Vavilov, Nikolai Ivanovich

Vavilov, Nikolai Ivanovich

Vavilov, Nikolai Ivanovich (nyĭkəlīˈ ēväˈnəvĭch vəvēˈləf), 1887–1943?, Russian botanist and geneticist. He is reported to have died in a Soviet concentration camp after losing political favor to Trofim Lysenko, whose theories he opposed. He served earlier as professor at the Leningrad Agricultural Institute and as director of the All-Union Institute of Plant Industry. In 1918 he discovered in Transcaucasia a variety of wheat that grows at an altitude of nearly 3,000 ft (914 m) and is resistant to rust and mildew. His genetic study of wheat variations led to an attempt to trace the locales of origin of various crops by determining the areas in which the greatest number and diversity of their species are to be found. In 1936 he reported that his studies indicated Ethiopia and Afghanistan as the birthplaces of agriculture and hence of civilization. Vavilov divided cultivated plants into those that were domesticated from wild forms, e.g., oats and rye, and those known only in the cultivated form, e.g., corn. After the ouster and death of Lysenko, Vavilov's work regained prestige in the Soviet Union. His Immunity of Plants to Infectious Diseases (1918) includes a summary in English.
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Vavilov, Nikolai Ivanovich


Born Nov. 13 (25), 1887, in Moscow; died Jan. 26, 1943, in Saratov. Soviet geneticist, horticulturist, and geographer; creator of the modern scientific basis of breeding and of the teachings on the world centers of the origin of cultivated plants and their geographic distribution. One of the first organizers and administrators of the biological and agricultural sciences in the USSR. Public figure. Academician of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR (1929, corresponding member in 1923) and academician of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR (1929). President (1929-35) and ’ vice-president (1935-0) of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences. Member of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR from 1926 to 1935 and member of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee from 1927 to 1929. President of the All-Union Geographical Society from 1931 to 1940.

Vavilov was born into a merchant family. He graduated from the Moscow Agricultural Institute (now the K. A. Timiriazev Moscow Agricultural Academy) in 1911 and remained there in the subdepartment of special agriculture, headed by D. N. Prianishnikov, to prepare for a career in science and teaching. He was appointed professor at the University of Saratov in 1917. In 1921 he became director of the Section of Applied Botany and Breeding (Petrograd), which was reorganized in 1924 into the All-Union Institute of Applied Botany and New Plants and in 1930 into the All-Union Institute of Horticulture, which he directed until August 1940. In 1930, Vavilov became head of the genetics laboratory that was later transformed into the Institute of Genetics of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR.

In 1919 and 1920, Vavilov did research on the southeast European USSR and reported on all the cultivated plants of the Volga and Transvolga regions in his book Field Crops of the Southeast (1922). In 1925 he made an expedition to the Khiva Oasis (Middle Asia). From 1920 through 1940 he directed many botanical and agronomical expeditions. He organized scientific expeditions to study the plant resources of the Mediterranean area (Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Transjordan), Ethiopia, Iran, Afghanistan, Japan, western China, Korea, and the countries of North, Central, and South America, and he personally directed many of them. He carried out comprehensive studies in Afghanistan in 1924; the expedition visited the almost inaccessible and little investigated western part of Kafiristan (present-day Nuristan), studied the cultivated plants thoroughly, and collected extensive general geographic data. The results of this expedition were summarized in Agricultural Afghanistan (1929). The expedition to Ethiopia in 1926 and 1927 was of particular interest: Vavilov found that many hard wheats originated there. During his travels in North, Central, and South America (1930, 1932-33) he visited Mexico, Guatemala, British Honduras, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Brazil, and Argentina, where he conducted valuable historical-agronomical studies. Soviet expeditions under his leadership discovered new species of wild and cultivated potatoes that became the basis for practical breeding work. As a result of studying the various plant species and varieties collected in Europe, Asia, Africa, and North and South America, he found focuses of form development (or centers of origin) of cultivated plants. The discovery by Vavilov of the patterns of geographical distribution of the species and varieties in primary focuses and the spread of plants from these focuses has facilitated the search for the plant material necessary for breeding and experimental botany. Plants with characteristics of early ripening were concentrated in certain regions, those exhibiting drought resistance were concentrated in others, and so on. The materials and collections of the expeditions made it possible to carry out experimental geographic sowings of cultivated plants for the first time in the USSR (1923) in various zones of the country in order to study their variability and evaluate them from the standpoint of evolution and breeding. This was the foundation on which state strain-testing stations for field crops were organized in the USSR. Under Vavilov’s direction and with his participation, a world collection of more than 300,000 specimens of cultivated plants was created and stored in the All-Union Institute of Horticulture. Many strains of different crops cultivated in the USSR are the result of the breeding work done with appropriate specimens from this collection.

