Libmonster ID: BY-1563
Author(s) of the publication: Tatyana AVRUTSKAYA

by Tatyana AVRUTSKAYA, keeper of the Vavilov memorial museum, Academic Secretary of the Vavilov Heritage Commission, research associate of the Vavilov Federal State Budget Institute of General Genetics, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, Russia

There are names in science revered throughout the world. One of them is Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov, a great Man and naturalist, the author of classical theories like the law of homologous series in hereditary variability, the theory of plant immunity and the theory of the centers of origin of crop plants. He shared the tragic fate of many of our geneticists victimized in the 1930s and 1940s. In this year of 2012 we mark his 125th birth anniversary.


Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov was born in Moscow on the 25th of November of 1887 into the family of a major commercial dealer and member of the Moscow City Duma (Assembly) Ivan Ilyich Vavilov. His mother was Alexandra Mikhailovna Vavilova, nee Postnikova. Their sons, Nikolai and his brothers, devoted their life to science. Their daughters, Alexandra and Lydia, threw in their lot with medicine. The younger son, Sergei Vavilov, evolved as a great physicist, for years he headed the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. Nikolai Vavilov chose biology.

The father, however, wanted Nikolai to follow in his steps and become a merchant. Consequently, Nikolai got enrolled in H.M. Commercial School in Moscow. Upon graduation in 1906, the young man was in for the degree of Candidate of Commerce and the title of an honorary citizen of Moscow. Yet he did not feel like going on with his education in the commercial line. Natural sciences, agronomy for one, were his major attraction. Therefore he entered the Moscow Agricultural College, "the best agricultural school", as he put it. In 1911 Nikolai Vavilov became a career agronomist of the first rank, and stayed on at the Agricultural College

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at the Department of Private Land Farming headed by Professor Dmitry Pryanishnikov* to be coached for professorship.

Nikolai Vavilov was avid for knowledge. In his college years he would dig into the literature, make reports and go on his first geographical excursions. His first research paper dealt with field and garden slugs, the bad agricultural pests, and it was in for a Bogdanov Prize** awarded by the Polytechnical Museum of Moscow (1910). This work was counted in as his graduation paper.

In 1913 the young research scientist was sent at public expense for further education in England, France and Germany at the best laboratories of the British geneticists William Bateson and Radginald Pennet, at the Vilmorin*** Museum, and with the outstanding German natural scientist Ernst Haeckel in Jena. The outbreak of the First World War made Vavilov come back home. Upon his return he continued work at the Petrovo Selection Station (Timiryazev Moscow Agricultural Academy today), and he cleared M. Sc. examinations. In 1917 Vavilov was elected professor of the Private Land Farming and Selection Department at Saratov University and simultaneously, he headed the Department of Applied Botany and Selection of the Agricultural Academic Committee.

The years 1917-1921 were too bad. To Russia's Volga region in particular, ravaged by famine, epidemics and all-out devastation. Yet it was a very important period in Vavilov's research activity, a time of amazingly productive work culminating in the fundamental law of homologous series in hereditary variability. Vavilov demonstrated that "species and genera, closely related genetically, are characterized by homologous [similar] series of hereditary variability in such an orderly fashion that, knowing some forms within one species, one can look for parallel forms in other species and genera."

The year 1921 saw a sea change in Vavilov's life--he moved to Petrograd (St. Petersburg) and soon after, went to the United States to attend a congress on grain diseases. Thereupon he got acquainted in detail with genetic and experimental agricultural institutions of the United States, Germany, Denmark, the Low Countries and Sweden. His eloquence, erudition and charisma impressed the Americans and Europeans. The young

* Dmitry Nikolayevich Pryanishnikov (1865-1948), a noted agrochemist, biochemist and plant physiologist. Elected to the Academy of Sciences of the USSR in 1929.--Ed.

**Anatoly Petrovich Bogdanov (1834-1896), an eminent Russian zoologist, anthropologist and natural scientist who founded Russia's first institutions of anthropology. Elected to the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences in 1890 as its corresponding member.--Ed.

*** The Vilmorins, a family of French selectionists.--Ed.

research scientist built professional contacts and longtime friendship with foremost researchers. He was welcome to many research centers.

Back in Petrograd Vavilov became head of the Applied Botany Bureau, and was elected to the Council of the State Institute of Experimental Agronomy. At first he acted as an aide of the Council's president. But already in 1923 he came to head the Council and a year after, was endorsed director of the Ail-Union Institute of Applied Botany and New Crops, later on, after 1930, the Ail-Union Institute of Plant Growing (with its seat in Leningrad, as Petrograd was renamed in 1924).*

Vavilov's prestige as a research scientist was on the upgrade. He was among the first to merit the Lenin Prize instituted in 1926 (among the first five Lenin prizewinners was Dmitry Pryanishnikov, Vavilov's teacher, one who pointed to Vavilov's extraordinary talents and did not betray him in his tragic days). In 1929 Nikolai Vavilov, who turned forty, was elected to the

See: V. Dragavtsev, "Serving the Common Good", Science in Russia, No. 3, 2003.--Ed.

