Three Degrees, Industrial Research, the Mexican Project: 1933-1953

The Undergraduate 

1933 - Freshman Surprises-Humble Pie

Norman Borlaug and high school friend Ervin Upton ride to Minnesota in George Chaplin’s roadster. They room with Chaplin near the Minneapolis Campus of the University. Norman’s adventure begins with two big setbacks, and two remarkable happenings. He fails the University’s entrance examination and is humiliated, ready to return home to farm. The second is the freshman football team tryout, where he finds there is no future as a 145 lb Gopher football guard. Then, through Champlin’s intervention, he is granted admission to the University’s new Junior College for underprepared students, and he meets the beautiful, engaging and confident Margaret Gibson at a coffee shop, where they both work.

1934 - The Sophomore

Borlaug excels in Junior College and is admitted to the University proper. He chooses the College of Agriculture on the Saint Paul Campus of the University of Minnesota, and majors in Forestry. He lives in Minneapolis and works as a waiter for the Alpha Omicron Pi sorority, but only for food. He gets odd jobs around the Minneapolis campus. Then the federal government’s National Youth Administration Act (NYA), pushed by Eleanor Roosevelt, passes Congress. It provides funds for students to work on projects in their university (early Work Study Program). Norman works in an entomology laboratory on the Saint Paul Campus.

Norman joins the wrestling team and gives up his childhood dream of playing baseball as a Chicago Cub second baseman. Tragedy strikes in Iowa where his beloved grandfather Nels Borlaug passes away. That winter, Norman nearly dies from a severe streptococcus infection. Financially times got worse and the world sank deeper into the catastrophic economic depression. While visiting downtown Minneapolis, Norman is caught in a bloody food/labor riot, seeing and experiencing things he never forgets.

1935 - The Junior

When the University Wrestling coach resigns, Norman and teammate Erv Upton recommend their Cresco High School wrestling coach, the former Olympian - David Bartelma, to the University. Bartelma is hired. Norman helps Bartelma introduce wrestling to Minnesota high schools. Norman meets Orville Freeman, a reserve quarterback on the football team. Freeman will become the Governor of Minnesota and United States Secretary of Agriculture. Many years later, Norman works with Freeman to avert world hunger.

Norman’s NYA job shifts to feeding mice, rats and rabbits and cleaning their cages in the Department of Veterinary Medicine on the Saint Paul Campus. His winter coat is stolen, he suffers through the bitter winter of 1935 with only a light jacket.

1936 - Working for the Forest Service

Norman works the summer and fall in Massachusetts for the US Forest Service. He supervises boys and men in the Civilian Conservation Corps. He also surveys and maps the landed estate of of the ‘robber baron’ Amos Hopkins (e.g. the Hopkins Forest in the Berkshire Hills, donated by Hopkins’s widow to Harvard University). He earns and saves $600 for his efforts but misses fall quarter at the University.

Home in Iowa for Christmas in 1936, Norman sees the family farm is wired for electricity thanks to the Rural Electrification Act. It greatly impresses him as a needed part of rural development.

The University wrestling team gels and Norman is a part of its success. He attends a Sigma Xi lecture given by one of the world’s preeminent Plant Pathologists, University of Minnesota’s Professor Elvin Charles Stakman. He is inspired by the charismatic Stakman and thinks he might like work some day for a person like that.

1937 - The Senior

Norman makes up for classes he missed while working in Massachusetts. He takes the National Junior Forestry Civil Service Exam and is hired that summer by the U.S. Forest Service. He trains in Idaho’s National Forest. He is assigned a horse, a mule skinner and three pack mules to take him to a fire tower (observation platform) deep in a primitive area. There, he works alone for up to 6 weeks at a time. He reports and fights forest fires. He is offered a permanent job the following year - 1938. On the strength of that job offer he returns to Minnesota, proposes to and marries Margaret Gibson, and graduates with a B.S. degree in Forestry.

