Trofim Lysenko

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Trofim Lysenko
Trofim Lysenko portrait.jpg
Lysenko in 1938
Born Trofim Denisovich Lysenko
29 September 1898 (1898-09-29)
Karlivka, Poltava Governorate,
Russian Empire
Died 20 November 1976(1976-11-20) (aged 78)
Moscow, Soviet Union
Citizenship USSR
Nationality Ukrainian
Fields Biology
Institutions Russian Academy of Sciences
Alma mater Kiev Agricultural Institute
Known for Lysenkoism
Rejecting Mendelian inheritance

Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (Russian: Трофи́м Дени́сович Лысе́нко, Ukrainian: Трохи́м Дени́сович Лисе́нко; 29 September [O.S. 17 September] 1898 – 20 November 1976) was a Soviet agrobiologist. As a student Lysenko found himself interested in agriculture, where he worked on a few different projects, one involving the effects of temperature variation on the life-cycle of plants. This later led him to consider how he might use this work to convert winter wheat into spring wheat. He named the process "jarovization" in Russian, and later translated it as "vernalization".[1] Lysenko was a strong proponent of soft inheritance and rejected Mendelian genetics in favor of pseudoscientific[2][3] ideas termed Lysenkoism.

His experimental research in improved crop yields earned him the support of the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, especially following the famine and loss of productivity resulting from resistance to forced collectivization in several regions of the Soviet Union in the early 1930s. In 1940 Lysenko became director of the Institute of Genetics within the USSR's Academy of Sciences, and the exercise of political influence and power further secured his anti-Mendelian doctrines in Soviet science and education. Scientific dissent from Lysenko's theories of environmentally acquired inheritance was formally outlawed in the Soviet Union in 1948.

Though Lysenko remained at his post in the Institute of Genetics until 1965,[4] his influence on Soviet agricultural practice had declined by the 1950s.

Early rise[edit]

The son of Denis and Oksana Lysenko, Trofim Lysenko was born into a peasant family in Karlivka, Poltava Governorate (in present-day Poltava Oblast, Ukraine) on 29 September 1898.

As a young man working at the Kiev Agricultural Institute (now the National University of Life and Environmental Sciences of Ukraine), Lysenko worked on converting winter wheat into spring wheat. The conversion of winter wheat into spring wheat was not a new discovery. Scientific experiments had been done by Nikolai Vavilov.[5] It was Vavilov who initially supported Lysenko and encouraged him on his work. Lysenko had a difficult time trying to grow various crops (such as peas and wheat), through the harsh winters. However, when he announced success, he was praised in the Soviet newspaper Pravda for his claims to have discovered a method to fertilize fields without using fertilizers or minerals, and to have shown that a winter crop of peas could be grown in Azerbaijan, "turning the barren fields of the Transcaucasus green in winter, so that cattle will not perish from poor feeding, and the peasant Turk will live through the winter without trembling for tomorrow."[6]

Lysenko speaking at the Kremlin in 1935. At the back (left to right) are Stanislav Kosior, Anastas Mikoyan, Andrei Andreyev and the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin

Lysenko argued that there is not only competition, but also mutual assistance among individuals within a species, and that mutual assistance also exists between different species.

According to Lysenko,

The organism and the conditions required for its life are an inseparable unity. Different living bodies require different environmental conditions for their development. By studying these requirements we come to know the qualitative features of the nature of organisms, the qualitative features of heredity. Heredity is the property of a living body to require definite conditions for its life and development and to respond in a definite way to various conditions.[7]

Work in agriculture[edit]

As noted above, Lysenko worked with different wheat crops in trying to convert them to grow in different seasons. Other investigations Lysenko found himself curious with, was the effect of heat on plant growth. He believed that every plant needed a determinate amount of heat throughout its lifetime. He attempted to correlate the time and the amount of heat needed by a particular plant requires to go through various phases of development. To get his data he looked at the amount of growth, how many days went by, and the temperature on those days. In trying to determine the effects he had a made a small statistical reasoning error. This is a general trend that can be seen throughout the majority of his works and his major "findings". He was confronted by Maksimov, who was an expert on thermal plant development. Lysenko did not take well to this or any criticism for that matter. After this encounter, Lysenko boldly claimed that mathematics had no place in biology.[6]


