Norman Borlaug, a science hero of the 20th century, loses cancer battle

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(Please scroll to bottom to watch a recent video of Dr. Borlaug.)

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — The agricultural scientist who believed it was possible to could stop famine in developing countries across the world lost his battle with cancer Sept. 12.

Norman E. Borlaug, who received the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for developing high-yielding, disease-resistant wheat used to prevent famine in developing countries throughout the world, died in Dallas.

A public memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Oct. 6 at Texas A&M University.

Honors earned

Borlaug, whose career was dedicated to using science to combat world hunger, was Distinguished Professor of International Agriculture in Texas A&M University’s department of soil and crop sciences. He was 95.

In 2007, Borlaug received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor of the United States. This capped a string of major awards and honors throughout his scientific and humanitarian career.

“We all eat at least three times a day in privileged nations, and yet we take food for granted,” Borlaug said in a recent interview. “There has been great progress, and food is more equitably distributed. But hunger is commonplace, and famine appears all too often.”

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement, “Dr. Norman Borlaug was simply one of the world’s best. A determined, dedicated, but humble man who believed we had the collective duty and knowledge to eradicate hunger worldwide. His efforts saved millions of lives and inspired thousands to dedicate their lives to doing the same.”

Early days

His childhood days were spent on an Iowa farm, influenced by his Norwegian grandfather’s lessons. At the University of Minnesota, where he began his college education during the Depression of the 1930s, he was told his high school education had not prepared him properly in science and math. He failed an entrance exam and was placed in the General College. But that experience made Borlaug work hard on his studies.

Borlaug also received his master’s and doctorate degrees in plant pathology from University of Minnesota. During World War II, Borlaug was in charge of industrial and agricultural chemical research for a DuPont laboratory.

In 1944, after his release from the War Manpower Commission, he became a scientist for the Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Program — a joint venture between the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican government which began his life-long passion for international agriculture.

This project became the institution known as CIMMYT, Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maiz y Trigo (The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center) near Mexico City.

In this program, he introduced scientific techniques for preventing famine in Mexico. He used the lessons learned in Mexico later to disprove 1960s doomsday predictions of mass famine throughout South and East Asia.

By this time, “Borlaug Interns” were coming from many countries, and these interns were instrumental in implementing what was later named the “Green Revolution” in wheat production.

Lifesaver

Borlaug was noted to be a scientist even greater than Einstein and one of the biggest lifesavers in the 20th century.

“Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution laid the cornerstone for adequate nourishment by increasing the available calories and protein of the developing world’s people. Since what people eat, what their mothers ate, and possibly even what their grandparents ate all affect how long people live — and whether children even live to grow up — the impact of Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution on saving people’s lives has been profound,” wrote Billy Woodward, the author of Scientists Greater than Einstein, who believed Borlaug was one of the greatest science heroes.

“Our estimates are that Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution resulted in over 245 million lives being saved due to improved nutrition,” Woodward said.

Impacts still felt

Today, India and Pakistan are self-sufficient in food production due to Borlaug’s interventions. In 1970, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for this work recognizing that agricultural productivity has a pivotal role in creating stability and preventing conflict.

In 1986, he created the World Food Prize to give recognition to the work of scientists and humanitarians who have contributed to advancing international agriculture and fighting world hunger.

Most recent effort

Borlaug’s most recent international work was cooperative efforts with CIMMYT, in Mexico and the Sasakawa Africa Association program.

In 1984, Borlaug came to Texas A&M as Distinguished Professor of International Agriculture, dividing his time between College Station each fall to teach and at CIMMYT in Mexico each spring where he continued research and participation in global efforts to reduce world hunger.

Beyond agriculture

Borlaug’s passions extended beyond agriculture. He loved sports and started Little League Baseball in Mexico City so that his then-young son, William Gibson Borlaug, could play while the family was living there.

Borlaug was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1992.

He was also passionate about training, mentoring and challenging young scientists, instilling in them the desire to teach and adopt science-based practices that increase the world’s food supply and thus serve mankind by leading to a more peaceful world.

Named in his honor

At Texas A&M in 2006, the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture was named in his honor. The institute strives to continue Borlaug’s legacy by promoting science-based solutions for the world’s agriculture and food challenges.

Borlaug was preceded in death by his wife, Margaret. He is survived by a daughter and son. He also is survived by a sister, Charlotte Culbert of Iowa, a grandson and four granddaughters; and six great-grandchildren.

The family has requested that in lieu of flowers, memorials be made to the Borlaug International Scholars Fund. Checks should be made payable to “Texas A&M Foundation” and may be mailed to the Texas A&M Foundation, 401 George Bush Drive, College Station, TX 77840-2811.

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