Rejecting Mendelian genetics, Trofim Lysenko was a Russian agronomist and biologist who promoted Ivan Michurin’s theories on hybridization and the inheritability of acquired characteristics.
He coined the term Lysenkoism, the pseudoscientific movement he organized for the promotion of his own views and the discrediting of other scientists.
Lysenko was supported by Stalin in his experimental research efforts, especially for improving crop yields.
The Beginnings of Trofim Lysenko
Trofim Lysenko was born Trofim Denisovich Lysenko to a peasant family that lived in Karlivka, Poltava Oblast, Ukraine on the 29 September 1898. He was the son of Denis Lysenko and his wife Oksana and, as the oldest of four children, helped around the family farm.
Late in learning to read, Lysenko attended the Uman School of Horticulture in 1921 and in 1925 he studied agronomy at the Kiev Agricultural Institute.
When he was 29, Lysenko had the chance to work in Azerbaijan at an agricultural experiment station. Here he researched vernalization, the response of seeds and seedlings to low temperature and he published a research paper in 1928 showing that freezing seeds made them germinate more quickly.
Although this research was already known, his work caught the attention of the Communist Party who wanted to put an end to famines which had resulted from the forced collectivization of farms in the 1920’s under Stalin.
In 1930 he transferred to the Ukrainian Institute of Selection and Genetics in Odessa and was supplied with a vernalization laboratory to carry out larger scale research. Initially a senior specialist, he became scientific director and then director from 1935 to 1938.
Lysenko quickly came under the influence of the ideas of Russian horticulturist Ivan Michurin. Lysenko rejected the chromosomal basis of heredity and created his ecological “Theory of Nutrients”, a Lamarckian view, stating that the environment affected inherited traits. For example, seeds would only have to be treated (frozen) once and then all future offspring, through the generations, would grow more rapidly and more abundantly.
He stated ,
” if you want a particular result you obtain it ….I need only people who will obtain what I require.”
In Russia at this time, all scientists’ experiments were funded by the Soviet government. Lysenko had a gift of being able to dazzle Stalin into believing everything he said, helped by Lysenko’s peasant roots. Lysenko was, therefore, safe from scrutiny by other scientists who believed in different solutions to the famine or who contradicted Lysenko’s findings. If a scientist so much as countered Lysenko and made it known to Stalin, it became the end to their scientific career.
Lysenko became member of the Academy of Sciences in 1935 and president of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences in 1938.
He ordered millions of acres of farmland to be sown using his methods with varying results.
By 1939 the Soviet educational system taught “Lysenkoism” views to the exclusion of all other “bourgeois” genetics.
He bizarrely claimed to have produced rye from wheat plants and cuckoo birds from warblers.
In 1940 he became director of the Institute of Genetics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, a position he held for 25 years.
Prominent Soviet geneticist Nikolai Vavilov was repeatedly denounced by Lysenko and died in a labor camp in 1943.
Lysenko published his book “Heredity and Its Variability” in 1943 which detailed his views that heredity can be changed by husbandry.
In 1948 Lysenko published a report to the Russian Academy detailing his genetic theories and denying the existence of genes and chromosomes. His unique views became more widely known throughout the world. British evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley was particularly outspoken and scathing regarding Lysenko’s views.
Lysenko advocated ‘close planting’ of trees which was put into practice on a large scale in 1949 believing incorrectly, that saplings would “sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the species”.
“the death of individual saplings in the group occurs not because they are crowded, but for the express purpose of ensuring that in the future they will not be crowded.”
His Later Years
When Stalin died in 1953, Lysenko was supported by the new leader Nikita Khrushchev. However more mainstream Soviet scientists emerged and eventually three scientists, 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, physicist Andrei Sakharov also countered Lysenko’s claims and spoke to the General Assembly of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Because of his speech, the media began to spread anti-Lysenko articles and a certain devastating critique was made public which caused Lysenko to be disgraced.
In 1965 Lysenko was removed from his directorship and worked at an experimental farm.
Trofim Denisovich Lysenko died in Moscow on 10 November 1976, aged 78.