In 1927, at 29 years of age, working at an agricultural experiment station in Azerbaijan, he embarked on the research that would lead to his 1928 paper on vernalization, which drew wide attention because of its potential practical implications for Soviet agriculture. Severe cold and lack of winter snow had destroyed many early winter-wheat seedlings. By treating wheat seeds with moisture as well as cold, Lysenko induced them to bear a crop when planted in spring. Lysenko coined the term "Jarovization" (яровизация) to describe this chilling process, which he used to make the seeds of winter cereals behave like spring cereals. (Because spring cereals are called Jarovoe in Russian – from jar meaning fire or the god of spring.) However, this method had already been known by farmers since the 1800s, and had recently been discussed in detail by Gustav Gassner in 1918. Lysenko himself translated Jarovization as "vernalization" (from the Latin vernum meaning Spring).[8] Lysenko's claims for increased yields were based on plantings over a few hectares, and he believed that the vernalized transformation could be inherited, that the offspring of a vernalized plant would themselves possess the capabilities of the generation that preceded it—that it too would be able to withstand harsh winters or imperfect weather conditions.[9]

Lysenko's genetic theory[edit]

Main article: Lysenkoism

Lysenko rejected Mendelian genetic inheritance theory in favor of his own logic. He believed Mendel's theory to be too reactionary or idealist. His ideas were for the most part his own and not directly derived from any already established ideas such as Mendelian genetics theory, Lamarckism, or ideas from Darwin. He shaped his genetic concepts in series to support a simple practical purpose in breeding and improving wheat. His ideas were also shaped with the caution to disprove other claims made by his fellow geneticists at the time. His ideas and genetic claims later began to be coined "Lysenkoism". He claimed that his ideas were not associated to Lamarckism and that they were all their own, but this is not entirely true. It is possible to see that there are similar ideas between the two groups, such as acquired characteristics. Some of the ideas can seem to be vitalistic, for example, he describes that plants are self-sacrificing. They do not die to a lack of sunlight or moisture, but instead die so that healthy ones may live, and that when they die they will deposit themselves over the other growing roots to help them grow.

Lysenko believed that in one generation of hybridized crop, the desired individual could be selected and mated again and continue to produce the same desired product, and not worrying about separation/segregation in future breeds. For this to work, he must assume that after a lifetime of developing (acquiring) the best set of traits to survive that those must be passed down to the next generation.[6] This assumption disregards the potential for variation or mutation. Lysenko did not believe that genes or DNA existed, and only spoke about them to say that they did not exist. He instead believed that any body, once alive, obtained heredity. This meant that the entirety of the body was able to pass on the information of that organism, and was not dependent on a special element such as DNA or genes.[6] This threw biologists at this time for a turn, because it went against all the knowledge that they were gaining during this time. It also went against all Mendelian principles that most biologists had been using to build their ideas on.[10] His ideas also were not sufficient enough for most other scientists, it did not truly explain the trend of inheritance. Some scientists during this time and history of science writers believed that his methods were pseudoscientific and not truly genetics.[6]

Another theory of Lysenko's was that to obtain more milk from a cow, it did not depend on the genetics, but instead on how they are treated. The better they are taken care of and handled, the more produce that would be obtained. With this being said, Lysenko and his followers were well known for taking very good care of their livestock.[11] Lysenkoites also believed that fertilization was not random, but instead there is specific selection for the best mate. For reasons like these, many people coin Lysenkoism as being pseudoscientific.

After World War II had ended, Lysenko took an interest in the works of Olga Lepeshiskaia, an elder physician who claimed to be able to create cells from egg yolk and non-cellular matter. Lepeshiskaia recognized common ground between her ideas and Lysenko's. By combining both of their ideas it was possible to proclaim that cells could grow from non-cellular material, and that the predicted ratios of Mendelian genetics and meiosis were incorrect, thus undermining the basis for modern cytology as well as genetics.[6]


Trofim Lysenko out in the field working with his wheat. (~1920-30)

