Though he was raised on an Iowa farm during the Great Depression, Norman Ernest Borlaug, PhD (1914-2009), didn’t witness bread lines firsthand until he attended the University of Minnesota, where he experienced life-changing events.
“He had seen what happened when the banks came after the farmers, but when he saw his first bread lines, he was horrified,” said granddaughter Julie Borlaug, assistant director of partnerships at the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture at Texas A&M University in College Station.
It was at the University of Minnesota, where he attended a lecture by renowned wheat rust expert Elton Charles Stakeman, PhD, that he discovered the path toward his lifelong pursuit: developing an improved form of wheat that could help alleviate hunger worldwide, an achievement that earned him the moniker “father of the green revolution.”
Humble farm roots
Dr. Borlaug was raised on a farm in Cresco, Iowa, the son of Henry and Clara Borlaug. He attended primary and secondary school in a one-room schoolhouse and then enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where he earned a BS in forestry in 1937. Around that time, he also worked for the U.S. Forestry Service in Massachusetts and Idaho. He returned to the University of Minnesota to study plant pathology, earning an MS in 1939 and a PhD in 1942.
Dr. Borlaug was a microbiologist for the du Pont de Nemours Foundation from 1942 to 1944, in charge of research on industrial and agricultural bactericides, fungicides, and preservatives. In 1944, he became a geneticist and plant pathologist charged with organizing and directing the Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Program in Mexico. This joint program between the Mexican government and the Rockefeller Foundation involved research in genetics, plant breeding, plant pathology, entomology, agronomy, soil science, and cereal technology. It was there that he did his seminal work, finding a high-yielding, short-strawed, disease-resistant wheat, according to his Nobel Peace Prize biography. Dr. Borlaug went on to work with scientists in India, Pakistan, and elsewhere to adapt the new strains of wheat to other locales.
According to his New York Times obituary, “He spent countless hours hunched over in the blazing Mexican sun as he manipulated tiny wheat blossoms to cross different strains. To speed the work, he set up winter and summer operations in far-flung parts of Mexico, logging thousands of miles over poor roads. He battled illness, forded rivers in flood, dodged mudslides, and sometimes slept in tents.”
“A vigorous man who can perform prodigies of manual labor in the fields, he brings to his work the body and competitive spirit of the trained athlete, which indeed he was in his high school and college days,” notes his biography for the Nobel Peace Prize, which he won in 1970. Tall and thin, Dr. Borlaug was a wrestler, an activity that got him accepted by the University of Minnesota after the University of Iowa had rejected him, thinking that his one-room schoolhouse education might be lacking, his granddaughter said.
For Dr. Borlaug, sports were a key part of life, along with education, a fact he drummed into the heads of his five grandchildren whenever he was home from his frequent world travels. “He thought sports taught discipline, self-respect for an adult other than yourself, and a way to learn how to win and lose,” Julie Borlaug said. Indeed, one of his dreams was to become a shortstop for the Chicago Cubs. The closest he came to playing in a major league park was when he threw out the first pitch at Fenway Park on June 9, 2004, the year the Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years. Julie said her grandfather used to joke that he helped reverse the “curse” of losing for the team.