The Extraordinary Life and Death of Vavilov

The botanist and geneticist who became a martyr of science and crop biodiversity

Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov (1887-1943) was a Russian botanist and geneticist. He developed several important theories — one of which is the centres of origin for cultivated crop plants — that have been guiding principles for plant breeding and plant genetic resource conservation around the world.

The paper on the topic titled “Vavilovian Centers of Plant Diversity: Implications and Impacts,” by United States Department of Agriculture research horticulturist Kim E. Hummer and Jim Hancock, a professor emeritus at the department of horticulture at Michigan State University, provides an overview of Vavilov’s theory of the centres of origin for cultivated crops, the groundwork for developing the theory and his influences on plant breeding and international plant genetic resources.

Influenced by Charles Darwin’s ideas, Vavilov realized plant species were not fixed but evolved over time and humans in specific locations had been selectively improving crops for thousands of years. 

Vavilov took the concept of plant variability formed by Darwin and others a step further by theorizing the major food crops developed over thousands of years must have originated from central points where they successfully dispersed. Vavilov hypothesized that at what he called “centres of origin” were to be found the greatest areas of genetic diversity of crop species. Vavilov began to seek out these centres with more than 100 collecting expeditions to five continents between 1920 and 1940, Hummer and Hancock’s paper summarizes.

“(He) made his way into almost inaccessible mountain areas, deserts, and forests, risking his life and enduring many hardships. He visited the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia for wheat accessions. He traveled to North and South America and the Far East including China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. He realized that plant diversity was not distributed equally around the world, but was focused in specific regions,” the report states.

Even after his death in 1943, Vavilov’s colleagues took 40 international expeditions from 1940 to 1993 to continue collecting and evaluating plants in the centres of origin predicted by Vavilov. Initially, he proposed five centres of origin in 1924, which he increased to eight in 1935; however, posthumous publication of his final papers reduce that number to seven major centres with minor additions, according to the report. The eight proposed centres are East Asian, Hindustani, Inter-Asiatic, Caucasian, Mediterranean, Abyssianian, Central American and Andean. 

“Vavilov’s ‘centers’ accounted for most of the major crops of global economic value of the day…. Scientists have embraced the Vavilov concept of a center of origin for crop plants, i.e. geographical area where a group of plants were first domesticated. Controversy remains on just where that location is for a particular crop or crop grouping.

“Scientists recognize that many diverse species can be found at Vavilov’s centers and that crop species can have high levels of diversity at multiple locations. The present theories are more comfortable with these points being referred to as a ‘center of diversity’ where a high degree of genetic variation for a particular crop species occurs rather than ‘centers of origin.’ Nevertheless, many scientists quibble over the semantics,” the report states.

Additionally, some of Vavilov’s other accomplishments include the following:

  • Vavilov’s theories are at the heart of agricultural principles taught around the world
  • His ideas have influenced international policies and plans
  • Vavilov’s predictions of unknown forms and species from specific centres of origin have guided methods for biogeographic searches
  • His concept that diseases and pests co-evolved at centres of origin for cultivated crops has acted as a roadmap for genetic diversity collectors
  • Vavilov’s theories led to the establishment of international genebanks, “where genetic resources belong to humanity,” states the report. The protocols and guiding principles Vavilov created for the Russian system have been adopted by international genebank managers
  • His concept of homologous variation is now applied to molecular genetics and is one of the underlying principles for plant breeding and evaluation
  • Vavilov’s guidance for breeders to seek germplasm resistant to pest and diseases at his centres of origin has been proven to be directly applicable in many crop plants

“Vavilov’s ideas have transcended his life. They have guided the present genetic resource community where genebanks should be located, and in the proper protocols for genetic resource conservation. His focus on the continued need to conserve genetic resources, and his indomitable conviction for truth, genetics, and the scientific method continues to be an inspiration,” states the report.

Fall from grace

Surely, this dedicated and brilliant man with the meteoric rise in the sphere of Russian agricultural science, driven by his passion to feed the Russian people, would be lauded for the rest of his career and life. This was not to be the case.

There are few scientists in history with such a fall from grace. 

At the height of his career, Vavilov was director of the V.I. Lenin All-Union Institute of Agriculture in Leningrad where he was responsible for all of his country’s agricultural research. He was also a director of the Institute of Genetics, organizing “significant national and international scientific meetings and congresses on botany, genetics, plant breeding, agricultural economy and the history of science,” reports Jules Janick, a professor emeritus at Purdue University’s College of Agriculture in his paper “Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov: Plant Geographer, Geneticist, Martyr of Science.”

Vavilov established more than 400 research institutes and experiment stations throughout the Soviet Union. According to Janick’s paper, Vavilov was known around the world and inducted into numerous foreign academies and societies.

It was a lethal mix of politics and science that would bring about Vavilov’s downfall. Trofim Lysenko, a contemporary Soviet agronomist and biologist, rejected Mendelian genetics and embraced Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s theory of evolution — that physical changes in organisms could occur during their lifetimes as a result of increased use, and these changes could then be passed on to their offspring. 

According to Janick’s paper, modern genetics was considered to be “reactionary, bourgeois and capitalistic.” And for political reasons, “the concept of changing inheritance by nurture was considered to have fit communist ideology.”

Josef Stalin accepted the principles of Lamarckism and, consequently, supported Lysenko’s rise to “prominence and power.”

“This turned out to be the turning point to the destruction of Vavilov’s career and life. In 1935, Vavilov was replaced as President of the Academy and the 25th jubilee year of celebration of Vavilov was canceled. The opposition to Vavilov was to become tyrannical, and by 1936 arrests of geneticists started to be made,” reports Janick.

Vavilov’s fight with Lysenko, which was really a battle with Stalin, could not be won. While on expedition in Poland in 1940, Vavilov was taken into custody and brought back to Moscow. He was charged with “belonging to a rightist conspiracy and spying for England,” states Janick.

Vavilov confessed to these crimes under torture, which were later denied. He was convicted and sentenced to death, however, the sentence was commuted to 20 years imprisonment in Saratov in 1941. 

Aged 55, on Jan. 26, 1943, Vavilov died of cardiovascular failure and dystrophy, “undernourished and sick as a result of solitary confinement,” states Janick.

“His tragic downfall at the hand of Trofim Lysenko and Joseph Stalin in the late 1930s was a shameful and terrible chapter in the conflict of science and despotism. Vavilov died in prison as a martyr of science. His life and career have become an inspiration to botanists, geneticists, and agricultural scientists.”

After Stalin’s death, Vavilov’s contributions to plant breeding and genetics, plant genetic resource conservation, and agricultural science and research were once again recognized worldwide. 

“His work turned out to be his heritage, and his stature has increased over time, while his opponents, as Torquemada (the fifteenth-century leader of the Spanish Inquisition), will be only remembered in infamy. The memory of Vavilov had been preserved by his followers, who gathered up and preserved manuscripts, documents, and pictures.”

Janick’s full work on the rise and fall of Vavilov can be found online at:

Hummer and Hancock’s paper “Vavilovian Centers of Plant Diversity: Implications and Impacts,” can be found online at:

Contributor: Kari Belanger