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national Academy of Sciences and the same year he became head of the Lenin Agricultural Academy (VASKHNIL). He also headed the first Genetics Laboratory under the umbrella of the national Academy of Sciences (USSR Academy of Sciences); this laboratory was founded in 1930 by Yuri Filipchenko, an eminent biologist who also founded Russia's first Genetics Department at Leningrad State University. Vavilov sought to turn the Genetics Laboratory into a research center of the world level, and by his efforts in 1933 it was reorganized into a major research center, the Institute of Genetics of the USSR Academy of Sciences; such eminent geneticists as Kelvin Bridges and Herman Meller of the United States (Nobel Prize, 1946) and Danco Kostov of Bulgaria cooperated with it.

In the 1920s and 1930s Vavilov organized expeditions to more than 50 countries of four continents (with the exception of Australia and Antarctica), often to mountain districts hard of access. He and colleagues gathered a unique living collection of crop plants. In 1931 Vavilov merited a great honor by being elected president of the Russian Geographical Society, and he did his utmost for it to regain its high prestige of the late 19th and early 20th centuries when a cohort of world-famous celebrities were still there. The main stairway of the Society's edifice is flanked by portraits of Feodor Litke, an arctic explorer and president of the Academy of Sciences in 1864 to 1882; Nikolai Przhevalsky, a Russian naturalist and traveler, honorary member of the Academy of Sciences (from 1878); Pyotr Semenov-Tien-Shansky, a Russian geographer and botanist elected to the Academy of Sciences in 1873 honore causa; and Yuri Shokalsky, a Russian oceanographer and map-maker, member emeritus of the Soviet Academy of Sciences (from 1939). Nikolai Vavilov's portrait is in this gallery, too. After his field party to Afghanistan Vavilov was awarded a Przhevalsky Gold Medal conferred for extraordinary exploits in geography.

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But the situation changed for the worse as of the mid-1930, as discussions on genetics and selection got underway. Backed by the nation's leadership, this campaign had clear political undertones. Vavilov was relieved of his duties of VASKHNIL president and replaced by Acad. Trofim Lysenko. There followed a crackdown on bona fide scientists. Vavilov was arrested in August of 1940 and on July 9, 1941, sentenced on framed-up charges to capital punishment by a firing squad. Afterwards the death penalty was commuted to twenty years in prison. Vavilov died on the 26th of January of 1943 in a Saratov prison of famine and emaciation. He was buried in a common grave at the city Resurrection Cemetery--the whereabouts of that grave are not known. While in prison, the great biologist scripted his last book, A History of World Agriculture. The MS was lost. Who knows, it might be found someday. "Manuscripts do not burn", as the saying goes.

In 1955 the Military Division of the USSR Supreme Court acquitted Vavilov for just cause and cleared him of all charges. The scientist was rehabilitated.


Knowledge was the abiding goal of his life. A college freshman, Vavilov put down in his diary, " I have a passionate love of science. It is the purpose of my life, the source of elation. I believe in its future." From his childhood years Vavilov felt the same overriding passion for belles-lettres. He read daily, everywhere up to his last days. And quite a lot for that matter! His immense briefcase bulled with books--the range of his interests was enormous and varied: in addition to updates in periodicals, Vavilov reveled in classical works of fiction. He admired oriental poetry, and often quoted Omar Khayam and his quatrains. His craze for the Orient was overpowering--so much so that at one time he felt like taking up oriental history and archeology.

As to biological literature, he had no equals in devouring it. Vavilov was always au courant of new books and other materials on botany, physiology, genetics, taxonomy, selection and related interdisciplinary sciences. Having a good command of European languages, he kept tabs on the latest trends abroad. "Before getting down to research, you should be in the know what has been done along this line elsewhere on the globe," Vavilov would say time and again. His erudition and memory were astounding. Legends were circulated about him--browsing through a book, he picked out essentials, and what he remembered, he did it forever.

Vavilov had been to the world's best libraries. Books were his major concern, both as reader and science manager. He sought to collect an adequate stock of literature for research collectives he was heading. The rich library of the Institute of Plant Growing with its unique catalogs was his pride and delight. Vavilov was active in replenishing its stock, sending thousands of books and journals while on his expeditions abroad.

