encouraged by family friends who supplied him with electricity and chemistry sets. He was fond of practical jokes and experimenting with hazardous chemicals acquired from a local scientific supply shop.


A strong all-rounder at the pre-eminent George Heriot’s School, Edinburgh, and a keen participant in amateur dramatics and music, he was nevertheless propelled towards a future career in either physics or chemistry – biology being out of the question given his perceived inability to draw specimens! On leaving George Heriot’s, he studied Physics at Edinburgh University and particularly enjoyed lectures by the distinguished meteorologist, James Paton. Graduating with First Class honours, he sought opportunities in agricultural aspects of meteorology, recognising the chance to contribute to the major societal challenges of sustainable food production, while also escaping the confines of a laboratory.


Embarking on postgraduate research at Imperial College, Howard Penman, from the Rothamsted Experimental Station in Harpenden, encouraged him to focus on the science of dew formation. Dew had been identified as a potentially important precursor for plant fungal infections, but it remained unclear what weather conditions were necessary for dew to form, and hence it was difficult anticipate when damage was most likely to occur. His investigations required the development of novel and highly sensitive micrometeorological instruments for the measurement of dew fall, humidity and energy fluxes. Using a method of analysis that would characterise many of his future papers, he recognised that the balance of incoming and outgoing energy at ground level determined the source of the dew (i.e. soil or atmosphere) and the amount that could be formed.


In 1954 John moved to Rothamsted Experimental Station as a Scientific Officer and began working under Penman, who was carrying out seminal research into how variation in weather conditions affected soil moisture. Penman had developed a method to predict the rate of evaporation from wet surfaces, but this did not take account of the complicating effects that vegetation imposed on water loss. By harnessing the analogy of electrical resistance, John showed how to account for surface conductance of water, and produced the Penman-Monteith equation that more correctly accounted for wind and surface effects. The approach was subsequently adapted to model the behaviour of any natural system involving mass or energy exchange in fields ranging from animal energetics to pollutant deposition. While at Rothamsted, John also made, in collaboration with Geza Szeicz, some of the world’s first measurements of carbon dioxide exchange (CO2) between the land surface and the atmosphere.


In 1967 John was appointed to the newly-created Chair of Environmental Physics at the School of Agriculture, Sutton Bonington, a faculty of the University of Nottingham. The discipline of Environmental Physics as a defined field of study really became established with the publication of “Principles of Environmental Physics” in 1973, later editions of which were written in collaboration with his colleague Mike Unsworth. With funding from the Oversees Development Agency, his growing team established a unique set of large microclimate-controlled greenhouses which allowed realistic field-scale assessments of the growth of crops from the semi-arid tropics under different environmental conditions. JLM became increasingly interested in the factors determining crop growth and yield, and eventually spent a six month sabbatical at NASA in Maryland, USA, developing approaches to assess crop production from space using remote sensing. The Nottingham group continued to develop micrometeorological instruments for measuring physical attributes of the environment, collaborating with two major suppliers of state-of-the-art environmental research instrumentation for Britain and Europe, Delta-T Devices, and Campbell Scientific Ltd, for whom John was a co-founder. John and his colleagues at Nottingham developed diffusion porometers to measure the stomatal conductance of plants and tube solarimeters to measure shortwave solar radiation. Much of the progress in environmental physics made in the past 30 years has resulted directly from the availability of good field instrumentation provided by these companies. Although JLM had not previously considered teaching, he took very naturally to the task. Many students and colleagues had their careers shaped and altered by their associations with him, and many now hold important positions in organisations across the world.


John had a multi-faceted personality and a wide range of interests. He was an accomplished organist, and for many years served the communities of Sutton Bonington Methodist Church and Mayfield Salisbury Church, Edinburgh in this capacity. In Hyderabad, he played the organ at the St John’s Church in Secunderabad. He had a deep love of the countryside, and of wilderness areas, particularly the Scottish Highlands where he enjoyed hill-walking. He was a keen photographer, and gardener.


A devoted husband, father and grandfather, John is survived by his wife, Elsa, his five children, David, Graham, Donald, Alison and Andrew, and by eleven grandchildren.