The Accidental Graduate Student

The Stakman Rescue

When the U.S. Forest Service job offer is withdrawn due to budgetary matters Norman, now married and in need of money, approaches Professor Elvin Stakman (Head of the Division of Plant Pathology) for a job. Stakman would rather have someone with a burning desire to learn Plant Pathology than just someone seeking a temporary job. Nevertheless, Stakman gives him a job, looking through a microscope at slides containing spores of the fungus that causes wheat stem rust (Puccinia graminis). These spores become airborne and can travel great distances.

The slides, lightly coated with grease, were exposed to air using airplanes flying the North American Great Plains at given altitudes and locations. Rust spores on air currents are captured on the slides. Thus, viewing and counting rust spores reveals where, when and at what altitudes the spores traveled. It is part of a large aerobiology program to trace and establish the “Puccinia Pathway” (rust spore transport) on the Great Plains. The spore counting job is eye straining and mind-numbing. It proves to be a test of character which Norman passes. Norman begins graduate courses, taking Mycology from Dr. Louise Dosdall and plant breeding from Dr. H.K. Hayes.

Getting Serious about Graduate Work

1938 - Stakman, extracts a promise from Borlaug to get serious about graduate work and do a Masters degree program. He admits Norman for graduate work under Dr. Clyde Christensen. Norman is awarded a half-time graduate research assistantship, and is asked by his advisor, Professor Clyde M. Christensen, to find the cause of red stain of box elder wood.

Norman uses his knowledge of Norwegian, to pass his Master of Science foreign language requirement. Ever the athlete, Norman plays several positions for the Plant Pathology softball team, the Towerites ( the team is Stakman’s pride and joy). They win the campus championship.

To earn additional money, Norman and Axel Anderson, another Forest Pathology student, create the Northwest Forestry Company. They do landscape work and tree trimming on weekends and evenings. The business venture ends when Anderson accepts a fellowship at Michigan State University.

1939 - Master of Science Student

At first Norman is a bit overwhelmed in seminars, he does not speak unless spoken to. He studies hard and enjoys and absorbs all experiences. He discovers a fungus in the genus Fusarium is the cause of the red stain of boxelder wood. He begins his M.S. thesis writing but does not quite finish. His thesis will not be accepted by the Graduate School as the final degree requisite until 1941.

The previous summer a massive hurricane swept New England. Norman is allowed to take a temporary Forest Service job near Ashburnham, Massachusetts to help the clean up operations. That winter Norman serves as the volunteer wrestling coach for the Agricultural High School on the Saint Paul Campus.

1940 - Flax Wilt Disease- Doctor of Philosophy in Plant Pathology

At Stakman’s urging, Norman begins a Ph.D. program. He does not want to work with cereal rusts. There are many students engaged in rust work and he has listened to many talks and seminars on the topic. He is assigned to Professor Jonas J. Christensen’s flax wilt project.

Norman finds pathogenic strains (races) of the fungus Fusarium lini, and identifies several flax wilt resistance genes. He works with a plant breeding Ph.D. student, Albert H. Moseman. Moseman does the flax genetics and Norman the disease screening. Moseman will later become part of the Rockefeller Foundation and then USAID. Moseman will eventually work in the administration of the USDA and will become Norman Borlaug’s staunch advocate during difficult times in the future. Norman studies German for his Ph.D. foreign language requirement and passes.

The Foreshadowing

War in Europe and in Asia is on the horizon. Manuel Avila Camacho is elected President of Mexico. United States Vice President elect Henry A. Wallace (former US Secretary of Agriculture) represents President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the inauguration in Mexico City. The Camacho administration asks Wallace for help in making Mexico self-sufficient in food production. This request eventually leads to events that finds Norman in the Rockefeller Foundation/Mexican Government Project in Mexico.

1941 - War Time-Finishing and the Dupont Experience

In October, Norman is called to Stakman’s office. Frank Kaufert, a former Ph.D. student of Stakman’s and an instructor in Forestry is there. He is now employed by E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company in Delaware but is about to become Director of the School of Forestry at Minnesota. The DuPont company asks for a successor and Kaufert nominates Borlaug. Norman is stunned, Stakman is encouraging, and the salary is $2800/year. Overjoyed, Norman and Margaret go to Delaware where he finishes thesis writing, evenings and weekends, while working full-time at DuPont’s Grasselli Agricultural Chemicals Laboratory.

