Monday, September 01, 2014

Nikolai Vavilov

And what if the mother of knowing appeared in a cloak of unknowing, and her messages to you in the past were from the future to yourself? How long have we waited for her words? Perhaps thousands of years, while our hearts slept in the mountains, and we skimmed the earth's surface.

During 1990, while living in Moscow, I watched a documentary film on Nikolai Vavilov that I will never forget.

Nikolai Vavilov, the son of a Moscow merchant and the grandson of a peasant, graduated from an agricultural institute in 1911. For the next two years, he studied in England, France, and Germany. In 1916, not following in his father's footsteps but instead his own youthful passion,Vavilov began collecting seeds around the world.

Vavilov braved the mountains of China, Iran and Afghanistan, explored the plains of the United States, and Mexico, contracted malaria in Syria, and floated along the Nile river. During his journeys, he learned 15 languages, traveled to five continents and visited 64 countries. He was a personal witness to the effects of famine, including hunger and disease, and dedicated himself into service as a defender of the world's future food supply. He was one of the first scientists to actually listen to the stories of farmers around the world, who told him that seed diversity was important, and he formed the theory that seed varieties had originated in ancient agricultural centers.

In 1920, Vavilov demonstrated that if all the variations known to exist in the most studied species of a given group are arranged in a table in a certain order, almost all the same variations in the variability of characteristics will be found in other species. Variety, he said, was necessary to maintain the world's food supply.

In 1921, Lenin chose Vavilov as the founder of a department in Leningrad to study seeds, which later became known as the Vavilov Institute in St. Petersburg. He brought thousands of varieties of plants, seeds, tubers, and 31,000 wheat specimens to this institute.

In the 1930's, a student of Vavilov's, Trofim Lysenko took a stand against Vavilov's Mendelian genetics in favor of a more utilitarian view: that more successful varieties and production could be induced.  After his death, Lenin was replaced by Joseph Stalin, who had no patience for Vavilov. The forced collectivization of farming practices led to more famine in the Soviet Union, which Vavilov had feared. Stalin decided to make Vavilov a scapegoat. After being invited to collect seeds in the Ukraine in 1940, Vavilov was arrested by KGB agents, charged with espionage and the destruction of Soviet agriculture, and disappeared into the Gulag.

Knowing that the city was under attack from Nazi Germany, and that the people of Leningrad were starving, fourteen of Vavilov's assistants locked themselves into what is now known as the Vavilov Institute to guard his seed bank. Several of these scientists died of starvation during the siege of Leningrad, literally dying of hunger within a few feet of what might have sustained them. Several of Vavilov's scientist colleagues were also executed for such heinous crimes as the study of the habits of peas and runner beans.

Vavilov died of malnutrition in prison in 1943 in Saratov, not far from his family, who did not yet know where he had been taken.

But Vavilov's idea of collecting seeds for the sake of the world's future lives on at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

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