Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Lysenko, Trofim Denisovich (1898–1976)

Soviet biologist responsible for a theory of genetics that came to be known as Lysenkoism. Born on 29 September 1898 in Karlovka, Ukraine, to a peasant family, Trofim Lysenko attended the Kiev Agricultural Institute. In 1927 while he was working at an experimental agricultural station in Azerbaijan, the Communist Party newspaper Pravda trumpeted his success in developing a method of planting a winter crop of peas to sustain cattle. The achievement proved short-lived, for the crops failed in succeeding winters, but Lysenko was by then firmly established as a scientist in the Soviet style, and other triumphs soon followed.

Lysenko developed, for example, a number of theories to shorten the growing season and enhance production. One was cooling seed grains before they were planted. He claimed that this not only increased yield but that these improved qualities were then passed on. In effect, this notion of acquired characteristics was a revival of the discredited theories of seventeenth-century French scientist Jean Baptiste Lamarck, who had argued for evolution but also claimed that acquired characteristics might be inherited. According to such a theory, the giraffe, for instance, had evolved from antelopes that had stretched their necks to reach the leaves in higher branches of trees.

In 1935 the government made Lysenko a member of the All-Union Institute of Selection and Genetics and gave him his own journal, Vernalization, to publicize his theories and purported successes. During 1936–1938 Lysenko was the director of the institute, and from 1938 he was president of the All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences. In 1939 he was elected a full member and Presidium member of the USSR's Academy of Agricultural Sciences. During 1939–1956 and 1961–1962 he was president of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences, and during 1940–1964 he was director of the Institute of Genetics of the Academy of Sciences.

Lysenko became a centerpiece of Soviet science, in part because he represented a new kind of practical, peasant-based science divorced from the world of academics in their laboratories. This fit well with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's trumpeting of practice as more important than theory. Probably the chief reason for Lysenko's advancement, however, was his ability to motivate the peasantry, which was suffering under Stalin's policy of forced agricultural collectivization.

In a 1948 speech that Lysenko claimed had been approved by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, he blasted genetic theories accepted in the West as "reactionary and decadent" and Western scientists as "enemies of the Soviet people." As president of Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Lysenko carried out his instructions to purge Soviet science of "harmful" ideas. Many scientists chose to admit their "errors" and fell into line. Others who refused lost their jobs. Many were also imprisoned and executed, the most prominent of the latter being biologist Nikolai Vavilov.

The science of genetics particularly suffered, for the notion of acquired characteristics fit nicely into communist theory and the project of creating a "new Soviet citizen" within a generation or two. Such ideas were ridiculed by scientists in the West, and indeed under Lysenkoism much of Soviet science, and especially agriculture, reverted back to the era of the Middle Ages.

Lysenko retained his position after Stalin's death in 1953. Under Nikita Khrushchev, however, mainstream Soviet scientists at last were given the opportunity, previously denied, to criticize Lysenko and his theories. Physicist Andrei Sakharov openly attacked Lysenko in the course of a 1964 speech before the General Assembly of the Academy of Science. Calls for the restoration of true scientific methods in biology and in agricultural science followed, and that same year Lysenko was removed from his post and assigned to an experimental farm. In 1965 a commission of scientists sent to Lysenko's farm produced a devastating critique of his methods. This report completed the ruin of his reputation when it was made public. Lysenko died in Moscow on 20 November 1976.

Spencer C. Tucker


Further Reading
Joravsky, David. The Lysenko Affair. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.; Soyfer, Valery N. Lysenko and the Tragedy of Soviet Science. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994.
 

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