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Vavilov, Nikolai Ivanovitch

plant russia institute botanist

[ vav ilof] (1887–1943) Russian botanist and plant geneticist: a pioneer of cross-breeding to improve crops.

Trained in Moscow and with at the John Innes Horticultural Institute at Merton in Surrey, Vavilov returned to Russia in 1914 and quickly rose to become, by 1920, director of the All Union Institute of Plant Industry, controlling over 400 research institutes in the USSR with 20 000 staff by 1934. Between 1916 and 1933 he led plant-collecting expeditions all over the world, the intention being to conserve and use the valuable genetic resources in wild and cultivated plants on which crop improvement depends. He devised useful theories on where centres of genetic diversity are to be found by plant hunters. His programme was very successful, his collection of new plants reaching 250 000 by 1940; it was the largest-scale enterprise of its kind and the model for later work of this sort. Vavilov supported the ideas in genetics due to , and this was to prove fatal. The politically active Marxist botanist T D Lysenko (1898–1976), who had reverted to a Lamarckian view, resented his success; Vavilov was arrested in 1940 while plant collecting, charged with ‘right-wing activities’ and sentenced to death after a 5-minute trial; his name was erased from all records. He died about 2 years later of starvation in a labour camp, an ironic fate for the man who did most to feed Russia during the war by improved agricultural methods. His seed collections were largely eaten during the siege of Leningrad. At present he is re-recognized in Russia and the Vavilov Institute is named in his honour.

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