In the Soviet Union during the early and mid twentieth century, the country was under a time of war and then reformation. Political oppression was present causing tension among the state but also promoting the flourishing of science. This was possible due to the flow of resources and demand for results. Working with various plants such as wheat and peas, Lysenko aimed to manipulate them to increase the production, quality, and quantity. However, Lysenko in particular more so impressed political officials with his success in motivating peasants to return to farming.[12] The Soviet's Collectivist reforms forced the confiscation of agricultural landholdings from peasant farmers and heavily damaged the country's overall food production, and the dispossessed peasant farmers posed new problems for the regime. Many had abandoned the farms altogether; many more waged resistance to collectivization by poor work quality and pilfering. The dislocated and disenchanted peasant farmers were a major political concern to the Soviet leadership.[13] Lysenko emerged during this period by advocating radical but unproven agricultural methods, and also promising that the new methods provided wider opportunities for year-round work in agriculture. He proved himself very useful to the Soviet leadership by reengaging peasants to return to work, helping to secure from them a personal stake in the overall success of the Soviet revolutionary experiment.[12]

Timeline of Genetics and Science in the Soviet Union

Lysenko with his ideas of farming practices that would yield better crops, encouraged more farmers to return to working their lands. This also impressed Stalin and was what really caught his eye. Another reason Stalin took a liking to was because of his background. Lysenko had come from a poor family, and was working to make a name for himself. He was not born rich and had no entitlements. Stalin wanted to appear to the people as a big supporter of the proletariat. By the late 1920s, the Soviet political leaders had given their support to Lysenko. This support was a consequence, in part, of policies put in place by the Communist Party to rapidly promote members of the proletariat into leadership positions in agriculture, science and industry. Party officials were looking for promising candidates with backgrounds similar to Lysenko's: born of a peasant family, without formal academic training or affiliations to the academic community.[14]

Due to close partnership this brought between Stalin and Lysenko, Lysenko acquired an influence over genetics in the Soviet Union during the early and mid twentieth century. Lysenko eventually became the director of Genetics for the Academy of Sciences, which gave him even more control over genetics.[15] He remained in the position for several years until some time after the fall of Stalin and later Nikita Khruschchev, when he was relieved of his duties.

Lysenkoism also played well into the Soviet theme occurring at that time, which was to "create the new Soviet man".[15] The logic was that if people are able to inherit the acquired characteristics, it could be possible to create a better society. This lent hope to the revolutionary leaders of the Soviet union, in that peasants could be turned into exceptional citizens. This, however, was never one of Lysenko's intentions. He had never wanted to apply his techniques and principles onto humans, and was in fact strongly against it. He disagreed with the eugenics movement entirely.[15] When the political support finally ceased, Lysenkoism collapsed and became no more. Some of those who had supported him remained faithful and hid in silence, others dropped their previous notions in order to obtain jobs elsewhere and to potentially hold some influence in the science community. This meant that there were still Lysenkoites amongst and influencing the scientific community. They had not been dealt with as those who had stood against them had.[6]

After Stalin[edit]

Following Stalin’s death in 1953, Lysenko retained his position, with the support of the new leader Nikita Khrushchev. However, mainstream scientists re-emerged, and found new willingness within Soviet government leadership to tolerate criticism of Lysenko, the first opportunity since the late 1920s. In 1962 three of the most prominent Soviet physicists, Yakov Borisovich Zel'dovich, Vitaly Ginzburg, and Pyotr Kapitsa, presented a case against Lysenko, proclaiming his work as pseudoscience. They also denounced Lysenko's application of political power to silence opposition and eliminate his opponents within the scientific community. These denunciations occurred during a period of structural upheaval in Soviet government, during which the major institutions were purged of the strictly ideological and political machinations which had controlled the work of the Soviet Union's scientific community for several decades under Stalin.

