Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov

The Russian botanist and geneticist Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov (1887-1943) is noted for his theory on the origin of cultivated plants and his law of the homologous series of inherited variation.

Nikolai Vavilov was born on Nov. 25, 1887, probably in Moscow, into a wealthy merchant family. Having decided to specialize in agriculture and biology, he entered the Agricultural Academy at Petrovsko-Razumovskoe. In 1913 and 1914 he continued his education at the School of Agriculture, Cambridge University, studying under Sir Rowland Biffen, and at the John Innes Horticultural Institution, working with William Bateson, a pioneer geneticist. Vavilov first established his scientific reputation by publishing papers on the immunity of cereals to fungus diseases, explaining immunity in terms of Mendelian factors, systematics, and plant physiology.

Upon returning to the former Soviet Union, Vavilov began to devote his attention to the origin of cultivated plants. Between 1916 and 1933 he traveled in Iran, Afghanistan, the Mediterranean area, Ethiopia, Somaliland, Japan, Korea, Formosa (now Taiwan), Mexico, and Central and South America, as well as many regions within the Soviet Union. The initial conclusions of his study appeared in The Centers of Origin of Cultivated Plants (1926). As a consequence of the expeditions of Soviet plant investigators to 60 countries between 1923 and 1933, Vavilov was able to list at least 8 centers with rich varieties of cultivated plants: the oldest in central and western China, India and Burma (now Myanmar), central Asia, the Near East, the Mediterranean region, Ethiopia, Mexico and Central America, and the South American nations of Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia. In connection with these researches, Vavilov discovered the law of the homologous series of inherited variation, which states that closely related species tend to develop parallel hereditary variations. On the basis of this empirical law he had hoped to predict the direction of the evolution of established species and the emergence of new biological species.

From 1917 to 1921 Vavilov was professor at the University of Saratov, after which he was assigned to the Bureau of Applied Botany in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg). In 1923 he was appointed director of the State Institute of Experimental Agronomy, serving until 1929. From 1924 to 1940 he was the director of the All-Union Institute of Applied Botany and New Crops (renamed the All-Union Institute of Plant Growing). In 1929 he was elected a full member of the Academy of Sciences and became president of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences; he served as vice president of the latter organization from 1935 until 1937. He was also director of the Institute of Genetics of the Soviet Academy of Sciences for a decade after 1930. It is estimated that between 1921 and 1934 Vavilov was involved in organizing over 400 research institutes and experimental stations with a total staff of about 20, 000. In 1939 he was invited to become president of the International Congress of Genetics, and in 1940 he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Society of Great Britain.

Vavilov was a tireless and dedicated scientist; his major goal was to overcome the Soviet Union's agricultural backwardness by modern scientific theories and methods. However, he was more successful in stimulating the output of scientific papers at a time when Soviet agricultural productivity was decreasing and consequently left himself open to the criticism that he failed to merge theory with practice. Trofim Lysenko and his followers started to attack Vavilov's leadership and support of modern genetics. In 1936 the Congress on Genetics and Agriculture was convened in Moscow with the obvious purpose of discrediting Vavilov and genetics. Three years later the Conference on Genetics and Selection vilified Vavilov; his speech defending genetics was greeted with heckling and interruptions. In 1940 Vavilov was arrested, placed in a concentration camp at Saratov, and then transferred to a Siberian forced-labor camp located in Magadan. He died on Jan. 26, 1943, a broken man, a victim of quackery and Stalinist tyranny. In 1956 the Soviet Academy of Sciences ordered the republication of Vavilov's works, apparently in an effort to rehabilitate him.


Further Reading on Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov

Only scattered and brief biographical articles on Vavilov have appeared in Russian and English newspapers and journals. His The Origin, Variation, Immunity and Breeding of Cultivated Plants (trans. 1951) is valuable for his scientific work. For accounts of the decline of Vavilov and genetics in the Soviet Union see Julian Huxley, Soviet Genetics and World Science (1949), and Conway Zirkle, ed., Death of a Science in Russia (1949).

Additional Biography Sources

Popovskiei, Mark Aleksandrovich, The Vavilov affair, Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1984.