Nikolai Vavilov

Aug 2, 2020Last updated: May 9, 2021
Biographies inpeople

Nikolai Vavilov was raised in an era when food shortages were very frequent in erstwhile Soviet Union. He became obsessed with ending famine to the extent that he created the world's largest plant seed bank in Lenningrad. His meticulous scientific study of cultivated crops across the world advanced our understanding of their genetics. We now recognize his research to be immensely impactful in sustaining the world population. I'd be remiss to not mention his collaborating scientists who believed just as much if not more, in scientific inquiry. During the Siege of Lenningrad by Nazi Germany, they protected the seed bank and did not consume them despite starvation.

Vavilov worked in the Stalin era and was vehemently opposed by Trofim Lysenko. Unfortunate for Vavilov, Lysenko had Stalin's ears. Lysenko was an influential in perpetuating anti-Mendelian genetics, push back progress in the field in Russian scientific community by decades. Vavilov was arrested in 1940 for this dissent. He was sentenced to death, but later commuted to a 20-year prison term. Ironically, he died of starvation in captivity a few years later. Some of the scientists during the Siege of Lenningrad, faced the same fate.

Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov's Quest to End Famine by Gary Paul Nabhan is a recommended book into this story.


This is an extraordinary story. Vavilov is a paragon of scientific excellence. His belief in scientific inquiry was undeterred until his last breath, despite institutional opposition from the highest powers. Eventually, Vavilov was exonerated and recognized as a hero. I wish he could live to see how he immensely he impacted the world.

This is yet another example of ideology trumping science and leading to catastrophic failure.

© 2021 Sanyam Kapoor