Vavilov devoted much attention to the promotion of farming in the undeveloped northern, semidesert, and high-mountain regions. The problem of introducing new crops was largely solved for the humid and arid subtropics of the USSR. On Vavilov’s initiative the country began to grow new and valuable crops: jute, tung trees, and many essential-oil, medicinal, tannin, fodder, and other plants. In 1919 he substantiated his theory of plant immunity to infectious diseases, demonstrating the possibility of breeding immune varieties, especially those that are simultaneously immune to several diseases and resistant to pests. In 1920 he formulated his law of homologous series in hereditary variability in similar species, genera, and even families. This law reflects one of the most important principles of evolution: that similar hereditary changes arise in related species and genera. By using this law in studying some morphological characters and properties of one species or genus, it is possible to predict the existence of corresponding forms in another species or genus. The law aids breeders in their search for new stock for crossbreeding and selection.

Vavilov defined a Linnaean species as a separate, complex, mobile morphological and physiological system that is associated by origin with a particular environment and range (1930). He substantiated the ecological-geographical principles of breeding and the principles underlying the creation of stock for breeding and other purposes.

Vavilov’s initiative led to the organization of a number of new scientific institutions: the Institute of Grain Farming of the Southeastern European USSR; the Institute of Fruit Growing, Vegetable Growing, and Subtropical Crops; and institutes concerned with fodder, corn, potatoes, cotton, linen, hemp, oil-bearing crops, soybeans, grapes, and tea. Vavilov established a school of horticulturists, geneticists, and breeders.

Vavilov was awarded the Lenin Prize in 1926 for his scientific research in the field of immunity and the origin of cultivated plants and for the discovery of the law of homologous series; the N. M. Przheval’skii Gold Medal for his studies in Afghanistan; and the Great Gold Medal of the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition (1940) for his research in the field of breeding and seed growing. He was a genuine champion of science; his struggle against pseudoscientific ideas in biology and his efforts to develop genetics and the theoretical basis of horticulture and livestock raising in the Soviet Union are widely known. He represented Soviet scholarship at many conferences and international congresses.

Vavilov was a member or honorary member of many foreign academies, including the British (London Royal Society), Indian, Argentine, and Scottish. He was elected corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences in Halle (Germany) and of the Czechoslovak Academy, honorary member of the American Botanical Society, the Linnaean Society in London, and the British Royal Horticultural Society.

Vavilov’s research came to an end in 1940. The Vavilov Prize was established in 1965. In 1967 the Ail-Union Institute of Horticulture was named after him. The Vavilov Gold Medal for outstanding research and discoveries in agriculture was established in 1968.


“Tsentry proiskhozhdeniia kul’turnykh rastenii.” Trudy po prikladnoi botanike i selektsii, 1926, vol. 16, issue 2.
Problemy novykh kul’tur. Moscow-Leningrad, 1932.
Nauchnye osnovy selektsii pshenitsy. Moscow-Leningrad, 1935.
Uchenie ob immunitete rastenii k infektsionnym zabolevaniiam. Moscow-Leningrad, 1935.
Linneevskii vid kak sistema. Moscow-Leningrad, 1931.
Selektsiia kak nauka. Moscow-Leningrad, 1934.
Botaniko-geograficheskie osnovy selektsii. Moscow-Leningrad, 1935.
Zakon gomologicheskikh riadov v nasledstvennoi izmenchivosti, 2nd ed. Moscow-Leningrad, 1935.
“Uchenie o proiskhozhdenii kul’turnykh rastenii posle Darvina.” Sovetskaia nauka, 1940, no. 2.
Mirovye resursy sortov khlebnykh zlakov … : Opyt agroekologicheskogo obozreniia vazhneishikh polevykh kul’tur. Moscow-Leningrad, 1957.
Mirovye resursy sortov khlebnykh zlakov … : Pshenitsa. Moscow-Leningrad, 1964.
Izbrannye proizvedeniia, vols. 1-2. Leningrad, 1967.


Bakhteev, F. Kh. “Akademik Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov.” Biulleten’ Moskovskogo ob-va ispytatelei prirody: Otd. biologicheskii, 1958, vol. 63, issue 3.
Voprosy geografii kul’turnykh rastenii i N. I. Vavilov. Moscow-Leningrad, 1966.
Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov. Moscow, 1967. (Materialy k biobibliografii uchenykh SSSR: Ser. biol. nauk. Genetika, no. 1.)
Reznik, S. Nikolai Vavilov. Moscow, 1968.
N. I. Vavilov i sel’skokhoziaistvennaia nauka: Posviashchaetsia 80-letiiu do dnia rozhdeniia .… Moscow, 1969.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.