13 December 2014

The tragic tale of Nikolai Vavilov

Renowned Russian botanist Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov's aim was to feed the world, but sadly his work was dramatically cut short.

By Emily Petch

Illustration of common wheat

Introducing Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov (1887-1943)

I am one of Kew’s new Library Graduate Trainees and as part of my role, I am required to retrieve resources for users in the library Reading Room. My interest was recently piqued whilst retrieving several pamphlets and books for a visitor on the subject of the famed Soviet botanist and geneticist Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov. After viewing the variety of materials that Kew’s library had to offer, I became intrigued by his story, and decided to delve a little deeper.

Vavilov was born in Moscow, in 1887, and after graduating from The Commercial School of Moscow in 1906 he went on to study at the Moscow Institute of Agriculture. Influenced by the work of plant geneticist Gregor Mendel (hailed posthumously as ‘the father of modern genetics’), Vavilov became interested in plant breeding. Specifically, he began conducting studies into disease resistance problems effecting oats, wheats and barley.

Seed collection and Leningrad

After the Civil War had ended, Russia experienced a terrible famine between 1921 and 1922. Devastated by drought, the country produced a wheat-harvest half of what it had been prior to the war. Lenin understood that something had to be done in order to improve Russian agriculture and to stave off another hunger crisis.

Vavilov, the then Head of the Department of Applied Botany, was elected by the new Soviet Union for a mission to travel to the United States to collect seeds of wild crops for cultivation. He intended these seeds to act as the basis for the creation of frost-hardy, drought-tolerant and disease-resistant varieties.

After returning from a successful trip to America, Vavilov continued his travels, venturing as far as the Middle East, Afghanistan, North Africa and Ethiopia, collecting valuable samples of bread-wheat and rye. By the end of 1924, his seed collection had grown to almost sixty thousand acquisitions, with a total of seven thousand coming from Afghanistan.

The seeds collected by Vavilov were then deposited in the Leningrad Seedbank. Vavilov and his team envisioned Leningrad’s future to be that of a global seed bank, in which new strains of crops would be cultivated in an effort to end hunger worldwide.

'Centers of Origin of Cultivated Plants'

While researching Vavilov I came across, The Origin and Geography of Cultivated Plants, a collection of reprints of selcted works by Vavilov, which includes the ‘Centers of Origin of Cultivated Plants’. Published in 1926, it was the first piece of work to be awarded The Lenin Prize.

Vavilov draws from his travels, marking specific points at which particular agricultural crops first came to be domesticated by humans. This enabled him to track a plant’s evolution through domestication and natural selction, and use this as the basis for his research into plant breeding, as he states:

"In order to understand evolution and to guide our breeding work scientifically, even in application to our principal crops such as maize, wheat and cotton, we must go to the oldest agricultural countries, where the keys to the understanding of evolution are hidden."

- Vavilov, N.I. 1932. The process of evolution in cultivated plants. Proc. 6th International Congress of Genetics. Ithaca, NY, Vol. 1:331-342, cited from Vavilov and his Institute: a history of the world collection of plant genetic resources in Russia, Igor G. Loskutov, p. 32

The tragic end for the humanitarian scientist

However, sadly Nikolai Vavilov’s story is one shrouded by tragedy. After plant genetics came into ill favour during the 1930s, Vavilov, his team and institution, were bitterly denounced by Stalin. Furthermore, after Stalin’s decision for the collectivisation of private farms led to a poor yield in crops and wide spread famine, Vavilov was used as a scapegoat. Unable to produce results quickly enough to resolve Russia’s agricultural problems, and falsely accused of working for the American government, Vavilov was sentenced to twenty years imprisonment. Vavilov tragically died while being imprisoned from starvation.

Vavilov’s legacy

I have barely begun to scratch the surface on the numerous contributions that Vavilov made to the world of plant breeding and botany. However, I was particularly interested to learn that many of the strains of crops that we still use today in modern day agriculture are thanks to the work of Vavilov and his team.

I found researching Vavilov’s story truly fascinating and look forward to what is still to come during my year at Kew.

Emily Petch 

- Library Graduate Trainee -

Further reading

Five Continents, by N.I. Vavilov, Rome : International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, 1997.

The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov: the story of Stalin’s persecution of one of the Twentieth Century’s greatest scientists, by Peter Pringle, London : JR Books, 2009.

Proiskhozhdenie i geografi i a kul’turnykh rastenii, English translation ‘Centers of Origin of Cultivated Plants’, from The Origin and Geography of Cultivated Plants, by Nikolai Vavilov, Leningrad: Nauka, 1987.

Vavilov and his Institute: a history of the world collection of plant genetic resources in Russia, by Igor G. Loskutov, Rome : International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), 1999.

Where our food comes from : retracing Nickolay Vavilov’s quest to end famine, by Gary Paul Nabhan, Washington; London : Island Press , 2009.

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