Michurin, Ivan Vladimirovich

views updated May 29 2018


(b. Dolgoye, Ryazan gubernia, Russia, 28 October 1855; d. Kozlov [now Michurinsk], U.S.S.R., 7 June 1935)

plant breeding, genetics.

Born into a family of impoverished gentry who lost their hereditary orchard, Michurin was obliged to leave school during his first year of secondary education. He worked as a railway clerk, signal repairman, and watchmaker until be saved enough money to buy some land and concentrate on breeding varieties of fruit for the harsh climate of northcentral Russia. When his nursery proved commercially unsuccessful, he tried, between 1905 and 1908, to have it transformed into a government experiment station. Specialists in the Ministry of Agriculture rejected Michurin’s proposal, offering him a couple of medals as consolation prizes., which he accepted, and suggesting grants to aid contract research, which he refused. Somehow he kept his nursery going, although it was in poor condition; published occasional articles in horticultural journals; and developed a deep resentment of the official world of science.

During the land revolution of 1917–1918 Michurin almost lost his thirty acres to the neighboring peasants. Two local agronomists. however, persuaded the new central government to transform the modest nursery into a stat institution. The story of Lenin’s personal support is unsubstantiated, but Michurin’s plant breeding staion did get successive increases in government support during the 1920’s. Through skillful appeals to journalists and politicians Michurin won a reputation as “the Russian Burbank,” glorified for performing miracles without benefit of diplomas and in spite of the disdainful opposition of academic scientists.

Great fame and power came to Michurin in the early 1930’s, during Stalin’s “revolution from above,” which drove peasants into collective farms and pushed agricultural scientists into a centralized system of research and extension work, subject to frantic demands for quick, cheap solutions to over–whelming problems. Michurin was put in charge of an Institute directing fruit breeding for almost the entire country. Criticism of him was sharply rebuked. Indeed, V.L. Simirenko, a leading specialist in horticulture, was denounced as a “wrecker” and was arrested after he had presided over a 1931 conference that refused to endorse Michurin’s idiosyncratic methods of breeding.

Michurin died in 1935, when Lysenko was beginning his campaign against genetics. Very quickly Michurin was transformed into the patron saint of that campaign, and “Michurinism” became the official name of Lysenko’s doctrine. Some geneticists tried to prove that Michurin’s methods and beliefs could be squared with their science; but such efforts were unavailing during the long period of Lysenk’s dominance. from the mid–1930’s to the mid–1960’s. After 1965, when Lysenko lost all political support, official sanction was bestowed on the view that Michurin was a breeder of genius whose unusual methods can be explained by genetics

Michurin’s genuine contributions to horticulture are difficult to determine, in view of the great diversity of claims and the paucity of hard evidence. In 1931, for example, when he was claiming over 300 commercially useful varieties, only one of his creations was officially certified for use in Soviet orchards. Even after political pressure increased that number, few of his hybrids seem to have achieved significant commercial success; but a considerable number may have provided useful breeding stock for further experimentation

Michurin’s methods of breeding were partly commonplace and partly controversial. He insisted on hybridization as the only way to combine such qualities as the hardiness of a norhern variety and the lusciousness of a southern one. He favored wide crosses. “to shake up the heredity,” followed by intuitive selection of promising seedlings from the resulting mass of wildings. To facilitate wide crosses he urged “vegetative blending” (sblizhenie)–that is, grafting different species or genera onto one another to predispose them for cross–pollination. To train hybrid seedlings in desired directions, he recommended the use of “mentors,” grafting a seedling onto the variety he wished it to resemble.

In Michurin’s writings, justification of these methods is hand to distingush from the ancient belief in vegetative hybrids–that is, hybridization by grafting, without the mixture of germ plasm. That was how the Lysenkoites read Michurin, and one of the main reasons thy named their anti–Mendelian doctrine “Michurinism.” (The other main reason was Michurin’s reputation as an untutored genius who achieved great things against the opposition of academic scientists.) Soviet geneticists who have tried to separate Michurin from “Michurinism” have argued that physiologic changes resulting from grafting may indeed predispose widely separated plants for cross-pollination and that the use of “mentors” may in fact serve the breeder’s purpose by affecting the penetrance or dominance of genes in complex situations.

