Lysenko, Trofim Denisovich

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(b. Karlovka, now in Poltava Province, Russia [now Ukrainian S.S.R.], 29 September 1898; d. Moscow, U.S.S.R., 20 November 1976

plant physiology, agrobiology.

A Soviet agronomist and head of the “Michurinist” trend in soviet biology. Lysenko was one of the most controversial figures in twentieth-century science. Beginning in 1935, his opposition to genetics on theoretical, practical, and ideological grounds gained the support of Soviet agricultural and political authorities, culminating in 1948 in the official condemnation of genetics and approval of Lysenko’s biology by Stalin and the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Lysenko’s dominance of Soviet biology ended only in 1965.

The son of a peasant, Lysenko attended horti cultural schools in Poltava (1913) and Uman (1917– 1920). In 1921 he took courses offered by the Sugar Trust and worked in its experimental stations at Verkhniachka, Khristinov region, Kiev oblast (1921) and Belaia Tserkov (1922–1925). Concurrently, he studied agronomy at the Kiev Agricultural Institute (1921–1925) and published two brief articles (1923) on tomato breeding and sugar beet grafting.

Lysenko first rose to national prominence while posted in Azerbaidzhan (1925–1929). During its dry summers, all the water was needed for the cotton monoculture; other crops had to be grown during the mild, moist winters. As head of legume selection at an experimental station in Gandzha (now Kirov abad), Lysenko introduced pea varieties from Kiev that were early ripeners, but he noticed that some became late ripeners in Gandzha and concluded that this plant characteristic depends less on the breed than on the conditions under which it is grown. In his first major article, “Vliianie termicheskogo faktora na prodolzhitel’nost’ faz razvitiia rastenii” (1928), Lysenko argued that cold temperature was related to late ripening. This work suggested that it was possible to produce desirable characteristics by manipulating growing conditions.

Lysenko made such an attempt on his father’s Ukrainian farm in 1928 and 1929. In order to make winter wheat sowable in the spring, he suggested that germinating seeds be buried in snow before planting, and this reportedly led to greatly increased yields. Lysenko termed this procedure “vernali zation” (iarovizatsiia), and its apparent success brought his work to the attention of agricultural officials. In 1929 he was given a laboratory in the physiology division of the All-Union Institute of Genetics and Selection in Odessa. To popularize his work, in 1931 the Ministry of Agriculture created the journal Bulleten’ iarovizatsii (renamed Iarovizatsiia in 1935, Agrobiologiia in 1946).

Although Nikolai I. Vavilov, Boris A. Keller, and a few other plant scientists apparently found Lysenko’s results interesting and helped him to gain scientific legitimacy, his meteoric rise to prominence during the First Five-Year Plan (1929–1933) derived principally from the concerted support of agricultural and political authorities. At a time when bourgeois technical specialists came under increasing attack, Lysenko’s peasant background gave him an important advantage. His techniques may have seemed an immediate way of overcoming the food shortage occasioned by the collectivization of agriculture; their implementation fit the social organization of the kolkhoz and the sovkhoz.

During the heyday of Soviet “vernalization” (1929–1935), Lysenko devised and applied similar techniques to a wide range of vegetables, fruits, and grains, and the term itself came to include almost anything done to a crop before planting in order to alter its development to suit local growing conditions—for example, the sprouting of potato tubers before planting. However, there is no doubt that his techniques were not properly tested; for example, Lyseko’s “study” of the conversion of “Kooperatorka” winter wheat into spring wheat involved only two plants, one of which died in the process. Nonetheless, Lysenko and his supporters made ex travagant claims for the efficacy of his techniques, and in the early 1930’s “vernalization” was reportedly applied to many millions of hectares of crops. For this work, in 1934 Lysenko became the scientific director of the Odessa institute and a full member of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences.

Throughout the remainder of his career, Lysenko maintained his political support by replicating the essence of his vernalization experience. He led analogous campaigns for the summer planting of potatoes (1935); grafting or “vegetative hybridization” (late 1930’s); the “grassland system” of plant ing (1939–1952); the “cluster method” of forestation (1948–1952); the cultivation of maize (1956); and methods for increasing the butterfat content of milk (1958–1962). All were inexpensive nostrums designed by Lysenko and his followers to fulfill expressed State agricultural policy needs; all were touted as promising immediate and spectacular improvements in agricultural production; all were introduced into widescale practice by government order without proper testing; most were quietly phased out when they proved unsuccessful. The techniques and campaigns have been well described by Medvedev (1969), Joravsky (1970), and Roll-Hansen (1985).

