Nikolai Vavilov

Author citation (botany) Trofim Lysenko Joseph Stalin

Nikolai Vavilov
Nikolai Vavilov NYWTS.jpg
Vavilov in 1933
Nikolaj Ivanovic Vavilov

(1887-11-25)25 November 1887[1][2]
Died26 January 1943(1943-01-26) (aged 55)[1][2]
Cause of deathStarvation
Alma materMoscow Agricultural Institute
Known forCenters of origin
AwardsLenin Prize
Fellow of the Royal Society[3]
Scientific career
InstitutionsSaratov Agricultural Institute
Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences
Author abbrev. (botany)Vavilov

Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov ForMemRS,[3] HFRSE (Russian: Никола́й Ива́нович Вави́лов, IPA: [nʲɪkɐˈlaj ɪˈvanəvʲɪtɕ vɐˈvʲiləf] (About this soundlisten); 25 November [O.S. 13 November] 1887 – 26 January 1943) was a prominent Russian and Soviet agronomist, botanist and geneticist best known for having identified the centers of origin of cultivated plants. He devoted his life to the study and improvement of wheat, corn, and other cereal crops that sustain the global population.[4][5][6][7][8] Vavilov's work was criticized by Trofim Lysenko, whose anti-Mendelian concepts of plant biology had won favor with Joseph Stalin. As a result, Vavilov was arrested and subsequently sentenced to death in July 1941. Although his sentence was commuted to twenty years' imprisonment, he died in prison in 1943. In 1955 his death sentence was retroactively pardoned under Nikita Khrushchev. By the 1960s his reputation was publicly rehabilitated and he began to be hailed as a hero of Soviet science.


Vavilov on a 1987 Soviet stamp

Vavilov was born into a merchant family in Moscow, the older brother of renowned physicist Sergey Ivanovich Vavilov. "The son of a Moscow merchant who'd grown up in a poor rural village plagued by recurring crop failures and food rationing, Vavilov was obsessed from an early age with ending famine in both his native Russia and the world."[9]

He graduated from the Moscow Agricultural Institute in 1910 with a dissertation on snails as pests. From 1911 to 1912, he worked at the Bureau for Applied Botany and at the Bureau of Mycology and Phytopathology. From 1913 to 1914 he travelled in Europe and studied plant immunity, in collaboration with the British biologist William Bateson, who helped establish the science of genetics.[1]

From 1917 to 1920, he was a professor at the Faculty of Agronomy, University of Saratov. His son Oleg (with his first wife Yekaterina Sakharova) was born in 1918.[10]

From 1924 to 1935 he was the director of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences at Leningrad. Impressed with the work of Canadian phytopathologist Margaret Newton on wheat stem rust, in 1930 he attempted to hire her to work at the institute,[11] offering a good salary and perks such as a camel caravan for her travel. She declined, but visited the institute in 1933 for three months to train 50 students in her research.

Vavilov's first marriage ended in divorce in 1926, after which he married geneticist Elena Ivanovna Barulina, a specialist on lentils and assistant head of the institute's seed collection. Their son Yuri was born in 1928.[10]

Vavilov (fifth from left to right) alongside geneticist Albert Boerger during his visit to Uruguay in 1937

While developing his theory on the centers of origin of cultivated plants, Vavilov organized a series of botanical-agronomic expeditions, and collected seeds from every corner of the globe. In Leningrad, he created the world's largest collection of plant seeds.[12] Vavilov also formulated the law of homologous series in variation.[13] He was a member of the USSR Central Executive Committee, President of All-Union Geographical Society and a recipient of the Lenin Prize.

