Popular for having rejected the Mendelian genetics, Trofim Lysenko was an agronomist and biologist who favored Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin’s theories on hybridization instead. He was also known as someone who pursued “socialist genetics” which was the politicized science which made him Joseph Stalin’s favorite scientist. He supported these theories so much that he even coined the term Lysenkoism which was the pseudoscientific movement he had for hybridization. Lysenko was supported by Stalin himself concerning the experimental research efforts that Lysenko had especially for improving crop yields. Apart from being recognized as a scientist, some also refer to Lysenko as a hoaxer who was able to sway Stalin into believing what he said.
The Beginnings of Trofim Lysenko
Trofim Lysenko was born Trofim Denisovich Lysenko to a peasant family that resided in Karlivka, Poltava Oblast, Ukraine. He was the son of Denis Lysenko and his wife Oksana. Trofim received his education from the Kiev Agricultural Institute. When he was 29, Trofim had the chance to work in Azerbaijan at an agricultural experiment station. It was then when he began his research work which would later on lead to his paper discussing vernalization—published in 1928.
This paper drew much attention for those interested in Soviet agriculture to hopefully put an end to the famine which resulted from the forced collectivization. The lack of enough winter snow destroyed the planted winter-wheat seedlings which affected the produce from which the people relied on. It was Lysenko who found a workaround in this issue when he treated the wheat seeds to deal with cold and moisture better so they would still have crops even when the seedlings are planted during spring.
Lysenko’s method of treating the seeds was something he called “Jarovization” where he used a certain chilling process to change how winter cereals behaved and make them behave more like spring cereals or “jarovoe.” This term was later on changed to vernalization. This breakthrough also made it possible to fertilize the fields without the need for fertilizers and control when the plants would bloom in more favorable weather conditions as well as control when the crops will be ripe in time for the harvest.
For this breakthrough, Lysenko was treated as a hero who was able to bring a solution to the famine and the impoverished Soviet nation accepted the findings that Lysenko had. Where he went wrong, however, was when he incorrectly made a claim that having the vernalized state was something that plants could inherit. According to him, offspring from vernalized plants would also exhibit the same behavior and that the offspring would no longer need the process of vernalization to be done to them to show the same positive behavior and controlled flowering.
Because of the breakthrough that Lysenko was able to discover, he was assigned to be in charge of the Academy of Agricultural Sciences. While he was in charge there, he was the one who oversaw the research program which was specifically dedicated for increasing the crop yields. The methods that Lysenko was able to discover were used on all the collectivized farms in the Soviet Union as well as in other places under the USSR’s influence which could also benefit from these agricultural methods.
Since all experiments were funded by the government and Lysenko had a certain hold on Stalin after being able to dazzle him into believing everything he said, Lysenko was safe from scrutiny by other scientists who believed in other solutions to the famine or those who contradicted Lysenko’s claim on his findings. As long as he was under Stalin’s protection, Lysenko was safe from the criticism of other scientists regardless of how factual their findings were. If a scientist so much as countered Lysenko and made it known to Stalin, it was almost as good as suicide and the end to one’s scientific career. Only a handful of scientists ever tried and those who did were sent to be imprisoned in the gulag.
Despite the falsified claim of having vernalization as something which can be inherited by untreated plans, Lysenko was able to contribute positive results to agriculture. For areas in the Soviet Union where they had little rainfall during the summer, they used vernalization where the chilled seeds of winter grains were planted during the spring to have the yields they need. It was in 1935 when he proposed planting some potatoes in the hot and dry regions. He also created spring wheat which was suitable depending on where they were going to be planted.
He was able to bring about a great increase in the harvest of millet which was highly important in being able to feed the soldiers who belonged to the Red Army during the time of the Great Patriotic war. Through cluster planting, Lysenko was also able to increase kok-sagyz yields and he had the solution for countering the effects of over wintering of wheat harvested in Siberia. Because of these obvious discoveries and the payoffs of his vernalization, the people of Russia loved him. Lysenko’s findings came at a time when times were hard especially for those who were dependent on the produce and his breakthrough was what helped regain not just produce but the order which had been lost when collectivized farmers had begun acting against the government because of the lack of yields.
His Later Years
When Stalin died in 1953, Lysenko was still supported by the new leader who was Nikita Khrushchev. The problem was that more mainstream scientists emerged and this was when three scientists, namely Pyotr Kapitsa, Vitaly Ginzburg, and Yakov Borisovich Zel’dovich presented a case which debunked the works and claims of Lysenko. They also pointed out how Lysenko made use of his political influence to protect him from criticism and denounced those who were making a valid fight to reveal factual claims.
In 1964, the physicist named Andrei Sakharov countered Lysenko’s claims and spoke to the General Assembly of the Academy of Sciences. Because of his speech, the media began to spread anti-Lysenko articles and a certain devastating critique was made public and this had caused Lysenko to be disgraced from his own nation. His work, however, was still used in China even after years after that incident.