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Nikolai Vavilov (1887–1943) was a preeminent Russian and Soviet scientist, a geneticist and botanist whose major discoveries include determining the centers of origin of cultivated plants and the evolutionary phenomenon of Vavilovian mimicry. His work focused mostly on the improvement and classification of the cereal crops that support human civilization. He is also notable for being a victim of persecution for his insistence on the validity of Mendelian genetics, when the horticulturist Trofim Lysenko, formerly one of Vavilov’s associates, caused the persecution of Soviet geneticists using his influence on the supreme leader Joseph Stalin. As a direct result of this, Vavilov was imprisoned for “ruining Soviet agriculture” and fabricated political accusations by a kangaroo court, and died of starvation in prison in 1943. He has been described by one author (in an admittedly romanticized account of Vavilov’s life) as the Indiana Jones of Genetics. For his work he was elected Chairman of the International Congress of Geneticists in 1939, but was unable to attend, due to political pressure from Lysenko.
Lysenko’s alternative theory of environmentally acquired characteristics was made official in USSR in 1948, with scientific dissent from said theory being outlawed. It proved to be a complete bullshit and was finally dismissed in 1962.
The Vavilov Institute
The Vavilov Institute (although not originally named after him, it was renamed in his honour), a research facility and the world’s largest seedbank, was supplied with many of its rare seeds by Vavilov, who traveled over five continents to find rare and unusual seeds. Situated in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), the Institute survived the Siege of Leningrad intact, as the researchers had sworn to defend it, despite the onset of starvation and the many edible specimens contained in the collection. Famously, one of Vavilov’s assistants died of starvation surrounded by edible seeds.
The novel “Hunger” by Elise Blackwell is set in Leningrad during the siege, and is told from the point of view of one of the researchers at the Institute.
The song “When The War Came”, on rock group The Decemberists’ album The Crane Wife was inspired by the story of the Institute during the siege. Interestingly, the band’s singer/songwriter Colin Meloy credits the novel “Hunger” with piquing his interest in regards to the Institute.
Theories and discoveries
- The Law of Homologous Series in Variation (1920)
- Vavilov Center of Variation (1926), the area in which a crop was first domesticated.
- Vavilovian Mimicry, the process by which a weed (but not other forms of pest) evolves into a similar form to the crop plant it competes with, as human cultivators would destroy any weed that could be distinguished from the crop. This has led to some former weeds becoming useful crops themselves, some examples being such hardy cereals as rye and oats. (Sadly, this is not possible with other forms of pest)