Michurin himself resented efforts to subject his methods and beliefs to rigorous tests in accordance with the basic assumptions of genetics. He was annoyed by the combination of learned criticism and condescending praise that characterized scientific comments on his work down to the 1930’s, before the stalinist regime raised him above criticism. Michurin was separated from modern biological science not only by his confessed ignorance of it but also by his objections.He was convinced. for example. that heredity “does not yield and in essence cannot conform to any patterns worked out by theoreical science and determined in advance.” In plant breeding, he declared, “Not only is it impossible to apply any calculation in accordance with Mendl’s law, but it is quite impossible to do any strictly precise work in accordance with a plan worked out in advance”: practical intuition must be the principal guide of the breeder, according to Michurin. At times he revealed the primitive vitalism of many gardeners, ascribing to “every living organism a reasoning [razumnuy] power of adaptability in the struggle for existence;” In the 1970’s Michurin is largely ignored by Soviet biologists, although he continues to be admired by the ideologicl establishment.


I. Orignal Works. The most revealing collection of Michurin’s writings is the first, I togi ego deyatelnosti v ablasti gibridzatsii po plodovodstvu “The Results of His Activity in the Field of Hybridization of Fruit”; Moscow, 1924), with a preface by N.I. Vavilov and a frindly though critical evaluation by V.V. Pahkevich. subsequent collections of Michurin’s writings, dispensed with such evaluations, ultimately substituting Lysenkoite adulation and tendentious editing. For the Largest collection, see Michurin,Sochinenia “Works” , 4 vols. (moscow, 1939–1941; 2nd ed., 4 vols., 1949). The 2nd ed. is the more egregiously tendentious in its editing. The largest selection of Michurin’s writings in English translation is his Selected Works (Moscow,1949)

II. Secondary Literature. There is a very large Russain literaure on Michurin. For a guide. See e.V. Parkhomenko and F.S. Ginzburg, Bibliografic trudov I.V. Michurina i literatury o mem (“Bibibliogrpahy of I.V. Michurin’s works and of the Literature Concerning Him”; Moscow, 1958). Some of the best scientific evaluations are omitted from this bibliogrpahy. see especially N.I. Vavilo, “O mezhdurodovykh gibridakh dyn. arbuzov i tykv” “Concerning Intergeneric Hybrids of Melons. Watermelons. and Squashes” in Trudy po prikladnoi botanike, gnetike, i selecktsiil 14, no. 2 (1924), 3–35; V.V. Pashkevich. “Russky originator-plodovod I.V. Michurin” “The Russian Fruit Breeder I.v. Michurin” , “The Fussian fruit Breeder I.V. Michurin” , in Michurin. Itogi….plodovodstvu 16–61; P.N. Shteinberg. “O ’chudesakh’ i ’charodeiakh’ v selskom khoziaistve” (“Concerning ’Miracles’ and ’Miracle Maker’s in Agriculture”), in Vestnik znaniya no. 117 (1926), 11291138; E.A. Aleshin, “I.v. Michurin i nauka” “I. V. Michurin and Scjience” , in Puti selskogo khozyaistva (1927), no. 6–7. 118–125; G.D. Karpechenko. “Teoria otdalennoy gibridizatsii” “The Theory of Distant Hybridization” , in N.I. Vavilov ed., Teoreticheskie osnovy selecktsii rastenii (“The Theoretical 1–oundations of Plant Selection”), I (Moscow, 1935), 293–354; and D.D. Romashov. “O metodakh raboty I.V. Michurina” “Concerning the Methods of work of I.V. michurin” , in Zhurnal obshchei biologii (1940). no. 2, 177–204.

The most detailed biography is a “Michurinist” work by I.T.Vasilchenko, I.V. Michurin (Moscow, 1950: 2nd ed., 1963). The officially approved interpretation since Lysenko’s fall is embodied in S.I. Alikhanian, Teoreticheskie osnovy uchenia Michurina o peredelke rastenii (“The Theoretical Foundations of Michurin’s Teaching on the Transformaion of Plants”; Moscow, 1966); and in N.P. Dubinin, Teoreticheskie osnovy i metody rabot I.V. Michurina(“The Theoredtical Foundations and the Methods of Works of I.V. michurin”; Moscow, 1966). See also S.Y. Kraevoil Vazmozhna livegetativnaya gibridezatsia rasternii posredstvom privivok? “Is vegetative Hybridization of plant Possible by Means of Grafting”; Moscow, 1967). For an appraisal of Michurin in English, see D. Joravsky. The lysenko affair (Cambridge. 1970), 40–54, 69–76.

David Joravsky

Michurin, Ivan Vladimirovich

views updated May 18 2018


(b. Dolgoye, Russia [now Michurovka, U.S.S.R.], 28 October 1855; d. Michurinsk, U.S.S.R., 7 June 1935)

plant breeding.

For a complete study of his life and work, see Supplement.