In 1932, during the sixth congress, Vavilov proposed holding the seventh International Congress of Genetics in the USSR. After some initial resistance by the organizing committee, in 1935 it agreed to hold the seventh congress in Moscow in 1937. The Presidium of the USSR Academy of Sciences decided to support the idea and asked the Communist Party for its approval, which it gave on 31 July 1935. Vavilov was elected chairman of the International Congress of Genetics. However, on Nov 14 1936 the Politburo decided to cancel the congress. The seventh International Congress of Genetics was postponed until 1939 and took place in Edinburgh instead. The Politburo had decided to forbid Vavilov from travelling abroad and during the Congress's opening ceremony an empty chair was placed on the stage as a symbolic reminder of Vavilov's involuntary absence.[14]

Vavilov's mugshot

Vavilov encountered the young Trofim Lysenko and at the time encouraged him in his work. At the time Lysenko was not the best at growing wheat and peas, but Vavilov continued to support him and his ideas. It was not until later when he was under pressure from the Soviet State that Vavilov began to criticize the non-Mendelian concepts of Lysenko, who won the support of Joseph Stalin. As a result, Vavilov was arrested on 6 August 1940, while on an expedition to Ukraine. He was sentenced to death in July 1941. In 1942 his sentence was commuted to twenty years imprisonment. In 1943, he died in prison under unclear circumstances, but obviously in connection with the harsh prison conditions. The prison's medical documentation indicates that he had been admitted into the prison hospital a few days prior to his death and mention the diagnoses of lung inflammation, dystrophy and edema as well as general weakness as a complaint, but as for the immediate cause of death, the death certificate only mentions 'decline of cardiac activity'.[15][16] Some authors assert that the actual cause of death was starvation.[17][18]

The Leningrad seedbank was diligently preserved and protected through the 28-month long Siege of Leningrad. While the Soviets had ordered the evacuation of art from the Hermitage, they had not evacuated the 250,000 samples of seeds, roots, and fruits stored in what was then the world's largest seedbank. A group of scientists at the Vavilov Institute boxed up a cross section of seeds, moved them to the basement, and took shifts protecting them. Those guarding the seedbank refused to eat its contents, even though by the end of the siege in the spring of 1944, nine of them had died of starvation.[9]

In 1943, parts of Vavilov's collection, samples stored within the territories occupied by the German armies, mainly in Ukraine and Crimea, were seized by a German unit headed by Heinz Brücher. Many of the samples were transferred to the SS Institute for Plant Genetics, which had been established at Schloss Lannach [de] near Graz, Austria.[19]

The Royal Society of Edinburgh mentions Vavilov in the list of its former fellows, indicating that he died in a Soviet workcamp in Siberia on 26 January 1943.[20] However, he actually died in a Soviet prison in Saratov.[15] Today a street in downtown Saratov bears the name of Vavilov (unlike the street of the same name in Moscow, which is named after his brother). Vavilov's monument in Saratov near the end of the Vavilov street was unveiled in 1997. The square near the monument is a usual place for opposition rallies.[21][22][23][24][25] Another monument of him (actually, a cenotaph) is located near the entrance to the Resurrection cemetery in Saratov, where Vavilov is buried.

Vavilov was an atheist.[10]

After his death

In 1955, Vavilov's life sentence was pardoned at a hearing of the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union, undertaken as part of a de-Stalinization effort to review Stalin-era death sentences.[26] By the 1960s his reputation was publicly rehabilitated and he began to be hailed as a hero of Soviet science.[27]

Today, the N.I. Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry in St. Petersburg still maintains one of the world's largest collections of plant genetic material.[28] The Institute began as the Bureau of Applied Botany in 1894, and was reorganized in 1924 into the All-Union Research Institute of Applied Botany and New Crops, and in 1930 into the Research Institute of Plant Industry. Vavilov was the head of the institute from 1921 to 1940. In 1968 the institute was renamed after Vavilov in time for its 75th anniversary.

A minor planet, 2862 Vavilov, discovered in 1977 by Soviet astronomer Nikolai Stepanovich Chernykh is named after him and his brother Sergey Ivanovich Vavilov.[29] The crater Vavilov on the far side of the Moon is also named after him and his brother. The story of the researchers at the Vavilov Institute during the Siege of Leningrad was fictionalized by novelist Elise Blackwell in her 2003 novel Hunger. That novel was the inspiration for the Decemberists' song "When The War Came" in the 2006 album The Crane Wife, which also depicts the Institute during the siege and mentions Vavilov by name.

In 2020, Cosmos: Possible Worlds featured an episode which dives deep into the life of Vavilov.


Maize diversity in Vavilov's office

The USSR Academy of Sciences established the Vavilov Award (1965) and the Vavilov Medal (1968).


