T. Ralph Robinson (1876-1967)
Thomas Ralph Robinson was born in 1876 and was a native of Syracuse, New York. An 1899 graduate of Syracuse University, he went to work for the USDA in 1901 focusing on plant physiology investigations through 1910, when he moved to Terra Ceia, Fla. with his wife to manage a citrus grove property at Terra Ceia Estates. It was there that he set up his headquarters to work on citrus breeding, returning to the USDA in 1917 to continue his work in breeding, selecting and commercializing the introduction of improved varieties of citrus and other subtropical fruits as part of a team of scientists that included Hall of Fame member Walter Tennyson Swingle, David Fairchild and H.J. Webber.
He was a key member of the team, which was led by Swingle, and they were among the earliest to experiment with cross-pollination in citrus to develop new varieties. This ushered in a new era of citrus breeding and new citrus varieties that is still making an impact today and was a revolution in citrus variety development. This may be best exemplified by paraphrasing a quotation from one of Swingle’s papers for the Florida State Horticultural Society: “From 1893 to 1942 tens of thousands of controlled crosses were made by the USDA team which included T. Ralph Robinson. No such array of known hybrids between so many citrus fruits and wild relatives has ever before been made in any country.” Results of these crosses included the citranges and citrumelos which are the foundation of our rootstocks today.
Among citrus scions, the capstone of this revolution was the creation of the tangelo by crossing Dancy Tangerine onto Duncan grapefruit. Robinson managed the testing sites at 25 different locations throughout the state – at a time when travel was an arduous ordeal – and was one of three authors on the seminal 1931 monograph which revealed Tangelos to the horticultural and scientific community. While Swingle went to California and the date industry, Robinson went on to champion the commercial production of tangelos to the Florida growers, creating a key component of the gift fruit shipping industry in the queen of the tangelos, the ‘Minneola,’ also known today as the Honeybell. In the last 30 years, over 1.2 million Minneola trees have been propagated in Florida. When combined with ‘Orlando,’ which is the second most successful Tangelo, there were approximately 2 million trees propagated. ‘Minneola’ remains one of the most delicious citrus varieties today, but the Orlando – although once widely grown in Florida – has now become a minor variety. However, a large proportion of mandarin hybrid varieties produced in the last century have included Orlando in their pedigree, including the Robinson tangerine – an early maturing fruit that was a cross between the Orlando tangelo and the Clementine tangerine which was named for him in 1964 by the USDA, whom he continued to collaborate with even after his retirement in 1940. Robinson passed away three years later in 1967.
While very impressive, Mr. Robinson’s efforts in citrus breeding do not tell the entire story of his contributions. He was one of the first scientists who pushed for quarantine of citrus entering the country, compelling the clean citrus budwood campaign which has immensely benefited our industries. He studied and widely reported on scion/rootstock interactions, advocating use of Cleo rootstock for tangelos and mandarin types in many situations. He was recognized as one of Florida’s leading experts on citrus variety identification and was active in the Florida State Horticultural Society, publishing many papers and actively participating in discussions that contributed to Florida’s horticultural industries. In addition, he served as president for the Florida State Horticultural Society in 1940 and ’41, before stepping down due to health reasons, and his biography is listed in “American Men of Science” and in “Who’s Who,” along with approximately 80 titles of papers he wrote on horticultural subjects.
He was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Society of Horticultural Science, the American Phytopathological Society, the American Society of Soil Bacteriology, the Botanical Society of Washington, D.C., the Delta Kappa Epsilon Fraternity and was an ex-director-at-large of the Florida Historical Society. In addition, Kiwanis International presented him with a special national citation for service to mankind through agriculture.
T. Ralph Robinson is a scientist best remembered today by the tangerine which bears his name. However, one of the most compelling revelations about Mr. Robinson is the very large number of reports in which he is specifically thanked for the critical contributions he made to the work of other scientists and researchers. It is an interesting coincidence that one of today’s researchers, Ed Stover, is currently working on a manuscript about International collaboration opportunities between the U.S. and Russia in which a paper by T.R. Robinson from 1937 is cited – 80 years after publication!
Although it’s been 55 years since T. Ralph Robinson was first nominated to the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame, it is only fitting that we finally honor him today because of the lasting legacy he has given – and continues to give – to the benefit of the Florida citrus industry. Ladies and Gentlemen, please help us welcome Mr. T. Ralph Robinson to the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame!