Biography of Nikolay I. Vavilov


"I would hesitate to give my life for the sake
of a small advance in science..."


Nicolay Ivanovich Vavilov (1887-1943) was one of the most outstanding scientist of the twentieth century: a biologist, geneticist, geographer, agronomist and plant breeder. During three decades of tireless scientific work he travelled over five continents, amassed the largest collection in the world of species and strains of cultivated plants, and developed theories on how utilize them for breeding new strains. The activities of Vavilov were extraordinarily varied, but they were all focused on one single objective: to increase agricultural production and to provide humankind with more food.

Nicolay Ivanovich Vavilov was a person of many and varied interests. He was a geographer (the President of the National Geographic Society), a geneticist (Director of the Institute of Genetics), a plant-breeder (Director of the All-Union Institute of Plant Breeding), and an organizer (the first President of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences). He was a person of inexhaustible energy and unbelievable efficiency. During his relatively short life he accomplished a surprising amount: in his expeditions he travelled all over the world, he formulated very important postulates in genetics, he wrote more than ten books, and carried out the gigantic task of organizing a system of agricultural institutions in the USSR.

Beginning in his student years, N.I.Vavilov studied cultivated plants. His aim was to increase the productivity of agricultural plants, and, thus, to eliminate famine in his long-suffering and huge country.

In pursuing this goal, N.I.Vavilov directed his work towards solving two interrelated tasks, the importance of which was foreseen by him already in his early years. The first task was the mobilization of the genetic resources of all cultivated plants and also of their wild relatives, i.e. identification, study and collection of plant samples in their native habitats. The second task was the conservation of all the diversity of cultivated plants and of their wild relatives (grown in experimental fields and conserved in special storehouses), a diversity that is being constantly diminished with the elimination of natural habitats and primitive agricultural systems, but the involvement of which in breeding is extremely important in secure consistently high yields.

After graduating from the Moscow Commercial College, N.I.Vavilov entered the Moscow Agricultural Institute (now the Timiryazev Agricultural Academy in Moscow), from which he graduated in 1910. As early as in his student years, N.I.Vavilov showed scientific interests that determined his future lines of research: in 1908 he took part in the student expedition to the Caucasus; in 1909 he made a report on Darwin's Theory; in 1910 he completed and published his diploma work devoted to protection of agricultural plants from pests; in 1912 in his pioneering paper "Genetics and Agronomy" he outlined a program which implied application of genetics to the improvement of cultivated plants. Thus, from his very first steps in science N.I.Vavilov showed himself as a geographer, an evolutionist and a specialist in plant protection. It is noteworthy that all his scientific interests were interrelated; he was the first to see the possibility and the vital necessity of investigations into the cultivated plants from the viewpoint of genetics, evolution and geography. N.I.Vavilov managed to implement this scientific synthesis concurrently with his tremendous organizational work in the field of agricultural science.

In 1913-1914 N.I.Vavilov worked in the best laboratories of Great Britain (in the laboratory headed by W.Bateson), France and Germany. In 1916 he went to Iran and to the mountains of Middle Asia to study cultivated plants growing there. From 1917-1921 N.I. Vavilov was a lecturer at the Departament of Agriculture of the Saratov Agricultural Institute, and in 1918 he became a Professor of this Institute. There N.I.Vavilov gave lectures and carried out research into the peculiarities of cultivated plants growing in the region of the Volga and also studied the variability of plants. At that time he made one of his major scientific discoveries - in 1920 he formulated the Law of Homologous Series in Hereditary Variation, which made it possible to systematize the data on variation and to forecast the possibility of finding new plant varieties.

Of great importance for the Soviet genetics was the organizing work of N.I.Vavilov. The scientist set up a Department of Genetics at the All-Union Institute of Plant Breeding in Leningrad. In 1930 he became the head of the laboratory that four years later was reorganized into the Institute of Genetics of the USSR Academy of Sciences. In 1934 the Institute was transferred to Moscow and till 1940 N.I.Vavilov was Director of this Institute (now the Institute of General Genetics of Russian Academy of Sciences). Many talented Soviet geneticists worked at that Institute, as well as a number of foreign scientists (H.J. Muller (USA) was among them).

Under the guidance of Vavilov the Institute of Plant Breeding carried out a comprehensive study of cultivated plants, their wild relatives and weeds. The collection of plant samples made by Vavilov and his co-workers was one of the richest in the world and included 200,000 recognizable forms. Numerous varieties of agricultural plants have been created on the basis of this collection.

At the 1920's and at the beginning of the 1930's N.I.Vavilov took part in and organized numerous expeditions to collect and to study cultivated plants. During those expeditions Vavilov visited 40 countries. Very many of those travels were risky and difficult, especially those in Afghanistan (1924) and in Ethiopia (1927). For his expedition to Afghanistan the Russian Geographic Society awarded N.I.Vavilov a special gold medal "For Exploits in Geography".

In 1926, based on his own scientific observations and on the study of the collected materials, N.I.Vavilov worked out a theory of the origin of cultivated plants, according to which the cultivated flora appeared and was developed within relatively few geographic centers located mostly in the mountainous regions. Vavilov's expeditions were targeted at verification of this theory. Later on, numerous Soviet and foreign expeditions were organized according to Vavilov's plans.

The significance of Vavilov's theory has become especially important nowadays, with the occurrence of mass elimination of natural habitats and primitive agricultural systems. Not only specialists in this field but also the public at large have been attracted to the problems connected with the conservation of genetic pools of cultivated and wild plants. The impoverishment or loss of this hereditary potential can cause irreversible damage to all humanity.

The activities of N.I. Vavilov has been widely recognized not only in the USSR, but also all over the world. In 1926 he became one of the first recipients of the Lenin Prize for his work on the origin of cultivated plants. In 1923 N.I. Vavilov was elected a Corresponding Member and in 1929 - a Full Member of the USSR Academy of Sciences. He was also a Foreign Member of the British Royal Society, a Member of the Academy of Sciences of Czecho- slovakia, Scotland, India, Germany, a Member of the Linnean Society in London, a Member of the American Botanical Society and of many other national and international organizations.

Beginning in the mid 1930's, the development of biology in the USSR was greatly damaged by the process of Stalin's purges which also involved science in the USSR. During discussions on genetics N.I.Vavilov was the main opponent to T.D. Lysenko, who did not recognize laws of heredity and brought political accusations to geneticists. As a result, many talented scientists became political prisoners. In August 1940 N.I.Vavilov was arrested and sentenced to death. He had spent a years waiting for his sentence to be executed, when it was substituted for 20 years of prison. In 1943 N.I. Vavilov died of hunger in the jail of Saratov on the Volga. The whole life of N.I. Vavilov is a remarkable example of whole- hearted devotion to science, to his homeland and to humanity.