Works in English

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Nikolay Ivanovich Vavilov. Encyclopaedia Britannica
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Вавилов Николай Иванович. Great Soviet Encyclopedia
  3. ^ a b Harland, S. C. (1954). "Nicolai Ivanovitch Vavilov. 1885-1942". Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society. 9 (1): 259–264. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1954.0017. JSTOR 769210.
  4. ^ Shumnyĭ, V. K. (2007). "Two brilliant generalizations of Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov (for the 120th anniversary)". Genetika. 43 (11): 1447–1453. PMID 18186182.
  5. ^ Zakharov, I. A. (2005). "Nikolai I Vavilov (1887–1943)". Journal of Biosciences. 30 (3): 299–301. doi:10.1007/BF02703666. PMID 16052067.
  6. ^ Crow, J. F. (2001). "Plant breeding giants. Burbank, the artist; Vavilov, the scientist". Genetics. 158 (4): 1391–1395. PMC 1461760. PMID 11514434.
  7. ^ Crow, J. F. (1993). "N. I. Vavilov, martyr to genetic truth". Genetics. 134 (1): 1–4. PMC 1205417. PMID 8514123.
  8. ^ Cohen, B. M. (1991). "Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov: The explorer and plant collector a". Economic Botany. 45: 38–46. doi:10.1007/BF02860048.
  9. ^ a b Siebert, Charles (July 2011). "Food Ark". National Geographic. 220 (1): 122–126.
  10. ^ a b c Pringle, Peter (2008). The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov: The Story of Stalin's Persecution of One of the Great Scientists of the Twentieth Century. Simon and Schuster. p. 137. ISBN 978-0-7432-6498-3. "Despite his strict upbringing in the Orthodox Church, Vavilov had been an atheist from an early age. If he worshipped anything, it was science.
  11. ^ Dale-Burnett, Lisa Lynne; Mlazagar, Brian, eds. (2006). Saskatchewan Agriculture: Lives Past and Present. Trade Books Based in Scholarship. 17. Canadian Plains Research Center. ISBN 978-0889771697.
  12. ^ The Significance of Vavilov's Scientific Expeditions. PGR Newsletter 124. Bioversity International.
  13. ^ Popov I. Yu (2002). Periodical systems in biology Archived 14 May 2007 at the Wayback Machine.
  14. ^ Valery N. Soyfer, "Tragic History of the VII International Congress of Genetics ", 2003 [1]
  15. ^ a b [2] (in Russian)
  16. ^ [Шайкин В. Г. Николай Вавилов. — М.: Мол. гвардия, 2006. — 256 с.: ил. — (ЖЗЛ).]
  17. ^ Nabhan, Gary Paul. "How Nikolay Vavilov, the seed collector who tried to end famine, died of starvation". NPR. Retrieved 22 February 2014.
  18. ^ Graham, Loren R. (1993). Science in Russia and the Soviet Union: A Short History. Cambridge University Press. p. 130. ISBN 978-0-521-28789-0.
  19. ^ Heinz Brücher and the SS botanical collecting command to Russia 1943 Archived 29 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine. PGR Newsletter 129. Bioversity International.
  20. ^ Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 0-902-198-84-X. Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 4 January 2019.
  21. ^ [3] (in Russian)
  22. ^ [4] (in Russian)
  23. ^ [5] (in Russian)
  24. ^ [6] (in Russian)
  25. ^ [7] (in Russian)
  26. ^ Pringle, Peter (2008). The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov. Simon & Schuster. p. 300. ISBN 978-0-7432-6498-3.
  27. ^ Atz, James W. and Winter, Robert J. (1968). "Further steps in the rehabilitation of N.I. Vavilov". The Journal of Heredity. 59 (5): 274–275. doi:10.1093/oxfordjournals.jhered.a107716.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  28. ^ N.I.Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry at www.vir.nw.ru
  29. ^ Schmadel, Lutz D. (2003). Dictionary of Minor Planet Names (5th ed.). New York: Springer Verlag. p. 235. ISBN 978-3-540-00238-3.
  30. ^ IPNI.  Vavilov.