(The above was largely based on a draft prepared by his family for the Scotsman newspaper)



Tributes to JLM


To honour JLM’s distinguished career which spanned nearly five decades and has largely defined the discipline of environmental physics, a special symposium was held at the American Society of Agronomy at Indianapolis in 1996. A selection of the oral papers was published in a special issue of the Agricultural and Forest Meteorology volume 104 (2000). The symposium featured contributions in the areas of evapotranspiration, plant water relations, carbon assimilation and allocation and atmospheric transport, as well as applications in the areas of agroforestry and plant breeding. It is significant that JLM had substantial influence on the science of each of these areas as well as others. There is much to be gained by applying the principles and methods of environmental physics to practical problems in agriculture, forestry and environment.


For example, John Monteith also contributed to our understanding of the interaction between homeothermic (warm-blooded) animals and their environment. He recognised at an early stage that the rates of heat and evaporative water loss, hence thermal strain, could be predicted from the physics of heat transfer provided insulation was known. He described the relevant transfer processes in Principles of Environmental Physics in 1973, by which time he was a regular participant at meetings of the Climatic Physiology Group (UK). During the same year he hosted (with LE Mount) a highly successful Easter School at Nottingham, entitled Heat Loss from Animals and Man. His subsequent publications in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London and elsewhere provided insight into the insulation provided by animal coats (e.g. fleece) in relation to air movement and the gradients of temperature and humidity. Much of this work related to the shelter requirements of livestock. His involvement with the Child Health Department (Queen’s Medical Centre, Nottingham) helped to specify the thermal requirements of newborn infants in incubators.


It is impossible to quantify JLM’s influence on science through his impact on the lives and minds of the people who have worked with him, but the tribute section below provides a glimpse. Another vital contribution of John and his group in Nottingham is the development of robust field equipment such as the renowned tube solarimeters and diffusion porometers, which were commercialised by Delta-T Devices at Burwell, near Cambridge. JLM became one of the founders of Campbell Scientific Ltd, another major supplier of instrumentation for environmental physics research. JLM continued his influence on instrumentation at ICRISAT and beyond at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF),Nairobi, Kenya.



Gaylon Campbell, Decagon Devices, former Professor of Soils, Washington State University

John certainly did a lot for many of the branches of the science we work in, but in my mind, he was so much more than that.  He was one of the greatest scientists I have known, but was never arrogant or puffed up.  He was a wonderful example for us all.   I have a lot of memories of our interactions with John on a personal level. 


When we first went to England for sabbatical in 1977, John and Dick Saffell met us at Heathrow with a van.  We had six children and many duffel bags.  They took us to our home in Castle Donington, but two duffel bags hadn't made the plane.  John picked them up from the railway station in Nottingham the next day and delivered them to us.  I have often marveled that such a busy and important man would take the time to care for us like that.

We had a great time on sabbatical, and were well cared for.  It was an extremely productive time.  I remember one trip when John and I went to Rothamsted for a visit.  We were returning that night on the M1.  It was raining hard, but traffic was still not slowing down.  As we passed lorries, the spray from the tires would make it almost impossible to see.  I think John was feeling a little concern for our safety.  He said something like "We had better take some care - we could set back environmental physics by many years."

Our family did a second sabbatical at Sutton Bonington in 1984.  That time John did a sabbatical too.  We rented their home, Hillcroft, and I sat in John's office.  I was sad that John wasn't there, but still benefited a lot from all he did to make us comfortable.  There was a fish pond in the back garden at Hillcroft.  John gave instructions that the ice should be broken on the pond in the winter so the fish could get enough oxygen.  Our kids took those instructions seriously, but managed to poke holes in the pond liner when they were breaking the ice.  While I was back in England a year or so later I spent a day helping John replace the liner.  I was sorry we had caused the problem, but surely enjoyed the day I got to spend with him working on the pond.  


Colin Black, Professor of Environmental Plant Physiology, University of Nottingham

I clearly recall my first meeting JLM in 1974 when he was on the interview panel for a lectureship in the Plant Science Division at Nottingham; not only did he ask me several astute and penetrating scientific questions during the formal interview, but he also asked over lunch for my views on Scottish nationalism with a big cheeky grin, presumably to check my political views were not too radical! After coming to Nottingham, I worked with his Tropical Crops Research unit for many years and was immensely impressed by his amazing intellect, excellent sense of humour, love of practical jokes and outstanding person-management skills; he brought out the very best in people in a firm but gentle way. Many of his protégés went on to develop own highly successful research careers. Together they have made immense contributions to the advancement of knowledge and development of practical applications in such diverse areas as agrometeorology, soil science, plant biology and heat exchange by animals and humans, which have helped to global enhance food security and sustainability. His enormous international reputation is reflected by the fact that his published work has been cited almost 7000 times, and continues to be cited over 250 times each year even though he had been retired for many years, clearly demonstrating the enduring quality of his work.


