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Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov (1887-1943): botanist, plant breeder, geographer and geneticist. Visiting researcher at JIHI, autumn 1913 to first part of 1914; Foreign Member of Royal Society, 1942

Vavilov was born in Moscow, the son of a wealthy textile merchant who had risen from a peasant background. Well-educated in his early years, Vavilov graduated from the Moscow Agricultural Institute in 1911 where he had become interested in plant selection and the work of Gregor Mendel. At the end of 1912 Vavilov began a two-year official trip abroad to visit the main biological laboratories in Europe, especially those of England, France and Germany.

Particularly important were his studies with William Bateson at the John Innes Horticultural Institution and with Rowland Biffen at the new Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge. While at JIHI Vavilov published a paper on ‘immunity to fungous diseases as a physiological test in genetics and systematics’, one of the main lines his work was to follow. His return to Moscow in 1914 was not without mishap. His valuable experimental materials were lost when the ship carrying them was struck by a mine on the voyage home.

During the war he began the second line of his life’s work: the exploration of cultivated plants. In 1916 he visited Persia (Iran) and surrounding countries collecting cereals, the systematic relationships of which he had already studied experimentally. In 1917 he became a professor of agriculture, botany and genetics at Saratov University, south-east of Moscow, and built up an outstanding research department. Here in the 1920s Vavilov developed his law of homologous series- the idea that related species develop similar variations; this third line of research combined systematics and genetics.

In 1921 he was picked by Lenin to head the Branch of Applied Botany at Petrograd (St Petersburg) where he was to spend the rest of his professional life. With great energy Vavilov built his Department into the All-Union Institute of Plant Breeding, a world centre in plant selection and genetics. Vavilov set up more than 400 research institutes and experimental stations in a few years, the combined staff totalling 20,000 by 1934. His journal, the Bulletin of Applied Botany, Genetics and Plant Breeding, became a leading international publication in its field. In spite of vast administrative duties Vavilov found time to direct the precise scientific methods to be followed in his institutes, especially in regard to economic botany and the question of immunity to diseases in plants. He set to work to make thorough collections of varieties of economic plants over the whole of their ecological range. He was greatly interested in the geographic variability of plants, and these collections were to be the raw materials for making new types for specialized regions.

Vavilov’s travels in pursuit of these goals were unmatched by any other Soviet scientist of his era. These were often arduous trips for Vavilov believed in eating local food and staying in local huts. In 1921 Vavilov made an extensive trip to the Bureau of Plant Industry of the United States Department of Agriculture in search of high-yielding drought-resistant varieties that would solve the famine problems that beset his country. During 1923-31 he organized and carried out, often alone, a series of expeditions to what he regarded as the important economic plant regions of the world- Afghanistan, Abyssinia, China, Central and South America- to collect material of all economic plants of interest to the Soviet Union. No less than 26,000 varieties of wheat alone were kept in cultivation at Leningrad. These collections formed the basis for new theories on the origin of cultivated plants, and laid the foundation for the future improvement of crop plants and of one of the largest and oldest seed banks in the world today. His potato collection led to the establishment of the British Empire Potato Collection on which potato breeding in Britain was later based.

His vision was of a plant science that united the work of physiologists, cytologists, geneticists, systematists and biochemists; that was international and co-operative in character. This spirit was exemplified in Vavilov’s last publication The New Systematics in 1940.

Vavilov was founder of the Academy of Agricultural Sciences, 1929, and it’s first President, 1929-35; Head, 1930-40 of the Genetics Laboratory, later Institute of Genetics, of the Academy of Sciences of USSR, and an active member of the Geographical Society of USSR, serving as President, 1931-40. However, Vavilov’s travelling and his internationalism brought him under suspicion in the 1930s; he did not travel abroad again after 1933. In 1935 Vavilov lost his position as president of the All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences. When in the late 1930s genetics became controversial in the USSR (the Lysenko Affair), Vavilov soon found himself, his Institute, and geneticists in general, bitterly denounced. Vavilov disappeared in 1940 and for fifteen years was obliterated from Soviet records. Vavilov had been arrested and imprisoned under a charge of wrecking Soviet agriculture, and was sentenced to death in July 1941. His sentence was commuted to 20 years imprisonment but he died of starvation in prison in Saratov on 26 January 1943.

See also:

S. C. Harland and C. D. Darlington, ‘Prof. N. I. Vavilov, For.Mem.R.S.’, Nature, 156 (24 November 1945): 621-22.

Chauncy D. Harris, ‘N. I. Vavilov 1887-1943’, pp. 117-132 in Geographers: Biobibliographical Studies vol. 13 edited by G. J. Martin (London: Mansell, 1991).


For the history of Vavilov’s Institute and biography:

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