The year 1935 marked a turning point in Lysenko’s career. Linking up with the Leningrad lawyer and philosopher I. I. Prezent, he began to elaborate his agronomic practices into a theoretical framework with heavy ideological content. In two 1935 pamphlets (Teoreticheskie osnovy iarovizatsii and Selektsiia i teoriia stadiinogo razvitiia rastenii), Lysenko and Prezent propounded the theory that every plant goes through distinct developmental stages or phases, each characterized by certain “requirements” for development; by altering conditions at the end of a developmental stage, they asserted, the heredity of the plant could be destabilized or “cracked,” making it plastic and malleable. This soon led to a definition of heredity as “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.”

In the early 1930’s, propaganda about the elder plant breeder Ivan V. Michurin elevated him to heroic proportions in the public mind. Following Michurin’s death in 1935, Lysenko declared himself the heir to Michurin’s tradition and named his own approach “Michurinist biology” contrasting it with genetics, a “capitalist,” “bourgeois” science based on the “metaphysical” views of the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel and the “idealist” germ plasm theory of August Weismann. This position had explicit political implications. Lysenko and his followers were portaged as agricultural Stakhanovites. He was made a member of the government’s Central Executive Committee from 1935 to 1937 and was assistant to the president of the council of the Supreme Soviet from 1937 to 1950. During the late 1930’s Lysenko claimed that geneticists had sabotages Soviet agriculture, and he resurrected their earlier, relatively mild eugenic views to argue that his opponents were tied to fascism and Nazi ideology. At the time of the great purges, such accusations invited repression.

In 1935 Lysenko was elected a full member of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sci ences (VASKhNIL) and the next year was put in charge of its Odessa institute. Also in 1935, Vavilov was removed as president of VASKhNIL; its two subsequent presidents (A. I. Muralov and G. K. Meister) were arrested in the purges, and in 1938 Lysenko assumed the presidency himself and held it until 1956. With the help of the NKVD, he used his new position to harass and undermine Vavilov’s supporters. In the 1939 elections to the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences. Lysenko was elected a full academician and appointed a member of its governing presidium. In August 1940 Vavilov was arrested, and in subsequent months G. D. Karpechenko, G. A. Levitskii, and other Vavilovites disappeared, all died in prisons or camps in the early 1940’s. Recent evidence provided by Popovsky and Soyfer indicates that Lysenko and his followers were directly or indirectly involved in these arrests. In late 1940, immediately following Vavilov’s arrest, Lysenko left Odessa to replace him as director of the academy’s Institute of Genetics in Moscow, a post he held until 1965.

Despite these events, Lysenko was not yet in control of Soviet biology. After World War II, genetics was resurgent, attempts were made by the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences to create a new institute of genetics, and there was widespread public criticism of many of Lysenko’s views. But in mid 1948, at Stalin’s order, a large number of Lysenko’s supporters became members of VASKhNIL by fiat, and in a surprise August session of the academy Lysenko announced, “The Central Committee has read my report and approved it.” Later Lysenko confirmed that Stalin had personally gone over his text. It portrayed Michurinist biology as a socialist, materialist, proletarian science, a kind of “creative Darwinism” deriving from Darwin, Kliment Timiriazev, and Michurin that united theory and practice, and had mastered the control of heredity. By contrast, genetics was depicted as a capitalist, idealist, bourgeois enterprise linked to fascism, deriving from Malthus, Mendel, and Weismann, and incapable of aiding agricultural production. The report asserted that heredity was a malleable property of the whole organism and that one species could be transformed into another in one generation. It categorically denied the reality of intraspecific com petition and the existence of genes, characterizing the search for any hereditary material as a hopeless philosophical mistake.