John and Elsa were immensely compassionate and generous, and went to huge lengths to support everyone who was associated with JLM in any way, both professionally and socially. Nothing was too much trouble, no matter how busy JLM was, and the hospitality which John and Elsa provided at their homes at Sutton Bonington and Hyderabad was legendary. JLM threw himself into extra-curricular activities with enthusiasm and humour, including bullock cart racing during the annual sports day at ICRISAT and providing spoof research equipment when introducing new researchers at the parties he organised at the start of each academic year at Sutton Bonington – excellent ice-breakers which he carried off with real panache!


Everyone who was associated with JLM in any capacity recalls him with enormous respect and affection.

David Butler, Head of Cocoa Research Unit, University of West Indies ( rtd)
Those of us who have been fortunate enough to interact with John Monteith can appreciate that he had a profound influence on the lives of many people. As Professor of Environmental Physics at Sutton Bonington his undergraduate classes were small, so there was ample opportunity for interaction with students, and resulted in an ideal learning environment. However, the strength of his Department was a focus on cutting edge research with a strong postgraduate component.


John's academic stature and international reputation were outstanding, and yet it's hard to imagine a more approachable and down-to-earth person. Who else would be happy to explain the principles of calibrating an infra-red sensor by drawing in the sand on a beach in Brazil? His clear, concise and precise writing style had an indelible effect on many, both editors and scientists alike. Not only is he the author of numerous prestigious journal articles, he must be responsible for the high quality of an immeasurable number of articles from his colleagues due to his direct or indirect inputs.


His management style was appreciated by everybody. He fully understood the value of praise in motivating staff and he would not cramp the style of others, but encourage them to give of their best and to improve their performance. He will be sorely missed, but his legacy of high standards will continue through his teaching and encouragement of those who knew him.


Chin Ong,World Agroforestry Centre (rtd)

When I was offered a postdoctoral fellowship by JLM to join the ODA group in 1978 I went to seek the advice of my head of department on whether I should look for a permanent job instead. He said the permanent job can wait and anyone would give his right arm to work with a great scientist like JLM for a few years. That was the best advice I received from the late John L Harper, FRS, CBE and winner of the Darwin Medal. The few years became six years in Sutton Bonington and then another six at ICRISAT. These were the best years of my professional career. JLM encouraged and assisted many of us to develop field equipment if none existed and provided excellent electronic and technical support. I remember how Dick Saffell and Bruce Marshall established one of the most advanced microclimate-controlled glasshouse suites in the world in the late 1970s using the now primitive PDP-11 data-logger at Nottingham. Hourly leaf extension rates and carbon dioxide levels were monitored automatically. Many of these instruments were field-tested at ICRISAT and even manufactured there by ICRISAT staff trained by Dick Saffell and others. Subsequently, an Indian electronics engineer from ICRISAT, Ahmed Khan, transferred his instrumentation know-how to the World Agroforestry Centre, Nairobi and began mass production of sap flow equipment to measure transpiration. These prototypes were subsequently refined and commercialised by ICT International, Australia.


We learned not just about the principles of environmental physics but also why so many scientists would willingly give their right arms to be in his group. I was amazed that someone as busy as him would even offer to assist me in the putting on the shade cloth for the short daylength in the tropical glasshouses each night. Tales of JLM’s generosity and humility became legendary in both Nottingham and ICRISAT. I remember my ICRISAT driver and his wife were so surprised that JLM was the first visitor to see him in hospital after his head-on crash. Similarly, the Indian cleaners and office-boys were shocked to be invited to share his birthday cake in his office, in preference to the senior staff. His incredible influence has extended way beyond Nottingham and ICRISAT. Like his mentor, Howard Penman, he will also be remembered for the hilarious Christmas sketches and it is fitting that their best memorial is the Penman-Monteith equation. Hopefully, our various tributes will enlighten those who were ‘too young’ to remember the great man behind the great scientist.