Nikolai Vavilov revered old books and documents. In particular, Charles Darwin, the founder of the theory of biological evolution. While in Britain, he perused Darwin's notebooks and manuscripts. Vavilov chased after rare books, no matter how costly, especially if he needed them for his work. Once he got a rare book as a gift kept in the family of La Gasca, a 16th-century Spanish priest and lawyer. The covering letter said this only copy of the unique edition was presented to him, Vavilov, in the hope it would contribute to the advancement of science and add up to the glory of the famous Spaniard. Vavilov continued the fine tradition of Russian intellectuals-- his library was open to everybody.

Vavilov's talents and aptitude for independent thinking were noted still at the merchant school. He was

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aware of that, and his professional interests were clear to him from the very beginning--crop plants and their wild cognates. Vavilov zeroed in on genetics, plant immunity, taxonomy and geography; the history of land farming was also among his great interests. That was his lifelong vocation--fighting global hunger was a priority to him.

Nikolai Vavilov is the author of classical theories: the law of homologous series in hereditary variability; the theory of plant immunity and that on the centers of origin of crop plants; the teaching on the Linnaean species* as a system.

His extraordinary talents and "an ability to see what is general, singular and regular among millions of disparate and seemingly unlike natural phenomena", as the Russian biologist Nikolai Timofeev-Resovsky put it, helped him not to go under in an ocean of facts and formulate the fundamental biological law of homologous series still at age 33. "There is no chaos in the evolutionary development of living organisms, and despite the shocking diversity of forms, variability obeys definite regularities," Nikolai Vavilov pointed out. His colleagues were quick to compare this law with the Mendeleev Periodic Table (Law), for it made it possible to systematize the diversity of extant plant species and foretell emergence of new ones.

Vavilov regarded the problem of plant immunity to infections as a key one in plant growing. His investigations in this area are both fundamental and original. Thus, he discovered forms exhibiting systemic immunity to fungal diseases. He saw the characteristics of these plant forms as systemic indicators, and viewed immunity from a geographical standpoint by detecting a connexion between the origin of a species or sort and its susceptibility to disease.

The variability and diversity of plant forms brought Vavilov to the question of their geographical propagation and localization. This applied to crop plants as well. He organized field parties to districts where the "great land-tilling culture was created." Vavilov pinpointed the principal pépinières of the cultivated flora and was the first to show the priority of mountain districts, while before this leading role had been assigned to big river valleys.

Proceeding from his theory of the centers of origin of cultivated plants, Nikolai Vavilov gathered a collection of global plant resources, our national heritage today.

Vavilov was great both as scientist and science organizer. Heading the VASKHNIL Agricultural Academy as its first president, he created a major research center, the world-famous VIR (All-Russia Institute of Plant

* With reference to Carolus Linnaeus (born Karl von Linné), Swedish botanist (1707-1778), physician, creator of the single system of classification of the flora and fauna. In his work The Linnaean Species as a System (1931) Vavilov demonstrated that the species comprised subordinate elementary units.--Ed.

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Growing, now named after him, its founder). He had a far-flung network of zonal experimental stations set up countrywide. This country's agricultural science owes a great deal to Nikolai Vavilov.

A creative man and enthusiast, Vavilov possessed a phenomenal capacity for work. Yet for all his load, he was an active public figure as a member of the top national executive, VTSIK, and deputy to the Leningrad City Council; he was president of the Leningrad Scientists' Club and president of the National Association of Scientists and Technologists for the Advancement of the Building of Socialism in the USSR. As one of the organizers of the national Agricultural Exhibition opened in Moscow in 1939, Vavilov was elected to its presiding body. He made public lectures, wrote updates for the press on problems of plant growing, genetics and selection, and told about his voyages abroad.

His name cut a wide swathe in other countries. He was member of many scientific societies and organizations: foreign member of the English Royal Society, Linnaean Society in London, Edinburgh Royal Society and other bodies like the Scientific Council of the International Agronomical Society in Rome, member of the British Gardening Society--this list could be continued.

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To conclude, I would like to quote from the speech made by Professor Nikita Tolstoy* made at the commemorative meeting devoted to the Vavilov brothers, Nikolai and Sergei:

"A naturalist is one who not only places science into the center of his life; more than that, he forms an ethical space all around, where wonderful processes are taking

* Nikita Tolstoy, a physicist, professor of Leningrad State University, son of the Soviet writer Alexei Tolstoy.--Auth.

place--organization of people in intellectual, spiritual activities; where science is conjugated to art and human culture, and where organizational work and education of the youth is carried on."

Acad. Nikolai Vavilov was just like that--he was generating a powerful field of personal gravitation.


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