An Omen of Things to Come

Vice President, Henry Wallace asks the Rockefeller Foundation to act on Mexico’s request for help. The Foundation’s charter is “to promote the well-being of mankind throughout the world”. Professor Stakman is asked to go Mexico as a Rockefeller Foundation consultant on a Survey Commission to recommend how to make Mexico self-sufficient in food production. Stakman, Dr. Richard Bradfield (Soil Scientist, Cornell University), and Paul Mangelsdorf (Maize Genetics, Harvard University) are the survey’s scientists.

Survey Commission, Map of Mexico
Survey Commission, Map of Mexico

They travel in Mexico by trains, trucks, cars, and mules. Their written recommendation is a modification of Seaman Knapp’s, General Education Board model, used to reconstruct southern states’ agriculture after the American Civil War. The succinct report features applied research in maize, bean and wheat improvement with on farm demonstrations and basic education for the rural poor. It is adopted and a joint Rockefeller Foundation/Mexican Government Program results. Stakman, Bradfield and Mangelsdorf remain Rockefeller Foundation Consultants for decades. This and other international programs based on the ‘Mexican Program’ become the basis of the Green Revolution.

1942 - Working Hard and Fast

At DuPont Norman learns to move quickly on product and packaging deterioration. It is urgent work connected with government military contracts during World War II. He learns to solve problems on the run and not to always seek absolute perfection. He enjoys the pace and teamwork; both will influence him the rest of his life. He finishes his thesis on flax wilt resistance, and in 1942 returns to the University of Minnesota for his Ph.D. defense and graduation

1943 - The Joy of Jeanie-The Recruitment

A daughter, Jeanie is born to Margaret and Norman on September 27. Stakman and Dr. Jacob George "Dutch" Harrar (PDF) visit. Norman does not know Harrar, but is aware of the legend of “Dutch” Harrar who was a graduate student in Plant Pathology under Stakman. Harrar is intelligent, athletic, with an iron will and a warm engaging charm. Stakman had recommended Harrar to direct the Rockefeller Foundation/Government of Mexico Project.

Stakman and Harrar want Norman Borlaug for the Mexican Project. Norman declines but within months, and in light of changing events within DuPont and urging by his wife Margaret, he reconsiders.

1944 – The Mexican Program, Coming to Mexico

Mexican Agriculture
Mexican Agriculture

Although six months pregnant, Margaret Borlaug urges Norman to join the Mexican project. She knows he is most happy working with farmers. He agrees and leaves her and Jeanie safe in Delaware until he can find suitable housing and accommodations in Mexico.

He drives to Laredo, Texas and meets the Maize Breeder for the Mexican project, Edwin Wellhausen and his wife Vivian. Wellhausen had already been hired by the Office of Special Programs in the “Mexican Project”. They travel Mexico’s rural regions. Norman is struck by the primitive state of agriculture, the poverty, lack of education and general hopelessness. He himself is suffering from dysentery and nausea, but the greater human misery around him leaves even a bigger impression.

He is the project’s plant pathologist and general problem solver. George Harrar is swamped by administrative work and turns his small wheat improvement program over to Norman. Stem rust disease is the limiting factor. It would do no good to improve wheat without it being stem rust resistant. Norman decides to breed the best Mexican wheats with the best stem rust resistant wheats. He uses a collection of resistant varieties and lines supplied by Stakman and Harrar. There are 38 strains of resistant wheat. He observes their rust reactions and chooses three resistance sources. One with the variety ‘Hope’ resistance genes, Kenya Rojo and Kenya Blanco resistances. The later two were bred in Africa by an English breeder named Burton.