Peter Cooper, University of Reading & ICRISAT (rtd)

What to say about such a pioneer and such an inspiring man? Others, I am sure, will pay tribute to his outstanding contributions to the science of environmental physics and phrases such as ‘an intellectual giant’ will be totally appropriate. He was. But over and above that, I will remember John for both his kindness and support to me and my family and for the simple elegance with which he put his thoughts on paper.


We first came to know John and Elsa when, in 1978, we arrived at Sutton Bonington for a year to write the final report of seven years of research that had been undertaken within a maize agronomy/crop physiology project at Kitale in Western Kenya. Putting aside the enormous encouragement and help that John gave me in that particular task, he (and always Elsa with him) showed such kindness to us all and became a firm favourite with our three young children. “Professor Monteith’ proved to be too much of a mouthful for our youngest who eventually managed ‘Propeller Teeth’ and from then onwards, within our family at least, that remained his aka!


A few years later in 1980, John joined us for two weeks at ICARDA in Syria having taken up the challenge of providing leadership to an international workshop which had the purpose of providing guidance to the Center’s newly established research on soil water and nutrients. The meeting was attended by many of the world’s leading (and in some cases quite opinionated!) scientists and no one but John could have so successfully distilled out the key messages and challenges. Plant and Soil devoted a special edition to the papers presented at that meeting and John’s epilogue (Themes and Variations, Plant and Soil 58, 305-309, 1981) remains to this day one of the most elegant and insightful pieces of writing that I know. Starting with the reminder that nearly 2000 years ago the Romans had fully realized that ‘annus fructum fert, non tellus’, John concluded with a magnificent quote of Sir John Lawes (1850) for ‘the great patron societies’ to continue supporting such research at ICARDA. In the intervening 4 pages lies a brilliant and succinct distillation of the principles and challenges of agriculture in dry areas. More than 30 years on, it has not been bettered nor has its relevance diminished.


Few scientists will leave behind so many concrete and lasting contributions to the environmental sciences and so many affectionate memories for his colleagues as John has done. A great and kind man who will be sorely missed. Our thoughts are with Elsa and her family.


Alastair McArthur, University of South Pacific (rtd)

I first met John Monteith almost exactly 40 years ago when I visited the University of Nottingham as a raw graduate. Little did I know that this meeting would change my life. He offered me a scholarship, supervised my PhD, and then recruited me onto the academic staff in Environmental Physics. Being Scottish with a Physics degree may have helped me a bit. We worked closely together over 15 years, and remained in contact afterwards. John’s outstanding contributions to science have been summarised above. Here, I wish to pay tribute to the man who became my mentor and friend.

John was a devoted husband to Elsa and loving father to their five children. The importance of his family was evident to all who knew him and they provided the platform on which his distinguished career was built. He and Elsa were generous hosts to many visitors and colleagues in their home Hillcroft. He loved music, photography, gardening and family holidays in the Scottish Highlands. At work, his appearance was always smart, unlike his desktop which on occasion became cluttered - he once remarked that it provided “a good example of the Second Law of Thermodynamics”. His manners were impeccable, and he had the ability to put others at ease in his company. His voice was crisp and clear, and betrayed some of his Scottish background. It was never raised. He found humour in many situations, even when his twelve year old daughter on placing a home-made rain gauge for a school project at an inappropriate location beside their house remarked “Go away dad, what do you know about it?” His lectures on Scientific Writing were rewarding, as he took delight in writing in a clear and precise manner. His lectures to students were stimulating, punctuated with photographs of frosts, fogs etc. which he had taken to illustrate a particular phenomenon. He was impressive in the conference theatre. In the scientific community he was respected for his sharp analytical mind and the ability to find simple yet elegant ways to describe complex processes.


John had a beneficial impact on the lives of many research students and academic colleagues. He shaped careers through example and a tremendous generosity of spirit: he provided guidance on the quest for scientific knowledge, assistance with the interpretation of measurements, and constructive feedback on drafts of theses and a host of manuscripts. Yet, he rarely added his name to the authorship of a published paper. Many of his students have gone on to hold key scientific positions at home and abroad, and it was pleasing to meet many again at a Thanksgiving Service held earlier this month in Edinburgh.


