Biodiversity Conservation

The Strange & Tragic Case of the Soviet Seed Man (Part 1)

Over the next few posts, I will explore the fascinating and tragic story of the world’s first seed bank and its heroic creator. My thanks to reader Michel Leblanc for sharing this story with me.

Saving the planet’s plant diversity. Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov and his labor of love. From a post by Thor Hatten on Medium.

The name Nikolai Vavilov is virtually unknown in the west today, which is a shame because he started the world’s first seed bank and developed theories about genetic diversity that is still valid today.

Born to a merchant family in Moscow in 1887, Vavilov grew up at a time when famine regularly visited the Russian countryside. A famine in 1891-92 caused an estimated 300,000 deaths and is credited with having given new life to the Russian Marxist movement. The young Vavilov heard stories of privation from his father and determined to dedicate his life to eradicating hunger. He entered the Petrovskaya Agricultural Academy (now the Russian State Agrarian University – Moscow Timiryazev Agricultural Academy) in 1906 and became known for carrying a pet lizard in his pocket wherever he went.

There are no known photos of Vavilov’s pet lizard. This image is courtesy of Pravin Gangurde on Unsplash.

Early Years and Influences

Before the outbreak of WWI, he was travelling through Europe and collaborating with British biologist William Bateson, himself a pioneer in genetics, on studies of plant immunity. Following the establishment of the USSR, Vavilov taught agronomy at University of Saratov before being named director of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences at Leningrad, where he served from 1924 until 1935. His extensive international collaborations included work with Canadian phytopathologist Margaret Newton, who was an expert on wheat stem rust. The early years of the Soviet Republic were characterized by food insecurity. Collectivization and drought combined to cause widespread famine. In 1921-1923, about 16 million people may have been affected by famine and up to 5 million died. These circumstances must have reinforced Vavilov’s commitment to eliminating hunger through better agriculture.

Image from Centre for Food Safety “6 Tips for Saving Seeds

Guiding Principles

Vavilov’s reasoning was elegant in its simplicity and still holds today. He figured that modern agricultural crops lacked resilience due to inbreeding and lack of genetic diversity. So, much like agronomists today, he set out to find the wild antecedents of important food crops, mainly cereals, so he could reintroduce genetic diversity and breed more robust food plants.

Even in the 1920s, Vavilov’s search for wild food plants was a race against time and loss of biodiversity due to human development. He eventually made 115 seed collecting trips to 64 countries on five different continents. The many seeds, grains, fruits, nuts, and tubers he collected all found a home at the Academy in Leningrad, making it one of the world’s first seed banks. By 1931 the Bureau’s seed bank contained more than 10 million varieties of seeds.

As one historian wrote of Vavilov’s collection, “some [seeds were] dull-coated while others glistened like jewels. . . . The tubers, roots, and bulbs came in all sorts of textures, from knobby and gnarled to as smooth and burnished as a clay pot.” Fruits collected “exuded nearly every fragrance imaginable to a perfume chemist—musky, fermented, citric, and floral.”

Vavilov didn’t just collect seeds. He also understood the importance of growing them out. Seeds, tubers and so on were sent out to fields, orchards and paddies around the vast Soviet empire where they were grown by a small army of technicians. The resulting crops were harvested and then sent back to the Institute to replenish its seed supplies. By the end of the 1930s, he had more than 20,000 scientists and technicians working for him on this massive effort.

The story continues in our next post. Meantime, please find below a list of references for more reading.


  1. Nikolai Vavilov
  2. The Tragedy of the World’s First SeedBank
  3. Nikolai Ivanovic Vavilov (1887-1943)
  4. The tragic tale of Nikolai Vavilov
  5. The Seeds of Life — Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov and the Fight for the Centers of Origins of Plant Diversity and Food Security
  6. Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry
  7. Institute of Plant Industry
  8. Federal Research Center, N. I. Vavilov All-Russian Institute of Plant Genetic Resources (VIR), Ministry of science and higher education
  9. The Development of Botany in the Soviet Union by Slavomil Hejný
  10. Russian famine of 1921–1922
  11. The Law of Homologous Series in Variation by Professor N. I. Vavilov, Director of the Bureau of Applied Botany and Plant Breeding, Petrograd, Russia.
  12. Homologous Series, Law of
  13. Revisiting N.I. Vavilov’s “The Law of Homologous Series in Variation” (1922)
  14. Vavilov : Une banque de semences à Lyon pour préserver la biodiversité
  15. Beyond the Gardens: Millennium Seed Bank Partnership
  16. Impact: science et société, UNESCO Bibliothèque Numérique, pages 141 à 149
  17. Pavlovsk Experimental Station
  18. In Situ: The Priceless Plants of the Pavlovsk Experimental Station
  19. Seed banks: saving for the future
  20. Russia’s Vavilov institute, guardian of world’s lost plants
  21. CRBA L’institut Vavilov
  22. Russie : Campagne pour sauver la station expérimentale de Pavlovsk
  23. Une collection de 5000 variétés de petits fruits menacée de disparition en Russie à l’Institut Vavilov !
  24. Une oasis de la biodiversité menacée par les pelles mécaniques
  25. Russia launches inquiry into Pavlovsk seed bank after Twitter campaign
  26. Les végétaux du futur poussent à Charly
  27. In Situ: The Priceless Plants of the Pavlovsk Experimental Station

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