Dr. Norman Borlaug's 100th Birthday

Borlaug Summit in Ciudad Obregon, Mexico

March 25, 2014 would have been Norman Borlaug’s 100th birthday. For those of you who don’t know exactly who Dr. Borlaug is, this blog is for you. As I write this, I’m waiting for my flight to Mexico to attend a celebration hosted by CIMMYT, the International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement, where Dr. Borlaug worked.

Norman Borlaug was born in Iowa, a farmer’s son. By luck, he attended college at the University of Minnesota during the Great Depression and studied forestry. He worked for the US Forestry Service after receiving his BS and returned after some prodding by a professor to get his Master’s and PhD in Plant Pathology. Although he had never worked with wheat directly, Borlaug was recruited by a friend to take a job at an upstart unit to help raise the level of wheat production in Mexico.

Photo Credit: family of Jim Wilson. Norman Borlaug (center) in wheat field in Mexico

It was there at this new research station, which he would build from the ground up, that Dr. Borlaug essentially saved many from starvation. You see, when Borlaug arrived in Mexico in 1944, Mexican farmers were poor, very poor, starving poor. While working as a wheat breeder, Borlaug developed new varieties of wheat and educated farmers about agricultural practices, such as fertilization and irrigation. These helped increased Mexican wheat yields to a level where Mexico no longer needed to import wheat.

Photo credit: family of Jim Wilson. Norman Borlaug (far left) with Jim Wilson in Mexico.

For all of these efforts, plus other similar work in India and Pakistan, Borlaug was awarded the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. He is often accredited with saving the lives of more humans than any other person on earth. After reading a biography of Norman Borlaug, here are a few lesser known items about the most famous wheat breeder in the world.

1) He nearly died at least four times: once as a young schoolboy in an Iowa blizzard while walking home, once while in college from strep throat, once by narrowly avoiding crashing into a truck carrying dynamite, and once while attempting to cross a swollen river in Mexico.

2) Upon receiving the seed of the variety “Norin 10,” which was the variety that carried the genes that substantially reduced the height of wheat plants, and thus, allowing them to stand under their own weight upon being fertilized, he mistakenly planted them in a field one spring in Mexico. A little background for you, Norin 10 is a winter wheat. Winter wheat requires a period of cold temperatures to trigger the plant to switch from a vegetative state to a reproductive state. Without the cold period, winter wheats continue to grow as grasses and do not produce a seed head. So by this small mistake of forgetting that Norin 10 was a winter wheat, Borlaug lost a whole year of breeding progress. And if not for the small reserve of 8 seeds that he had kept back, wheat breeding and wheat production, especially in Mexico, would have had a much different story.

This only gives me hope, as I also often get too busy to cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s. Everyone is human. Everyone makes a mistake now and then.

Front row from left: Marla Barnett, Norman Borlaug, Gina Brown-Guedira, Dave Marshall.

April 2005, I had the chance to meet and speak with Dr. Borlaug while he visited North Carolina State University and gave a public lecture. I asked him for some advice for a young wheat breeder. He told me what he had told many others before me: “Go to the field, go to the field, go to the field. And never forget who you work for, the farmers.” This picture is one of my most prized possessions and hangs over my desk at work. But, you see, I’m usually never at my desk!

Until next time -
Marla