Geoff Squire, Hutton Research Institute, Scotland

In 1972 I had an interview for a postdoctoral research fellowship in Africa, based at Sutton Bonington, which turned out to be an informal exchange of views and experiences with JLM. He wanted to know about my background in biology and my intentions to learn something more about the physical environment. That was it! Tooling up at SB for a few months involved mastering things like self-made, black and white solarimeters and machines whose springs you had to keep fixing.  Environmental Physics was a bit short of indoor facilities, but the post-docs seemed quite content with one metre of bench space. In Africa, there was no pressure from base – JLM answered letters on sundry matters like the optimum design for housing thermocouples or thermistors under a hot sun – but otherwise I was left to get on with it. Two whole years to examine the links between solar radiation, temperature and saturation deficit and their effects on whole-plant processes! Back at SB, the rare combination of physicists and crop biologists completely transformed my views on how plants worked.


A year or two later, the ODA group formed in Environmental Physics through a large grant titled ‘Microclimatology in Tropical Agriculture’. Among the best things in the group were the long, intense sessions in which a few of us examined some intractable problem. The ‘big leaf’ was still a workable concept in many instances, but failed if the crop stands were fragmented or highly variable. One particular issue was the variation among individuals in a group - why do some individuals develop early, why some later – it was more than just local environment. To make progress, the variation had to be characterised formally and no one had yet done that. After a couple of hours one day, out popped the impossibly simple notion that, if the average behaviour of a group of plants could be represented by a simple rate-temperature relation, then individual cohorts (early, middle, late) should each be distinguished by unique values of the parameters of that relation, e.g. base temperature and slope. It worked. This approach has been used repeatedly since then and is still relevant. I’m sure the particular breakthrough, at the instant it happened, was made by JLM, but he never claimed ownership. He was clear it was an advance by the group. The ODA group was informal, and to a degree anti-establishment, but the scientific output was prodigious and the influence still pervades.


Dick Saffell, Campbell Scientific Ltd, UK

I remember a summer party at John and Elsa's house on College Road, Sutton Bonington to which his department had all been invited and most attended. John had fixed up a hose pipe with a sprinkler head on the end and tied it up in one of the trees in his garden. As a few chosen guests arrived, he would ask them to investigate an infection by insects or disease and lead them to the tree, whereupon he would make his way to the tap and turn it on. Luckily most of his staff knew John well enough to know his sense of humour and soon worked out why he had left them looking up into the tree and so avoided a soaking! Previous victims enjoyed the sight of the next potential victim almost getting a soaking.


I worked for John for almost 12 years, latterly on the ODA controlled environment glasshouse project during which we grew tropical crops such as groundnut and sorghum. On the same project were Geoff Squire, Bruce Marshall, Chin Ong, Lester Simmonds, Sayed Azam-Ali and Robin Matthews. I remember the tremendous sense of working towards a common goal and the ability of John to steer the group with his own style of motivation and encouragement. John was well respected by all of his staff, partly because he used to visit each one regularly to see how they were getting on. He had an air of authority which was achieved through his ability to communicate and his standing in the scientific community. You could say that we all looked up to him (although that may have been due to the low seat he would invite you to sit on just in front of his desk which was about a foot lower than his own chair!). 


My wife Clare also worked for a short time on the ODA project and we were overjoyed when John offered to play the organ at our wedding. He later informed us that it was also his birthday on that same day.  A great man, father figure, natural born leader, an inspiration, there are many adjectives that could be used to describe John Monteith.


Mannava Sivakumar, Director, Climate Prediction and Adaptation, World Meteorological Organization

I first came across Prof. Monteith’s book on “Principles of Environmental Physics” when I was a graduate student in Agricultural Meteorology at the Iowa State University from 1973 to 1977. I marveled at the beautiful narration of the various aspects of environmental physics in the book. Later in 1975, I benefitted from the two volumes he edited on “Vegetation and the Atmosphere” which described the principles in Volume 1 and case studies in Volume 2. These three books have always been a great source of reference throughout my professional career


When I joined ICRISAT as an agroclimatologist in 1977, I had the wonderful opportunity of meeting Prof. Monteith in person because the University of Nottingham just then started a collaborative project with ICRISAT and Peter Gregory, Geoff Squire and Chin Ong were conducting field experiments under the overall guidance of Prof. Monteith. Later in 1978, I visited the University of Nottingham and Prof. Monteith, despite his busy schedule, personally gave me a tour of various facilities in the School of Agriculture and I was really touched by his simplicity and the warm friendship. The micrometeorological research being carried out at the University of Nottingham was outstanding.


