Trofim Denisovich Lysenko

The Soviet agronomist Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (1898-1976) developed a number of theories dealing with heredity and variability, species formation, intraspecific and interspecific relationships, and plant nutrition.

Trofim Lysenko was born on Sept. 30, 1898, in the Ukrainian village of Karlovka in Poltava Province. He studied at the Poltava Primary School for Horticulture and Gardening (1913-1917) and at the Uman School for Horticulture (1917-1921), after which he was assigned to the Belotserkovsky Experimental Station and went on to the Kiev Agricultural Institute, continuing his studies until 1925.

Genetics vs. Environment

Lysenko accepted a position at the Kirovabad experimental station in Azerbaijan, where he worked out his theory on the stages of plant development. In 1929 he described a process known as vernalization which involved a pre-sowing treatment of seeds to induce plants to flower sooner than usual, and enable them to adapt to different climates. According to initial reports from Soviet collective farms, vernalization was something of a sensation, and Lysenko was appointed director of the Odessa Plant Breeding-Genetics Institute.

Lysenko's theory to explain the process of vernalization was challenged in 1934 by Soviet scientists as a repudiation of the classical Mendelian theory of heredity and variation, which is based on the idea that genes are the carriers of hereditary characteristics. Lysenko defended his theory, known as "Lysenkoism," and launched a vicious attack on Soviet geneticists. It took him and his followers three contrived conferences and a dozen years (1936-1948) to topple Soviet geneticists from leading positions in research centers and educational institutions. Outstanding geneticists were vilified as "enemies of the people." Lysenko's meteoric rise to power and prestige is evidenced by his becoming a full member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences in 1935, full director of the All-Union Institute of Selection and Genetics in 1936, president of the Lenin's All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences, an active member of the Presidium of the Soviet Academy of Sciences in 1938, and director of the academy's institute of Genetics in 1940. His school of "genetic" thought also received the personal endorsement of Joseph Stalin. During his heyday, he received many awards and prizes, including three Stalin prizes and six orders of Lenin.

Reigning as the supreme authority in practical and theoretical agriculture, Lysenko advised the hierarchy of the Communist party on land reclamation and reforestation, the use of fertilizers, and methods of increasing crop and animal yields. Between 1954 and 1968 Lysenko's theories and contributions came under increasing scrutiny, but he managed to hold on to most of his positions mainly because of the intervention of Premier Nikita Khrushchev. By 1963 the Central Committee of the Communist party and the U.S.S.R. Council of Ministers became alarmed that Soviet Russia was lagging dangerously behind the West in several critical branches of biology and medicine.

Later Years

When Khrushchev was replaced, the monopolistic position of Lysenko and his followers in biology ended. Lysenko was charged with being oblivious to the recent advances in contemporary biology and with employing "administrative methods" to gain support for his theories and programs. Scientists both inside and outside the then Soviet Union were never able to validate his theories. In 1965 the new scientific journal Genetics appeared, sponsored by the Soviet Academy of Sciences; this marked the restoration of genetics to a respectable position in Soviet science. Lysenko was nevertheless permitted to head a laboratory at the Institute of Genetics, and his popularity with the Soviet Union's collective farmers hardly diminished—they understood his language, methods, and ideas.

Lysenko died in Moscow on Nov. 20, 1976, at the age of 78.

Further Reading on Trofim Denisovich Lysenko

For a brief biographical sketch and evaluation of Lysenko's theories see Maxim W. Mikulak, "Trofim Denisovich Lysenko," in George W. Simmonds, ed., Soviet Leaders (1967); Of special interest is Zhores A. Medvedev, The Rise and Fall of T. D. Lysenko (trans. 1969); Accounts of the Soviet biological controversies can be found in Julian Huxley, Soviet Genetics and World Science: Lysenko and the Meaning of Heredity (1949); Conway Zirkle, ed., Death of a Science in Russia: The Fate of Genetics as Described in Pravda and Elsewhere (1949); Theodosius Dobzhansky, "The Crisis of Soviet Biology," in Ernest J. Simmons, ed., Continuity and Change in Russian and Soviet Thought (1955); and David Joravsky, The Lysenko Affair (1970), the best study to date.

Additional Biography Sources

"Lysenko, Science Overlord Under Stalin, Dead at 78," New York Times, Nov. 24, 1976, p 36.

Rossianov, Kirill, "Biology Under Lysenko and Stalin," Science, Nov. 11, 1994, p. 1085-1086.

Sakharov, Andrei D., "The Poisonous Legacy of Trofim Lysenko," Time, May 14, 1990, p. 61.

Soifer, Valerii, Lysenko and the Tragedy of Soviet Science, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, c1994.