In the edicts that followed the August 1948 VASKhNIL session, most Soviet geneticists were fired from their jobs, laboratories and institutions were disbanded or reorganized, degree certification and curricula in the biological sciences fell under Lysenkoist control, and “Michurinist biology” became officially sanctioned government policy. By 1952 Lysenko had embraced a number of extreme theories purporting to have the same philosophical basis as his own, including Ol’ga Borisovna Le peshinskaia’s doctrine that living cells form spon taneously from nonliving matter (thus denying the classic cell theory according to which all cells are produced by other cells) and G. M. Bosh’ian’s analogous doctrine of viruses. The 1953 elections to the U.S.S.R. Academy of Science packed its biological sciences division with supporters of Michurinism. In the following years Lysenko’s prominent allies including botanists N. V. Tsitsin and V. N. Stoletov, “geneticists” I. E. Glushchenko and N. I. Nuzhdin, biochemists A. I. Oparin and N. M. Sisakian, paleontologist L. Sh. Davitashvili, and philosopher G. V. Platonov.

In 1948 and 1949 the massive Soviet reforestation program employed Lysenko’s cluster method of planting; the extensive losses of seedlings that resulted made Lysenko vulnerable, and the first critical articles began to appear in late 1952 in Botanicheskii zhurnal with the support of its editor, botanist and forest ecologist Vladimir N. Sukachev. In 1953 the publication of the Watson–Crick model for the structure of DNA aroused interest in genetics among leading figures in the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences, including such chemists as Academy president Aleksandr N. Nesmeianov, Nobelist (1956) Nikolai N. Semenov, and Ivan L. Knuniants; physicists Petr Kapitsa, Igor Tamm, Igor Kurchatov, and Andrei D. Sakharov; and mathematicians A. N. Kolmogorov, S. L. Sobolev, A. A. Liapunov, and M. A. Lavrentev. These scientists had gained great prestige and influence as a result of their work in Soviet nuclear, space, and weapons research, and over the next decade they proved to be effective opponents of Lysenkoism.

With Stalin’s death in 1953 and the subsequent de–Stalinization, Lysenko was forced to resign as president of VASKhNIL in 1956, and it appeared for a time that his hegemony over Soviet biology was ending. With the strong support of biochemist Vladimir A. Engel’hardt and other academy leaders, molecular genetics began to develop under a variety of institutional and disciplinary rubrics despite Lysenko’s opposition.

By late 1958, however, Lysenko had succeeded in solidifying his relationship with Nikita Khrushchev by appealing to their common Ukrainian rural background, embracing Khrushchev’s agricultural policy, and convincing him that its lack of success was due to the opposition of powerful bureaucrats in the academies and ministries. In subsequent years, Khrushchev’s agricultural program became linked with various Lysenkoist nostrums, and in 1961 and 1962 Lysenko briefly resumed the presidency of VASKhNIL.

Scientific opposition to Lysenko continued to mount, however, and by 1963 Khrushchev was in open conflict with the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences over Lysenkoism, Khrushchev’s ouster in October 1964 produced a convergence of interests between an academy leadership determined to see genetics reborn and a new political leadership anxious to legitimate Khrushchev’s removal. Many press articles critical of Lysenko began to appear ever before Khrushchev’s ouster was officially announced. In early 1965, without political instructions, the Ministry of Agriculture and the two academies established a joint commission to investigate Lysenko’s Lenin Hills experimental farm. Its report filled the entire November 1965 issue of the journal Vestnik Akademii nauk SSSR and demonstrated that Lysenko’s experimental work was improperly carried out and tested, and that all of his agricultural techniques were either ineffective or harmful.

In 1965 Lysenko was removed as director of the Institute of Genetics. It was officially disbanded and reconstituted as the Institute of General Genetics under the direction of geneticist N. P. Dubinin. However, a number of Lysenkoists were kept on at the institute, and Lysenko’s former allies continued to occupy important posts within academy and ministry structures. After a period of relatively candid and open revelation of past errors, public discussion of the history of Lysenkoism ceased in the Soviet Union in the early 1970’s. Lysenko continued as a full academician and kept control of his Lenin Hills farm, where he workded from 1966 until his death. During his long career he won eight Orders of Lenin, three State Prizes, and numerous medals and awards.

