Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov

(1887—1943) Soviet plant geneticist

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Soviet plant geneticist who made a vast collection of plant species from around the world and who proposed the theory that this diversity arose from several centres of origin located throughout the world.

Born in Moscow, Vavilov studied under the geneticist William Bateson at Cambridge University and at the John Innes Horticultural Institution (1913–14). On his return to the Soviet Union he was appointed professor of botany at the University of Saratov (1917–20) and then became director of the Bureau of Applied Botany, Petrograd (now St Petersburg). Under his leadership, over four hundred research establishments were set up throughout the Soviet Union. Vavilov undertook a series of plant-collecting expeditions worldwide and eventually amassed over 50 000 species to be tested for their potential as crop plants. In Centres of Origin of Cultivated Plants (1920), he proposed six centres of origin in the world – regions where species exhibited maximum adaptability, i e genetic diversity. He later increased his number of such ‘genecentres’ to twelve and distinguished between primary genecentres (sites where ancestral forms persist) and secondary genecentres (sites where more recent proliferation of species has occurred). His theories remain an important concept in studies of plant populations.

Although his efforts brought international recognition for Soviet genetics, Vavilov came under increasing criticism from his rival geneticist, T. D. Lysenko, whose influence over Soviet science was growing. The International Congress of Genetics planned for 1937 was cancelled on Lysenko's orders and in 1939 Lysenko made a vitriolic public denunciation of Vavilov as a purveyor of ‘bourgeois’ biology. The following year, Lysenko ousted Vavilov as director of the USSR Academy of Sciences' Institute of Genetics and later that year Vavilov was arrested and imprisoned. He was moved in 1942 to a concentration camp at Magadan and an unknown fate. In the 1950s, his reputation as one of the foremost Soviet scientists was restored as Lysenko's influence waned.

Subjects: Biological Sciences.

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