Thursday, June 3, 2010

Scientist Heroes

I had never heard of Nikolay Vavilov until Saturday afternoon, when I happened to catch part of the Splendid Table on Minnesota Public Radio. Ethnobiologist, conservationist and farmer Gary Nabhan was on the show to talk about his book, Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov's Quest to End Famine.

Cover of Where Our Food Comes FromAccording to Nabhan, between 1916 and 1940, Vavilov collected seeds and tubers from all over the world. He was "an incredible explorer of food diversity. He visited 64 countries on five continents, he learned 15 languages. He was one of the first scientists to listen to traditional farmers, peasant farmers around the world... All of our notions of biodiversity spring from his work, and if justice be done, he would be as famous as Darwin or Luther Burbank." Vavilov's collection is still housed in a seed bank a few blocks from the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg.

Vavilov headed the Soviets' agricultural research efforts until 1940, when he was purged and scapegoated for the failure of farm collectivization and the growing reliance on Lamarckian genetics, as advocated by Trofim Lysenko. Vavilov fought against Lysenkoism until he was taken to prison, but in the twisted Stalinist logic, he was blamed for its failure. He spent the last three years of his life in a cell, starving to death.

Nabhan also told the story of the seed bank during the 1941 siege of Leningrad. The city's people were beating the doors of the seed bank to get at the seeds to eat them, but Vavilov's team of scientists, also starving, guarded the seed bank:

Over a series of months, a dozen of the scientists starved to death while guarding those seeds. One of them said, It was hard to wake up, it was hard to get on your feet and put on your clothes in the morning, but no, it was not hard to protect the seeds once you had your wits about you. That saving those seeds for future generations and helping the world recover after war was more important than a single person's comfort.

I've had the blessing of visiting the seed bank... and we looked at a wall of photos of the people who died protecting those seeds. And I've never been so deeply moved by the courage of scientists... That they put humankind before their own personal lives seemed to me an astonishing act.
Listening to him speak, you can hear the emotion in Nabhan's voice. I look forward to reading his book and learning more about his work.

1 comment:

Jeremy said...

And if you want to know more about Vavilov and Nabhan, had over to the Vaviblog where we try to give Nikolay a voice in the internet age.