Help for Humanity
Today a Soviet court sentenced the extraordinary twentieth-century Russian botanist Nikolay Vavilov to death by firing squad.
Worried about the world's plant biodiversity, Vavilov became a dedicated plant collector, and he had the foresight to build the world's first seed bank in St. Petersburg. Nikolay's life's mission was something he called a "mission for all humanity" and it was tied directly to his drive to build the seed bank: Vavilov wanted to end world hunger and famine, and he planned to accomplish this ambitious goal through science. And he hoped to breed super plants that would be both nutritious and hardy so that they could be grown even in the most challenging locations on the planet.
During his life, Vavilov had enjoyed Lenin's support. Vavilov's big ideas knit perfectly together with Lenin's desire for a socialist utopia. But after Lenin died, Vavilov was on the outs. His family was made up of accomplished scientists, and they were considered part of the bourgeoisie and scorned.
The events that lead to Vavilov's sentencing and ultimate death had to do with Vavilov's critique of a fellow scientist. Vavilov had publicly criticized a geneticist named Lysenko, who had Stalin's backing. And so, on this day in 1941, Vavilov was sentenced to die.
But Vavilov never faced the firing squad. Instead, he died of starvation two years after receiving his sentence.
Today, the Vavilov Institute houses over a quarter of a million specimens and is a living monument to Nikolay Vavilov ― the scientist who wanted food security for all of humanity, yet ironically died of starvation in the basement of a Soviet prison.