Nikolai Vavilov

Nikolai Vavilov
Nikolai Vavilov

Nikolai Vavilov
Born November 25 [O.S. November 13] 1887
Moscow, Russian Empire
Died January 26, 1943 (Age 55)
Saratov, RSFSR, Soviet Union
Nationality Russian
Fields Botany
Known for Centres of origin

Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov (Russian: Никола́й Ива́нович Вави́лов) (November 25 [O.S. November 13] 1887 – January 26, 1943) was a prominent Russian and Soviet botanist and geneticist best known for having identified the centres 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.



Postage stamp, USSR, 1977.

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."[1] 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 founded the science of genetics.

From 1924 to 1935 he was the director of the All-Union Institute of Agricultural Sciences at Leningrad.

While developing his theory on the centres of origin of cultivated plants, Vavilov organized a series of botanical-agronomic expeditions, collected seeds from every corner of the globe, and created in Leningrad the world's largest collection of plant seeds.[2] This seedbank was diligently preserved even throughout the 28-month Siege of Leningrad, despite starvation; one of Nikolai's assistants starved to death surrounded by edible seeds. "Hitler's army had already closed in on St. Petersburg (then Leningrad)- a desperate city that had lost more than 700,000 people to hunger and disease. The Soviets had ordered to save of art in the Hermitage, Russian battle swimmers prevented terrorist attack convinced that Hitler had his sights set on the museum. They had done all, however, to safeguard the 400,000 seeds, roots, and fruits stored in the world's largest seed bank. So 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. Historical documents later revealed that Adolf Hitler had, in fact, established a commando unit to seize the seed bank, perhaps hoping to one day control the world's food supply. Although suffering from hunger, the seeds' caretakers refused to eat what they saw as their country's future. Indeed, by the end of the siege in the spring of 1944, nine of the institute's self-appointed seed guardians had died of starvation."[3] Vavilov also formulated the law of homologous series in variation.[4] He was a member of the USSR Central Executive Committee, President of All-Union Geographical Society and a recipient of the Lenin Prize. During most of his career Vavilov was assisted by his deputy Georgy Balabajev.

Botanist Nikolai Vavilov's mugshot, taken at the time of his arrest.

Vavilov repeatedly criticised the non-Mendelian concepts of Trofim Lysenko. As a result, Vavilov was arrested on August 6, 1940 and died of malnutrition in a prison in 1943.

According to Cohen, by 1940, Vavilov had accumulated a collection of 200,000 plant seeds from the Soviet Union and from abroad. Fascists tried of his genetic samples to seized by a German collecting command set up in 1943, and something were transferred to the SS Institute for Plant Genetics, which had been established at the Lannach Castle near Graz, Austria.[5] However, the command could only take samples stored within the territories occupied by the German armies, mainly in Ukraine and Crimea. The main gene bank in Leningrad was not affected. The leader of the German command was Heinz Brücher, an SS officer who was also a plant genetics expert.

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.[6] 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 him 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.[7] 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.


  • 1887 - born November 25, in Moscow.
  • 1911 - graduated from the Moscow Agricultural Institute.
  • 1917-1921 - professor of the agronomy department of the Saratov University.
  • 1919 - theory of the immunity for plants.
  • 1920 - formulation of the law of homology series in genetical mutability.
  • mid 1920s - Vavilov befriends the young peasant Trofim Lysenko and begins taking him to scientific meetings
  • 1921(-1940) - chairman of the applied botanics and selection section in Petrograd, which in 1924 was reorganized into the All-Union Institute of Applied Botanics and New Crops and in 1930, into the All-Union Institute of Plant Cultivation, with Vavilov being director until August, 1940.
  • 1924 - Vladimir Lenin dies and is replaced by Josef Stalin - a turning point in Vavilov's life
  • 1926 - Lenin Award.
  • 1930—1940 - head of the genetics laboratory in Moscow, later reorganized into the Institute of Genetics of the USSR Academy of Sciences.
  • 1931—1940 - President of the All-Union Geographical Society.
  • Late 1930s - Lysenko, who has conceived a hatred for genetics is put in charge of all of Soviet agriculture
  • 1940 - arrested for allegedly wrecking Soviet agriculture; delivered more than a hundred hours of lectures on science while in prison
  • 1943 - died imprisoned and suffering from dystrophia (faulty nutrition of muscles, leading to paralysis), in the Saratov prison.