In 1964, physicist Andrei Sakharov spoke out against Lysenko in the General Assembly of the Russian Academy of Sciences:

He is responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular, for the dissemination of pseudo-scientific views, for adventurism, for the degradation of learning, and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists.[16]

The Soviet press was soon filled with anti-Lysenkoite articles and appeals for the restoration of scientific methods to all fields of biology and agricultural science. In 1965[17][18] Lysenko was removed from his post as director of the Institute of Genetics at the Academy of Sciences and restricted to an experimental farm in Moscow’s Lenin Hills (the Institute itself was soon dissolved). After Khrushchev’s dismissal in 1964, the president of the Academy of Sciences declared that Lysenko’s immunity to criticism had officially ended. An expert commission was sent to investigate records kept at Lysenko’s experimental farm. His secretive methods and ideas were revealed. A few months later, a devastating critique of Lysenko was made public.[19] Consequently, Lysenko was immediately disgraced in the Soviet Union.[20]

After Lysenko’s monopoly on biology and agronomy had ended, it took many years for these sciences to recover in Russia. Lysenko died in Moscow in 1976, and was ultimately interred in the Kuntsevo Cemetery,[21] although the Soviet government refused to announce Lysenko’s death for two days after the event[22] and gave his passing only a small note in Izvestia.[23]


Heredity and Its Variability (1945)
The Science of Biology Today (1948)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Graham, Lo-ren R. (2006). Moscow Stories. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. pp. 120–125, 290. ISBN 978-0-25-30007-43. 
  2. ^ Sterling, Bruce (June 2004). "Suicide by pseudoscience". Wired (12.06). 
  3. ^ Gordin, Michael D. (2012). "How Lysenkoism became pseudoscience: Dobzhansky to Velikovsky". Journal of the History of Biology. 45 (3): 443–68. doi:10.1007/s10739-011-9287-3. PMID 21698424. 
  4. ^ Lysenko, Trofim Denisovich. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 16 August 2013. Retrieved 26 January 2014. 
  5. ^ Li, X.; Liu, Y. (2010). "The conversion of spring wheat into winter wheat and vice versa: False claim or Lamarckian inheritance?". Journal of Biosciences. 35 (2): 321–5. doi:10.1007/s12038-010-0035-1. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Joravsky, David (1986). The Lysenko Affair. University Of Chicago Press. 
  7. ^ "Soviet Biology". 
  8. ^ Chouard, P (1960). "Vernalization and its relations to dormancy". Annual Review of Plant Physiology. 11 (1): 191–238. doi:10.1146/annurev.pp.11.060160.001203. 
  9. ^ Amasino, R. (2004). "Vernalization, competence, and the epigenetic memory of winter". The Plant Cell. 16 (10): 2553–2559. doi:10.1105/tpc.104.161070. PMC 520954Freely accessible. PMID 15466409. 
  10. ^ *Graham, Loren, What Have We Learned About Science and Technology from the Russian Experience?, (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1998).
  11. ^ Graham, Loren (2006). Moscow Stories. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. pp. 120–126. ISBN 0-253-34716-5. 
  12. ^ a b Graham, Loren R. (1972). Science and Philosophy in the Soviet Union. Knopf. p. 208. 
  13. ^ Fitzpatrick, Sheila (1994). Stalin's Peasants: Resistance and Survival in the Russian Village after Collectivization. Oxford University Press. pp. 4–5. 
  14. ^ Krementsov, Nikolai (1997). Stalinist Science. Princeton University Press. 
  15. ^ a b c Graham, Loren (1933). Science in Russia and the Soviet Union. Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge. pp. 101–132. ISBN 0-521-24566-4. 
  16. ^ Norman L., Qing Ni Li, Yuan Jian Li (2003) Biography of Andrei Sakharov, dissent period. The Seevak Website Competition
  17. ^ Cohen, B.M. (1965). "The descent of Lysenko". The Journal of Heredity. 56 (5): 229–233. 
  18. ^ Cohen, B.M. (1977). "The demise of Lysenko" (PDF). The Journal of Heredity. 68 (1): 57. 
  19. ^ Joravsky, David (1986). The Lysenko Affair. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 184. ISBN 0-226-41032-3. 
  20. ^ "Trofim Denisovich Lysenko Facts". LoveToKnow, Corp. Retrieved 20 April 2014. 
  21. ^ "Trofim Denisovich Lysenko". Find A Grave. Retrieved 20 April 2014. 
  22. ^ ‘Russian Biologist Dead at 78’; in ‘Obituaries’; Beaver County Times, November 24 1976; p. A4
  23. ^ ‘Soviet Biologist Lysenko Dies in Obscurity’; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; November 24, 1976, p. 8

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]