Lysenko’s influence did not end with his death, however. Implanted in Soviet institutions and ideology under Stalinism, Michurinist biology survived within the powerful bureaucracies of the Brezhnev period. There was a mild resurgence of Lysenkoism in the mid-1970s, and its sometime supporters have continued to occupy important posts in Soviet agriculture. Since 1987, with the opening of free expression under Gorbachev, the Soviet past has been publicly reexamined and old controversies have resurfaced. Understandably, one of the central preoccupations of this glasnost’ literature has been Lysenkoism: articles detailing the repression of genetics have appeared in Ogonek, Moscow News, and other periodicals, but there have also been many articles defending Lysenko and his ideas. For Soviets, Lysenko’s career continues to raise troubling questions about the role of Marxist-Leninist ideology, the Communist Party, and the Soviet government in the scientific and cultural life of the country.

Nor was Lysenko’s effect limited to the U.S.S.R. His rise to power provoked dissent in western Marxist circles, alienating J. B. S. Haldane and other prominent Communist biologists in Britain and elsewhere from party and profession alike. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s Lysenkoism followed Soviet influence into Eastern Europe and China leading to considerable difficulty for their agricultural scientists, biologists, and geneticists. Lysenkoism also played an important role in western cold war rhetoric, serving for many years as a prime example of the perversion of truth under totalitarianism and the necessity of freedom and autonomy for science.

Scholars continue to disagree about many aspects of Lysenko’s career, including the legitimacy of his early work on vernalization and plant physiology; the relationship of dialectical materialism and Marxist ideology to his evolving views; the collaboration of legitimate scientists in his rise to power; his role in the purges; the degree of Stalin’s personal involvement in supporting him and shaping his views; his actual effect on Soviet agricultural production and practice; and the reasons for the remarkable longevity of his influence. Opinions differ over whether Lysenko was a true believer or merely a charlatan—and even over whether he belongs in the history of science. There is no doubt, however, that his career poses abiding issues about the sociopolitical dimensions of science and the complex interactions between theory, philosophy, ideology, and practice.


I. Original Works. Most of Lysenko’s works before 1950 have been reprinted in the various editions of his Agrobiologiia: Raboty po voprosam genetiki, selektsii, i semenovodstva (Agrobiology: Works on genetics, selection, and seed breeding, Moscow, 1943; 6th ed., 1952). His pamphlet O nasledstvennosti i ee izmenchivosti (Moscow 1943; repr. 1944) was translated into English by Theodosius Dobzhansky and published as Heredity and Its Variability (New York, 1946; 3rd ed., 1953). His speech at the 1936 session of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences is published in O. M. Targul’ian, ed., Spornye voprosv genetiki i selektsii (Moscow, 1937); his long summary of his views at the 1948 session is available in English in The Science of Biology Today (New York, 1948) and in The Situation in Biological Science Biological Science : Proceedings of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences of the U.S.S.R., Session: July 31–August 7, 1948 (Moscow 1948, 1949; New York, 1949).

A complete bibliography of his works published prior to 1952, compiled by A. P. Epifanova, together with a brief biography by I. E. Glushchenko, is in Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (Moscow 1953), issued in the bibliographic pamphlet series on leading Soviet scientists published by the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences (Materialy k biobibliografii uchenykh SSSR, Seriia biologicheskikh nauk, Agrobiologiia, no. 1).

Most of Lysenko’s publications after 1950 appeared in the central press. See, for example, “Ob agronomicheskom uchenii V. P. Vil’iamsa” (On V. R. Viliams’s agronomic teachings), in Pravda, 15 July 1950; “Novoe v nauke o biologicheskom vide” (What is new in science concerning the biological species), ibid., 3 November 1950, repr. in Botanicheskii zhurnal 1953, no. 1, 44–56, and in Bol’shaia Sovetskaia entsiklopediia, 2nd ed., s.v. “Vid”; “K voprosu o pod’eme urozhainosti v nechernozemnoi polose” (On increasing crop yields in the non-black earth belt), in Pravda, 21 May 1953; “Ob obrabotke tselinnykh i zalezhnykh zemel’” (On the cultivation of virgin and idle lands), in Izvestiia, 20 February 1954: “Pretvorim v zhizn’ resheniia ianvarskogo Plenuma TsK KPSS” (We will im plement resolutions of the January plenary session of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union), in Pravda, 27 April 1955; “Interesnye raboty po zhivotnovodstvu v Gorkakh leninskikh:Beseda s akade mikom T. D. Lysenko” (Interesting work in animal husbandry at Lenin Hills: Interview with academician T. D. Lysenko), ibid., 17 July 1957; “Teoreticheskie uspekhi agronomicheskoi biologii” (Theoretical successes of ag ronomic biology), in Izvestiia, 8 December 1957; “Ne kotorye vazhneishie voprosy zemledeliia tselinnykh raionov” (Some of the most important questions of farming in virgin land areas), in Pravda, 5 August 1960; and “Teo reticheskie osnovy napravlennogo izmeneniia nasledst vennostisel’skokhoziaistvennykh rastenii” (Theoretical foundations of the directed alteration of the heredity of agricultural plants), in Pravda and Izvestiia, 29 January 1963.