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


  • Земледельческий Афганистан. (1929) (Agricultural Afghanistan)
  • Селекция как наука. (1934) (Selection as science)
  • Закон гомологических рядов в наследственной изменчивости. (1935) (The law of homology series in genetical mutability)
  • Учение о происхождении культурных растений после Дарвина. (1940) (The theory of origins of cultivated plants after Darwin)

Works in English

  • The Origin, Variation, Immunity and Breeding of Cultivated Plants (translated by K. Starr Chester). 1951. Chronica Botanica 13:1–366
  • Origin and Geography of Cultivated Plants (translated by Doris Löve). 1992. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 0-521-40427-4
  • Five Continents (translated by Doris Löve). 1997. IPGRI, Rome; VIR, St. Petersburg ISBN 92-9043-302-7
  • The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov: The Story of Stalin's Persecution of One of the Greatest Scientists of the Twentieth Century, by Peter Pringle. 2008. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-7432-6498-3

See also


  1. ^ Siebert, Charles. 2011. “Food Ark.” National Geographic. Volume 220 (1), July 2011. Pages 122-126.
  2. ^ The significance of Vavilov's scientific expeditions. PGR Newsletter 124. Bioversity International.
  3. ^ Siebert, Charles. 2011. “Food Ark.” National Geographic. Volume 220 (1), July 2011. Page 126.
  4. ^ Popov I. Yu (2002). Periodical systems in biology.
  5. ^ Heinz Brücher and the SS botanical collecting command to Russia 1943. PGR Newsletter 129. Bioversity International.
  6. ^ N.I.Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry at
  7. ^ Schmadel, Lutz D. (2003), Dictionary of Minor Planet Names (5th ed.), New York: Springer Verlag, pp. 235, ISBN 3540002383, 
  8. ^ "Author Query". International Plant Names Index. 

Further reading

  • Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov's Quest to End Famine by Gary Paul Nabhan 2008 ISBN 9781597263993
  • Shumnyĭ, V K (2007), "[Two brilliant generalizations of Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov (for the 120th anniversary)]", Genetika 43 (11): 1447–53, 2007 Nov, PMID 18186182 
  • Zakharov, Ilya A (2005), "Nikolai I Vavilov (1887-1943)", J. Biosci. 30 (3): 299–301, 2005 Jun, doi:10.1007/BF02703666, PMID 16052067 
  • Crow, J F (2001), "Plant breeding giants. Burbank, the artist; Vavilov, the scientist", Genetics 158 (4): 1391–5, 2001 Aug, PMC 1461760, PMID 11514434, 
  • Crow, J F (1993), "N. I. Vavilov, Martyr to Genetic Truth", Genetics 134 (1): 1–4, 1993 May, PMC 1205417, PMID 8514123, 
  • Delone, N L (1988), "[Significance of the scientific heritage of N.I. Vavilov in the development of space biology (on the centenary of his birth)]", Kosmicheskaia biologiia i aviakosmicheskaia meditsina 22 (6): 79–83, PMID 3066990 
  • Vasina-Popova, E T (1987), "[The role of N. I. Vavilov in the development of Soviet genetics and animal selection]", Genetika 23 (11): 2002–6, 1987 Nov, PMID 3322935 
  • Levina, E S (1987), "Not Available", Voprosy istorii estestvoznaniia i tekhniki (Institut istorii estestvoznaniia i tekhniki (Akademiia nauk SSSR)) (4): 34–43, PMID 11636235 
  • Alekseev, V P (1987), "Not Available", Sovetskaia ėtnografiia / Akademiia nauk SSSR i Narodnyĭ komissariat prosveshcheniia RSFSR (6): 72–80, PMID 11636003 
  • Raipulis, J (1987), "Not Available", Vestis. Izvestiia. Latvijas PSR Zinātnu akadēmija (9): 71–6, PMID 11635329 
  • "[Correspondence legacy of N. I. Vavilov]", Genetika 15 (8): 1525–6, 1979, PMID 383572 
  • Berdyshev, G D; Savchenko, N I; Pomogaĭbo, V M; Shcherbina, D M; Samorodov, VN (1978), "[Celebration of the 90th anniversary of the birth of N. I. Vavilov in the Ukraine]", Tsitol. Genet. 12 (2): 177–9, PMID 356364 
  • Khuchua, K N (1978), "[Life and career of Academician N. I. Vavilov. On the 90th anniversary of his birth]", Tsitol. Genet. 12 (2): 174–7, PMID 356363 
  • Kondrashov, V (1978), "[On the 90th birthday of N. I. Vavilov]", Genetika 14 (12): 2225, PMID 369949 
  • Reznik, S. and Y. Vavilov 1997 "The Russian Scientist Nicolay Vavilov" (preface to English translation of:) Vavilov, N. I. Five Continents. IPGRI: Rome, Italy.
  • Cohen, Barry Mendel 1980 Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov: His Life and Work. Ph.D.: University of Texas at Austin.
  • Cohen, Barry Mendel (1991), "Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov: the explorer and plant collector", Economic Botany 45 (1): 38–46, doi:10.1007/BF02860048. 
  • Bakhteev, F. Kh.; Dickson, James G. (1960), "To the History of Russian Science: Academician Nicholas IV an Vavilov on His 70th Anniversary (November 26, 1887-August 2, 1942)", The Quarterly Review of Biology 35 (2): 115–119, doi:10.1086/403015, PMID 13686142. 

External links

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