Family Sorrows

Back in Delaware Margaret gives birth to a son, Scott, who is born with a fatal case of spina bifida. Norman returns to Delaware to see Scott and comfort Margaret. He is told by physicians caring for Scot that nothing can be done, Scott will soon pass away. Margaret and Norman make burial arrangements, and at Margaret’s urging he returns to Mexico.

1945 - Getting Started in Mexico

When Borlaug begins work the “research station” at Chapingo, outside of Mexico City is in ruins, only a few small trial plantings were made and these were done by hand.

The original Chapingo Research Station
The original Chapingo Research Station

He needs a tractor and a combine, but World War II means that no new farm machinery was being made or sold in Mexico. He learns of salvage yards near Mexico City and with colleagues finds two old tractors plus a broken one that resides on the old Mexican research station. He meets two mechanics, Vicente Guerro and his brother Jose; they are talented and resourceful. They make one usable tractor from the three junked tractors and build a combine.

Some of Borlaug’s first anti-stem rust crosses are promising. He needs a seed increase, but lacks land, buildings and equipment for the task.

1946 -New Colleagues and New Adventures

Borlaug meets a bright, young Mexican scientist, Ignacio (Nacho) Narvaez, and asks him to work with him on the wheat program. Narvaez also serves as a Spanish translator since Borlaug and Rupert’s Spanish are still inadequate. Narvaez becomes Borlaug’s protege and later receives a Ph.D. in plant breeding from Purdue University and returns to Mexico as Norman’s co-equal. Joseph Rupert is sent by Stakman to join Norman. Like Norman, Rupert was born in Iowa, came to the University of Minnesota and majored in Forestry. He had the same instructors and experiences. They both were influenced by Professor Stakman in Plant Pathology and by Raphael Zon in Forestry. Rupert had served the U.S. Army in North Africa under General Eisenhower and the war affected him. Stakman thinks that Rupert needed a new environment to help forget his war experiences. Physically Joe Rubert (PDF) resembles Norman; he is a “can-do” individual and dislikes any bureaucracy that slows progress. The two became close friends and were often mistaken for brothers. Rupert rents a room in the Borlaug home and lives with the Borlaug family.

Rupert and Borlaug
Joseph Rupert and Norman Borlaug

Borlaug realizes his breeding and demonstration activities must be extended to wheat growing areas in northern Mexico, to the lowlands of the Bajío region, and to the irrigated Yaqui Valley. The original research site, selected by the Rockefeller Foundation/Mexican Government Project is at Chapingo, is near Mexico City. It is fine for summer breeding but the surrounding lands are not well suited for wheat growing. Norman needs his wheats exposed to farmers in real wheat growing areas.

Norman argues that the irrigated Yaqui Valley in the State of Sonora, is the ideal winter breeding ground. If he breeds wheat in the winter he gets two cycles of plants per year and doubles the speed at which Mexico can become self sufficient. There is opposition from Minnesota’s plant breeder consultant Professor H.K. Hayes and from project Director, Dutch Harrar. Hayes says two cycle breeding in two locations is unorthodox. It will not work because the seeds need a year of “rest”, and Director Harrar says it is too expensive. Borlaug knows it will work, he has already done it on his own. Disappointed, Borlaug and Rupert still go to the old Yaqui Valley. They sleep in the loft of a run-down state of Sonora research building, sharing it with rats, mice, mosquitoes and weevil infested grain. Lesser individuals would have quit, but not Rupert, a WWII combat veteran, and Borlaug a hard scrabble farm boy. Mrs. Cathy Jones, a nearby farmer, gives rides in her car so they can get supplies from nearby Obergon. Aureliano Campoy. another farmer stops to see what they are doing and, out of kindness, loans them a tractor and equipment to be used on Sundays when he doesn’t work.

Borlaug and Harrar
Dr. Jacob George "Dutch" Harrar

Borlaug wants to set up demonstration strips of his wheats on farms in the Yaqui Valley. He seeks support from the largest farmer, the influential son of a previous Mexican president, and a former Governor of the State of Sonora - Don Rodolfo Calles. Calles is polite but suspicious and declines. Borlaug meets locals including small landowner, Roberto Mauer, who becomes a lifelong friend.

