Wednesday, March 11, 2009

This Man.

The history of science is interesting and important to study. All of our modern thoughts, ideas, and conventions have important connections to the scientists that came before us. One scientist that we talk about a great deal in our lab is this man:

Nikolai Vavilov was born on November 25, 1887 in Moscow, Russia. There he graduated from the Agricultural Institute in 1910 after completing a thesis on the impact of snails on agriculture. He went on to hold many important positions in Russia where he studied botany and agriculture. He was the man who first determined the centres of origins of many of the most important agricultural species we still use today. This work relates to the work that my lab did just previous to my joining which was summarized in the book The Urban Cliff Revolution.

Vavilov collected seeds from all over the globe. He developed the largest seedbank in the world in Leningrad. During the Siege of Leningrad, which lasted from 9 September 1941, to 18 January 1943, Vavilov's research assistants defended the seed collection. As Hitler tried to gain power over the Soviet Union people were dying from starvation, but the edible seeds and potatoes survived for prosperity. Even one of the research assistants starved to death during that time.

Vavilov, himself, was arrested in 1940 for repeatedly criticizing the non-Mendelian concepts of his one time friend and Stalin's protege, Trofim Lysenko. Vavilov died in the German prison in 1943 due to malnutrition, but the entire time he was there he delivered over 100 scientific lectures.

In studying modern agriculture and botany we follow in everything Vavilov laid out for us. The Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry stills maintains one of the largest seedbanks in the world.

The Decemberist's last album, The Crane Wife memorializes Vavilov in one of their songs, When the War Came. His story is tragic, but inspiring at the same time. Every time we talk about Vavilov in the lab or find out new information about his life traveling the world and doing good science we end up laughing and smiling. He would have fit in very well here because, as Doug says, Vavilov captures what is good in all of the best scientists we've known.

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