For those who have not already heard, we are sad to announce the passing of Martha (Martie) Wright on November 6th, 2023.   Martie was an integral and vital part of the plant tissue culture and biotechnology community, and of the Society for In Vitro Biology (SIVB), and we are honored to highlight those contributions.

Martha Wright and the Society for In Vitro Biology

Martie’s involvement in the plant tissue culture and agricultural biotechnology community was extensive.  Martie joined the society (then the TCA) in 1981 and quickly became involved.  She was a key member of the task force that helped to determine the change of the organization’s name from the Tissue Culture Association to the Society for In Vitro Biology which was approved in 1993.

During her busy life Martie was a huge contributor to the Plant Tissue Culture and Biotechnology community.  Her influence was key to establishing and expanding the Plant section in the TCA and later SIVB (see side box).

Martie was an integral part of the SIVB for over 40 years:
She joined the Society in 1981 and, over the years, held numerous positions including:
• Vice President of the History Society (years unknown)
• Collaborator with Dwight Tomes on the criteria for SIVB’s current Plant Fellow Award, now the SIVB Fellow Award.
• Vice Chair of the Plant Section (1986 – 1988)
• Chair of the Plant Section (1988 – 1990)
• Plant Division Representative to the TCA Council (1988 – 1990)
• Member of the Terminology Committee (1988 – 1994)
• An author of the 1990 terminology article on the Society’s website
• Board Member-at-Large (1990 – 1994)
• Publications Chair (1990 – 1996)
• Editor-in-Chief of the In Vitro Report (2001-2003)
• Convener of numerous symposia and contributed paper sessions.

Martie and Prst President, Mary Ann Lila at the 2010 In Vitro Biology Meeting

She held many roles as indicated in the side box, including chairing the plant section, serving on the board and as publications chair (see side box).   She identified new leaders in the scientific community and encouraged many to participate in the SIVB.  Lifetime Achievement Award recipients Ray Shillito and John Finer both acknowledged her effect on their careers either professionally and/or as part of the SIVB. 

She was a thought leader, and Dwight Tomes fondly remembers the many contributions of Martie in what he terms “this revolutionary group” – to quote “A salute to you Martie for the gift of being able to work with you for many years”. Martie received the Plant Fellow Award in June of 1998. She became an emeritus member in June of 2007, but remained in contact with the Society, attending meetings in 2007 and 2010 as well as contributing yearly to the SIVB Fund for the Future and the Michael E. Horn Endowment Fund. 

Martha Wright ‘s Lifetime of Achievements

After graduation from Lindenwood College (now Lindenwood University ) in 1962, Martie was hired as an Agricultural Research Scientist by Monsanto in St. Louis, Missouri, where she helped develop the paradigm-changing herbicide glyphosate.

Maud Hinchee, fellow scientist at Monsanto, summarized Martie’s influence throughout her career:  “She was a leader of people, and not just science.  Everyone looked to her for advice and direction, and she set an example for others in terms of her dedication to achieve successful research outcomes.  There were not many women in leadership roles at Monsanto at that time, and she proved it was possible for a woman to achieve advancement to a management role in the company.”

By 1982, Martie was a leader in Monsanto’s charge into agricultural crop biotechnology.  Martie herself was skilled in the science and artistry of plant tissue culture, as well as assembling motivated, productive teams.  The work she led on soybean regeneration was foundational towards development of genetically engineered soybean and cotton, which ultimately led to the production and commercialization of Monsanto’s glyphosate-tolerant plants, a significant milestone for the global agriculture community. 

Martha “Martie” Wright with June Bradlaw at the 2007 In Vitro Biology Meeting

Martie retired from Monsanto in the late 1980’s but her influence continued as she was immediately hired by Ciba-Geigy (later Ciba, Novartis, and Syngenta) in Research Triangle Park in North Carolina.  There she managed teams that developed improved soybean, corn, wheat, barley, and sunflower tissue culture methodologies. Most notably, she led the tissue culture team that produced event 176 Bt maize while at Ciba-Geigy via transformation of an elite inbred corn using the gene gun and immature embryos; something that is not broadly known or acknowledged.  This led work directly led to launch in 1998 of the first commercially available European Corn Borer resistant transgenic corn, marketed as Maximizer™.  ECB resistance revolutionized the production of corn and demonstrated clear advantages for the application of biotechnology in agriculture.   Ciba was merged with Northrop-King to form Novartis in 1996 which was incorporated into Syngenta in 2000.  Martie retired from Syngenta in 2001.

Ray worked with Martha for many years at Ciba-Geigy.  “My first experience with Martie was a conference call interview – we chatted for a long time, and it was fruitful in that she came to join us.  I loved working with Martie – she was just a joy to work with and had the best tissue culture hands I knew – I learnt a lot from her both professionally and personally.  We complimented each other – she was the steady one!”. All the while she continued to positively impact new leaders in the scientific community and brought many of them into the SIVB. Allan Wenck (Past-President) credits his involvement in the SIVB to Marie’s mentorship, support and encouragement.

Martie was an advocate of female empowerment both professionally and personally which was perhaps her biggest legacy. 

As Susan Jayne described: “Martie was a bright spot in the corporate agriculture biotechnology world, always providing a smile and calm demeanor, even when challenges or adversity arose. She understood what it took to develop a commercial product starting with a plant cell at a time when this simply wasn’t easily or routinely done. More importantly, she was a mentor to many scientists, in particular to women who did not pursue a PhD and was a strong advocate for diversity and advancement in the tissue culture profession.” As Martha Hill said: “Over the years there were a lot of us.  She always pushed us to do more and be more.”

Martie and Karen Launis at Martie’s 2001 retirement party.

Martie was always known to be supportive, fair, and forward-thinking, as Karen Launis remembers: “Martie took notice of me as an undergraduate washing glassware while working part time at Monsanto.  She swept me onto her team, introduced me to the plant sciences, mentored me through my graduation, demonstrated the flexibility and toughness needed to survive in a professional corporate environment, and confidently launched me into a fulfilling lifetime career with a competitor.  It would be an understatement to say I was thrilled when I heard she was coming to work and to join me at Ciba-Geigy.  She always made sure that her team members had professional opportunities, regardless of their job titles or degrees.  We worked together for nearly 20 years but were close personal friends as well.  Martie had some tough circumstances in her life, but she was resilient and modeled this on a daily basis.  My favorite memory, which I relate to often, is her motto “If you don’t like it, just wait, it will change”.

Perhaps her mentorship of others was Martie’s greatest legacy!

Submitted by Ray Shillito, Susan Jayne, Karen Launis, Martha Hill, Dwight Tomes, Allan Wenck and Maud Hinchee.

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