The Bird Boys

Near Mexico City, at the Chapingo research site Norman, Joe Rupert and ‘Nacho’ Narvaez make crosses to Mexican wheats from rust-resistant sources. They have produced anti-rust wheat lines (genetically resistant to rust) named Supremo, Fontera, and others. Birds are eating their planted seeds and destroying plants. They hire local uneducated farm boys, ‘Bird Boys’, to chase offending flocks from experimental plots. Several bird boys are curious about wheat and Borlaug. He speaks with them, trains them and encourages them to go to school. One boy, Reyes Vega, is especially interested.

The ‘Bird Boys’ will learn the mechanics of wheat breeding and when given a chance they become Borlaug’s much prized Master Technicians. Over the years they greatly facilitate Norman’s efforts. Many become life long employees and family friends.

An Enlightening Road Trip

Rupert and Borlaug tour of the lowlands in northern Mexico to observe stem rust infections. At one field an irate farmer demands to know what they are doing on his land. They have a translator, Teodoro Enciso, whom Norman recruited from a local agricultural high school. They explain they are looking a wheat diseases, and to placate the farmer Norman gives him a small bag of antirust wheat, some fertilizer and instructions. Norman tells Enciso that the farmer will probably multiply the seed and make a small fortune selling it to his neighbors. This ‘gifting’ of seed to farmers will become the key to getting growers throughout Mexico to adopt his varieties. He wants his wheats in farmer’s fields to let other farmers see it for themselves. Borlaug’s motto is - “On Farm-Demonstration is a powerful persuader". If a farmer sees his neighbor’s fields with Borlaug’s improved wheat then that farmer will be more than willing to try it.

1947 - Gearing Up-Private Sector Collaboration-Friction

Joe Rupert introduces Norman to Richard Spurlock, an American cowboy, who manages his own rented land and holdings for absentee American owners in the Tuluca Valley near Chapingo. Spurlock’s cattle herds were destroyed during Mexico’s epidemic of hoof and mouth disease. He is looking for alternatives to cattle ranching. Spurlock is rough spoken, direct, curious, insightful and willing to take risks. He asks to be taught to grow wheat.

Spurlock has hundreds of acres idle, modern machinery for planting, and buildings for threshing and storing wheat. Borlaug strikes a deal. Spurlock will increase Borlaug’s anti-rust wheats, in return, Spurlock can use Borlaug’s high yielding seeds for all his fields and in addition will help with future seed increases which he may use for his farms. They increase 40 acres of anti-rust Supremo seed.

Borlaug again tells Harrar he cannot make Mexico self-sufficient in wheat if he can’t work faster, and this requires a second, winter breeding season in the Yaqui Valley. Harrar denies his request. Disgusted, Borlaug says he is resigning and leaves Harrar’s office, followed by Rupert. Stakman is visiting and convinces the warring parties to ‘sleep’ on their decisions. That afternoon Norman receives a copy of a letter from Aureliano Campoy in the Yaqui Valley. The original went to George Harrar. Campoy praises Borlaug and the Rockefeller Foundation for the wheats already provided Yaqui Valley farmers, but chides the Foundation for not supporting Borlaug’s desire to work winters in the valley.

Early the next morning Stakman gets Harrar and Borlaug together and quiets the situation. Harrar smiles and grants Borlaug permission to work winters in the Yaqui Valley. It is a momentous decision that forever revolutionizes plant breeding.

Another New Colleague

George Harrar hires Dr. John Niederhauser, a charismatic plant pathologist out of Cornell University, to help with general plant pathology problems and to give Norman a vacation. Both Borlaug and Niederhauser are former college athletes and both have children. They team up to bring Little League Baseball to Mexico so their sons might enjoy competitive sports. Eventually Niederhauser gravitates to potato production in Mexico. His successes will lead to the creation of the International Potato Center in Peru in 1971.

