The rise, fall and resurrection of a Russian seed bank pioneer

Suspect for State’s Case Number 1500 sat in his cell, facing unending days of solitary confinement and interrogation, accused of spying “for foreign intelligence services.” Alone, seized and imprisoned, he worried about his work, the seeds collected from all over the world, his legacy, his institute. Suddenly he realized how large a burden he had borne, for in his own words and tempo, there was not a moment to spare. Would all this be cast aside, his reputation disgraced among his far-away colleagues?  Or would the good work be rediscovered, like the laws of Mendel?

It was August 1942 and the Soviet-financed expedition he led just reached the town of Chernovtsy while collecting plant germplasm from the western regions of the Ukraine. Upon his return to town, he found several men in cars insisting he come to place an urgent phone call to Moscow. Unquestioning he went. Only later did he realize their orders were instead to isolate and imprison him.

Eventually, Nikolai I. Vavilov, director of the All-Union Institute of Plant Industry in Leningrad, was sent to Saratov prison, accused of being a traitor. He was jailed in such horrendous conditions and deprivations that he soon died of starvation. A man who dedicated his life to bettering people’s lives through agricultural research was dead on January 26th, 1943 at the age of 55.

Read more at the Genetic Literacy Project (Joel Cohen)

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