In 1984, I moved to work at the ICRISAT Sahelian Center (ISC) in Niamey, Niger and when Prof. Monteith joined ICRISAT as the Director of the Resource Management Programme (RMP) in 1987, I had the opportunity of close interactions with him on several occasions. Prof. Monteith brought a fresh approach to research in RMP in ICRISAT through his emphasis on quantitative analysis of crop growth and resource capture and inspired scores of scientists in Patancheru with his innovative ideas and guidance. I personally benefitted from his suggestions when he visited ISC.


Prof. Monteith, as the greatest scientist in micrometeorology and as a very simple and affectionate person, served as a role model for many of us who had the opportunity of interacting personally with him.


Sayed Azam-Ali, Crops for the Future, University of Nottingham, Malaysia

I had the privilege to be a PhD student, postdoc and employee of John Lennox Monteith. He never referred to me as anything other than his `colleague’; I almost always referred to him as `Prof.’, but to others he was simply `JLM’. Respect for him was universal, be it from staff, students, eminent international scientists, family or friends. His courtesy was unaffected and his management style served as a role model. Despite his world-leading reputation, JLM was mild mannered, never using his reputation to brow beat or dazzle, preferring humour to make his point. In conferences and seminars, his questioning of speakers aimed to elucidate new understanding rather than demonstrate his own authority or brilliance. His editing of student theses and research papers was invariably prompt; I don’t know how he found time to correct material so quickly and so comprehensively, but his editing was never cursory.


JLM established an entire discipline, `Environmental Physics’ that propelled the School of Agriculture at Sutton Bonington onto the world stage of science in the 1970s and 1980s. His vision was such that, whilst supervising my PhD on dryland cereals in sub-Saharan Africa, he was also directing another student to design incubators for premature babies. JLM developed principles that integrated biological complexity through realistic assumptions that crossed disciplinary boundaries and provided understanding. His development of the original `Penman’ equation allowed, for the first time, evaporation from crop canopies to be estimated and half a century later, the `Penman-Monteith’ equation remains a standard estimate of evapotranspiration throughout the world. If there was one thing that irked him, it was misuse of the English language. He gave occasional lectures on scientific writing that included guidance on the difference between `precision’ and `accuracy,’ correct use of units and terms and simplification of language as a means of communication not obfuscation. He loved to play with words and his excruciating puns, presaged by a sly grin, provoked groans all round. The `Google Scholar’ strapline `on the shoulders of giants’ aptly describes how John Monteith allowed biologists to sit on his shoulders and peer over the scientific horizon with a clearer vision than theirs alone. JLM was a scientific giant who was well ahead of time and technology.



Sue Hainsworth, former editor at ICRISAT

John Monteith was not only a great scientist, he had a huge effect on all who met him. He taught us so many things other than science – how to look at sunsets and to sing and stage really good shows – who can forget "Old Man Swindale had a Farm" or the Monteith Christmas poetry evenings? In addition, he taught me many basic points of logical science reporting, spelling and grammar that I use to this day. And he made sure we knew how to enjoy whatever we were doing, a huge bonus!


Those of us who worked at ICRISAT with John and Elsa were very lucky, they were halcyon days that we are happy to remember.



Compiled by Chin Ong and Colin Black

20 August 2012



  1. John and his ODA group, Sutton Bonington, 1978.

  2. The Monteith’s summer garden party, Sutton Bonington, 1979.

  3. John and colleagues at ICRISAT Guesthouse, 1985.

  4. John and his RMP team, Hyderabad, 1990.

  5. Gaylon and Ahmed Khan testing sap flow, Nairobi, 1991.

  6. A photograph that was taken of Prof. John Monteith and a group of other ET specialists at a 1990 'experts' meeting at FAO headquarters in Rome. It was at that meeting that the form and basis for the FAO-56 report on 'Guidelines for Calculating Evapotranspiration' were formulated. Dr. Monteith was instrumental in guiding the basis for the report, and of course, he was delighted (in an elegant, humble sort of way) to see the Penman-Monteith method recognized and selected as the most suitable method for the ET reference".

Document Actions
  • Share on Facebook
  • Print this