The Arrival of Billy-Isolation for Margaret

Norman and Margaret have a son, Billy. Much to the relief of his parents Billy is born healthy and sound. But to Margaret Borlaug in Mexico City the decision to have a formal winter breeding station in the distant and remote Yaqui Valley means that she and the family will be seeing less of Norman in the winter months.

1948 - Confidence in Norman Grows: ‘Bird Boy Genius’

Borlaug returns to the Yaqui Valley with several good lines of anti-rust wheat in F5-F6 generations. He again visits Don Rodolfo Calles and asks if he would plant trials of his anti-rust wheats. Don Rodolfo explains that he already has a rust resistant variety, Austin, imported from Texas. Borlaug knows Austin, warning Don Rodolfo that it has a weak stem and in rough weather the heads would break off before harvest. Don Rodolfo is skeptical, but his fields look great until about a week from harvest when Austin heads begin to drop. Calles is now convinced of Borlaug’s expertise. Don Rodolfo’s support will be critical to Borlaug’s future success in the Yaqui Valley.

A wheat stem rust epidemic sweeps through northern Mexico. Infected fields lodge (fall down) and rot, they smell like sour milk. However, Borlaug’s anti-rust variety Supremo stands tall and unaffected; farmers clamor for Supremo seed.

Wheat breeding requires that each of the pollen sacs (anthers) be pulled out, one at a time, leaving only the female portion (pistil). This is done to prevent self-fertilization. This is a mind numbing task when sitting on a stool in the field under a blazing sun with mosquitos and midges looking for a meal. Borlaug is good at it, but ‘Bird Boy’, Reyes Vega, is twice as fast. One day Reyes took a small scissors and snipped off the wheat flower’s glumes exposing the entire inside of the flower so that all pollen sacs can be pulled out in one motion. This simplifies the process. Vegas then perfects a way to get the male parent to produce copious amounts of pollen within minutes. With Reyes’s protocols, and with more young boys being hired and taught the mechanics of wheat breeding, Borlaug’s group makes thousands of crosses, twice a year. One in the summer at Chapingo near Mexico City and another, 1000 km north, in the winter at Obregon in the Yaqui Valley – these two locations differ by 8500 ft. in elevation and in daylength. This is called “Shuttle Breeding” a revolutionary concept.

Borlaug’s group produces tons of seed of Kentana 48, Yaqui 48 and Nazas 48. Thousands of crosses that improve wheat lines are also underway.

Friction with Accounting-Jealousies

George Harrar grants Borlaug the freedom he needs and gets exceptional performance. However the accountants in the Rockefeller Foundation offices in New York demand written projections precise enough for step-by-step accounting projections. Borlaug says that is impossible but half-heartedly complies. Borlaug hates to write reports and to project timelines on what is a risky, biological process – plant improvement. Borlaug is interviewed by the press and becomes a Mexican national hero for his work, but the publicity stokes old jealousies and animosities toward the “gringos”.

1949 - Win Some, Lose Some

Borlaug’s wheats are winning the battle against wheat stem rust. However, they are too tall and occasionally fall over (lodge) because the heads are too heavy with plump grain.

Borlaug’s Mexican wheats are now in many countries around the world as international trainees finish learning under Borlaug and take seed home. The nation of Colombia formally asks the Rockefeller Foundation for a similar wheat program.

1950 - Goodbye Joe-The Ancient Wheat Enemy Reemerges, Race 15B

Joe Rupert leaves Mexico to head a similar wheat effort in Colombia. Rupert and other breeders adapt and improve the Mexican/Borlaug wheats for local uses. Others from Borlaug’s program, will in the coming years, become involved in efforts throughout South America. Thus the Mexican wheats and their relatives spread throughout the continent.

A new pathogenic pathogenic strain (race) of the stem rust fungus (race 15B) erupts on the Great Plains of the United States and Canada. It can attack most of Borlaug’s anti-rust wheats. Race 15B will add a new and very large international dimension and a sense of urgency to Borlaug’s anti-rust efforts.