Articles published elsewhere include “Za materializm v biologii” (For materialism in biology), in Voprosy filosofii, 1958, no. 2, 102–111; “O zakone zhizni biologicheskikh vidov i ego znachenii dlia praktiki” (On the law of the life of biological species and its significance for practice), in Nasledstvennost’ i izmenchivost’, I (Moscow, 1959), 212-235; and “K voprosu o vzaimootnosheniiakh biologii s khimiei i fizikoi” (On the question of interrelationships of biology with chemistry and physics), in Voprosy filosofii 1959, no. 10, 103–106. See also his speeches in the proceedings of the Twentieth Party Congress, XX S” ezd KPSS, 14-25 fevralia 1956 goda, II (Moscow, 1956), 348-353; and of the plenary sessions of the Central Committee of the Communist party of the Soviet Union (TsK KPSS) in Plenum TsK KPSS, 15-19 dekabria 1958 goda (Moscow, 1959), 234-240: Plenum TsK KPSS, 22-25 dekabria 1959 goda (Moscow), 1960, 327-332; and Plenum TsK KPSS, 10-18 ianvaria 1961 goda (Moscow, 1961), 337-345.

II. Secondary Literature. The secondary literature on Lysenko and Lysenkoism is vast. After 1948, a spate of articles were published in the Journal of Heredity and many popular periodicals, and several books appeared, notably Conway Zirkle, ed., Death of a Science in Russia (Philadelphia, 1949), a collection of translated Soviet articles; Julian Huxley, Heredity East and West (New York) 1949); a heroic Soviet account by V. Safonov, Land in Bloom (Moscow, 1951); and Zirkle’s Evolution, Marvian Biology, and the Social Scene (Philadelphia, 1959), In the decade after 1964, a number of general histories appeared, of which the most reliable are David Joravsky, the Lysenko Affair (Cambridge, Mass., 1970); and Zhores A. Medvedev. The Rise and fall of T. D. Lysenko (New York, 1969).

Recent works dealing with the relationship between Lysenko’s views and Marxist philosophy include those by Loren Graham. Science and Philosophy in the soviet Union (New York, 1972; 2nd ed., New York, 1987); Ivan T. Frolov, Genetika i dialektika (Genetics and dialectics; Moscow, 1968); Dominique Lecourt, Lyssenko: Histoire réelle d’une “science prol’trariennne” (Paris, 1976), available in English as Proletarian Science? The Case of Lyscnko, trans. Ben Brewster (London, 1977); and Denis Buican, L’éternel retour de Lysenko (Paris, 1978). Archival information on Lysenko’s role in the purge of genetictists is provided in Mark Propovsky, The Vavilov Affair (Hamden, Conn., 1984). Recent reevaluations of the history of Lysenkoism and Soviet genetics include Mark B. Adams, “Biology After Stalin”, in Survey23 , no.102 (1977/1978), 53-80; Rassia L. Berg Acquired Traits: Memoirs of a Geneticist from the Soviet Union, trans. David Lowe (New York, 1988); Johann-Peter Regelmann, Die Geschichte des Lyssenkoismus (Frankfurt am Main, 1980); and Nils Roll-Hansen, Ønsketenkning som vitenskap: Lysenkos innmarsji sovjetisk biologii 1927-37 (Oslo, 1985), and “A New prespective on Lysenko?” in Annals of Science, 42 (1985), 261-278. See also, by Valery Soyfer, “Gor’kii plod” (Bitter harvest), in Ogonek, 1988, no. 1, pp. 26-27 and no. 2, pp. 4-7, 31; and Vlast’ i nauka Istoriia razgroma genetiki v SSSR (Science and power: A history of the rout of Soviet genetics; Tenafly, N. J.: Hermitage, 1989. Recent Soviet novels dealing with Lysenkoism are Daniil Granin, Zubr (Bison; Leningrad, 1987; New York, 1989); and Vladimir Dudinstev, Belye odezhdy (White robes; Moscow, 1988).

Mark B. Adams

Trofim Denisovich Lysenko

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Trofim Denisovich Lysenko

The Soviet agronomist Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (1898-1976) developed a number of theories dealing with heredity and variability, species formation, intraspecific and interspecific relationships, and plant nutrition.

Trofim Lysenko was born on Sept. 30, 1898, in the Ukrainian village of Karlovka in Poltava Province. He studied at the Poltava Primary School for Horticulture and Gardening (1913-1917) and at the Uman School for Horticulture (1917-1921), after which he was assigned to the Belotserkovsky Experimental Station and went on to the Kiev Agricultural Institute, continuing his studies until 1925.

Genetics vs. Environment

Lysenko accepted a position at the Kirovabad experimental station in Azerbaijan, where he worked out his theory on the stages of plant development. In 1929 he described a process known as vernalization which involved a pre-sowing treatment of seeds to induce plants to flower sooner than usual, and enable them to adapt to different climates. According to initial reports from Soviet collective farms, vernalization was something of a sensation, and Lysenko was appointed director of the Odessa Plant Breeding-Genetics Institute.

Lysenko's theory to explain the process of vernalization was challenged in 1934 by Soviet scientists as a repudiation of the classical Mendelian theory of heredity and variation, which is based on the idea that genes are the carriers of hereditary characteristics. Lysenko defended his theory, known as "Lysenkoism," and launched a vicious attack on Soviet geneticists. It took him and his followers three contrived conferences and a dozen years (1936-1948) to topple Soviet geneticists from leading positions in research centers and educational institutions. Outstanding geneticists were vilified as "enemies of the people." Lysenko's meteoric rise to power and prestige is evidenced by his becoming a full member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences in 1935, full director of the All-Union Institute of Selection and Genetics in 1936, president of the Lenin's All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences, an active member of the Presidium of the Soviet Academy of Sciences in 1938, and director of the academy's institute of Genetics in 1940. His school of "genetic" thought also received the personal endorsement of Joseph Stalin. During his heyday, he received many awards and prizes, including three Stalin prizes and six orders of Lenin.

Reigning as the supreme authority in practical and theoretical agriculture, Lysenko advised the hierarchy of the Communist party on land reclamation and reforestation, the use of fertilizers, and methods of increasing crop and animal yields. Between 1954 and 1968 Lysenko's theories and contributions came under increasing scrutiny, but he managed to hold on to most of his positions mainly because of the intervention of Premier Nikita Khrushchev. By 1963 the Central Committee of the Communist party and the U.S.S.R. Council of Ministers became alarmed that Soviet Russia was lagging dangerously behind the West in several critical branches of biology and medicine.

Later Years

When Khrushchev was replaced, the monopolistic position of Lysenko and his followers in biology ended. Lysenko was charged with being oblivious to the recent advances in contemporary biology and with employing "administrative methods" to gain support for his theories and programs. Scientists both inside and outside the then Soviet Union were never able to validate his theories. In 1965 the new scientific journal Genetics appeared, sponsored by the Soviet Academy of Sciences; this marked the restoration of genetics to a respectable position in Soviet science. Lysenko was nevertheless permitted to head a laboratory at the Institute of Genetics, and his popularity with the Soviet Union's collective farmers hardly diminished—they understood his language, methods, and ideas.

Lysenko died in Moscow on Nov. 20, 1976, at the age of 78.

Further Reading

For a brief biographical sketch and evaluation of Lysenko's theories see Maxim W. Mikulak, "Trofim Denisovich Lysenko," in George W. Simmonds, ed., Soviet Leaders (1967); Of special interest is Zhores A. Medvedev, The Rise and Fall of T. D. Lysenko (trans. 1969); Accounts of the Soviet biological controversies can be found in Julian Huxley, Soviet Genetics and World Science: Lysenko and the Meaning of Heredity (1949); Conway Zirkle, ed., Death of a Science in Russia: The Fate of Genetics as Described in Pravda and Elsewhere (1949); Theodosius Dobzhansky, "The Crisis of Soviet Biology," in Ernest J. Simmons, ed., Continuity and Change in Russian and Soviet Thought (1955); and David Joravsky, The Lysenko Affair (1970), the best study to date.

Additional Sources

"Lysenko, Science Overlord Under Stalin, Dead at 78," New York Times, Nov. 24, 1976, p 36.

Rossianov, Kirill, "Biology Under Lysenko and Stalin," Science, Nov. 11, 1994, p. 1085-1086.

Sakharov, Andrei D., "The Poisonous Legacy of Trofim Lysenko," Time, May 14, 1990, p. 61.

Soifer, Valerii, Lysenko and the Tragedy of Soviet Science, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, c1994. □

Lysenko, Trofim Denisovich

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(18981976), agronomist and biologist.

Trofim Denisovich Lysenko was born in Karlovka, Ukraine, to a peasant family. He attended the Kiev Agricultural Institute as an extramural student and graduated as doctor of agricultural science in 1925. A disciple of horticulturist Ivan Michurin's work, Lysenko worked at the Gyandzha Experimental Station between 1925 and 1929 and coined his theory of vernalization in the late 1920s. His vernalization theory described a process where

winter habit was transformed into spring habit by moistening and chilling the seed.

During the agricultural crisis of the 1930s, Soviet authorities started supporting Lysenko's theories. By the mid-1930s Lysenko's dominance in agricultural sciences was clearly established as he founded agrobiology, a pseudoscience that promised to increase yields rapidly and cheaply. He became president of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences in 1938 and director of the Institute of Genetics at the Academy of Sciences in 1940. Lysenko and his followers, Lysenkoites, have long been thought to have had a direct line to the Stalinist terror apparatus as they targeted geneticists that they thought opposed Lysenkoism, most famously noted scientist Nikolai Vavilov.

As Lysenko's political influence increased, he expressed his views more forcefully. His view of genetics was irrational and based neither on reason nor scientific experimentation. His theory of heredity rejected established principles of genetics, and he believed that he could change the genetic constitution of strains of wheat by controlling the environment. For example, he claimed that wheat plants raised in the appropriate environment produced seeds of rye.

By 1948 education and research in traditional genetics had been completely outlawed in the Soviet Union. The 1948 August Session of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences gave the Lysenkoites official endorsement for these views, which were said to correspond to Marxist theory. From that moment, and until Josef Stalin's death, Lysenko was the total autocrat of Soviet biology. His position as Stalin's henchman in Soviet science has been compared to Andrei Zhdanov's role in culture during this time of high Stalinism.

In April 1952 the Ministry of Agriculture withdrew its support of Lysenko's cluster method of planting trees, but Lysenko was not publicly rebuked until after Stalin's death in 1953. Nikita Khrushchev tolerated criticism of Lysenkoism, but it took eleven years to completely confirm the uselessness of agrobiology. It was only with Khrushchev's ousting from power in 1964 that Lysenko was fully discredited and research in traditional genetics accepted. He resigned as president of the All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences in 1956, and his removal from the position of director of the Institute of Genetics in 1965 signified the full return of scientific professionalism in Soviet science. Lysenko kept the title of academician and held the position of chairman for science at the Academy of Science's Agricultural Experimental Station, located not far from Moscow, until he died in November 20, 1976.

See also: agriculture; science and technology policy; stalin, josef vissarionovich; vavilov, nikolai ivanovich


Joravsky, David. (1970). The Lysenko Affair. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Medvedev, Zhores A. (1969). The Rise and Fall of T. D. Lysenko. New York: Columbia University Press.

Medvedev, Zhores A. (1978). Soviet Science. New York: Norton.

RÓsa MagnÚsdÓttir

Trofim Denisovich Lysenko

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Trofim Denisovich Lysenko


Russian Horticulturist

Trofim Denisovich Lysenko was born in Karlovka near Poltav, Russia. Despite good grades in school, Lysenko, a peasant's son, struggled to receive an education in pre-Revolutionary Czarist Russia. He became a gardener and, after the 1917 Revolution, undertook studies at the Uman School of Horticulture. After graduating in 1921, Lysenko received an appointment to work at the Belaya Tserkov Agricultural Selection Station. In 1925, Lysenko received his doctorate from the Kiev Agricultural Institute. Following his graduation, Lysenko worked at the Gyandzha Experimental Station and, subsequently, at the Ukrainian All-Union Institute of Selection and Genetics in Odessa. Eventually, with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's (1879-1953) patronage, Lysenko became the director of the Odessa All-Union Selection and Genetics Institute.

Late in the 1920s, Lysenko began to advocate an outmoded Lamarckian view of genetics to harden Soviet crops against the brutal Russian winters. Lysenko's conclusions were based upon, and profoundly influenced by, the teachings of Russian horticulturist I.V. Michurin (1855-1935), and the discredited Lamarckian theory of evolution by acquired characteristics (i.e., that organisms evolved through the acquisition of traits that they needed and used) put forth by nineteenth-century French anatomist Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829).

Based on his misunderstanding of genetics, Lysenko developed methods that falsely predicted greater crop yields through a hardening of seeds and a new system of crop rotation. Lysenko's theories drew the attention of the Soviet Central Committee desperate to avoid elongation of a string of politically disastrous famines. Moreover, Lysenko's Lamarckian-based teachings were thought by Stalin to be harmonious with the goals of a worldwide revolution of workers.

Championed by Stalin, Lysenko steadily ascended the rungs of power within Soviet science. In 1938 Lysenko took the reins as president of the powerful and influential Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences. As president of the Academy, Lysenko began to persecute scientists who did not agree with his theories. Backed by the Soviet Central Committee Lysenko was responsible for the exile, torture, and death of many talented Soviet scientists. Under Lysenko, Mendelian genetics was branded "decadent," and scientists who rejected Lamarckism in favor of natural selection were denounced as "enemies of the Soviet people." Lysenko's supporters even denied the existence of chromosomes, and genes were denounced as "bourgeois constructs."

During his career, Lysenko published articles in which he stressed the role of, what he termed, "sudden revolutionary leaps" in the origin of new species. He asserted that many species of cultivated plants could spontaneously transform, even under natural conditions, into other, quite different species (e.g., wheat into rye). The very spirit of Marxist theory, Lysenko claimed, called for a theory of species formation that would entail "revolutionary leaps." Lysenko attacked Mendelian genetics and Darwinian evolution as "a theory of all round gradualism." In 1940, Stalin appointed Lysenko Director of the Soviet Academy of Science's Institute of Genetics. Although Stalin died in 1953, Lysenko continued to act as director of the academy until 1964.

For a generation of scientists trained under Lysenkoism, Michurin "science," an exploration of man's power over nature, became the focus of theoretical development. Lysenko constructed an elaborate hypothesis that came to be known as the theory of phasic development. One of Lysenko's failed programs involved the treatment of seeds with heat and high humidity in an attempt to increase germination under harsh conditions. Although crop yields declined, Lysenko's programs were considered politically correct, and Lysenko was awarded the Order of Lenin and two Stalin prizes, and was nominated Vice Chairman of the Supreme Soviet.

Lysenko ruled virtually supreme in Soviet science, and his influence extended beyond agriculture to basic science and medicine. In 1948 the Praesidium of the USSR Academy of Science passed a resolution virtually outlawing any biological work that was not based on the teachings of Michurin and Lysenko. It was not until Nikita Khrushchev's (1894-1971) premiership following the death of Stalin in 1953 that opposition to Lysenko was tolerated. Under Khrushchev, Lysenko lost control of the Lenin Agricultural Academy and, following Khrushchev's political demise in 1964, Lysenko's doctrines were discredited, and intensive efforts were made toward the reestablishment of orthodox genetics and science in the U.S.S.R.


Lysenko, Trofim Denisovich

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Lysenko, Trofim Denisovich (1898–1976) A fanatic anti-geneticist, who attained extraordinary power in the USSR under Stalin, and retained it under Khrushchev. He sought successfully the suppression of research in genetics and was responsible for the imprisonment and execution of a number of noted Soviet geneticists. The failure of his own attempts, based on a kind of Lamarckism, to increase grain production led to his own downfall and that of Khrushchev.

Lysenko, Trofim Denisovich

views updated

Lysenko, Trofim Denisovich (1898–1976) A fanatic anti-geneticist, who attained extraordinary power in the USSR under Stalin, and retained it under Krushchev. He sought successfully the suppression of research in genetics and was responsible for the imprisonment and execution of a number of noted Soviet geneticists. The failure of his own attempts, based on a kind of Lamarckism, to increase grain production led to his own downfall and that of Krushchev.